By Hannes Siebert

Can you separate the journalist as a person from the message that he or she sends? We are hopefully coming out of an era where those who control the media believe a journalist should stand in the no-man’s land of objectivity – always standing outside an event, never getting involved, never openly embracing one’s own and others’ humanity, remaining the passive observer without asserting one’s values. ‘Holding up a mirror to society’ – but showing little understanding of the larger context. I am not sure why the supporters of the ‘mirror’ argument prefer to ignore the shapes or angles of these mirrors. Working in different media contexts – community, national and international – it is difficult not to observe how the shape of one’s mirror affects the content of the message.

These shapes are determined by one’s worldview, one’s understanding of a specific situation/event or conflict, one’s capacity to capture the complete picture, one’s sense of responsibility towards the people one reports on or for and, very importantly, by the medium one uses – whether it is television, radio, print or the Internet.

We cannot escape the fact that the BIG O (objectivity) is always influenced by ongoing subjective decisions – decisions of what issues are important, who to interview, who NOT to interview, what facts to include in a story or to exclude, what quote to use, how we create the context of the story, our language, the pictures we use – all very subjective choices. It is within this context that media coverage of conflict takes on a very different shape for me, and cries out for a re-look at our conventional attitudes towards and reporting of conflicts.

Working in numerous conflicts on the continent over the last ten years, it has become very clear that we, the media, impact on conflict whether we intend to or not. We impact in spite of ourselves. A critical factor of this impact is our own perceived role and where we stand in a conflict. Michel Warschawski, a veteran journalist and media activist in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, uses the powerful metaphor of the border – the line of deepest conflict between two peoples, but also their greatest opportunity for reconciliation and relationship. He suggests that the journalist stand on this borderline of conflict – where the conflict is most intense. He also argues that we journalists can never stand outside a conflict and not be affected by it; nor can we claim that we don’t want to influence the conflict ( i.e. Òwe want to be objectiveÓ). This passive form of journalism also impacts on conflicts or policy making, whether or not we admit it.

We need to better understand our impact, and make better use of it. From our experience in and reporting on the South African communities of Crossroads and Thokoza, as well as conflicts in Sri Lanka, Burundi, Angola, Liberia and the Middle East, it is clear that our roles as communicators, reporters or filmmakers in conflict change, as the anatomy of the conflict changes. Just three short observations:

As almost all of these conflicts indicated, the media becomes the only medium of communication between warring/conflicting parties in the absence of formal or informal negotiations processes. We become the messenger between people who are unwilling to enter dialogue or meet with one another. We communicate the parties’ hatred, anger, fears and frustrations to each other – a dangerous enterprise unless, as we have tried to do, one uses this phase not just to vent emotions, but also to break down stereotypes, decode ‘hate-speech’, generate options to violent conflict and reflect the ordinary person’s desire and need for peace.

During the second phase of conflict – the negotiations process – the media becomes a channel for opinion and information sharing between the negotiators and their constituencies. Mediators and power-brokers often underestimate the value of communicating the process of negotiations to the constituencies involved. This often causes great frustration for the journalist. But more importantly, securing a free flow of accurate and constructive information at this stage can help ensure sustainable agreements and prevent leaders from manipulating such negotiations to secure their own power and position.

In the post-agreement phase of conflicts the media forms a critical part of monitoring such agreements – our conventional watchdog role – and provides a forum for ongoing dialogue. We also become a critical tool to help ensure long-term accountability from leaders to the people. The paradigm shift suggested here entails re-visiting media stereotypes and assumptions about our traditional roles (which may not be so homogenised as we think, if we look at media in different societies). It also suggests that, as journalists, we are ultimately accountable to our sources – the media subjects and consumers – within the context of universally accepted human rights and social democratic values.

Hannes Siebert is Director of the Media Peace Centre and

Executive Producer at Ubuntu TV and Film Productions,

Cape Town.

This post was published in December 1998


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