Tag Archives: conflict

When the Music Stops: Media Development in Conflict

When the Music Stops: Media Development in Conflict

Danish Karokhel, head of Pazhwok News Agency. Kabul, June 2011

Talk of Afghanistan in Kabul, Washington and London is all about ‘transition’ – the handover to Afghans and the ‘drawdown’ and pulling back of the international community. Talk ofa 30 year commitment seems but a distant memory.

In Kabul last week Afghan journalists and those watching the media scene told me they were concerned about their future. They wondered what would happen to the now thriving independent radio, television and independent media sector when the money from the international community declines, and the the eyes of the world pay less attention to Afghanistan and the plight of journalists who work there.

The first  fear was that asthe international community pulls out, the decline in international investment will also pull the plug on the economy and leave independent media vulnerable. The massive investment in media development has created a strong media sector in Afghanistan, with over 170 radio stations and 70 TV stations. In 2010 alone USAID spent $22 million on building up independent media. But this wont continue. And it will leave the media that doesn’t depend on aid, military ‘hearts and minds’ money or advertising in a stronger position, dominating the Afghan public sphere. This is significant, as the biggest increase inAfghanistans media scene over the last few years has been in ‘political’ media – radio and increasingly TV stations funded by and representing political and religious parties and the protagonists of the Afghanistans last civil war. Since 2007 three religious stations – Kawsar, Tarmaddon and Da’wat – have appeared. They don’t take advertising or international donor support – but they do hire staff trained through media development programmes. Political parties are also launching TV channels. Rahbanni launched Noor TV in 2008, Mohaqiq launched Rah-e-Farda; Noorin, linked to Fahim and Ayna TV linked to Dostum.

What will it mean for Afghan public debate if the broadcast environment is dominated not by moderate, progressive media but TV stations that promote specific interests and agendas? In a country already fractured along ethnic, linguistic and other lines, might public frustration at physical and financial insecurity, lack of employment and fear for the future be channeled against specific groups? After thirty years of war and propaganda, Afghans are incredibly media literate, more savvy than friends back in the UK. But a story endlessly repeated, to a frustrated audience, can often find resonance. It did in Nazi Germany, inRwanda and in the Former Yugoslavia.

The second fear is that the independent media that does survive the inevitable shakeout will be under other, more deadly, threats. Afghanistan has always been a dangerous place to report from. Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Afghanistan 147th out of 178 countries in the World Press Freedom Index in 2010 – ‘its worst state for six years’, while an Afghan media organisation, NAI, recorded an increase in violence against journalists of 70% in 2010. In 2008 a young Afghan journalist, Parvez Kambaksh, was sentenced to death for writing about women s equality and rights (his sentence was later commuted to 20 years in prison following international pressure). The same year Abdul Samad Rohani, head of the BBC’s Pashto Service, was abducted and killed for reporting on alleged links between drug-traffickers and the Taliban.

And its not just the Taliban. The new Mass Media Law, introduced in 2009, widely regarded as a significant improvement on the last one,  still grants the government sweeping powers. These have been used to ban programmes and shut down TV stations and websites – for example shutting down Emrooz TV, ostensibly for inciting sectarian tensions, though its tough anti-government stance may also have had something to do with it.

The broader point is that any negotiated settlement between the Afghan government is unlikely to to lead to greater media freedom. The fear is that threats, harassment, abduction and arrests or murders will increase and the space for independent media will be reduced. As the international community looks for a legacy to leave behind, what might it do to leave a space in which the voices of ordinary Afghans can be heard, and the power of the fourth estate continue to shine an already faltering light on the Afghan powers that be?

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Echoes in the Public Sphere

The new ‘social’ communication of facebook, twitter and SMS social networks have been heralded as the new dawn of a global public, a market square of ideas in which all could participate. To listen to some, it seems to promise all the failed efforts of the 70’s to bring about ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ in which the voices of the unheard could speak with the many. But is this really true?

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term the ‘global village’ he imagine a world where everyone communicated, with everyone. Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ updates that vision for the modern internet age, painting a picture of global collaboration, protest (eg against the Catholic Church) and coordination. Indeed, in his second book Cognitive Surplus he suggests that the global attention of the always connected could yield a trillion hours of productive engagement.

But recent trends suggest that while increasing numbers may be connecting, this isnt quite the great global conversation we might imagined, nor is it leading to the revolution we might have imagined. Indeed, many of the examples of new media ‘revolutions’ are not all that they seem:

  • From Foreign Policy Magazine: But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told theWashington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”
  • From International Herald Tribune: My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change. We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Clearly, there are many examples – from the Phillipines, Kenya, and of course Barack Obama’s election – where cellphones have been used to unite people with similar views in ways previously unimaginable. But thats the point. These are people who already care about corruption. In fact, though everybody may be connecting, we’re actually having the same conversation, only magnified. Our views arent being challenged and perspectives only reinforced. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent TED talk demonstrates how narrow our world view is, pointing to arresting graphics of global TV content – and how its dominated by coverage of the US, a little of the UK and the broader ‘Western world’. Other continents are mere mentions, usually only when wars are fought. And the voices of the unheard are heard by only a very very few. Its worth watching in full:

This means that our world view, and perspectives on our global village, remain limited. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge and Obama’s internet czar, writes in his book On Rumours how the dominance on the internet of social networking and blogging creates what he terms ‘ an echo chamber’ of ideas, where prejudices are exacerbated, to the extent, he argues in the Telegraph, that ‘if you want to be an extremist, hang out with people you already agree with’.

