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Peace correspondents: The new reporters

  • 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.