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Interview
Last Updated: 09/29/2006
Media's Role in Peace and War
Ginny Collins, Marcel Fomotar, and Julia Odumuyiwa

The following is an interview with Canadian media veteran Keith Spicer. Spicer is a former editor of the Ottawa Citizen and former chairman of Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory body. He has also worked in print and broadcast journalism at various news outlets in Canada and written five books. Currently, Spicer lives in Paris and lends his journalistic expertise to organizations and academic institutions dealing with the media. Recently, he helped develop the new Media, Conflict and Peace Program at the United Nations affiliated University for Peace in Costa Rica. He has been labeled by academics as one of the pioneers in the emerging field that links peace studies to the media.

Spicer sat down with reporters from the Peace and Conflict Monitor this month to share his opinions on the future of conflict reporting, the risks that young journalists are taking and how media can be used as a tool for predicting violence and promoting peace.

Peace and Conflict Monitor

The idea of linking peace theories and peace building with the media has been slowly emerging over the past few years. Can you explain how this came to be?

Spicer

The media have always played a major role in conflict and peace; it is only in the last ten years that the academic world and the journalistic world have recognized these theories. Why ten years ago? Because in that time we had the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian war which were the two defining events that triggered interest in this area and got a lot of people talking about how the media influences conflict. Those were what got me interested in the topic and got me writing about it.

What I didn’t realize was that this was considered a new subject. I thought everybody had thought of the concept of ideas being the main trigger for war and peace. UNESCO states in its constitution that ‘wars begin in the minds of men and it is in the minds of men that we must build the defenses of peace’. It is quite evident. So evident that it is like the air we breathe, no one can see it and it’s not really listed as one of the factors that keep us alive.

The articles I wrote were among the first written about it, but after this time, the topic really began to explode and five years later there were already several organizations and NGOs set up to consider this topic. There were also a series of courses in training journalists in the ethics of war reporting. Now this discipline is spiraling into something more common and far more people are getting interested in the field. The University for Peace is now offering, for the first time at any level, an academic education on Media, Conflict and Peace.

Peace and Conflict Monitor

You mentioned that some journalists are now being trained in the ethics of war reporting. Can you tell us what you think about conflict reporting is being done today and how these reporters can do their jobs more responsibly?

Spicer

Something that really makes conflict reporting today different from what it was in the past is technology. What we are getting now is front line reporting that is increasingly dangerous. The news media are sending freelance young people out to cover wars up close with a camera and telephone and internet connection and they are getting killed. It’s just a terrible, very dangerous time to be an international journalist.

What I would like to see is broader coverage that examines the impact of war on people and their families, not just cover the warlords and the militias and the bad guys. You also have to look at the economic, social and cultural impacts of war. This takes a very responsible, thorough approach to news reporting that you don’t see in the mainstream press. The goal of the press now is to seize the attention of viewers by showing violence. Turn on CNN and what you will get is the latest body count from Baghdad. That’s not reporting. I would like to see people digging into the fundamental causes of war and educating people of the differences between cultural groups and why they hate each other. We need people to reflect on the role of Saddam Hussein and why he seized power and stayed in power and why the rest of the region would be reassured to see some stabilization in Iraq. I don’t see the most valuable thing in news reporting which is perspective. This will bring wars to a close more quickly because it is the real way of promoting peace - by showing the horrors of war.

Peace and Conflict Monitor

Why aren’t we seeing this now?

Spicer

The reason we’re not seeing this is that they’re sending so many of the young, inexperienced reporters into the field because, to be quite ruthless about it, they are considered dispensable and not valuable by their networks. Since reporters and especially photographers have to get right up close to get the good pictures, you’ll find the networks sending more and more freelance people because they don’t want to risk sending their senior people. It is horrifying to say that, but it’s the reality. There are so many young reporters out there hoping to make a name. I think that the main news organizations should give the young reporters and camera people the same insurance, flack jackets, guards and protection that they would give to their senior people. That’s certainly not the case right now.

Peace and Conflict Monitor

If you say that it’s not worth the risk to get the good pictures, do you believe that these young people are dying in vain?

Spicer

There’s some truth in that. Whether it’s in vain is too soon to say because the situation is still in evolution. I think if we can make reforms to better protect these people and encourage safer and more thorough reporting, we’ll be in a better place. If they keep killing off young people and nothing changes, of course they will have died in vain. If lessons are learned and corrections are made so that we don’t have these constant deaths, then it will have been for a purpose. If you make these changes, you’ve made a little bit of progress.

Peace and Conflict Monitor

So far, you’ve talked mostly about the role of the media during a conflict but can the media be used as a tool to prevent conflict or even help create peace? How so?

Spicer

In these ethno cultural wars (Bosnia, Rwanda), the media played a central and vicious role in promoting those wars because the tools of the media were taken over by bloodthirsty thugs. In the Bosnian war, the Serbian and Croatian presidents bullied their own media, killed journalists and prevented the press from reporting truthfully. They encouraged hate campaigns against ethnic groups. In the Rwandan genocide, a radio station called Radio Milles Collines issued constant propaganda to the public which told them that the Tutsis were insects and subhuman. What the media could be doing would be to set up an early warning system that identifies developing wars or war hysteria. I don’t see why the journalist associations of each country could not organize themselves nationally, then internationally, to set up a system where they would report to the UN Security Council of dangerous situations developing in the media. Right now, the UN Security Council sits back and waits for people to get killed, it’s not enough. We can prevent wars if we had well publicized information coming from independent journalists. I think this would be an excellent project to come out of what’s being learned in this emerging field linking media with conflict and peace studies.

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