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Media in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding: An Opportunity for E.U. Leadership by Bernardo Monzani

Media often promote violence. Example: the role Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines played in spurring the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But text-messaging and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter actually have the potential to foster peace. Bernardo Monzani, a Europe-based representative of Search for Common Ground, a nongovernmental agency dedicated to transforming the way people deal with conflict, describes how recent events have heated up the discussion of the media's role in the 21st century. This piece originally appeared in the April 2009 edition of the European Union's report Institute for Security Studies.

The recently commemorated fifteenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and the explosion of mass protests in Moldova serve as timely reminders of the influential role that media can have in conflict. In 1994, Radio "Milles Collines" was instrumental in spurring and guiding the savagery of the Rwandan genocidaires--a primary example of how the power of the media can be harnessed for violence and destruction. In Moldova just a few weeks ago, tens of thousands of young protesters gathered out of nowhere by relying on text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter, the social messaging network. These and other events have injected new energy into the debate on the role of media (including news outlets but also new media technology) in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. This was the central theme of a conference recently hosted in Brussels by the Folke Bernadotte Academy and the Madariaga Foundation. It will be centre stage again at the second annual Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, to be held in Bonn on 3-5 June.

E.U. institutions and member states provide significant support for media-related activities in conflict-affected countries, which is channelled to local media outlets, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and partner governments. This assistance, however, is not necessarily delivered with coherence or even a common understanding of the role that media should play in conflict prevention and peacebuilding. It is therefore important to increase awareness among E.U. officials and policy-makers about the positive impact of media activities before, during and after violent conflict. In this context, E.U. institutions and member states could benefit immensely from the experience of NGOs and media organisations, and such collaboration could easily lead to the definition of more efficient media strategies to complement and strengthen the European Union’s development and security policies.

Definition of the media in conflict-affected countries

Any analysis of the role that media can play in conflict prevention and resolution starts with a simple question: What do we exactly mean by media? In Europe, the responsibility to inform falls on the shoulders of trained and certified journalists and media outlets that operate in the context of well-defined legal frameworks whose purpose is to ensure minimal standards of quality. In situations of conflict, however, such divisions become blurred and the responsibility over the media ends up being shared among different actors and organisations, usually in an environment where regulatory frameworks are absent and professional standards non-existent. As a consequence, the media landscape in conflict-affected countries is much more varied, and includes:

  • International media outlets, such as the Associated Press, Reuters and CNN, who seek out stories for a global audience;
  • Local media outlets who cover national and local affairs, and provide entertainment for national and local audiences;
  • NGOs with different mandates (humanitarian relief, human rights protection, etc.), some of whom support local media outlets through technical trainings and content development;
  • Community-based radio stations and other media organisations, which possess strong ties to local communities and act as watchdogs vis-à-vis the government at the grassroots level; and
  • International organisations, such as the United Nations or the European Union, directly responsible for providing information and/or supporting local media outlets.

The activities and goals of these actors are largely defined by their capacity on the one hand and the local environment on the other. As such, in conflict-affected countries where local media organisations lack sufficient resources and national governments do not have the capacity or incentives to promote the development of free and fair media, NGOs and international organisations such as the United Nations often become the main information providers.

This dilution of responsibility--in contexts where the power of the media remains immense--is at the heart of the debate of what role the media has, and should have, in conflict. Some argue that if principles of "good journalism" were enforced, the media would automatically act as a positive force. This perspective, however, fails to take into account the demand side of the equation--i.e. patterns in media consumption and literacy, and people’s consequential influence in shaping their country’s media landscape. In the case of Rwanda’s genocide, the rhetoric of hate was sadly broadcast through radio, but ultimately shaped by politicians and shared by thousands of people independently. An analysis that takes those patterns into account does not diminish the need for "good" journalism; yet, it opens up new possibilities for using media as a tool for conflict prevention and peace building.

