Fragile states pose challenges to longstanding approaches in media development. Media should be helping to create systems and mechanisms of mutual understanding, says DW Akademie adviser C. Gregor Barié.
Let's suppose you didn't like one of the ex-presidential candidates in the United States. So what would happen if you had to listen attentively to a 40-minute radio broadcast of his or her propaganda? Would exposure to their messages confirm your negative perception, or would it soften your opinion?
Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz from Michigan State University conducted a ﬁeld experiment in Ghana focusing on this issue - the impact of propaganda messages. 1,200 passengers in 228 tro-tros (commuter minibuses) in Ghana were randomly exposed to live talk-radio from pro-government, pro-opposition or neutral stations. After leaving the buses, the passengers were asked how their attitudes and opinions had changed.
Minibus in Ghana: scenery for audience research on propaganda messages
The findings of this study were a surprise: People who had listened to views that were not their own had moderated their opinions by the end of the bus trip. It turned out that exposure to crosscutting broadcasts led people to reconsider their positions. "Partisan media are often blamed for polarization in newly liberalized regimes. What we found was that rather than fueling extremism, partisan media can moderate by exposing citizens to alternative perspectives", explains Conroy-Krutz. "In some cases this encouraged displays of national over partisan afﬁnities." In fragile contexts, audiences are often fragmented and fractured around ethnic, economic or religious lines. When people are trapped in their own information bubble and when growing polarization threatens stability, simply listening to the (biased) arguments of others has a moderating impact.
The results of the tro-tro study are not necessarily applicable to other contexts. But they certainly show that in fragile contexts, questions arise about longstanding assumptions and approaches in media development. And that is exactly what happened at the FOME Symposium 2016, the German Forum Media and Development, which was organized by a network of German media development organizations including DW Akademie. This year's symposium was dedicated to challenges of media assistance and media development in countries affected by armed conflict and instability.
Pluralism can be a threat to state building
In past years, the media development community has only occasionally focused on encouraging people to listen. Instead it has been doing much more to strengthen and to qualify the output of media with the aim of giving a "voice to the voiceless", said Katrin Voltmer, Professor of Communication and Democracy at the University of Leeds in her keynote speech at the FOME Symposium. But who is concerned about how the message is received? "The main claim I always hear from civil society organizations is: The government is not listening!" says Voltmer, also principal investigator of the research project "Media, Conflict and Democratisation" (MeCoDEM). If people can express their claims and opinions through different media outlets, but nobody takes any notice of them, frustration and aggression might be the result. Social conflicts may be further fueled.
Voltmer points also to the inherently destabilizing features of electoral politics: Increased political competition often leads to zero-sum politics and deepens social divisions – media organizations even tend to amplify these polarized images. That's why, from the point of view of state building, pluralism and civil society participation are also a threat. Democratization efforts, especially when promoted from outside, have varying impacts.
Thus, when media assistance organizations, inspired by John Milton's faith in the "marketplace of ideas", promote free expression and access to information, e.g. supporting independent and professional journalism, they often fail to understand that their intervention may have the opposite effect and could even cause greater fragility. The aim of a plurality of voices in a society is in constant conflict with the aim of social cohesion and stability – and it radically calls into question existing power balances.
Fragility: when states fall apart
James Deane (BBC Media Action): "Fragility also means fractured societies with a lack of common visions and values"
What do media development workers need to know about fragile contexts? The OECD used to define fragility in terms of "weak capacity to carry out basic governance functions and to develop mutually constructive relations with society" – but these concepts are being questioned and have recently come under revision. For James Deane, the Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action, fragile states are simply those that need "little to fall apart", meaning they are close to breakdown and implosion. More importantly, these are fractured societies with a lack of common visions and values: "We should ask ourselves if it makes sense to focus on shared interest, when there are no shared identities", Deane reflects on media development practice. That's why he believes that public service broadcasting, in spite of its limitations, remains important to the integration of national communities.
