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Still a role for the media after conflicts stop

Wearing bullet-proof vests, journalists often report right from the battle lines. But they soon lose interest once hostilites cease. At DW's Global Media Forum, experts debated the consequences of that.

Asiem El Difraoui knows what it's like when a conflict suddenly becomes less important in public perception. El Difraoui, who teaches political science in Paris, had been invited by a French radio program to talk about his book on political developments in Egypt. But right before the show was to go on air, the host asked El Difraoui whether they could instead spend the 25-minute-program talking about the "Islamic State" ("IS").

Asiem El Difraoui at the GMF 2015

El Difraoui: 'Events get covered only when there's blood.'

"The IS had just taken Mosul, and proclaimed its caliphate, so that was the only topic in the Arab World that the media was interested in," explains Middle East expert El Difraoui. "That was despite the fact that things are far from going well in Egypt, and that there is the possibility of an uprising."

Showing violence provokes new violence

When broadcasters turn off their satellite dishes in those trouble spots where the situation appears to have stabilized, entire regions disappear off the media's radar.

But experts gathered at the Global Media Forum agreed that so-called "frozen" conflicts, in which hostilities cease without the dispute having been resolved, can quickly "de-frost" and become "hot" again. That's why experts consider it important that reporting about what political scientists call "post-conflict societies" continues. But, says Dana Asaad, an Iraqi journalist working for Awene.com, "mainstream journalism doesn't bother with continually covering areas of conflict."

Nevertheless, he judges media coverage about his country, Iraq, quite harshly. While there are hundreds of media outlets, he says, most are part of a propaganda machine, and ready to stir up social conflict at any time.

"Journalists have contributed to the fact that the fight against the Islamic State has developed into a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites," says Asaad. "This kind of reporting about attacks, and about people getting killed, motivates many young supporters of both sides, who are otherwise frustrated with their lives, to engage in this conflict."

Panel discussion at the Global Media Forum 2015: Reporting on post-conflict societies and frozen conflicts

Experts debate the role of journalists after a conflict has abated at the Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany.

Asaad partly blames the lack of a professional education for this, saying that "unemployed people without any qualifications whatsoever become journalists." He lays another part of the blame on the mechanisms of media coverage.

El Difraoui agrees: "Events are considered worth reporting only when there's blood. But showing violence motivates others to join either one of the conflict groups, whereas continuous reporting could stress the common elements, namely the suffering."

According to El Difraoui, psychological studies have shown that videos depicting peaceful images can support the development of peace.

'Comprehensive and continuous coverage needed'

Sokha Cheang of "The Phnom Penh Post" bears witness to such common efforts of coming to terms with conflict. In Cambodia, about two million people died in the Khmer Rouge's bloody regime. Even though the conflict ended decades ago, to this day it remains one of the most important topics for the oldest English-speaking newspaper in the Cambodian capital. Sokha Cheang attaches great importance to comprehensive coverage of the war crimes tribunal that sentenced two aged defendants to life in prison.

"People are interested in the background of the regime of the Khmer Rouge because it's part of the country's history, and so they follow reporting about a court case like this. So it is our duty as journalists to report about every detail of the regime's history."

Kyrgyz people pray in a Kyrgyz refugee camp outside the city of Osh in the southern Kyrgyzstan 23 June 2010.

After ethnic clashes, Kyrgyz people took to praying in a refugee camp outside the city of Osh.

Events in Central Asia have proven to Marcus Bensmann how quickly societal conflicts can erupt again. Bensmann talks about unrest in the Kyrgystan's city of Osh, where it had come to bloody violence between Kyrgyz people and the Uzbek minority during the break-up of the Soviet Union. "For 20 years after that, everything was quiet. But then, in 2010, similar unrest occurred, seemingly out of nowhere. Thousands of Kyrgyz stormed into the Uzbek neighborhoods and started burning down houses," Bensmann says.

No blood, no interest

While experts agree on the need for more continuous and in-depth reporting, they are aware of how difficult it is to achieve this. According to Denis Dzidic, many journalists find it boring to do in-depth reporting about societies that are not currently embroiled in conflict.

Dzidic himself writes about developments in his native country of Bosnia-Herzegovina which he said hardly gets any attention anymore from international media. "Because there is no blood anymore, it is not sexy to report about the segregation that occurs in schools," says Dzidic.

He thinks that the key lies in personalizing stories. Even in-depth backgrounders become interesting to readers if they focus on individuals, Dzidic adds.

The experts at the Global Media Forum also agree that it is necessary to make use of the advantages of the so-called "Web 2.0," characterized by user-generated content and interaction with users. Also, cooperation between local media and an openness towards experimenting with new forms of reporting could all serve to re-focus attention on the post-conflict regions of the world.

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