The larger picture: conflict prevention and peacebuilding

A different way to look at the question is to shift the focus from the media to the conflict-prevention and peacebuilding field. An analysis of the conflict cycle can already reveal a series of entry points for media in a broader sense to play a positive role in conflict situations. In a pre-conflict phase, one of the greatest needs is often for effective early-warning systems, which rely heavily on the availability and quality of information. During active conflict, when opposing fronts have been established and violent rhetoric has become the norm, a neutral and objective media can act as a bridge between communities, provide information about essential services and events, and allow for international attention not to wane. In post-conflict settings, as nations move from violence to peace, a free and fair media ensures accountability vis-à-vis newly installed politicians and promotes unity by filling the gap between civil society and governments.

Progress in the way the European Union intervenes in conflict-affected countries also constitutes a welcome sign--as well as a window of opportunity--for prevention. So far the European Union’s interventions are a mix of, on the one hand, self-promotion through the media and, on the other, support to local press and media technology. For instance European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) missions all have public information officers, and some can count on media advisors, whose specific role is to monitor the local media landscape and liaise with media outlets to promote ESDP achievements. E.C. delegations, as far as they are concerned, have taken a proactive role in supporting specific media projects, at least where their value has been recognised. Linking media to conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts will require a clearer division of tasks among the various E.U. agencies and instruments. This will help to conceptualise more systematically the media dimension of the European Union’s development and security policies and to raise awareness about the positive role that media can play in pre- and post-conflict settings, which is presently low.

Best practices

Although in fact plenty of examples exist where the media have been successfully used to promote peace and prevent conflict, these unfortunately do not get anywhere near the visibility they deserve. The following examples have been chosen to reflect the potential and variety of this kind of activity.

Radio Okapi
Radio Okapi is a radio station jointly managed by the U.N. Mission to Congo and the Fondation Hirondelle, a Swiss NGO, which has been operating since 2002 and is currently one of the main media outlets in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Funded on the basis of U.N. Mission to Congo’s mandate, Radio Okapi seeks to contribute to peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo though objective, credible and non-discriminatory programming. Celebrating the radio’s seventh anniversary, Alan Doss, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary General for the DRC, rightly said that the network "has become a reference, not only for the Congolese people but also for the national institutions and the International Community."

Radio Okapi has another essential function: in explaining to Congolese people the mandate and responsibilities of the U.N. mission and highlighting the successes related to the country’s ongoing peace process, it informs people’s expectations about the mission, and thus increases the security and impact of its operations by countering the spread of rumours. Finally, Radio Okapi is a clear example of the positive results that can be achieved through cooperation between international organisations and NGOs in the sphere of media.

Search for Common Ground in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Produced by Search for Common Ground (SFCG) between 1998 and 2003, Nashe Maalo ("Our Neighbourhood") was the first children’s television programme in FYROM created to promote intercultural understanding, to encourage conflict prevention in a multicultural society, and to impart specific conflict-resolution skills that children could use in their everyday lives. The show was about the lives of eight children from Macedonian, Roma, Turkish, and Albanian ethnic groups, who lived together in the same neighbourhood. Based on SFCG’s intended outcomes methodology, the series was aimed at influencing conflict dynamics through changes in knowledge, attitudes and behaviour.

Over its five years' of broadcasting, including during the height of the country’s conflict, Nashe Maalo proved wildly popular and succeeded in influencing an entire generation of children in the direction of mutual tolerance and respect. An independent evaluation further found that Nashe Maalo had "become a recognised and appreciated point of reference for adults as well as for children." Overall, the success of the programme validated SFCG’s pioneering efforts in harnessing the full potential of media for conflict prevention and peacebuilding going beyond news programmes and journalists’ trainings to include outcomes-oriented drama and socially responsible entertainment.