Fragility is related to different expressions of violence: conflicts are becoming more intense and more deadly. Today about 80 percent of all conflicts worldwide are intrastate confrontations involving non-state actors and governments. About two billion out of a global population of 7.4 billion people live in countries affected by violent conflicts, according to the World Bank. In 2015, at least 167,000 people died in combat operations. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria remained the four deadliest countries. As a consequence, 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from their homes, among them nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under 18 years old (United Nations Refugee Agency).
Terrifying levels of violence
These fragile and violent contexts leave profound traces on national and regional communication "ecologies": media outlets are captured by interest groups, spaces for transparency are closed making corruption less visible, and divided audiences create an atmosphere of suspicion which can easily escalate to violence. Esben Q. Harboe from International Media Support (IMS) summarized the "bad news" from the perspective of media workers: 1,128 journalists have been killed since 1992; 95 percent of victims are local journalists; one journalist a week; impunity for perpetrators reaches 99.9 percent. "The numbers of journalists affected by violence are terrifying", says Delphine Halgand, Director of the US office of Reporters Without Borders. "In countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, India, Mexico and Honduras, more and more journalists are harassed, attacked, imprisoned and even tortured."
It seems that fragility and polarization often leave traditional media development approaches themselves rather fragile. Christoph Spurk, from the Institute of Applied Media Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences, says empirical evidence on the impact of media intervention is scarce at best, especially with regard to news journalism, and methodologies are still weak. Many questions remain open: How to counterbalance the centrifugal forces of pluralism? How to differentiate healthy from dysfunctional pluralism? How to build up systems and mechanisms of mutual understanding and dialogue through media in divided and fragmented societies?
There are some hints and good practices, e.g. new approaches in media literacy (Jad Melki, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, Lebanese American University), a storytelling project addressing the "listening part" (Katrin Voltmer), and innovative models of independent media like El Kul in Libya (James Deane).
Jan Lublinski, Head of Research and Evaluation at DW Akademie, facilitated a discussion on the ethical dilemmas of journalists in conflict societies and ways to assure values and professional standards. Gamal Soltan, Associate Professor at the American University of Cairo and Research Associate MeCoDEM, shared the latest findings as researcher of the MeCoDEM project on ethical conflicts in the Egyptian transitional process. Journalists were torn between their own idealized professional mandate, editorial policies, personal political or ideological orientation and the external pressure of the public authorities.
Altaf Khan (University of Peshawar, Pakistan) in conversation with Gamal Soltan (American University of Cairo): "Audience can be retraumatized through reports"
In the case of Pakistan, these ethical pressures and the daily exposure to images of violence and terror result in increasing psychological stress, according to Altaf Khan, Head of the Journalism Department at the University of Peshawar. In 2014, in a joint venture with the Department of Psychology at the same university, he founded the Competence and Trauma Center for Journalists. Initially, his colleagues made light of the initiative, which is supported by DW Akademie, with comments such as "Are you going to announce the mad house?"
Today the trauma centre is well accepted and used by media professionals in Pakistan. It offers affected journalists psychological support, as well as preventive counseling to media companies and journalists. As a result, other provincial universities are now integrating the issue of trauma prevention, conflict-sensitive journalism and digital and physical safety practices into their curricula. "It is not only about the physical and psychological health of journalists, it's also about the audience, which can be traumatized repeatedly by reports", says Altaf Khan.
So there are new ways for media development workers to act in fragile contexts – if they consider situations carefully and do not aim too high. Ambitious change theories often fail, concludes Nicolas Boissez from Foundation Hirondelle, based on an impact study of a radio project in Mali. Studio Tamani covers conflicts and violent incidents and discusses conflict issues. Initially the project was supposed to make a direct contribution to the peace process. After the evaluation it was clear that this had not happened. "We see changes in knowledge and attitudes of the audience. The listeners now consider dialogue as a possible way to handle conflicts." That's at least a first step.