Media and reconciliation

So much has been written on media and reconciliation that to write more seems almost unnecessary. From toolkits to case studies, many authors have attempted to grasp the nettle of media initiatives that positively influence conflict transformation and reconciliation in post-conflict situations. Yet, the continuing violence that such societies face, the continued death of media personnel and the problems of creating larger debates on reconciliation and peace, coupled with a familiar litany of other issues associated with post-conflict media reform, behoove us to explore further the confluence between such reforms and post-conflict nation building.

In order to promote these processes, one must first attempt to understand them and how they function. Yet journalists, caught up in a world of deadlines and other pressures oftentimes use their profession to promote reconciliation and peace without a full understanding of how these processes work. The net result is one of confusion, where the same terms are used in the service of hugely different agendas. Again, without understanding the rich textures of an on going peace process, public can easily be misled into an understanding that colours their opposition to the inevitable compromises that have to made in such a process.

This then is the stark reality after protracted conflict and contests a more sanguine picture that many reports to donors who fund post-conflict media interventions paint. As such, the role of media in the service of reconciliation is a topic worth exploring, if only to dispel myths that surround the issue and construct and in their place posit a framework to help a society affected by conflict move on from shared grief to new social covenants which under gird just and sustainable peace.

Media, let us admit, is largely resistant to change. This can be just as true of state media, as of new private, alternative or NGO supported media. To transform media into one that promotes reconciliation requires us to look at the way media works. Positive stories of human interest are often submerged in a deluge of stories that report on negative events in a peace process. As many have identified, media finds reporting peace a unique challenge precisely because it is a process which ebbs and flows over a long period of time. Peace is not a single event.

The distinction between an event and a process is an important one to always bear in mind. A peace process is the apotheosis of the aspirations of all peoples to coexist in a society founded upon principles of pluralism, democracy and justice. It is dangerous to confuse key events within a peace process for the process itself. Events that ostensibly mark the end of a peace process can be framed differently to be seen as just temporary roadblocks that can be overcome in the long term. Given that public confidence in a peace process is often shaped by media reportage of events, journalists have a unique and important responsibility to report the process accurately, impartially and responsibly and frame stories with the art of the long view – in other words, looking towards the future. This is the foundation of conflict sensitive journalism, within which one locates the space for media to promote reconciliation.

But what is reconciliation? Reconciliation, for the purposes of this paper, is understood to be processes that use, inter alia, culture, religion, caste, language, story telling, non verbal gestures and communication in a very broad sense to grapple with the meaning of traumatic events. In this sense, it is a personal as well as communal process, which looks back at shared history, but tries to frame an understanding of past events with a view to peaceful coexistence in the future. It is therefore a shared challenge – mutually strengthening, cathartic and transformative. It can be conducted, defined and understood in many ways at many levels, but in essence, it is about the construction of new social covenants after violent conflict in support of just, plural and democratic societies.

Can the media aid reconciliation? Often, the argument against promoting reconciliation stem from a perception that it is an issue that the market is disinterested in. Underscoring the importance of the symbiosis between markets and media (both shape and are shaped by the other), the author submits that media can instigate widespread interest on issues that the public might otherwise be quite ignorant of. An exercise inextricably linked to the promotion of reconciliation, this requires the media to highlight voices that examine reconciliation mechanisms and understandings on a provincial, district and national level, even when partisan politics and official negotiations marginalise such processes.

There are many ways media can help processes of reconciliation. The creation of safe spaces in the form of newspaper supplements, tri-lingual documentaries of community relations, web discussions, public forums like town hall meetings that are reported in provincial media, the promotion of ethnic diversity in the newsroom and in all output and programming (not just news media), reporting human interest stories, support reconciliation between language media by journalist exchanges and team reporting exercises, sharing and translating content, creating new content that is geared towards reconciliation (esp. programmes for children and youth), using new digital media to capture and strengthen voices that may have been hitherto marginalised (i.e. using techniques such an in-field media production) are some methods media can adopt to augment initiatives in support of wider debates on reconciliation. In doing so, the multiplicity of dialogues, it is hoped, creates public interest on reconciliation on many levels, leading to an interest and awareness of the issue and the ways in which such a process can be engineered to address communal concerns in order to move forward.

However, media is only read, or watched or listened to for its content. Creating content which is interesting, attractive and useful requires great skill and perseverance. It can be strongly argued that a few interventions with engaging content are able to make a more lasting impression on reconciliation than a myriad of interventions with poor, ill-thought out content. The ability to create Sinhala, Tamil and English content in support of reconciliation remains a significant challenge, but one that needs to be addressed if discussions on reconciliation are to move from urban circles into the conscience of rural communities and those in the hinterlands of conflict.

Let it be stated here that under an overarching commitment to peaceful coexistence and reconciliation, media must also be free to critically examine processes such as reconciliation. Vehement disagreements in public media on reconciliation, contrary viewpoints, dissimilar processes of grassroots reconciliation and alternative dispute reconciliation in various regions – these are all to be celebrated by the media in many debates that encourage the exchange of ideas and the promotion of methods which have been proven to work. In promoting such animated public discussion on reconciliation, media can help replace ignorance and silence – the twin evils that give birth to extremism that can seriously undermine a peace process.

Finally, media has a moral responsibility to promote reconciliation. All media has donned both the role of victim and aggressor over the lifetime of a prolonged conflict. If media is truly interested in conflict sensitive journalism and the promotion of values that underpin a new democratic, plural and just society, the same values that underpin media reform must be recognized as those which nourish reconciliation – the humility to listen, to share, to acknowledge and to jointly work towards a better society. This is the foundation of post-conflict media reform. This is the foundation of reconciliation. The two seamlessly dovetail into one another.

The deeper issues that gave rise to conflict lie beyond the attention grabbing flashlights on assorted dignitaries negotiating peace agreements. Humans – individuals, communities, societies – are the lifeblood of any peace process, the consumers and producers of media and those who embark on journeys of reconciliation everyday. To highlight this requires a sensitivity to their stories, a sincerity to report them as impartially and accurately as possible, a commitment to explore tenacious and difficult issues, and the humility to look self-critically at one’s own role in transforming conflict – essentially, giving voice to processes such as reconciliation that help those who have undergone untold trauma to move ahead with their lives.

The media can and must help reconciliation, for it can act in tremendously powerful ways to create and support initiatives for healing and justice on the meandering path of Sri Lanka’s own peace process.

It is time the media stepped up to this noble task.

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