„Peace is everybody’s business“, said Dr. Balazs Kovacs, country director of forumZFD in the Philippines, at the opening of the conference. Thus it made sense that the event brought together participants with all kinds of expertise, ranging from media practitioners to international researchers as well as teachers and students from the field of communication studies. The two-day exchange in Davao enabled an in-depth debate on the role of media in conflicts. As Dr. Kovacs put it: „conflict-sensitive journalism is good journalism, and we all need more of that.“
In his opening remarks, Reverend Fr. Joel E. Tabora, President of the Ateneo de Davao University which hosted the event, pointed to the numerous conflicts worldwide. He called particularly on the journalists in the audience to contribute to a more peaceful future through conflict-sensitive and multi-perspective reporting. “In times when heads of states such as US-President Donald Trump discredit the media as ‘the enemy of the people’ or ‘fake news,’ professional journalism is needed more than ever,” said Reverend Tabora.
Shed light rather than heat
The 300 participants from South East Asia, Europe and the Middle East discussed their experience with and ideas on conflict-sensitive journalism (CSJ), a field in which forumZFD has built up considerable expertise. The approach strives for a media coverage that gives voices to all sides of the story, particularly in situations of conflict. Journalists need to critically reflect on their own roles as well as on dominant narratives in society, which may be prejudiced. Using the CSJ-toolbox, the media can help to mitigate tensions instead of deepening social division through one-sided or sensationalized reporting.
Antonia Koop, co-founder and long-standing CEO of the international media network PECOJON (The Peace & Conflict Journalism Network), summed up the approach in her keynote speech as follows: “Conflict-sensitive journalism is a toolbox that helps media practitioners deal with complexity. The idea is not to be a peace advocate, but to deliver high quality reporting on conflicts, crises and wars. The aim is to allow people to make informed choices, thereby enabling democratic processes.”
forumZFD has been promoting conflict-sensitive journalism in the Philippines for many years now. Together with PECOJON and the Media Educators of Mindanao (MEM) forumZFD offers training and certification for teachers working in the higher education system. The teachers then pass on their knowledge to their students. A teaching guide which was developed specifically for this purpose assists them in their efforts. MEM also advocates for the topic to become a permanent element in the curricula. With success: Teachers in 17 higher education institutions have already undergone training in Conflict Sensitive Journalism and some of them have integrated what they learned in their respective curricula.
Another project that demonstrates how conflict-sensitive reporting can prevent violence and ease tensions is the radio program “The Voice of Peace” in Cotabato City, located in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in southern Philippines. A peace agreement between Muslim rebel groups and the Philippine government allowed for the establishment of the autonomous region – a sign of hope after decades of civil war. Since 2013 and with the support of forumZFD, the Kutawato Multimedia Network produces a weekly one-hour radio program that reaches remote rural areas in the region. The program reports on the latest developments of the peace process and provides a platform to discuss listeners’ concerns. The diverse and nuanced coverage contributes to deescalating the conflict and facilitates a constructive dialogue.
Questioning biases and preconceptions
At the conference on conflict-sensitive journalism in Davao, several experienced media practitioners from the Philippines talked about the challenge of putting theory into practice. Reporter Julie Alipala for instance, who regularly covers human rights abuses for the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), explained how difficult it often is to get reliable information. “Yet it is worth the effort,” said Alipala, “because conflicts are not just numbers of war casualties. Behind these numbers, there are stories of ordinary people. These are the stories that we need to tell.”
However, conflict-sensitive journalism is not only relevant in the context of war and armed violence. In Europe and in Germany, the media likewise have a responsibility to deal with polarizing issues in a diligent manner, argued journalism teacher Sigrun Rottmann in her keynote speech. Instead of adding fuel to the fire, media practitioners should question their own biases and preconceptions. According to Rottmann, there is a considerable backlog in the German media landscape: „conflict-sensitive journalism is still a niche subject in Germany, in terms of academic research and teaching as well as in terms of practice.”
Positive feedback from participants
The many students in the audience were inspired by the conference, as showed the feedback at the end. A future journalist said: „During the conference I have learned how communication shapes the perception of people and that the media have to be very careful not to give false impressions. I think conflict-sensitive journalism can be a very fruitful approach in this regard.” Another Davao student who currently majors in Filipino languages shared: “I want to become a teacher and educate my students in media literacy – particularly on social media platforms it is crucial to distinguish fake from facts.”
The organizing team from forumZFD saw their expectations exceeded by the conference. Project manager Maya Vandenbroeck concluded: “The CSJ Conference was a great reminder that good journalism helps deescalate conflict because it helps make readers understand not just the what, where, and when of a conflict but digs deeper to draw out overlapping and interconnected causes, effects, implications, motives, interests, needs, perceptions of the individuals and groups engaged in the conflict. News that is accurate, complete, and impartial empowers people to resolve conflicts through peaceful, constructive, and creative means – without the military having to intervene with force.”
“On Conflict-Sensitive Journalism – An International Academic Conference” was held at the Ateneo de Davao University from 10 to 11 February 2019.
The conference was a joint initiative by forumZFD, PECOJON (The Peace & Conflict Journalism Network, MEM (Media Educators of Mindanao Inc), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication (AIJC), and the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC). The researches that were presented at the Conference will undergo a peer review process and the selected ones will be published in Media Asia.
The Conference was made possible through funding of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.