2014 tests peace journalism principles
Unfortunately, 2014 proved to be a year of challenges for journalists and a year that tested the principles of peace journalism.
The “Peace Journalism Insights” blog began the year by introducing a Kenyan journalist named Robert. A former student at one of my seminars, Robert became increasingly concerned about his safety.
About Robert’s situation, I wrote, “Shadowy figures duck into businesses or scoot around corners when you approach. Later, you hear strange clicks on your phone. Are you paranoid, or is someone really following you and tapping your phone? Soon thereafter, all doubt is erased when these figures actually emerge from the shadows, and confront you in a direct, intimidating way. They know where you live, they sneer, or worse—they inform you that they know where your child attends school.
“While this may sound like a cold-war spy novel, it is, alarmingly, a slice of life for some journalists in Kenya, particularly those covering anything that might make the government uncomfortable. This ranges from routine corruption stories to reports about the proceedings at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Kenyan officials and journalists.
“One journalist committed to making officials uncomfortable is Robert Wanjala, a freelance reporter based in Eldoret in Kenya’s Rift Valley. Eldoret and the region around it was ground zero for the post-election violence that scarred Kenya in 2007-08, and have been center stage ever since for acts of intimidation against journalists. Wanjala writes about an increased level of threats and intimidation against the ICC witnesses and any other groups/individuals perceived by this government as its critics --including the press reporting on the issue. He said, “While I have not been directly involved in physical attacks, I have faced numerous indirect threats and intimidations from people well known – government operatives.”
Robert and I have corresponded during the last year. The good news is that he and his family are safe. The not-so-good news is that he is still unable to return to his hometown, and is instead working elsewhere in Kenya under a pseudonym.
In February, I wrote about the media war over Ukraine (before the Crimean annexation). The rhetoric coming from East and West was one-dimensional and inflammatory.
“On the official website of Pravda, a semi-official Russian newspaper/website, articles about Ukraine do toe a discernible line, one that often places blame squarely on the protesters. The story “Civilians killed, death toll grows” uses the inflammatory language “extremists” and “radicals” to describe the protesters. While it does contain one sentence about “alleged” police shootings, the bulk of the story is from Ukrainian officials decrying the violence. Pravda’s coverage includes a story titled “Kiev sniper shoots 20 law enforcers.” This would seem consistent with Pravda’s effort to paint all the protesters with the same brush—murdering radicals and extremists.”
I also noted propaganda emanating from U.S. and British media. “A BBC news analysis, “Why is Ukraine in turmoil,” asks, ‘Those on the streets say they are struggling over the future development of the country—will it be a country based on the rule of law, or Russian-style oligarchy and closed interests?” In BBC news reporting, those taking to the streets are called anti-government protesters, and never extremists or thugs…CNN’s coverage has a similar tone…In an analysis piece “20 Questions,” CNN blames the unrest on “Russia’s opposition to (closer EU ties). Russia threatened its much smaller neighbor with trade sanctions and steep gas bills.”
“This cold war rhetoric does a disservice to both western and Russian audiences, leaving them with a one dimensional view of the conflict (and of each other) that lacks depth and nuance. Peace journalists shun the rhetoric in these antiquated narratives and stereotypes, eschewing “popular wisdom” while seeking balance and perspective.”
In analyzing coverage of the Amanda Knox case, I noted the differences in American media coverage vs. British media coverage.
“There is ample evidence to reach a conclusion that a majority of the U.S. media have taken Knox’s side. “To some Americans, especially those in her hometown of Seattle, Amanda Knox seems a victim, unfairly hounded by a capricious legal system in Italy that convicted her this week in the death of a 21-year-old British woman.” (AP, Feb. 1, 2014) Other headlines scream “The Italian Justice System is Insane—Amanda Know is Completely Innocent.” (Slate, Feb. 2, 2014)…Jump across the pond, where “The tone of some British newspaper coverage reflected skepticism about Knox's protestations of innocence. 'Shameless in Seattle' was the front-page headline on Saturday's Daily Mail, which referred to Knox's "brazen TV charm offensive to escape extradition…The Rome daily La Repubblica wrote Friday that the third verdict confirms that the case "from the very beginning has been judged more on the basis of sensation than actual evidence." (AP, Feb. 1, 2014).”
In March, this column featured information about a peace journalism project we held at Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta, Northern Cyprus.
“The questions started even before I had finished introducing myself: How did I get involved in peace journalism? How is peace journalism different than traditional journalism? Is peace journalism biased? Objective?
This was my kind of crowd.
The attendees of my informal presentation today were communications professors and two PhD students at Eastern Mediterranean University in Famagusta in northern Cyprus.
The back and forth banter between the professors and I lasted about 40 minutes—before I had even gotten to the first item on my lecture outline. As professors, of course, their questions were both pointed and informed. Our discussions about American media coverage of Egypt (and the Muslim Brotherhood), Ukraine, and the Middle East were especially interesting. They also asked me about Fox News. To the professors’ delight, I shared data from a recent study that showed that Fox News viewers are the most ill-informed American media consumers, scoring lower on a news quiz even than those who self-identified as consuming no news at all.”
In April, I wrote about media-fueled violence in South Sudan, and the importance of peace journalism.
“Sadly, the need for peace journalism has once again been starkly demonstrated in East Africa as radio-fueled violence descended upon South Sudan last week.
The United Nations reports that “hundreds of civilians” were killed last week in Bentiu, the capital of South Sudan’s Unity state. The killings were “a tragic reflection of longstanding ethnic hostilities in the world’s newest country.” (time.com)
Toby Lanzer, the top United Nations aid official in South Sudan, told media that the violence was incited at least in part by calls on local radio stations for revenge attacks. “’It’s the first time we’re aware of that a local radio station was broadcasting hate messages encouraging people to engage in atrocities,” said Lanzer, who was in Bentiu on Sunday and Monday. (time.com). Those hate messages “urged men to rape women of specific ethnicities and demanded that rival groups be expelled from the town.” Lanzer said the “use of hate speech via a public radio station to incite violence is a game-changer." (theguardian.com)”
A few months later, in “Iraq coverage lacks balance, context, peace voices,” I discussed the importance of practicing peace journalism during the run-up to overseas interventions and wars.
“In a media environment where peace journalism is being practiced, the current run-up period to possible renewed U.S. military intervention in Iraq (against ISIS) would be covered by the media in a balanced way that proportionately reflects voices from both sides of the intervention debate.
Using the peace journalism model, articles about further U.S. military strikes in Iraq might look a bit like this:
‘Secretary of State John Kerry floated the possibility of U.S. drone strikes in Iraq today, while opponents of U.S. intervention warned that such strikes would be destabilizing and ineffective.'
'Administration official continue to make a case for U.S. military intervention in Iraq, citing a growing humanitarian crisis in the wake of a militant insurgency. Intervention opponents acknowledge the humanitarian crisis, but question the ability of air strikes to slow the insurgency.'
Unfortunately, a quick examination of media coverage of the crisis indicates that a disproportionately small voice seems to be given to those who question or outright oppose military intervention…
As peace journalists, we are not wading into the debate about the advisability of further U.S. military action in Iraq. However, we do believe that it’s the media’s responsibility to fully inform the public about all the options, including peaceful ones, if they are to reach intelligent conclusions about the situation in Iraq. When media do the opposite, and merely parrot administration pro-war propaganda without analysis or giving voice to war opponents, the results have been disastrous.”
Next week in Part II of our look back at 2014, we’ll examine peace journalism vis-à-vis coverage of Ferguson and take a look at a peace journalism project in Kenya.