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The role of media in conflict prevention

Michelle Betz's picture
Women refugees from Conakry, Guinea speaking about the problems they face at local radio station. Côte d'Ivoire. © Ami Vitale / World Bank


The role of media in fragile and conflict-affected societies has changed enormously in recent years, as media landscapes and technologies have transformed. The background paper to the Pathways for Peace report, “Media Noise and the Complexity of Conflicts: Making Sense of Media in Conflict Prevention,” seeks to identify and discuss the various roles media may play in governance, accountability, and the conflict cycle with regards to conflict prevention. Such a discussion is timely and relevant given the changing nature of both conflict and media technology, and the use of these tools in heralding change in conflict-prone and fragile states.


To function properly, the public sphere must have free access to information and enable ordinary citizens’ views to be heard. To achieve this, policymakers need to “focus on the media’s role in constituting the public sphere of society—how that can be fostered and nurtured in such a way as to allow non-violent resolution of conflict”.[1] The media is a multi-dimensional tool that can serve both governments and citizens alike. The multi-dimensional nature of the media is relevant considering the multi-dimensionality of conflict: Conflict prevention, like conflict itself, is not a simple, linear, or structured process.
 
Appreciating the interaction between media and conflict can facilitate further understanding of the media’s roles in conflict prevention. At its most basic level, conflict is “an extreme form of communication. Where the media can play a vital role in allowing a peace process to develop is by enabling the underlying conflicts in a society to be expressed and argued through a non-violent manner. This requires the creation of a suitable media space in which this can happen.”[2]
 
While the media is an active stakeholder and a likely change agent, there is significant interaction between the media and the population, diplomats, military, and civil society. The media itself is comprised of multiple actors in a sector that increasingly has hybrid actors, thanks to the growth and importance of social media. As such, the various media actors are among many disparate players, all with different agendas.
 
The media space can improve governance, make public administrations more transparent and accountable, and enable citizens to become active stakeholders who understand policies and use information to exercise their human rights. All of these are critical for preventing conflict if the goal is to move from polarization to positive relationships. In such cases, the media can be an effective tool with which to build these relationships, by changing behaviors and attitudes. The media’s impact on behavior is complex and more likely to affect attitudes and opinions that shape behaviors rather than directly affect people’s actions.[3]
 
Ultimately, the paper argues that the media can play a crucial role in allowing a peace process to develop by enabling the underlying conflicts to be expressed and argued in a nonviolent manner. However, this requires a suitable media space and access to reliable, fact-based information.
 
At the same time, the shifting media landscape and media’s implications for peace present numerous challenges for development practitioners. The lack of evidence regarding media and behavior change continues to hamper ongoing efforts, as do changes in technology and how audiences use it. Practitioners must also avoid falling into the trap of technology-driven interventions.
 
While further research is needed, research has thus far suggested the following roles the media can play in conflict prevention:

  • Bridge builder
  • Watchdog
  • Information provider
  • Early warning system
  • Emotional outlet
  • Peace motivator
 
In addition, numerous issues continue to face development practitioners when considering the use of media in peacebuilding interventions. These include:
 
  • Do no harm
  • Context is critical
  • Know and understand the audience/s
  • Give voice to all
  • Promote regulatory reform as part of peace settlements
  • Follow and understand changes in technology
  • Ensure safety of media workers
  • Build linkages
  • Pursue integrated research, ME&L
 
[1] Puddephatt, A. 2006. “Voices of War: Conflict and the Role of the Media.” Denmark: International Media Support. https://www.mediasupport.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ims-voices-of-war-2006.pdf. p. 10.
[2] Puddephatt, 2006, 11.
[3] Bratic & Schirch, 2007. Behavior change communication (BCC) is especially common in communication for development (C4D) work, which features communication techniques to address development issues including health, education, and human rights. BCC theories could be useful when developing media assistance support in conflict or fragile settings.