Media’s role in war and peace

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AT a time when the media in India and Pakistan is virtually driving South Asia to the brink of war, it is sad that journalists’ professional bodies have failed to moderate the hype that has been created. The only voice of sanity to be raised was that of 22 editors from the region — only three from Pakistan — in the form of a release issued by Kanak Mani Dixit, the editor of the South Asian magazine Himal (Kathmandu).

While expressing their sadness at the “horrific killings in Mumbai” and their deep concern at “the fallout of rising India-Pakistan tensions on the entire region”, the signatories called on “all media professionals, especially in the television networks, to observe restraint in reportage and interpretation, and to be careful to avoid imbalance”. They pointed out that media coverage has influenced opinion on crucial issues and impacted on the political stance and policies of the authorities. Most importantly, the editors stressed that “media can exacerbate or ameliorate a situation: we are keenly aware of this, as journalists based in various parts of South Asia who continue to seek a common future in peace”.

To my query about the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists’ position on the present crisis, Secretary General Mazhar Abbas said that his union and the Indian federation of journalists are planning a peace conference in January or February. This would obviously be addressing the war and peace issue from a long-term perspective. That would be significant. But the PFUJ must exert itself immediately to translate into reality what Mazhar Abbas calls “the need for responsible journalism and the importance of not allowing truth to become a casualty”.

The fact is that a section of the media, mainly a number of television channels with quite a few newspapers in tow, are reinforcing a new phenomenon. The media by and large has emerged as an actor — and regrettably an irresponsible one in some cases — in national and international policymaking in both countries.

On the international level, this new dimension of television came to the fore with the launching of CNN in 1991 that set the scene for what we call 24/7. The impact of television’s ubiquitous presence was felt in Somalia in 1993. An official of the US State Department admitted that the Clinton administration had to pull out US forces from Mogadishu hastily when CNN showed gory images of a US soldier’s corpse being dragged through the city by enraged crowds. This demonstrated for the first time the immense potential of the electronic media to force the pace of events by exerting pressure on governments without allowing them time to do some dispassionate thinking.

Now that we have our own 24/7 media, its compulsions and how these affect its role need to be better understood and self-regulated. Television cannot be permitted to ride roughshod over national interests in the name of the freedom of expression. It cannot disregard the wider public good because the channels have to fill in 24 hours all seven days a week, because they do not have the resources to produce programmes other than talk shows, and because they are competing for viewership and some of them believe a measure of sensationalism is in order.

These aspects will have to be kept in mind by the news channels in both countries. Spurred by the unbridled screening of images of violence and the public reaction to it, the PFUJ worked on a code of ethics. In August 2008 it adopted a draft of the Code of Principles for the Conduct of Journalism in Pakistan. This contains many excellent guidelines, though some need further refining. Unfortunately due to lack of response from many key stakeholders the code has been pushed to the backburner. The role of the press and television in the current crisis created by the India-Pakistan stand-off should prompt the PFUJ to take up the code again with special emphasis on peace journalism.

Among the principles enumerated in the preamble to the code is that the media are “independent, tolerant and reflect diversity of opinion” which are essential for the smooth functioning of a democracy. To this list must also be added the provision that the media “subscribe to peace and are opposed to war”. Since the role of the media in promoting peace is being increasingly recognised worldwide, it is time our journalists were given sufficient exposure to peace studies to make them aware of the constructive role they can play in peace and conflict resolution.

As has been correctly observed and as has been confirmed by the direction the media has given to developments, two journalists can present the same piece of news differently to create the image of peace or whip up war frenzy. Neither of them will be suppressing news or exercising self-censorship. But the impact of the same news will be changed by the method of its presentation. Journalists exercise choices. If they are going to present the hawks day in and day out and allow them to breathe fire with all the vehemence they can command won’t they create the war hysteria that Mr I.A. Rehman wrote about in his column on these pages last week?

It all depends on what the man at the desk wants to focus on and if there is any editorial control.

Another area where the media has often been found wanting is that of contextualisation. By not providing objectively the context in which an event is taking place, the media can mislead the viewers/readers. A foreign affairs reporter for the BBC, Gordon Corera, puts it thus: “It is vital for journalists to tell the public and opinion-formers about the complexity of the world out there and to explain to them the way different people and cultures think.” Not an easy task when the journalist has his/her own biases and prejudices.

It is now time for peace journalism with the media actively pursuing the goal of conflict resolution through dialogue. The PFUJ should consider adding a 27th point to its code of ethics: ‘A journalist will champion the cause of peace and eschew war’.