Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu greets his caller, Prince
Turki Ibn Talal from Saudi Arabia. In a rather unusual public
exchange between an Israeli prime minister and callers from Saudi
Arabia, Egypt, the West Bank and elsewhere, Netanyahu responded to
questions about his leadership, Israel's expansionist policies and
Israel's intentions in the region.
This program aired on the pan-Arab satellite station Orbit, and
represented the first time any Israeli prime minister has spoken on
Arab television directly to Arab viewers. Where diplomacy has not
even begun to open formal relations between Saudi Arabia and
Israel, innovative media was able to break new ground and, in this
case, old taboos. Once this now top-rated program broke the ice,
the format was then imitated by the official Egyptian television,
which ignored the syndicate-imposed restrictions on its journalists
(and many others in the Arab world) regarding travel to and contact
with Israel. With or without direct contact, the media can provide
an alternative, creative venue for exploring the relationship
between peoples and countries and ensure that political issues
continue to be aired and debated.
News media operates according to a widely accepted and strong code
of conduct, particularly the media in Western democracies.
According to this code, journalists seek to uphold principles of
independence, impartiality, truth and accuracy, with the primary
aim to inform and, thereby, empower people to form their own
It must be recognized, however, that this is not always the case.
Especially in times of conflict, "truth" and "bias" can become
muddled. In addition, the media in many parts of the world are
operating by different rules. In fact, a great majority of the
media in the developing world is restricted by press laws and
operates under government scrutiny. Most of the media in the Arab
world is state-subsidized, with editors serving at the behest of
the state. Undeniably, different degrees of journalistic freedom
exist from state to state, ranging from airing rather diverse
viewpoints, on the one hand, to quite restricted coverage, on the
other. Even in the best of circumstances and regardless of
nationality, reporters covering conflict situations - especially
when one's own state is involved - can face many challenges and
bias, intended or unintended, is often expressed.
As Johannes Botes of George Mason University notes, news tends to
"dramatize conflicts by focusing on irreconcilable differences
between the parties, extreme positions and inflammatory statements,
violent or threatening acts, and win-or-lose outcomes." This kind
of reporting, while expedient and fulfilling the need to be
"newsworthy," can have the effect of exacerbating a conflict
Responsible, professional journalism can, however, have a positive
impact and maintain its informative and entertainment value. "Good
reporting and news analysis should look beyond stated positions
toward the interest and needs of the parties," argues Botes.
"Reporters and commentators can put a conflict in historical and
social perspective, deepening everyone's understanding of it. They
can call attention to the dangers of escalation and to
opportunities of settlement that the parties may not have
recognized. And they can become part of an "early warning system"
that identifies the underground tremors of impending conflict."1
And, like the face-to-face encounters aired on Orbit, they can
serve the important purpose of bringing people in contact with one
another to dispel myths and stereotypes that are easily perpetuated
among people who have little or no contact.
A historic use of the media as a forum for dialogue was a CBS
broadcast in 1977. In this program, Walter Cronkite asked Egyptian
President Anwar Sadat if he would come to Jerusalem to meet Israeli
Prime Minister Menachem Begin face-to-face. Sadat said he would,
and Begin welcomed the visit. This was the first step toward the
peace agreement reached two years later. Through this innovative
program, in which the two leaders never spoke directly to each
other, the media played a pivotal role in positively shifting
relations between the two countries.
Several international organizations, notably Internews, the Media
Peace Center in South Africa, and Search for Common Ground, are
working with local partners worldwide to produce television, radio
and print products that draw on the strengths of professional media
and conflict resolution. Their efforts demonstrate some of the
commonalities that exist between reporters in times of conflict and
those concerned with peace-building in their societies. Robert
Manoff, head of New York University's Center for War, Peace, and
the News Media, enumerates 24 possible initiatives that the media
could undertake in conflict situations. The Conflict Management
Group (CMG), another NGO addressing this issue, has worked with
journalists to design "Guidelines for Journalists Covering Ethnic
Conflicts." These guidelines strengthen the role and mandate of
journalists rather than contradict them. Perhaps obvious, but not
always applied, CMG's guidelines call for covering each side of the
conflict, presenting people as individuals rather than as
representatives of groups, providing audiences with a broader
context, and focusing on processes and not just "events."
