ISSUES IN CONFLICT-SENSITIVE JOURNALISM

By Dr. I. Arul Aram
(arulram@yahoo.com)

When I was travelling to the conflict area of Sri Lanka a fellow passenger told me: "The media is supposed to make people knowledgeable. But in Sri Lanka, only if you are knowledgeable you can get something out of media coverage." His contention is that the media in Sri Lanka is very biased and it always plays a partisan role in the conflict, thus confusing its consumers.

The media can either propagate messages of intolerance and disinformation or serve as a tool for conflict resolution. For instance, in Rwanda the government-supported Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines used its popular entertainment and other programmes to demonise one group of people and created fear among the other group. At times of conflict, politicians with vested interests impart fears and prejudices, and journalists take the easy way out by supporting them in the name of national interest. And objectivity is lost sight of.

Conflict-sensitive journalism is a separate category of journalism. Of course, it is good journalism that practises professionalism and a commitment to truth. And it is much more than that. Truth has many facets. All stakeholders in an event should find a place in its news coverage. The journalist who is fair and accurate in reporting the facts is naturally on the side of peace. Mere reporting of facts has its weakness - it has no room for reflexivity. There are more facts than can be fitted into news reports; so inevitably some are left out. It is the criterion by which this is done that reveals a journalist. Many journalists are not conscious of their personal biases. Such bias should not be allowed to stand in the way of objectivity in reporting. Privileged perspectives are camouflaged with "said to be", "thought to be", and "it being seen as". The journalist needs to give the sources unless it is 'off-the-record' information so that the audiences will be able to make informed choices. Conflict-sensitive journalism is not an effort to hide truth. It goes a step ahead and uses judgment to put issues in a cultural and historical context that would help conflict resolution. Journalism should not play the negative role of instigating and accelerating conflict. It must help people to understand the 'other' and should not indulge in stereotyping. It should be sensitive to the factors that cause conflicts. It should pick up ideas for peaceful outcomes and solutions, whoever suggests them. In a conflict situation, journalism must go further and look forward to alternatives to armed conflict as a means of solving the problem. In the case of a violent incident, a conflict-sensitive journalist will examine not only the violence but also its underlying causes, and explore how such an incident can be avoided in future. In fact, if disputes are debated in the media it will help pave the way for a negotiated settlement. And journalism may serve as a constant process of seeking solutions.

Peace journalism versus war journalism

Conflict situations often get news coverage with a focus on visible (or direct) violence such as shooting, bombing and shelling. Unresolved conflict results in violent outcome. Where there is no violence and peace prevails, the media ignores them. The media is on the lookout for visible violence. But it hardly reports the process of the conflict which will help explain the causes of violence which, in turn, will help resolve the conflict. Discrimination against Islamic states by the West or subtly blaming the violence on Islam or overthrowing regimes in Islamic states may act as 'conflict drivers'. Peace journalism will not focus only on visible violence just as what war journalism will do. It will also look into invisible violence - cultural violence and structural violence. Cultural violence includes instances such as burning of a national flag by a dissent group. Structural violence provides a system of relationships putting some section at a disadvantage - such as the plight of Palestinians in the Israel-Palestinian area. Unless the causes and background are explained, the media audience may be left confused to make an informed choice. For instance, a Glasgow University study on the Israeli-Palestine conflict coverage of BBC One and ITV News channels found that more of British viewers think that it is the Palestinians who are occupying the 'occupied territories'.

War journalism shows conflict as a tug-of-war, a zero sum game between two groups in which victory for one has to be a defeat for the other. It demonises one group and considers a military victory over that group as the only solution to the problem. The two wrong assumptions are: (i) the conflict involves only two groups but the fact is that more than two parties will be involved in the conflict; and (ii) there cannot be a negotiated settlement advantageous to all groups involved in the conflict. Example: coverage of the Kosovo crisis characterised as 'Serbs' versus 'Albanian Kosovars'.

Some of the questions that need to be addressed are:

1. What is wrong with the given explanation of a conflict situation?
2. What other sources may be included?
3. What other factors should be considered?
4. Whether the aspects of cultural and structural violence are discussed.
4. How to avoid complaints that the journalist is justifying violence in an effort to see the "other" side?
5. Whether a story takes a neo-conservative angle to a conflict.

-- Dr. I. Arul Aram is a Visiting Research Scholar in the London School of Economics. He is on a sabbatical leave from The Hindu since January 2006. He can also be reached at i.a.aram@lse.ac.uk --



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