Print Edition - 2014-08-31  |  Free the Words

Messenger matters

  • Journalism can greatly contribute to conflict resolution in times of transition
Messenger matters

Aug 30, 2014-

Accuracy, impartiality and responsibility in the public domain are often known the hallmarks of reliable journalism. Investigating whether the media sidetracks from the agenda of peace towards hostility and retaliation during a transition is fascinating. It appears that yes, the media often diverts from the theme of peace, both intentionally and unintentionally. The media is a curious instrument, particularly in conflict and post-conflict societies. It shapes perceptions, evokes sentiments and conditions behaviours.

On the one hand, the media can be a weapon of violence while on the other, it can uphold the prospects for peace. When it comes under the control of authoritarian regimes, it can be a dangerous device because it is one of the most powerful instruments that can spread messages of intolerance and disinformation, which can easily manipulate public sentiment. The worst use of media the world has witnessed was the use of state-controlled radio by the government led by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, which became a driving vehicle for the genocide there. The ethnic tensions propagated by the Serbian state through its broadcasting system in Bosnia were another terrible incident. The media thus has both  positive and negative effects. In light of this, state-controlled media as well as independent media during the Panchayat and post-Panchayat regimes in Nepal have not been any less controversial, if we observe the media’s roles in building democratic peace.  

Wrong questions

Under ideal conditions, the news media is supposed to have a mind of its own and operate according to a professional code of conduct. Its primary function is to report things as they are. Sometimes, reports may have a counterproductive effect on peace, particularly when dueling parties are engaged in crucial negotiations or perpetrators and victims’ families of past atrocities are seeking  constructive reconciliation and durable peace. For example, a journalist from the BBC Nepali Service once interviewed rebels who had been disqualified for integration by a UN verification team. She asked, “Did you ever gun down someone with your own hand?” The interviewees might have admitted to this just to be qualified to receive integration benefits. However, publicly admitting to have killed someone could make things extremely difficult for a rebel. Victims and their families may not be willing to integrate an identified killer into society. No wonder, during the integration process, many ex-combatants were reluctant to be settled in their places of origin.   

These kinds of news broadcasts are a common feature of the Nepali media, which completely underestimates the prospect of durable peace. In another programme, Rabindra Mishra of the BBC asked journalist Prashant Jha, “Are you a Madhesi or a Nepali?” Being Madhesi is related to ethnicity while Nepali is a nationality. An  individual can have both identities. So by raising such issues, the media can increase social chaos and fuel tensions. Additionally, taking victims to the streets or organising campaigns against perpetrators on social media with pictures and upsetting memories can increase aggravation and retaliation. Exaggerated news of any past atrocities to raise the voices of victims and their families will not help reconciliation, nor will it promote peace. So if the media continues to broadcast such things in the future, it could incite violence. Even more so, as marginalised communities in Nepal are asserting their identity, ethnicity and nationalism in the forthcoming constitution. Transnational experiences have shown that fragile and divided societies will not be informed about sustainable peace unless the media is considered a part of the peacebuilding process. Hence, to inform what journalists should do and what they shouldn’t do in transitions, there should be a peace and conflict journalism code of conduct.    

Media biases

Almost everywhere, mainstream media outlets are owned and operated by the upper-class. In the past few years, it has become self-evident that some Nepali media outlets are mouthpieces for the upper-class and political elites as well as international power centres. Others are keen on fulfilling their advertisers’ vested interests, instead of focusing on disseminating accurate information. Criticism of senior journalist Kanak Mani Dixit and outlets Sagarmatha Television and Kalika FM radio initiated a debate about the role of the media in Nepali society.

As the media relies on both advertisers for money and the government for access, it tends to be sidetracked and unwilling to take up issues that are controversial. A less professional media advocates the principles and strategies of political elites and adopts their language, dialectics, and imagery. The media’s inaccuracy sometime jeopardises social work, for example, the news on Dil Shova Shrestha. Therefore, to advance professionalism in the media, the most important step is to continue further education and training. The media must be pragmatic and strategic. It cannot be too choosy either. Responsible and respected media everywhere are dedicated to highlighting and promoting issues that make a better world.       

Conflict reporting

Media represents the ninth track under multitrack diplomacy of peacemaking systems, which helps increase communication and interactions between conflict parties and citizens. So when it responds to its own professional strictures, such as accuracy, impartiality and independence, the media can help peacebuilding. In general, it can present alternatives to stereotypes and conflict and enable citizens to take well-informed decisions in their own interest.

Therefore, Nepali journalism can greatly contribute to conflict resolution. The similarities of functions, positions and even attitudes between reporters and mediators, who assist disputants to resolve their differences, are considerable, though largely unrecognised by journalists.  When the media becomes reliable, it educates the dueling parties, applies pressure for constructive negotiation, corrects misinterpretation, discourages issues and events that are not beneficial to enduring peace, identifies underlying effects and humanises parties who believe in dehumanising the other side. Unfortunately, journalism training almost everywhere makes almost no reference to the discipline of conflict analysis and resolution.    

Paneru is a faculty member at Strayer University, the US

Published: 31-08-2014 09:29

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