Journalists Look to Their Role in Ethnic Conflicts
by Mike Smith
01 October 1998
The media in the Balkans, divided on ethnic lines, did 'more damage than weapons' and had played a pivotal role in 'initiating the processes that led to unbelievable bloodshed,' said Senad Kamenica, Head of News and Current Affairs Programmes for Bosnia and Herzegovina Television. Two hundred and fifty thousand people had been killed in the war, including 30,000 children, and Bosnia was still burdened by 'the by-products of the factory of evil'.
Media professionals from Northern Ireland, Bosnia and South Africa spoke of the role that the media plays in conflict situations, at a five-day gathering of the International Communications Forum (ICF) held in Caux.
The media in the Balkans, divided on ethnic lines, did 'more damage than weapons' and had played a pivotal role in 'initiating the processes that led to unbelievable bloodshed,' said Senad Kamenica, Head of News and Current Affairs Programmes for Bosnia and Herzegovina Television. Two hundred and fifty thousand people had been killed in the war, including 30,000 children, and Bosnia was still burdened by 'the by-products of the factory of evil'. But today, Bosnians expected the media to help overcome the nation's problems by 'building confidence'.
Kamenica described his own struggle to maintain news balance and said, 'The hardest struggle is within ourselves'. His Sarajevo-based station was recently named by the Paris newspaper Le Monde as the most objective TV station in the Balkans. Kamenica said the station had successfully campaigned, over eight months, to stop proposed legislation to introduce ethnically divided primary schools. Taking part in the ICF had helped him realize that he was not alone among journalists who care for their audiences, he said.
'News balance': panel discussion at the media forum
Jan Pieklo, President of the Polish Journalists' Association in Krakow, had volunteered to cover the Balkans war because he wanted to understand what had gone wrong in Yugoslavia, a nation previously considered a success story. There he had encountered a 'spiral of hate', as the local media on all sides 'resurrected clichés from the past' and journalists openly declared that they were ready to lie for their side.
But it was hard to stay neutral when women and children were being killed. He was frustrated, feeling 'useless and helpless', when no one outside the conflict seemed to want to listen. 'It is vital to help people to look at the past, if they are to have a future,' he said.
The iron curtain had come down in Europe but still stood between the communities in Northern Ireland, said William Stainsby, Director of Cedar House Cultural Institute near Derry/Londonderry. The future depended on enabling individuals, and the Nationalist and Unionist communities, to 'engage in the difficult art of dialogue'. Dialogue was the only way to break down prejudice, 'the main roadblock on the road to progress', and the foundation for dialogue was 'truthful and accurate information'.
To forward such dialogue, he and others had created Cedar House on an island in the Republic, but reachable mainly from the North. It aimed to promote inter-religious, cross-community and cross-cultural dialogue. 'If we can listen to each other's stories we can make progress. I cannot change others, but I can change myself. I can try to change my own prejudices,' he said.
Faustina Starrett, co- ordinator of media and communications studies at the North-West Institute of Further and Higher Education in Derry, said she needed 'a tough mind and a tender heart' in the face of her compatriots, who were suffering from a confusion of identity. 'There are reasons but no excuses and no one has clean hands,' she said. The churches, the state and the media all reinforced ethnic and community identities. But after 30 years of Northern Ireland's 'imprisonment in history', she saw reasons for hope. The leaders promoting the Easter peace agreement had been 'tested by fire and held'.
South African journalist William Smook, who is Vice-Chairman of the Cape Town press club, also believed that 'the media is often at the centre of conflict, acting as part of the problem and part of the solution'. Meeting journalists from Bosnia and Northern Ireland had emphasised for him, the 'factors of commonality in areas of conflict' -- xenophobia and a history of conflict 'where everyone has his own version'.
Smook hailed the work of South Africa's Truth and Reconcilation Commision which had helped his countrymen to 'look back so that they could look ahead'. 'Many of us fell into the trap of thinking that democracy was a magic wand. If you walk on our streets, our farms, our land, you will see that it is not so,' he continued. But the press was now more racially integrated and black and white journalists, increasingly working together, were realizing that 'we all love our country and want to do what's best for it'.
TV film producer Anders Kongshaug from Denmark, whose company makes programmes for news agencies and TV stations worldwide, said he had come to the media forum 'to find more arguments for making positive news stories'. Human interest stories from Scandanavia of different ethnic communities working together could give hope to areas of ethnic conflict, he believed. 'From the Scandanavian model, where there is peace, I have a lot to give, to show that there are other ways of doing things.'
Andrew Stallybrass & Michael Smith