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Media as Peacekeepers

Courtney Tenz
June 4, 2008

"Cut the grass." A seemingly innocuous message to most people. But when the message came over Kenyan airwaves, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights became concerned.

Man holding mattress as building burns in background
Could media intervention have prevented Kenya's recent conflict?Image: Picture-Alliance /dpa

The independent rights organization had been monitoring local radio for hate speech in the run-up to the election on Dec. 27, 2007. And when callers to one Kalenjin-language station said the people of the milk needed to cut the grass, the agency was paying attention. Instead of a simple note about trimming the landscape, the obscure message was calling for the forceful removal of the ethnic Kikuyu from traditional Kalenjin homelands in the Rift Valley.

With the memory of Rwanda's genocide still vivid, the message served as an eerie reminder of the role media might take in inciting violence. In Rwanda's case, radio broadcasts marked the beginning of an ethnic cleansing campaign that saw over 800,000 Tutsis dead in 100 days.

Could the hate-filled messages sent across Kenyan airwaves have provoked something similar? Reports coming out of the country in the aftermath to post-election violence that left 1,200 dead and over 350,000 displaced suggest that it did, although on a much smaller scale. Locals there speak of text messages sent via mobile phone, stirring people to kill their neighbors. In the violence, the messages noted, the perpetrators would not be caught and persecuted.

"Newsflash: we cannot prevent conflict"

Man holding microphone and gesturing
Hoek believes a media watchdog group could prevent genocideImage: DW/B.Frommann

Though it's difficult to say just how great a role the media played in Kenya's post-election violence, Jan Hoek, director-general of Radio Netherlands Worldwide, sees the hostility there as a call for greater media monitoring.

"I'd like to propose an international media monitoring system," Hoek told the audience at Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum.

"Newsflash: we cannot prevent conflict," he said, "but we can mitigate its consequences."

The proposal Hoek offered was to create a forward-looking watchdog group, one that might be better able to forewarn global entities about upcoming conflicts than a local agency could. This multinational, unilateral organization would analyze media reports worldwide, pointing out potential areas of conflict both in "risk areas" and in relatively stable regions.

Risk areas are those defined by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) as places where the threat to peace is particularly acute -- places that now include Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

By directing people -- both news agencies and experts in conflict resolution and mediation -- to these risk areas before conflicts escalate into crises, Hoek believes that the international agency may just be able to prevent genocide.

A divided response

Those are big shoes to fill but several experts on hand at the conference agreed it was a good idea.

"It's a practical proposal," said Armen Oganesyan, director general of Voice of Russia.

Stephen King, director of the BBC World Service Trust agreed. "We need to take a proactive role in preventing conflict," said King. While the western media tends to doubt the influential role it plays, those in developing countries don't doubt the power that media holds, he said.

"Aid agencies use media to disseminate information to populations in crisis," said Vladimir Bratic, assistant professor at Hollins University, Virginia, USA. "We can do the same."

However, not all conference attendees were convinced.

Man speaking into microphone
Prof. Raghavachari doubts the effectivity of the proposalImage: DW/B.Frommann

"With any organization like that you will run into problems, questions of differing national interests," said Prof. S. Raghavachari, head of the broadcast journalism department at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication.

"This is disingenuous," said Jernali Ulimwengu, a journalist with the Tanzania-based newspaper Raia Mwema, who argued that western media have their own agenda. "Big corporate interests give them an axe to grind."

"Media has to earn its reputation," Radio Netherlands' Hoek reminded the crowd. With this organization acting as a neutral overseer, he said, a critical eye would be turned to media in developing and western countries alike.

Hoek's proposed body would look beyond fragile nations monitoring western media as well as being on the alert for potentially inflammatory comments -- phrases such as "Islamic terrorism" which could promote prejudice.

This monitoring, he said, is one of the best ways to counter hate media around the world.

Still, questions about the proposed agency abound. As Erlands Calabuig, vice president for strategy at Radio France Internationale pointed out: Is disseminating information the same as creating peace?