Journalism and Conflict Resolution
Today, there are numerous examples of media that keep the dialogue
of differences and similarities continuing in different ways. These
are not always gestures that move nations, as did the Walter
Cronkite broadcast in 1977, but they bring a human face to
conflicts that are drained of their humanity. For example,
Vis-à-Vis, an Internews-sponsored television series aired in
the US on public broadcasting stations, uses new technology to air
real-time video dialogue between guests. A recent show featured
American and Iranian high-school teachers interacting with each
other in this way. The program contributed to breaking down
stereotypes and overcoming communication barriers between two
cultures that have had practically no positive contact in almost 20
Many assessments of the news media's role in conflicts, of which
those of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict are
perhaps the most comprehensive, call on journalists and media
organizations to be responsible in their coverage of conflicts, to
promote understanding, and to give attention to efforts to defuse
and resolve violent conflicts. While upholding professional
standards, it is not outside of the journalist's mandate to go
beyond the descriptive to engage in the search for solutions and
agreement to a conflict situation. Since 1995, the Voice of America
(VOA) has been producing a series of television programs that could
be termed "solutions journalism." VOA has sought to marry good
journalism with the theories, principles and practice of conflict
resolution. The programs, numbering more than 100, featured stories
on such topics as the stalemate between Armenia and Azerbaijan,
environmental disputes in the Pacific Northwest, and reconciliation
projects in Bosnia. One reporter involved in some of VOA's programs
initially expected not to find much beyond the conflict, but was
later surprised to find a great deal of common ground.
While international media organizations have experimented with this
new form, so too have local media in various parts of the world.
Two examples of these, working with Search for Common Ground, can
be found in Burundi and Bosnia.
Rwanda and Burundi
During the horrendous massacres in Rwanda in 1994, the passionate
divide between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis was mirrored in, and fueled
by, its local media. Many radio, television and newspapers are
owned and operated by distinctive ethnic and political groups, and
their news reporting tends to lend little credence to the validity
of the other side. The Hutu-run Radio Mille Collines was notorious
for inciting passions against Tutsis and for deepening the ethnic
divide. Such reporting can not only be credited with a share of
responsibility in the Rwandan genocide, but also renders
reconciliation difficult to achieve.
Across the border from Rwanda in Burundi, where almost the same
ethnic mix exists, a similar phenomenon was taking place. The
media, which is ethnically distinct, similarly covers developments
through ethnocentric lenses. Several programs, however, are
breaking the mold and also appear to be capturing the hearts and
minds of the people. One example - Studio Ijambo (Kirundi for "wise
words") - is proving to be one of the most trusted sources of
information (and now entertainment) both domestically and
internationally. It fulfills its aim of providing ethnic-neutral
coverage of events by teaming Hutu and Tutsi journalists together.
Studio Ijambo also produces a popular soap opera, broadcast by
Radio Nationale Television au Burundi, which is reportedly followed
by a majority of the population. In Our Neighbors, Ourselves, two
neighboring families - one Hutu, the other Tutsi - interact with
each other in a daily exploration of the reality of coexisting in a
multicultural society. Written, performed and produced by a
completely mixed staff of Hutus and Tutsis, the show itself is a
model of reconciliation.
Alexis Sinduhije, one of the journalists with Studio Ijambo,
outlines three reasons for the studio's success. One is the
leadership, which rigorously avoided taking sides in the conflict.
