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The Perils of Biased Communication II: Fragile States

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

In my last blog post I wrote about the dangers of biased communication to a fair and level political playing field. In Western media systems the political polarization of media reporting (I hesitate to call it "news") is a somewhat recent phenomenon, but it's stark reality in countries where the media is owned by the government or a few influential political factions. Biased communication is not only problematic with regards to misinformation of the public.

In fragile states in particular biased communication can keep conflict alive, stir up unrest among the population, and endanger the formation of one unified idea of a nation. In fragile and post-conflict countries, communication, including the mass media, should ideally contribute to restoring a shared national identity and strengthen citizens' loyalty to their country. But consider the case of, for instance, Iraq: Ownership of private media is in the hands of competing political and ethnic factions. Their respective broadcasts reflect conflicting agendas, potentially widening the gap between Iraq’s communities, weakening a sense of national belonging and furthering the development of competing identities along sectarian lines, setting the country on a course of partition.

A shared national public sphere can contribute to stability in fragile states by restoring a sense of unity and equality among groups. If all citizens have access to and feel represented in the public sphere, this kind of shared national conversation space can foster a sense of stability and unity, and can also lend the government legitimacy from diverse groups that may otherwise contest it. Competing factions yelling at each other will not. Benedict Anderson, in his book "Imagined Communities," said that a "nation is 'an imagined political community' created, in part, by the media through targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public." Biased communication, on the other hand, will not generalize citizens as one public or one nation, but deepen fractures by catering to prejudice and established divisions.

Because of its nation building potential, the media system in fragile states deserves special attention. Building a unified - and unifying - public sphere involves establishing a widely accessible communication infrastructure that allows equal access for citizens, including and especially those in remote areas. This infrastructure should allow an unbroken flow of communication between government and citizens as well as among citizens. The messaging is important too: a "we" narrative can help building up a national sense of identity, whereas a "they" narrative - delineating groups from each other - will contribute to further fragmentation.

The two-way flow of communication is important here. If citizens express concerns and dissatisfaction and do not get a reaction from government, they will turn to other groups for identification. Albert Hirschman coined this voice and exit. A public service broadcaster helps, if it is not overly influenced by political interests and strives to promote voice, inclusiveness, and diversity. Beyond that, a media ethics code should be established that is designed to ensure civility and respect for all ethnic groups and factions.

Not readily achieved, of course. Media structures easily become part of the power struggle within a country. Under authoritarian control, information hegemony - biased communication - is likely to be rampant. If deep divisions persist, ethno-sectarian media and other communicators will flourish and take over the role of opinion builders and sow the seeds for further conflict. Information hegemony and authoritarian control will promote citizen exit, not loyalty. Donors and governments in fragile states, if interested in ending conflict, need to rebuild a genuinely national media system and public sphere that support the idea of the nation or shared, inclusive political community.


Picture: Flickr user siljegarshol

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