Challenges to media peacebuilding in conflict zones

Continuous Challenges

It is not easy to start a media reform immediately as a conflict ends or nears its end. Conflicts do not end abruptly. The peace that results from the end of a conflict is usually fragile, and the risk of re-entering a conflict scenario is still high. It is also the case that poverty, a lack of communication infrastructure, dispersed populations, and ongoing sporadic violence are still common occurrences. Peacebuilding by media is made difficult through these factors.

Rebuilding infrastructure that sometimes includes the most basic aspects of media can be costly for many poor post-conflict contexts, which is why they rely on support to invest in equipment and staff. Adding to this are government restrictions that are often still in place, although potentially less severe than during the conflict. It is not in the interest of some governments to give people a voice for critical perspectives on their position within the conflict. Even social media is often banned or silenced in these cases.

These restrictions come down to individual journalists. Often post-conflict situations do not significantly change the behaviour of journalists. Self-censorship, for example, is something that journalists often do to protect themselves and their publishing power(1). The end of conflict does not mean the end of censorship, so journalists often continue not to tell certain stories. They legitimately fear for their reputation, jobs and even lives. To go around these issues, so-called stringers are present, which are anonymous local journalists giving information to colleagues abroad. Of course, the actual audience of the journalists in a conflict context is the domestic one, though, and it is easier to reach them from within the country.

Different Expectations and Interests

Journalistic training is important to ensure that every voice is heard and that the limited scope of conflict journalism can be expanded. Implementing these measures is not easy though. Not only is it possible that there is mistrust to foreign training, but it also often clashes with local practises and habits of journalistic conduct.

Sometimes this resistance is because of cultural differences. Personal opinions might matter more than objective numbers, especially in emotionally loaded conflict zones. It could also be that journalists feel pressured by new forces, such as media companies influencing certain neighbouring areas.

As an organisation trying to improve journalistic conduct, it is important to not just apply the same blueprint of journalistic conduct onto every peacebuilding process but to adapt the measures according to the context. It is important to incentivize journalists to use certain practices, like increasing their sources and allowing more voices to be heard, but if local realities are not acknowledged, journalism can face the same hostility it did during conflict situations. (2)(3)

Besides cultural differences, there are also private interests. Media ownership plays an enormous role in determining the role of any media in the peacebuilding process. Private media has a profit-driven interest which can sometimes mean that they benefit from aligning with certain conflict actors even after the conflict ends. Even if private media are not aligned with certain groups, it is also the case that peace stories are less “exciting” than war stories. Many private media outlets rely on having ground-breaking and relevant news.

Journalists are often underpaid in developing countries and may completely rely on certain conflict parties for their funding during and even after a conflict. This can also influence their reporting since they have to find a balance between journalistic integrity and not losing ground with those that finance them.

Politically, conflict groups often use journalists or media outlets to further their polarization efforts. This not only limits the scope of reporting for many journalists and publishers, but it also decreases their legitimacy with (certain parts of) the population. This bias often continues and is difficult to lose without drastic changes in journalistic conduct. This is tied to the question of power in a (post-)conflict scenario: in extreme cases, peacebuilding can be used to facilitate so-called ‘victors-peace’ whereby peace is promoted by a dominant actor who holds power over communication channels and defines the peacebuilding goals of the society-at-hand. This has been the case, particularly in South Africa. (4)

In the end, it is vital that the peacebuilding process is not permanently conducted by outside actors. To have truly sustainable and long-lasting peace requires that the projects initiated by the media (and other actors) are transferred to local community groups and actors.

Footnotes

  1. Conceptualizing self-censorship in post-conflict situations
  2. Media Development Report by Deutsche Welle
  3. Case study of media development in Yemen
  4. Insights for Reconciliation for peacebuilding