How relevant is it to teach conflict and post-conflict reporting in war-prone countries?

This reflection is based on a panel discussion held at the the annual conference of the East Africa Communication Association (EACA), held from October 29 to 31, 2023 in Rwanda – Kigali. I was one of the panelists invited to talk about “Teaching Journalism in Conflict and Post-conflict period”. In this brief article, I want to give more emphasis on why journalism education during conflict and post-conflict periods is important, how, and what the media should do to play a positive role in peacebuilding and social cohesion among citizens specifically in times of conflict and post-conflict periods. I understand that journalism is a profession that can be practiced in every aspect of reality. And one can argue that it does not need to be classified based on issues (peace journalism, investigative journalism, conflict-sensitive journalism…). Such kinds of discussions have been going on in the academic fields. However, it is not my interest to step into the debate. Rather, I want to bring some points for discussion in the academic circle on journalism education specifically in times of conflict and post-conflict periods.

My reflections on the importance of teaching journalism during conflict and post-conflict periods have basically cruised on three points. The first one is the prevalence of conflict, war, insecurity, displacement, and other uncertainty across the globe, specifically in developing countries. Taking my country, Ethiopia, which is part of the Decoding Digital Media in African Regions of Conflict (DDMAC) project, as a case in point, it has been experiencing severe and fierce conflicts even recently after Prime Minister Abiy Mohammed was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Since he came to power, many people have been displaced, many conflicts and wars have erupted, hundreds of thousands have been killed, and a large number of people are currently displaced in many parts of the country. The recent two-year-long fierce fighting between the government forces and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) armed group, which was ended by an agreement in South Africa, resulted in a loss of one point two million people on both sides, dominantly from the TPLF side. Though this was ended by an agreement between the federal government and the regional government of Tigray, it is, however, difficult to say that positive peace is ensured both in the Tigray region and the neighboring Amhara and Afar areas which were the battlefront of the war.

While the grievances, stresses, and traumas of the people have not yet healed, the government has now entered another wave of war in the Amhara region in which many civilians are being killed. The government declared a state of emergency and continued in fierce fighting with the Amhara nationality forces – called Fano in the Amhara region. War is also going on in some parts of the Oromia region with what the government named Oromo Liberation Front (OLF)- Shenn. The on-and-off war between the government and this armed group has also resulted in loss of life and displaced so many innocent people. In general, war is happening everywhere in Ethiopia. In such country, the role of well-educated journalists, especially those who have a good understanding of conflict-sensitive reporting would become vital.

The second point is related to the professionalism and level of commitment of journalists in the country. The importance of professional journalism during conflict is quite clear, however, professionalism in the Ethiopian media is now in question. It is hard to see stories that are critical enough to bring diverse views. When the media deal with sensitive issues, such as conflicts and political controversies, journalists either entertain their polarized views based on ethnicity (Terje and Mulatu, 2020) or prefer to be silent because of fear of the pressures from the government (Mulatu, 2017). In fact, the latter on is also connected with self-censorship of the journalists’ trend in the country (Terje, 2012, Mulatu, 2021). While journalism practice is shifting in its direction, supports from different corner has not yet been seen. Journalists’ associations, which are increasing their number every time, have not yet contributed to the professional development of journalism. Specifically, when there is conflict, then the profession will be in trouble. Most of journalists’ associations are not in a position to work on freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and ensuring professional rights by advocating the professional role of journalism. What makes me surprise is while the number of media organizations, journalists’ associations, and journalism educational institutes has increased, the level of professionalism has paradoxically decreased. I reflected on my view in Jamlab online media three years ago. By considering overall trends in the country and the government’s shifts from democratic to dictatorship, I described that freedom of the press and the journalism practice would be deteriorating in the country. In a recent interviews with the Ethiopian newspaper The Reporter, I also reflected on the problem with the Ethiopian media, especially in the public media continuing significantly to be a voice of the state, and political parties ruling the government. All these ideas are briefly mentioned here just to show how the media situation and journalists’ level of commitment to practice the profession are declining. In such a situation, it is difficult for the large public to access accurate and objective information. While accurate, balanced, and complete information from diverse sources is very important during conflicts and in post-conflict periods, the media failed to report stories objectively and professionally. This has ultimately limited the potential interventions for different actors who want to contribute to building peace in the country.

The third point is related to the expansion of hate speech and misinformation in the media platforms in the country. It is quite clear that in connection with the expansion of the internet and digital communication platforms, the spread of hate speech and fake news has become prevalent. In our study in 2015 in connection with the 2015 general election in Ethiopia, the extent of hate speech that targets ethnic groups was so minimal. There were no dangerous speeches that targeted religion and religious people. All the few dangerous and hate speech were targeting the political parties and their members, especially the ruling party. One unique finding in that study was those dangerous speeches were posted by very few people who were living in the diaspora, or those using pseudo names, and most of them were posted on the comment sections. What is surprising today is that hate speech is sent from officials, influential people, even religious leaders, and other prominent people who have direct and indirect power to influence the large public.  I can say that many speakers do have many followers both online and offline. And the media play a big role in the dissemination of such hate speech as they sometimes peak some content from the social media posts.

At this point, it is fair to mention what would be the possible solution for such hate speech spread. It is common that hate speech will be prevalent during conflicts. In this brief reflection, I want to underline the importance of journalism education specifically on conflict and post-conflict reporting in the case of Ethiopia. It is my strong belief that well-educated journalists could at least attempt to report stories in a very professional way. As a matter of fact, many journalists this day are getting access to formal journalism education in BA, MA and even in PhD programs. In a recent study, at least 40 % of the sampled journalists in Ethiopian media are graduates of journalism and communication. I can say that this data can be a promising one comparing it with previous trends. Twenty-five years ago, there was no media training institution in the country. Now, around 24 universities are offering the courses. At least journalists know the ABCD of Journalism. However, all these universities do not have courses that focus on conflict-sensitive reporting and other courses that can help journalists play constructive and reconciliation roles.

The conflicts are going on everywhere in the country. The spread of hate speech, misinformation, and disinformation in the social and mainstream media also is significantly increasing. The cohesion and social co-existence are getting lost. And the media could not play their social construction role.

It is my concern that the curriculum should be developed or revised based on the information/ situation on the ground.  The curriculum is usually designed with the aim of filling the existing knowledge, skills, and other gaps in the community by providing good training for some groups of people. Hence, it is wise to provide well-crafted training for journalism students at journalism schools across the country. This would help. First, the journalism students will learn new ways of reporting conflict and post-conflict issues in a way to ring a solution for the problem. Secondly, it will help to have a standardized journalism education that can focus on the cultural context. Finally, we will have well-informed journalists about conflict, conflict reporting, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and the reconstruction role of the journalist. In this process, at least the media will minimize those non professional practices that have been done wittingly or unwittingly. The media also become stronger in challenging the socio-political environment.

Written by Dr. Mulatu Alemayehu Moges (Associate Professor at Oslomet University)

630 945 DDMAC
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