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Media Without Borders

Caroline Jaine's picture

We are unstoppable when it comes to communicating.  “Communicate” means “to share” and it comes as second nature (it’s socially addictive in fact).  The 300 million of us blogging can rarely be silenced.  A comment on a Minister’s blog can provoke a policy change.   A micro-blog can influence a legal challenge (the Trafigura/Carter Ruck affair) or inspire masses (the Iranian elections were the top news story on Twitter last year).  And a social network group like Facebook can undermine an X-Factor winner’s success (a winner ironically chosen by “the people” by telephone vote).  It is the public, not governments that are beginning to drive change. But whether we like it or not it’s still mainstream media that is being listened to most – TV, radio and most powerful of all – the old fashioned newspaper read out loud.  It’s more coherent, more organised, and usually better written than the complex voice of the masses.  Big media still counts.  
 

And although millions of us are networking and tweeting – many of us are spreading stories and links that originate on mass-media platforms.  We might be Digging and Googling like mad, but Nielsen’s top ten internet news sources for 2009 is dominated by the big players – with The New York Times and Guardian Unlimited leading the bunch.  Preferred news sites for the recent US elections were the more conventional CNN and MSBNC over Yahoo.  
 

When I joined the Foreign Service in the mid-nineties it was not unknown for a Minister “on tour” to foreign parts to ignore the mainstream media altogether – and digital diplomacy was an abstract concept.  These past few weeks I have been involved in the preparations for the visit of UK Foreign Minister David Miliband to Pakistan.  The scale of his media and outreach work whilst there was in stark contrast to those early days.  It’s not an unfamiliar accusation to hear that politicians spend too much time on media and PR.  This view has given the term “strategic communications” a cynical nuance, but I wholeheartedly disagree that this is a bad thing – and it’s certainly bang on track in relation to diplomacy.  What’s clear to me is that international relations are no longer simply about talking with high level officials (although certainly part of it); of equal importance are the people.  This is not about spin, it’s about reach – and the extra effort being put into reaching us is a testament to the power in us all.
 

One of Miliband’s chosen channels in Pakistan was Geo TV. I am no stranger to late night rants (and even the odd blog) about how mass-media should take responsibility and offer fair and balanced reporting – especially in terms of conflict and war. I have even been known to have a go at bloggers and social networkers who think sharing photos of dead children will make a difference and end suffering.  (Regular readers will know I am about shining spotlights on the good to inspire change in the name of balanced reporting). I am still getting to know the Pakistani big players in media and how they are responding to regional instability – but I have learned that Geo, owned  by the Jang Group have just launched the Aman Ki Asha (Desire for Peace) initiative.  Partnering The Times of India, Jang have launched a huge scale project aimed at exploring common ground between India and Pakistan.  Promoting shared tradition, history, language and culture, the two editors of the media groups have issued an eloquent joint statement. The concept has provoked both hope and cynicism, but to me this is “media without borders” at its best – and Miliband quite rightly commended the idea. 
 

As well as to demonstrate the strength of UK/Pakistan relations, Miliband was also in Pakistan to promote engagement in the upcoming Afghan Conference in London.  Behind the scenes the conference organisers in Whitehall are working frantically to set the stage – with over  60 countries and  international organisations represented (including the  World Bank) - this is diplomacy without borders.  Impressed by the tenacity of the international community to keep going with Afghanistan, and sticking my two pennies worth in – I asked about media engagement – with a particular eye on Pakistan (as key partners in the region).  Unlike conferences of old, the hosts hope it will not only spark renewed momentum for Afghanistan at a political and policy level (it’s being hosted by a mighty cast of Ban Ki Moon, President Karzai and Prime Minister Gordon Brown) – but also that it will reinvigorate commitment to progress at a public level. The organisers know one way of doing this is to involve the media in the event.  Again, the commitment to engage with real people is a true testament to our power and perceived ability to effect change.  I was told that Pakistani journalists were flying over to cover the conference and in fact that journalists of every nationality are doing the same.  I can only hope for balanced coverage.
 

True, I am of the view that a media sector bent on reporting the horrors of conflict and division do not contribute to peace-building; however I am not naive enough to think that communications efforts alone can bring about peace. In Afghanistan, the crucial ingredients are security which transitions to being Afghan-led, a reduction of corruption, better governance and economic development – simply reporting recovery positively with no real substance is not enough.  And India-Pakistan relations won’t be restored overnight with a few songs and some front-page doves. But what heartens me about Aman Ki Asha in particular is seeing media (refreshingly) taking responsibility, and understanding they have a part to play.  So maybe I wield minimal power as a mere one-in-300 million of the unstoppable bloggers – but for me getting the mass media onside for peace is what matters most.
 

Photo Credit: Internews Network (on Flickr)

Comments

Submitted by Zeeshan on
Caroline, this is a great blog post! So glad someone is shining a spotlight on the efforts the media in South Asia is taking to bring much-needed peace there. It's a long road, and a lonely one, but they're walking it and hoping others join the caravan. Thanks for your thoughts on this. Also read your profile. Fascinating experiences! Thanks for sharing your life via the internet. We have found a good ally in yourself. Good luck!

