Just last week, there was an international outcry over Burundi’s approval of a new media law that forbids reporting on matters that could “undermine national security, public order or the economy.” A number of organizations like Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch have condemned the new law as an assault on press freedom. According to the BBC, party officials in Burundi believe the law will prevent journalists from inciting ethnic hatred and endangering national unity. A number of media advocates have argued that this legislation has regressed important progress in the country’s reconciliation process. Burundi, a country struggling to restore peace after more than a decade of civil war, faces a challenging process of establishing citizen state relations. As noted in a report by Henriette von Katenborn-Sachau, in 2005, Burundi’s private media played a significant role in facilitating public trust and building support for the acceptance of the Arusha Accords.
The role of media in fragile and conflict states is one that has been widely contested. The controversy over Burundi’s law does not represent either side of this debate. But it does give us a compelling reason to revisit some of these arguments. There are a plethora of studies by scholars, practitioners, and international bodies that argue that an independent, pluralistic, and sustainable media plays a significant role in the post-conflict reconciliation process, specifically by increasing government accountability, fostering informed debate, and facilitating peaceful and honest dialogue. On the other hand, there are a number of other experts who argue that media can help reinforce deep divisions in society. The literature on both sides of the debate acknowledges media’s potential to encourage the development of long term peace and stability in fragile and conflict states, but there are key differences on the role of an independent media.
In a report entitled Developing Media in Stabilization and Reconstruction Operations, the authors argue that an independent media culture helps keep the government accountable and enables citizens to monitor the state’s commitment to reform and democratization. They believe that an effective media strategy can mitigate postwar tensions by elevating moderate voices and dampening extremist ones. Further, they argue that an effective media strategy can mitigate postwar tensions by assessing the history of state-media relations, which varies from conflict to conflict. The authors note that in many war torn countries, the media has a history of heavy state control with very little independence, if any. Therefore, this assessment of media’s traditional role in a society is an important part of cultivating a sustainable new media culture that facilitates independence and ownership by the people. Besides understanding the history of the media landscape, the report does not address government engagement with an independent media, a key difference in this debate. Instead, it argues for a media sector that is independent, self sustaining, self regulating, and diverse.
A report by the London School of Economics entitled, Why Media Templates for Media Development Do Not Work in Crisis States, challenges some of the notions on independent media in fragile and conflict states. The report points to serious problems that can ensue when a country relies on media freedom to build national consensus in fragile states, particularly those emerging from violent conflict and war. It argues that the promotion of media regulation and press freedom should be understood as one component of building or strengthening the capacities of the state to govern. The report also argues that, “in situations where national cohesion and consensus is lacking, state or public involvement in the media can, as part of the equation, actually be a constructive force for the social, economic and political reconstruction and development of a country.” In his examination of media’s role in Ethiopia and Iraq’s peace building process, Monroe Price reached a similar conclusion. He argued that a country’s leadership has the responsibility to participate in a free media system by responding to criticisms and debates. If it fails to do so, as he found in Ethiopia’s case, the media only exacerbates the polarization.
Arguments on both side of the debate recognize the importance of tailoring media assistance to individual country circumstances and that one size does not fit all. This is certainly the case with Burundi. There are no easy solutions, but with this sampling of different views on this important debate, I hope these arguments provide some food for thought.
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