Too often, journalists’ roles are not adequately understood in crisis regions. They can contribute to making violence escalate, and they can serve peace, reconciliation and understanding. Moreover, media content other than news matters. Even soap operas can help prevent strife if they tackle disputed issues from various angles and promote mutual understanding. Donors should reconsider their media-support programmes.

Broadcast media are a large and amorphous lot, ranging from international satellite TV to tiny community radio stations. They can play destructive as well as constructive roles. Sometimes they do both, without being aware of it; and sometimes media play one or other role quite knowingly.

Peace building, state building and nation building are not necessarily on a continuum. Peace, by itself, does not automatically bring well-governed, stable states into existence. It may just mean the absence of violent conflict, with all else remaining the same, including inequalities, biased social systems and/or the prejudices which often led to the escalation of violence in the first place.

Equally, violent conflict may result from state or nation building by ambitious politicians. For instance, Slobodan Milosevic was involved in a strategy of state and nation building by exclusion; and he used the media to great effect. The fact that oppositional media, such as radio B92, also existed made little difference, at least in the short-term, other than keeping hope alive among those who understood that Milosevic was wrong, and that his vision was a negative, apocalyptic one.

Serbia’s Milosevic is not the only example of a violent autocrat using the media. Liberia’s Charles Taylor is another. He had no articulated vision for the country beyond the establishment and maintenance of a hierarchical kleptocracy (which was probably Milosevic’s real vision too). Taylor was not engaged in nation or state building, but he did occasionally use the rhetoric of patriotism. Similar ploys have worked in other cases. Zimbabwe’s recent past comes to mind; Mobutu’s Zaire; Rwanda and Burundi at various stages of their post-independence existence; Angola as it lurched through forty years of conflict.

In general, media professionals have a better understanding of how to manipulate a community, a people or a population negatively – of how to actively encourage conflict – than of how to promote peace and understanding. This is as true of international 24 hour news broadcasters as it is of 10 Watt community radios transmitting only two hours a day. It seems to be a lot more difficult, demanding and time-consuming to have a positive impact than it is to have a negative one.

Of course, it is hard to prove either a positive or a negative effect. There is even some doubt whether the notorious Radio Television Mille Collines in Rwanda was a primary cause of the genocide, or whether it simply followed, even echoed events.

Difficult journalists

Some news broadcasters object to the whole idea of media trying to have a positive impact. To quote Lyse Doucet – in my view one of the BBC’s most outstanding journalists – from a keynote address she gave at a conference held by the InWEnt precursor Deutsche Stiftung für Internationale Entwicklung in 2002: “Journalists are not missionaries or aid workers. We are not governments. We should not be asked to take sides even when, as in the past six months, there has been what’s called a global war against terror.”

There are two points to make here. First, this statement is a clear misinterpretation of what is being suggested. Getting conflict-sensitive journalism on the air is not about journalists supporting one side over another; the “international community” for example versus “terror”. That has nothing to do with peace building, or indeed with journalism. What should be accepted among journalists, however, is their responsibility to the people they report on, as well as to the people they report to. Sadly, those professionals who should be most open to debate seem to be the ones who find it most difficult to listen.

Second, many local journalists I’ve worked with in numerous conflict zones have no difficulty with the concept. Perhaps it’s easier for them to recognise that the information they broadcast does have a direct impact – either positive or negative – on the lives of their families, towns and even countries. That recognition makes the best of them very aware and very careful about what they say and how they say it – not in the sense of censoring themselves, but in the sense of how they report events, and express things.

A simple way in which donors can boost the peace-enhancing potential of broadcast media is by encouraging the creation of networks of radio and/or TV stations, which can then cooperate on positive programming. One example is election time, always a dangerous moment in fragile and crisis states. It is a time when peace deals break down, when losers become violent, or refuse to accept defeat, when rumours abound and tempers run high. The potential for violence is ever-present.

Networks of broadcasters can be very useful at such times. Each partner will have an area or region of influence, and of greatest knowledge. That knowledge can be shared with other broadcasters, and it works both ways. This type of arrangement definitely contributed to the relative success and peacefulness of recent elections in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Burundi. Fast and reliable reporting of results enhanced the transparency and credibility of these polls.

