Sunday, February 21, 2016

Kashmir attack hits too close to home

Last July, during my visit to teach peace journalism in Indian-administered Kashmir, I often sat on the front steps of the guest house where I was staying, gazing in the direction of the stunning, fog-shrouded mountains in the distance.

My guest house was part of a three-building EDI government complex that also included a training building and youth hostel. Saturday, militants attacked an Indian army convoy, then retreated to the training building, where they are currently holed up. Five have died so far. The training building (the white building on the right in the picture) is perhaps 100 meters from my guest house. 

Top-EDI Center in July. Bottom-EDI Center, taken Sunday.
I was very saddened to hear that one of the casualties was a gardener who worked on the immaculate grounds at the complex. If he is the same gardener who worked there last summer, I met him and chatted with him briefly, but did not really know him. He was shot in the stomach while he pruned flowers—the most innocent victim imaginable.

I am relieved to hear that the 4-5 young men who ran my guest house were all safely evacuated. I did get to know them well, especially the manager of the guest house with whom I chatted about politics, and life, for many long and enjoyable hours.

I don’t know what to do next. I had planned, literally, to send off a Kashmir peace journalism project funding proposal tomorrow. I’m supposing I shouldn’t let this deter me. In fact, it should encourage me, since unrest in the region is the reason we need a project there in the first place. However, selfishly, I’d really like to avoid firefights and evacuations in armored vehicles.

What I am sure about is how my perspective about matters like this has changed since visiting Kashmir. Before, I would have chocked this incident up to yet another mindless terrorist attack. Now, things are less black and white. Are these attackers terrorists? Or are they freedom fighter who have attacked occupiers and oppressors? This is, after all, how many Kashmiris view India, particularly the Indian army. Interestingly, the New York Times calls the attackers in this instance “rebels,” while a local newspaper, Rising Kashmir, calls them “militants.”

My last day in Kashmir, at my last university lecture, a student raised her hand and earnestly asked me if I had a solution to the ongoing conflict in the region. Today, especially, I wish I had an answer.

UPDATE: The stand off ended on Monday, according to a BBC report.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Confidence that peace journalism will prevail in Uganda

As elections unfold in East Africa, like the one happening in Uganda this week, thoughts drift to those awful days following the 2007 Kenyan election. 

Media-fueled post-election violence took a terrible toll in late 2007 and early 2008. 1,200 Kenyans were killed, many thousands injured, and over 300,000 people displaced, according to UNHCR statistics. 42,000 homes and businesses were looted or destroyed. The media, particularly local-language radio stations, played a significant role in the violence. According to IRIN Humanitarian News, “Inflammatory statements and songs broadcast on vernacular radio stations and at party rallies, text messages, emails, posters and leaflets have all contributed to post-electoral violence in Kenya, according to analysts. Vernacular radio broadcasts have been of particular concern... (From Peace Journalism Principles and Practices, Routledge Publishing/Taylor and Francis Books, to be published fall 2016)

With the Kenyan experience fresh in their minds, the Peace Journalism Foundation of East Africa and the Center for Global Peace Journalism launched an 11-month effort to train Ugandan radio reporters and editors in peace journalism prior to the 2011 Ugandan presidential election. Traveling 14,000 kilometers to every corner of the country, my training partner Gloria Laker and I worked with hundreds of journalists on peace journalism theory and responsible electoral reporting. The goal of the project was to prevent media induced or exacerbated violence at the time of the election. The project succeeded. There was no media fueled violence in 2011. A comprehensive survey of media practitioners at the project’s conclusion gave credit for the lack of media fueled violence to Gloria’s peace and electoral journalism project. 

Further, a number of peace journalism trainings in Kenya (several by Gloria Laker and myself in Eldoret and Nairobi, and others with Dr. Fredrick Ogenga at the University of Rongo) prior to the 2013 Kenyan election also had the desired result—an election devoid of media induced or exacerbated violence. (For the record, some have criticized the Kenyan media for going too far, and not reporting election irregularities in 2013 for fear of stoking violence--a practice not condoned by peace journalism).

On election day in Uganda this Thursday, Gloria and I believe that our trainings five years ago will still resonate with radio reporters and editors. However, even if our workshops are forgotten, it’s our hope that journalists will remember the lessons from Kenya in 2007 and from post-election violence in Uganda in 2006. 

The words I wrote during my first visit to Uganda resonate as much today as when I first penned them in 2009. 

“As I peered out at the Ugandan radio journalists in my peace journalism class, I came to the stark realization that they are literally in a position to make life and death decisions. Radio in this part of the world is that important, that influential. The wrong words said the wrong way at the wrong time can, and have, led to violence, even death… As the students and I closed an emotional discussion about hate radio, I was encouraged when one student said that ‘it’s up to us’ to spread the word about the power of radio, and the awesome responsibility radio journalists here have to use their platform to promote peace and reconciliation instead of hate and violence.” (Peace Journalism Principles and Practices, 2016).

I am confident our Ugandan radio colleagues will do their jobs responsibly and ethically on Thursday and the days that follow. Here’s hoping that they can do so safely as well.

NOTES: For a comprehensive look at Ugandan elections, see this well-researched piece in the Guardian newspaper.

And for an examination of the election through the eyes of the country’s LGBT population, see this excellent New York Times column.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Media distortions: An international phenomenon
(Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica)--Media distortions and myths were central to our best discussion of the week here at my peace journalism workshop at the University for Peace in Costa Rica.

One of the central tenets of peace journalism is that reporting as traditionally practiced exaggerates and distorts reality. The basic premise of this theory, as articulated in the book “The Culture of Fear,” is that sensational media over-report (or sensationally report) some risks, creating a public fearful of virtually non-existent risks like dying in a plane crash, having ones’ child abducted by a stranger, or being killed by a terrorist.

As I began the discussion listing distortions and exaggerations, a particularly observant student piped up and asked about the Zika virus. It has been reported extensively—I got 80 million hits for Zika on Google news today. But the question is, has this reporting created undue fear or panic about the virus? A peace journalist covering Zika, I told my students, would begin every story about the virus this way: “Although 80 percent of those who are infected with Zika experience no symptoms….” Media hysteria can always be quashed by context.

I concluded the discussion by asking my students to list media distortions from their home countries. (UPeace students come from around the world). The students listed these distortions/exaggerations:

South Korea-Exaggerated missile threat from North Korea
Costa Rica—All foreigners as criminals
Switzerland—The French are stealing our jobs
Norway—The Swedes are stealing our jobs
Nicaragua-Xenophobia about Costa Ricans
Italy—Muslims don’t respect us
Finland—Overhyped economic “disaster”
Indonesia—Exaggerated tensions between Muslims and Christians
Cambodia—Exaggerated/overplayed political threats (The prime minister said that if he loses the election, there will be war.)

These distortions are a reminder of the prevalence of irresponsible media worldwide, and of the extensive work that needs to be done by peace journalism advocates.