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Peace correspondents: The new reporters

Jan Forrester |  05 June 2006

A small number of journalists are experimenting with a different approach. ‘Peace-building journalism’ reframes conflict into more complex patterns of interlocking fears, inequalities and resentments, which need equally complex solutions. Rather than seeking someone to blame, reporters examine the underlying political, economic and cultural causes of violence, factors that must be addressed before a conflict can be brought to an end.

Today, as ever, journalists reporting from conflict zones are subjected to military and political propaganda. ‘Peace-building’ reporters have taken on the challenge of covering the complex reality of conflicts—and their possible solutions.

Rahmad Nasution has worked for the official Antara news agency in Jakarta for over a decade, reporting on some of Indonesia’s major internal conflicts. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been short of material. Since the fall of President Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, brutal fighting and bloodshed has blighted many Indonesian provinces, including Maluku, where Nasution reported on the communal violence that raged among Christians and Muslims between 1999 and 2001. It is estimated that some 5,000 to 10,000 people died and 500,000 to 750,000 were displaced. Western-style objectivity does not appeal to Rahmad Nasution. The stakes are far too high for detachment.

‘Following the fall of the Suharto regime, media workers in Indonesia again enjoy freedom of the press,’ says Nasution, ‘but many of them fail to exercise that freedom wisely. In reporting conflicts on Ambon and Maluku, Christian and Muslim journalists split along sectarian lines. They therefore failed to dig out the root causes of instability in those areas.’

Others failed too. In January 2000, the Time-Asia website reported that ‘Religious differences have turned the Moluccas [Maluku] into a battlefield, filled with hate and the prospect of more violence’. This is the ‘tinderbox’ theory, familiar from analyses of conflict in Africa and the former Yugoslavia—the idea that deep antagonisms between ethnic groups smoulder continuously, ready to erupt into violence at any time.

In reporting the conflict in northern Maluku, Nasution chose to analyse growing economic rivalries between long-term residents, mainly Christians, and migrating newcomers who were primarily Muslims. ‘Conflict in Maluku found expression through religion, which was used by elites engaged in power struggles in Jakarta and Maluku to fuel chaos. However, its causes are not religious but lie in socio-economic and political factors which needed addressing’, says Nasution.

‘The presence of internally displaced people with physical and psychological problems is one of the crucial matters in any conflict [ridden] area. I prefer telling stories about the other side of their lives, those who still work hard to feed their families or those—especially women and children who are the main victims of any conflict—who have released themselves from the grip of revenge and bitterness. This is part of my strategy to help cut the circle of violence. I will not conceal the bitterness of the conflict or the death toll and information on local fighting, but the way I write the background information may be different from those who apply “war journalism”.’

Peace-building journalism has gained a tenuous hold amongst journalists in Indonesia, including those working for leading media outlets, as well as carving out a small niche among Western journalists reporting from conflict zones across the world. Jake Lynch is an international TV and press reporter and co-director of the UK-based journalism think tank, Reporting the World. He lectures at the annual Peace-Building Media Summer School at Sydney University, which has attracted journalists, NGO and mediation workers since its inception three years ago.

‘Peace-building journalism focuses on process as well as events,’ Lynch says. Peace-building journalism transcends the bipolar dynamic which merely asks ‘Who will win, who will lose?’

‘The task of journalists is also to pursue other visions of possible outcomes that are held in a community and find out who is working for peace and how’, he says. ‘In peace building a journalist is not a detached commentator but an involved communicator who believes their audience has a role in solving problems.’

It is the role of journalist as peace seeker, if not peace maker, which galls opponents of peace building media. In a celebrated outburst which appears on the Reporting for Peace website (www.reportingtheworld.org.uk), BBC Reporter David Loyn dismissed the idea of journalists’ involvement in conflict resolution. ‘That is not for us,’ he writes. ‘It is the work of a monk. And if you want to resolve conflict and make peace then join the United Nations. I will be outside the gates reporting on your efforts, if they turn out to be a story … Our job as reporters is only to be witnesses to the truth … Once we step away from pursuing the truth, then we are lost in an area of moral relativism which threatens the whole business of reporting.’ Christopher Kremmer, Australian foreign affairs journalist and author of The Carpet Wars: A Journey Across the Islamic Heartlands, sees peace-building journalism as a legitimate extension of existing journalistic practice, encouraging a diversity of views. ‘If we can have war correspondents reporting conflict, why not have peace correspondents exploring solutions?’ he says. However, Kremmer argues that there should be limits to a journalist’s role in any conflict: ‘Peace journalists should be aware that they, like all journalists, are susceptible to manipulation by political and economic interests. While retaining their own beliefs they should continue to respect journalistic conventions of accurate, penetrating and fair reporting, rather than trying to manage outcomes. Truth may sometimes be more important than peace.’

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, where the locals are wedged between the separatist Free Aceh movement, Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM), and military occupation, Aya Muchtar has tried a lateral approach to peace building. She was a community mediation worker involved in peace-building strategies with community and religious leaders in several of Indonesia’s conflict zones. Speaking from the United States’ mid-west, where she is now a postgraduate media student, Muchtar describes how she tried to tailor strategies to the local situation, making use of local media. In Aceh, local radio stations had resorted to music-only programming to avoid trouble with the authorities. Muchtar trained community and religious leaders in basic radio techniques and pushed them to approach the radio stations to present talk programs.

‘We encouraged them to introduce ‘educational’ discussions. One topic was corruption, which is an issue in Aceh. Rather than a frontal attack on the local administration we produced a short ‘soapie’ and called for community discussion on how to prevent corruption and what it does to the local community. We hoped to encourage an Acehnese belief that this radio station belonged to them, because if it was seen to be the voice of the people neither the military nor GAM would attack it.’ Muchtar is pragmatic and acknowledges building community in an active conflict zone is a long and difficult process.

According to Jake Lynch, peace-building media resists defining groups of people in a conflict as either worthy or unworthy. ‘Kosovo is the greatest example I can think of where the term “the Serbs” became a portmanteau of abuse, so that the Serbian population of Kosovo were seen as guilty by association with the Serbian paramilitary gangs.’

Christopher Kremmer acknowledges that the situation in Afghanistan prior to 2001 predisposed many journalists to choose sides. ‘In Afghanistan, all journalists have had to confront the temptation to choose sides among the factions. Only a minority resisted completely. Many journalists saw things through the Tajik commander Ahmed Shah Massoud’s eyes. For most, he was a charismatic figure and, relatively speaking, a decent human being compared with other key figures waging the military struggles’, Kremmer says. ‘The Taliban, because of their intolerance, faced a gathering consensus against them by journalists, but this was not initially shared by NGOs, who needed to continue working with local Afghans. A journalist’s primary responsibility however [is] to the audience back home, and so naturally, the dysfunctional tyranny of the Taliban encouraged a tendency to demonise them, which intensified greatly post-September 11.

The push for bigger audiences also influences reporting styles. Aya Muchtar remembers a long line of overseas journalism trainers who have gone to Indonesia armed with the values of independence, objectivity and truth in reporting. ‘Since I have come to the US to do media studies I have noticed that, to reach the market they want, journalists here can be just as subjective in their reporting as back home.’  

Jan Forrester is a media consultant and freelance writer. Rahmad Nasution will spend 2004 in Australia as a media studies post-graduate student.

 



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