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Q&A: Harnessing the Power of the Press to Build Peace

Rousbeh Legatis interviews TARJA TURTIA of UNESCO's Division for Freedom of Expression and Media Development

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 14 2012 (IPS) - Conflicts of interest can be viewed as drivers of societies and human development, although recourse to violence has destroyed millions of people’s lives and leaves generations wounded for decades and even centuries.

Tarja Turtia. Credit: Edouard Janin

Constituting one of society’s cornerstones, media and journalists are key actors when it comes to peacebuilding, reconciliation and institutional reconstruction in conflict-ridden societies.

Through their work they may nurture a culture of peace, defined as “values, attitudes, modes of behaviour and ways of life that reject violence and prevent conflicts by tackling their root causes to solve problems through dialogue and negotiation among individuals, groups and nations” – though they also often fail in this task.

By rebuilding and strengthening capacities, the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) supports media and journalists with millions of dollars and projects around the world.

Tarja Turtia, programme specialist at UNESCO’s Division for Freedom of Expression, spoke with U.N. correspondent Rousbeh Legatis about why media and journalists are important to reach out to local populations who are turning peace into lasting societal behaviour, and how they can be strengthened in this pivotal function to transform a culture of conflict resolution from simmering violence into constructive dialogue and understanding.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: Involvement of local actors and creating local ownership are key success factors for lasting peace structures in post- conflict societies. Could you elucidate which function media and journalists hold in this equation?

A: It is an important feature of UNESCO’s work to assist civil society actors and local initiatives in all areas, conflict phases and levels of intervention.

Empowering local communities through capacity building of local media professionals, including marginalised and vulnerable groups, to participate in peace-building processes, and responding to their need to access critical information such as peace agreements, reconciliation initiatives, elections and public decisions taken throughout the transition period, will be among the major tasks.

The capacity of the media plays a constructive role in the post-conflict reconciliation process by promoting unbiased information, avoiding stereotypes and incitement in order to foster mutual understanding.

In some cases, the media can start debates that could not be initiated openly before. Blogging for instance, is currently an effective medium used by journalists and officials in Iraq to launch debates that they would not dare address in public.

Q: What are common features of the media and journalism landscape in post-conflict societies that peacebuilders are confronted with day in day out?

A: Peace builders are confronted with two major obstacles to the full enjoyment of human rights, as also are media-related legal frameworks that do not comply with international standards: democratic deficit and weak institutions. Indeed, insufficient constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, regulations restricting media content or Internet freedom, no freedom of information laws, lack of ICT policies promoting universal access to the Internet represent important challenges.

UNESCO and Local Media

Since 1992, UNESCO has been working with journalists and media as peacebuilding actors through support in different areas: promoting an enabling environment for freedom of expression in order to foster development, democracy and dialogue for a culture of peace and non-violence; as well as strengthening free, independent and pluralistic media, civic participation and gender-responsive communication for sustainable development.

UNESCO’s communication and Information programme operating budget totaled 27.2 million in 2011.
“Recently, multi-million-dollar projects have made their appearance, such as UNESCO projects in Southeast Europe, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries,” Turtia explained, “while in certain other areas such as the Central African Republic, annual amounts in the order of few tens thousands of dollars are used.”

“It is important to keep in mind that cooperation in the field of media development cannot always be measured in terms of amounts of resources," she added.

In post-conflict areas, the very absence of media is a challenge: Afghanistan, for instance, moved from the post-2001 situation with virtually no media to today’s vibrant, professional and pluralist Afghani media sector.

One of the main challenges faced in conflict torn societies is the lack of safety of journalists. Over the last 10 years alone, more than 500 journalists and media workers have been killed worldwide.

For example, in Nepal, civil war, ended since 2006, has created a situation whereby exercising their rights and taking the role of watchdogs, journalists put themselves at risk: a high number of threats and violence against journalists take place in many parts of the country, often as the result of investigative journalism.

Q: As to whether media has a lasting constructive impact on successful conflict transformation efforts, some say there is only anecdotal evidence for this cause-and-effect relationship. What are your experiences?

A: Free, independent and pluralistic media are essential for strengthening transparency and fighting corruption, being key facilitators of the public’s demand for accountability and responsiveness from their society’s leaders. In turn, freedom of expression, the free flow of information, and the work of the media are crucial for poverty eradication, economic and social development, i.e. to equitable and sustainable development.

The Arab Spring has been and still is a key experience in which the media, if free, independent and pluralistic, have proven their influence in facilitating dialogue and enabling national movements. They ask for accountability, inclusiveness, the credibility and legitimacy of transitional authorities and transparent and peaceful elections.

That is why UNESCO has engaged in supporting the development of the free flow of information, safety of journalists and media professionals in the conflict-driven yet promising context of the Arab Spring.

Q: How is UNESCO supporting media and journalistic work in post-conflict societies to strengthen peacebuilding and to achieve more tangible deliverables?

A: For instance, UNESCO plays a vital role in supporting election reporting. The aim regarding elections is to strengthen the capacity of the media to provide fair and balance coverage of electoral activities. This works as a vital factor for the local democratisation process. Any democracy based on the respect of freedom of expression has an electorate that can make use of their right to vote on the basis of clear and non-biased media coverage.

In Iraq, for instance, UNESCO is currently implementing a project that trains media professionals to cover the election process: they are trained to inform the electorate and to build the capacity and enhance the performance of Iraq’s media regulator whose role it is to weaken factional and sectarian divisions.

Another key area promoted by peacebuilding efforts in a post-conflict setting is ensuring that information reaches the widest public. Lack of information or misinformation can trigger conflicts, especially in post-conflicts election scenarios. UNESCO supports community radio, the main source of communication for people in remote areas in Africa, through its International Programme for the Development of Communication, IPDC, programmes. In Sierra Leone, for instance, UNESCO’s support to the Independent Radio Network (IRN) a collection of community radios ensures that the local population has timely access to accurate information, especially in electoral periods to avert recourse to violence.

UNESCO actions in Nepal two decades ago can be cited as another example: the creation of radio Sagarmatha, the first community radio station in Nepal, which piloted a new concept of media in the Himalayan country, was enabled. This project had an ice-breaking impact on the country, paving the way to the spontaneous proliferation of community radio stations in Nepal in the late 90s. In the difficult years that followed, the community radios movement has been a force striving for peace and democracy as well as for sustainable development.

Q: Does constructive media and journalistic work get sufficient attention as supportive elements in peacebuilding efforts?

A: The level of attention this role attracts differs from country to country. For instance, in Sierra Leone, the peacebuilding efforts have mostly focused on building media institutions and capacities; while this has not been the case in Liberia or Cote d’Ivoire.

It may not be easy to deduce a cause-effect relationship, but of the three post-conflict states, Sierra Leone seems to be the one that is developing faster into norms of democratic governance and stability.

More generally, while the importance of media workers within a peacebuilding process is generally acknowledged, insufficient attention is paid to the needs journalists have in order to be useful to democratisation. Indeed, only with well-trained journalists who understand their rights and responsibilities can help media take its crucial place in strengthening the democracy and disseminating information to people.

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