Media development in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is hardly considered an example of best practice these days. This is unfortunate, as the current downturn in the country’s situation risks overshadowing the few successes achieved, one of which was the liberalisation and development of the country’s media landscape. "In the years immediately following the end of Taliban rule," states a special report by the U.S. Institute for Peace, "Afghanistan demonstrated that despite a history of protracted conflict and restricted information, progress in media building was possible and success attainable." These early efforts were characterised by the birth of vibrant and truly independent local media; high levels of coordination between international media outlets and their local counterparts; and a government that prioritised communication with its citizens and looked favourably at the development of free and fair media. Unfortunately, the drying up of resources for media development and shifts in the attitudes of both the Afghan government and the international community left those accomplishments incomplete. This notwithstanding, the significance and success of media development in Afghanistan should not be diminished, especially given the particularly extreme difficulties of the case.

The advent of new media

The above examples should factor prominently into any debate regarding the role of media (and particularly the press) in conflict prevention and resolution. At the same time, no discussion could be complete without a reference to the advent of new media--from text messages and mobile-to-mobile communication to blogs and online social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter.

While the significance of the new media is still hard to define, examples from Moldova to Colombia’s anti-FARC protests in 2008, organised through Facebook, and "Ushahidi", a website that was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the 2008 post-election fallout, suggest that we might be facing a seachange moment, with all kinds of opportunities and risks. Under the former, one can put the democratisation of mass media and the rise of "citizen journalism", particularly prominent in countries that have become inaccessible for traditional journalists, like Iraq, Burma/Myanmar and Gaza during the recent crisis. The almost universal accessibility of new media can also contribute to the elimination of bias in reporting by enhancing the representation of traditionally underrepresented groups, including women.

On the risk side, this phenomenon threatens to dilute standards of journalism in countries where they are already low. New media also present added risks of misuse, as for example by terrorist groups, whose reliance on the internet to disseminate propaganda is well documented. Finally, the increased volume of information from the new media risks creating a layer of "noise" that will hinder early warning efforts by international actors instead of facilitating them.


News outlets and media in general cannot by themselves solve or prevent violent conflict. If properly understood, however, it can constitute a key instrument in supporting the work of those agencies and organisations, including the European Union, whose mandate is to build sustainable peace in conflict-affected countries. In doing so, several challenges stand out:

  • The absence of adequate legal frameworks in conflict-affected countries, which impedes the development of a free and fair media capable of acting as a neutral watchdog.
  • The logic of development assistance, which underestimates the importance of the media for stability and democratisation, and allocates too few resources for media-related activities.
  • Insufficient capacity of local media organisations and the low level of media literacy of local communities.
  • Weak coordination among the many actors involved in media activities, often compounded by confusion between public relations activities and support to local media outlets.
  • Insufficient analysis of the impact and role of the media in specific conflicts, which fuels fears that media activities will generally incite conflict instead of contributing to peace.

These challenges can be addressed successfully, as the previously-cited examples show, and opportunities for discussions between specialists and E.U. officials constitute an important first step in this direction. More concrete action will have to follow, however. The European Union in particular can play an important role in harnessing the power of the media for peacebuilding, given its global reach, vast resources and long-term ambitions. The recent conference yielded in this respect several key recommendations for the European Union and its member states:

  • Improve cooperation between E.U. institutions and representatives of the media, using all available E.U. instruments and in particular focusing efforts on interaction with media that are influential in the most vulnerable and unstable countries.
  • Improve coordination among E.U. institutions and member states in conflict-affected countries to improve the legal, economic and social framework for the development of free and fair media.
  • Conduct regular media assessments to identify the role and needs of local journalists as well as new media technology users and suppliers, and tailor context-specific interventions to support their development. These assessments should be made part of more established assistance frameworks, such as country strategy papers.
  • Develop national press and new media strategies in conflict-affected countries, including around key events such as elections, but not only. These strategies should be based on European Union best practices, tailored to local needs, and include specific support for local media development projects with rapid effect from the perspective of conflict prevention.

In conclusion, E.U. officials and policy-makers should not underestimate the need to keep up with the latest advances in communications and information technology, including the rise of new media, whose increasing relevance presents a clear opportunity for greater cooperation and leadership. Regular exchanges between specialised agencies and E.U. institutions, including formal training opportunities, could constitute an easy starting point to seize this opportunity.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the EUISS.

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