The point is that for most, the new media isnt bringing about a more vibrant public sphere. A healthy public sphere, as outlined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is a free market place of ideas to be freely debated by people prepared to change their point of view. In this public sphere extreme perspectives would be perceived for what they are – extreme and certainly not the norm.

Instead our ‘imagined community‘ shaped by television, the internet and SMS serves up what we choose, and in the main we tend to choose information that confirms what we already thought, and reinforces our prejudices through connecting us to people who share the same prejudices. The new public sphere seems increasinly not a market place of ideas but a series of ghetto’s in which reveberating opinions are reinforced, driving out the possibility of change.

Our task must be, as Zuckerman outlines in his talk and the Global Voices initiative, to bring the voices of the unheard into ghetto’s and help the echoes reverberate in new spheres.

America wrangles over propaganda control

The US Strategic Command (appropriately, STRATCOM) is wrangling with the Central Intelligence Agency and other parts of the military over contro of the ”strategic communication’ space. They are, according to Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic, using their role in Information Operations take a larger part of the communications pie.

Ambinder puts the tension well:

The CIA doesn’t think STRATCOM should play in this lane. But neither does Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, or the State Department, or the National Security Staff. Information Operations involves five fields: deception, psychological operations, computer network operations, electronic warfare and operations security. When you hear these terms, you think military, war, penetration of secret bunkers and the like. The State Department and the others want to make sure that Information Operations don’t conflict with what they call Strategic Communications — getting the message out that the US isn’t fighting against Islam, that the Afghan military is a credible institution. State sees IO from the perspective of an ad agency: what does the customer need? STRATCOM sees IO from the perspective of a military targeter: what’s the target, and how to we use all resources to manipulate it.

Which is interesting because its fairly well acknowledged that the military doesnt do so well at at the communications necessary to help build hearts and minds. I presented at a seminar at the United States Institute of Peace in February where there was broad acknowledgement that the psy-ops, strategic communications and ‘hearts and minds’ communications of the American military – with vastly larger budgets than Department of State, or the Agency for International Development, wasnt really working. Instead the participants agreed that ‘extremist propaganda cannot be effectively dealt with through counter-propaganda. Instead, the provision of a robust and credible media environment that encourages an exchange of ideas around needs and solutions is vital in mitigating extremist messages‘ (you can read the account of the seminar here).

But will the Defense Department win?

CIA backed news site targets militant strikes

Website allegedly supported by CIA funds

The New York Times reported today that a website – Afpax – was set up by a contractor using CIA money, and allegedly used to gather information that was used to kill militants in Afghanistan.

The story is ostensibly simply another example of US funds being misspent. However, it also raises serious issues for those of use who believe in the importance of media and communications to support peace.

A broader concern is the impact  this will have on Afghan perceptions of real journalists, who are often already suspected of spying for the Americans. How can they do their job of holding the Afghan government, the US and its allies if people suspect they arent real journalists and perhaps looking for assassination targets?

It also makes the stabilisation effort harder, as it makes other media organisations subject to suspicion. Its well recognised that communications is critical to resolving the conflict (particularly countering propaganda). That the US and its allies are not doing it well is also recognised – McChrystal said. This kind of strategic communications work only makes the conflict worse.

For Good and Evil

Christian – Muslim riots leave over 300 people dead in Nigeria. SMS’ played a strong role in incitement to violence.

Im a strong advocate for media’s use for positive social change, but its worth remembering that its merely a tool – and like a hammer can be used to build peace as well as destroy it. A recent example is the role of SMS in stoking inter-religious violence in Nigeria. At least 145 different texts were shared on mobile phones in the central city of Jos. Over four days of Muslim-Christian clashes 326 people died. Much like Radio Milles Collines incitement to violence in Rwanda, in Nigeria SMS messages fuelled the flames of hate. A report by Susan Njanji in iAfrica.com has the following:

“The messages helped escalate the violence in Jos in that some of them instructed people on how to kill, dispose of and burn bodies,” said leading rights activist Shehu Sani.

The texts were aimed at “spreading rumours and inflaming tensions,” said Sani, who heads a coalition of 32 Nigerian civil and human rights groups called the Civil Rights Congress.

One of the messages seen by Agence France Presse read : “War, war, war. Stand up … and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you.”

Whats interesting is that the Nigerian government is now pressing for compulsory registration of SIM cards – registration that will mean any text message can, in theory, be tracked back to its user. While compulsory registration – increasingly popular in countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh – helps authorities track users, its argued that it also infringes on people’s right to privacy.

But the biggest question is about accountability. Those behind Radio Milles Collines were held accountabile by the International Tribunal and convicted of genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity – because it was established unequivocally that they were responsible for the broadcasts that studies suggest were responsible for 9% – 45,000 – of the Tutsi deaths in Rwanda. Should the same attribution, and retribution,  to apply to those behind the text messages Jos?

What do you think – should all sim cards be registered? Should those behind sending hate messages that lead to violence be held accountable?