Second is the Burundi journalists who remained neutral in their
reporting and uphold professional journalistic standards. And third
is simply the infrastructure that the journalists had at their
disposal - from vehicles to advanced communications - which enabled
them to be on the same footing as their international
A similar dynamic can be seen in the more developed and educated
society of the former Yugoslavia, particularly Bosnia, where a once
rather integrated society is now emerging from four years of
self-destruction and ethnic cleansing. There, too, elements of the
local media became agents of ethnically divided political parties
and militarized forces by helping to inflame people's passions,
serving in effect to justify their inhumanity toward one another.
At the same time, the ethnically mixed staff of Oslobodenje
newspaper continued to offer even-handed reporting from Sarajevo
throughout the civil war. Thus, examples of local media as both
agents of conflict and agents of reconciliation existed during the
height of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In an area where television is the most influential medium, a new
series is now emerging that highlights the commonalities that
people in Bosnia share, no matter what their background. Breaking
the mold of traditional programming that presents issues in an
adversarial way, Mimo Vas (Bosnian for "life passing by") seeks to
bring people together. In this series, as in the ongoing radio talk
show, Resolutions Radio, Bosnians of all ethnic groups see how
people live their lives, what they share in common, and how the
difficulties caused by conflict can be overcome. The program
acknowledges that true reconciliation needs to take place on an
individual level, not only between leaders and states. The media,
therefore, is building a bridge between the people and their
leaders - a noteworthy accomplishment in a society where people
feel a great sense of disenfranchisement after such a devastating
Both the professional conduct of the media, particularly in times
of conflict, and the media that contributes to informing people or
illustrating means of resolution can be developed in the Middle
The politics of the Middle East appear to be playing out on a
public stage. One cannot deny the importance of the media in
conveying both the realities of these developments and the
possibilities for resolution that exist, some of which are being
exploited, others yet to be explored. The media can play a useful
role in this region by helping to elucidate both the problems and
possible paths to their resolution.
1. Johannes Botes, "Journalism and Conflict Resolution," Media
Development 43 (Winter 1996), p. 9.
2. Alexis Sinduhije, Ijambo: "Speaking Truth" amidst Genocide, the
Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy,
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Discussion Paper
D-30, July 1998.
Gordon Adam, " Peace Building through the Media," Crosslines Global
Report, 1997, pp. 89-91.
Bruce Allen & Steven Wilkinson, Guidelines for Journalists
Covering Ethnic Conflict, Working Papers Series for the Ethnic
Conflict Management in the Former Soviet Union of the Conflict
Management Group, Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 1994.
Johannes Botes, "Journalism and Conflict Resolution," Media
Development, Vol. XLIII, April 1996, pp. 6-9.
Elise Boulding, "Roles for NGOs in Reducing or Preventing
Violence," Transnational Associations, 1997, pp. 317-327.
Nik Bowing, "Media Coverage: Help or Hindrance in Conflict
Prevention?" (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Commission on Preventing
Deadly Conflict, 1997).
Carnegie Commission on Preventive Conflict, Preventing Deadly
Conflict: Final Report (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Commission on
Preventing Deadly Conflict, 1997).
Conflict Prevention Newsletter, the European Platform for Conflict
Prevention and Transformation, Volume 1/Number 2, June 1998.
Tom Gjelten, Professionalism in War Reporting: A Correspondent's
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Steve Livingston, Clarifying the CNN Effect: An Examination of
Media Effects According to Type of Military Intervention, the Joan
Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy, Research
Paper R-18, Cambridge, MA, June 1997.
London International Research Exchange, Journalists at War: Media
Coverage of Post-Cold War Conflicts" (available on the Internet at
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Yearbook, 1998), pp. 185-204.
Colleen Roach (editor), Communication and Culture in War and Peace,
SAGE Publications, CA, 1993.
Richard E. Rubenstein, Frameworks for Interpreting Conflict: A
Handbook for Journalists, ICAR report #2, Fairfax, VA, 1994.
Alexis Sinduhije, Ijambo: "Speaking Truth" amidst Genocide, the
Joan Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy,
Harvard University, Discussion Paper D-30, Cambridge, MA, July
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Series for the Ethnic Conflict Management in the Former Soviet
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