Non-news programmes

There is no template for peace-building media. Broadcasters need to be creative. Moreover, it is not only the news that matters. Other content can be just as, if not more relevant to peace-building. We should never forget that “the media” and “news journalism” are not synonyms.

No one in a conflict zone trusts the news. They listen to different broadcasts and try to get a picture for themselves by comparing the different versions. But other types of programmes – soap operas, kids’ programmes, talkshows, documentaries et cetera are followed with great attention. If the media succeed in tackling contentious issues in these formats, they can build bridges and promote peaceful solutions. News and current affairs programming fills only a small proportion of total air time; and non-news programmes often have bigger audiences, and more potential impact.

Donors tend to focus mostly on freedom of expression, training for journalism (particularly news writing) and media independence. While these issues are indeed important, they are not everything. Donors should pay more attention to the other aspects of media work.

In post-conflict countries, support for media too often means the establishment of a broadcast outlet, without any thought being put into content. Without knowledge or understanding of how to produce different types of peace-building programmes there’s no reason why a new radio or TV station shouldn’t contribute to a conflict, without necessarily meaning to do so.

Search for Common Ground (SFCG) was the first NGO to specialise in peace-building broadcast media. SFCG has recently produced a TV drama series in Nigeria tackling some of the many problems haunting the country. In Sierra Leone, a magazine programme aimed at helping to rehabilitate former combatants was co-hosted by former enemies. Kids’ programmes, in Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, made and hosted by kids, some former child soldiers, were designed to encourage others to come out of the bush. A documentary series in Burundi highlighted the role of “heroes”, who saved rather than killed people of another ethnicity. In Israel/Palestine, a TV series took on the most difficult, final-status issues. A radio soap opera in Nepal helps young people to find ways out of the trap of being caught between the army and the Maoists.

Other organisations and individual production houses, radio and TV stations do the same, or similar. Trojan Horse productions (now Storyteller films) made an excellent TV series on different peace-building initiatives in Uganda, Somalia and other places. Radio Netherlands Training Centre has begun courses in different types of peace-building radio and TV. Baraka FM in Mombassa, Kenya has brought together leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities with the clear objective of defusing misunderstandings and moments of crisis. This is very different to what other, non-local radios or TVs might do in bringing these leaders together with the intention of getting them to fight on air.

There are numerous examples, but very few media outlets focus on peace building in a systematic sense of every programme geared towards that goal. But there is no reason why such programming could not be just as adventurous, interesting and exciting as other, “normal” (read “commercial”) programming.

Very few donors are interested in the producers of these types of programmes – they focus on news and on the short term. Yet given the right skills and knowledge of peace-building formats, few producers refuse the chance to create positive programmes. Many more try to create peace-building programmes without knowing how to do so. They struggle to get information, and when they do find it they drink it up greedily. The fact that a project such as SCGF’s Radio for Peacebuilding, Africa (www.radiopeaceafrica.org) has many radio professionals from countries outside Africa who have signed up demonstrates the paucity of available information. In other words, the media as a whole, and not only the news desks, deserve donor attention.

Conclusion

After working in this field for twenty years, and being a journalist myself for more than ten years before that, I find that change comes very slowly. Donors still want proof that positive programming works, but are unwilling to pay for the necessary research; international news journalists still think that building peace has little to do with them, although – as the run up to the Iraq war demonstrated – many are even willing to be cheerleaders for war; few organisations and even fewer donors are prepared to invest in the training of non-news broadcast professionals in peace building; the field is still in its infancy and academics have been slow to pick up on its potential, often preferring to discuss the certainties of free expression and censorship than enter the rocky territory of peace-building media.

Nonetheless, I am positively inspired by the alacrity with which radio and TV broadcasters in countries in conflict take up these ideas once they are exposed to them. These are not simple issues, they involve hard work and effort, and a coming to terms with new concepts and ideas, but broadcasters all over Africa and elsewhere do pick up on them, and do some extraordinary work as a result.

Francis Rolt was, until 2006, the Director of Radio for Search for Common Ground, a US-based charity, striving to prevent and transform violent conflict. He directed the organisation’s Studio Ijambo in Burundi between 1999 and 2001. Since then he has worked as a consultant on many media projects, and is currently running the Nigeria side of the regional radio network Radio Ndarason Internationale.

 

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