Nepal today is viewed as a country experiencing multi-level conflicts of a structural, visible, perceptual and hidden nature. The types of conflict are layered at different systemic levels such as: violent conflict between the state and armed groups fighting for a separate state; conflict between the government and the UCPN (Maoist) for structural transformation, manifest conflict between the state and various political parties struggling for democracy and the sharing of political power; perceptual conflict among the leaders of various political parties and groups on social, economic, and personality-oriented issues; and latent or structural conflicts between the state and societal forces, including civil society, demanding freedom, entitlements, and social opportunities articulated in the new upcoming constitution. The issues of civilian crisis prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict peace building have, therefore, become increasingly important themes over recent years. Media outlets in Nepal had a huge influence during the conflict period. Their contribution to how conflicts are perceived, how dynamics are shaped, and the chances for a constructive turn of conflict are essential. Journalists deal with conflict all the time. They cover violent conflicts, such as wars. They write about daily disagreements, such as government debates and industrial strikes. They also cover one-sided conflicts, such as robberies or assaults. Whether they admit it or not, journalists enjoy reporting on conflicts. A demonstration that becomes violent gets more media attention than a peaceful protest and some journalists have a tendency to write in a sensational style that makes a conflict seem worse than it actually was. In recent years, many journalists have started using a new approach when writing disputes. They no longer see their job as simply reporting the events. These journalists also look at what created the conflict. They realize that there are usually more than two sides in any conflict, and they seek opinion about how conflict situations can be resolved. The root causes of conflict from varied perspectives, reflection on conflict experience, analysis of the conduct of differing parties in conflict and peace, and presenting those in an impartial manner to the wider public can play a very important role in reconstructing the condition of structural injustice. Conflict sensitive journalism is the practice of writing news stories about conflict in a way that does not make the discord worse. It seeks out a wide range of opinions, avoids inflammatory language, and seeks out ideas about how the confrontation can be resolved. Conflict sensitive media rooted in the principles of human rights and social justice can increase the possibility of non-violent communication, build confidence between the opposing parties and provide common ground for conflict resolution. Responsible journalists can play the role of a watchdog by taking a critical look at the various sides of the conflict and generate public opinion and action to liberate citizens from the blind obedience to the dictate of fear. Given the present context, it is understandable why attention has recently focused on the media and its part in the political conflict in Nepal. Most articles in the press examining the complex interactions between the media and the conflict have been reactionary, cautioning the public against tenets of “peace journalism”, or have too easily come to the conclusion that the media in Nepal is unproblematic and objective in its reporting. However, debate on the underpinnings of media freedom in Nepal, coupled with an examination of its biases, political centricity and market driven agendas has been sparse. The role of the media as an essential and pivotal institution of democratic governance, and an examination on how it can best help support and critically analyze the emergence of a post-conflict situation is of pivotal importance to the evolving context in the country. The media is a double-edged sword. It can be a frightful weapon of violence when it propagates messages of intolerance or disinformation that manipulate public sentiment. Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda is one of the most appalling contemporary examples of this. Using a combination of popular entertainment and proselytizing by announcers, the government-supported broadcasts demonized one group of people and built anger and fear among another group and therefore played a significant role during the April-July 1994 Rwandan Genocide. One can also see this in journalism in Nepal, where there is a large quantity of popular prejudice about armed and political groups. However, there is another aspect to the media. It can be an instrument of conflict resolution when the information it presents is reliable, respects human rights, and represents diverse views. It’s the kind of media that upholds accountability and exposes malfeasance, one that enables a society to make well-informed choices, which is the precursor of democratic governance. It is a media that reduces conflict and fosters human security. If talking about the case in Sri Lanka, where the constant quest of the media is an elusive search for “objectivity”, where undemocratic politicians inspire, provoke and underwrite national fears and prejudices, and where journalists do not benefit from a tradition of independence, but satisfy the demands of leaders for support for the “national interest”, the media soon becomes a vehicle for propaganda. In this quest, propaganda becomes truth, and the search itself becomes rooted in vested interests that often cover and twist reality. Conflict sensitive journalism is acutely aware of these problems. While it is true that journalism must be fair and accurate in reporting the facts, it must also be remembered that in a society riddled with conflict, journalism must engage with the search for alternatives to armed conflict and be guided by a firm and committed desire for peace and democratic governance. War and conflict have been so intrinsically linked to journalism that even definitions of news often begin with the term “conflict”. However, journalists don’t just observe conflict passively; they can have an important influence over the way conflicts begin and end. Therefore, it is important that journalists spend more time understanding the peace process and the role of the media if they are to fulfil an ethical responsibility to do no harm. Reporters and editors should think of themselves as being inside society, affecting through their coverage the way other people think and behave, rather than being wholly detached observers from outside.

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