The role of media in reconciliation

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BY LILLIAN ODERA

“The job of reporting on any conflict can influence the situation in many ways. Media coverage can strongly influence how the parties, both inside and outside, relate to a conflict and the ‘players’ within it by choice of stories that are covered or omitted, the sources used, and the stand that is taken toward ethical reporting.”

These words by Luc Reychler and Thania Paffenholz in the book Peace-Building well position the stake for Kenya as she tries to heal wounds inflicted in just one month of chaos after the disputed 2007 general election.

Simply put, the media or the Fourth Estate as they are referred to, have the most critical decisions when it comes to influencing public perception and opinions. That is why I remain an ardent advocate of giving the Kenyan politician a partial or total black-out from the headlines.

Why do I say this? It is an open secret that the root cause of ethnic divide in Kenya is political immaturity. The political folk have capitalised on tribal numbers to deeply polarize the country into near communal cocoons. I know others will argue against this on the basis of colonial machinations.

Without fear of intimidation, 2007 changed the face of news coverage and current affairs debate for ever. The days journalists censored the use of ‘tribal names’ when covering news on conflict are long gone. Editors and decision makers in newsrooms were faced with a hyena and goat scenario where conscience was haunted by whether to remain patriotic or maintain ethical values.

The minute by minute relay of election results by various media stations was a welcome effort, until events took an unexpected turn. Thirty days of violence that threatened to tear the country into pieces – rather, it did, albeit, temporarily. What followed was a government imposed ban on live broadcasts.

There have been arguments in certain quarters that ethnicity played itself squarely in the coverage of the elections and that could have partially contributed to the crisis since the relay of conflicting results slowly but gradually heightened the anxiety of millions of media consumers across the nation.

While that remains a matter of hypothetical debate, it is also important to note that despite all, the Kenyan media combined forces to embark on a nationwide healing campaign. And in time, voices of reason began to prevail through the numerous peace messages relayed through radio, television, newspapers and the internet.
 
It is time that society recognised the role of the media as an independent forum for Kenyans to heal. In the same breath, the media needs to understand that lessons learnt in the past have totally shifted society’s expectation of the media as an avenue for responsible quest for democratisation and development.

The media, being an important tool for dialogue and reconciliation, needs to tailor make programmes geared towards healing the society. Unless the Kenyan media is bold enough to tell it as it is, the efforts by the just constituted Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission will be like applying grease on a metal rod that has been eaten by rust for one hundred years.

The media in Kenya has had its fair share of criticism when it comes to angling of stories related to conflict. It will be cowardice for all stakeholders in development to criticise journalists without taking a critical look at our individual roles in fanning ethnic hatred.

In times of upheaval, disorder and uncertainty, people’s need for reliable information is especially great – their ability to access provisions, and sometimes their personal safety and very survival, may depend on it. However, they tend to regard much of the information available to them through the media as propaganda.

The Holy Bible says: “Remove the spec in your eyes before attempting to remove a log in your neighbor’s eyes”. There are specs in our instruments and institutions of governance that need to be addressed for us to move forward as a nation. This requires frank talk on issues of land adjudication, corruption, governance and other post-independence injustices. Only then will the vulnerable Kenyan who took up arms to slash another’s throat find solace and true healing.

Respecting the media’s independence and recognizing the fundamental right of press freedom, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are essential for transparency and the rule of law.

The approach in developing these media interventions is multi-pronged. It involves :

•    targeting the issues and themes where there is the most need for objective, balanced and credible information (peace process, negotiations, cease-fire, transitional issues, justice, governance, role of armed groups, etc..)
•    highlighting positive examples of tolerance, collaboration, conflict resolution and reconciliation, by seeking out real life stories of people and local groups who are working for positive change and transforming conflicts.
•    promoting the participation of a wide diversity of viewpoints and perspectives, from politicians to rebel leaders to women’s groups, children and ordinary citizens, with the aim of seeking common ground on all possible levels ;
•    tackling these objectives with a multi-ethnic team of media professionals, whose unity and teamwork symbolizes the sense of tolerance and understanding.

As the Unesco Director Genaral Koïchiro Matsuura said on an occasion to mark the World Press Freedom day, ‘A free press is not a luxury that can wait until better times; rather, it is part of the very process through which those better times are achieved”.

(The writer is a media consultant with Lisha Communication Services – [email protected])

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