GENEVA, Switzerland, 12 December 2003
At a conference yesterday in the World Forum on Communication Rights, a parallel forum to the official World Summit on the Information Society, speakers from the United States, Colombia, and a Kenyan technologist working in Rwanda took up the theme of how war situations deny communities the right to communicate and how citizens can and are responding to break the silence.
The session that was convened by APC and hosted by Karen Banks (APC, London) and Ralf Bendrath (German WSIS Coordination Group, Berlin).
The first victim of war is the truth, so goes an old proverb. Communication propaganda has been used throughout history as a means of justifying military aggression and mass killings — from the middle ages to the genocide in Rwanda to the war in Iraq. But communication — and in particular grassroots network-driven communication — can also be a force for peace building and conflict resolution. It is precisely for this reason that the first thing rulers on the road to war deny are people’s right to communicate freely — be it by censorship, manipulation, restricting access to the means of communication or otherwise — in the interests of national security.
This session discussed recent examples of communication rights and wrongs in the context of war and peace. It assessed military attempts to wage information warfare and analysed the role of mass media in framing and amplifying military conflicts. It also discussed how people were denied their right to communicate in these circumstances, and how they resisted and built up new forms of independent media and communication channels for peace activism and peaceful communication.
Elvira Claßen, a media scientist and part of the Research Group on the Information Society and Security Policy from Germany looked at how the struggle for media dominance has converted the media into yet another war zone, as both sides want the battle to impose their own interpretation of “reality”. Asking how we can prevent this domination she suggested alternatives such as the drafting and renewing of international convention rules for the global infospace and the strengthening of anti-war critiques in the media. She told the audience that it is crucial to guarantee the free flow of information.
Danny Schechter, author of “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Destruction” and a journalist in the US for over thirty years, talked about the shift of power from public to private in the media. He criticised network media in the US for being top-down, centralised, and contentrated, as well as unified around a market logic. Fifty years ago, he said, fifty media companies dominated the media sector in the US. Now there are less than seven.
Danny also criticised the merger of the ‘news biz’ with ‘show biz’, so that story-telling has replaced the role of investigative journalism in the US. The Iraq invasion this year was reported as a sports event – coverage was ahistorical, deculturalised, inorder to be easily digestible to the general public. The goal of any government engaging in ‘perception management’ he said is not only to put out their own view but to deny others the opportunity to put out an opposing view.
He said that progressives in the US in general have the means of news production however they still lack the means of distribution. He also highlighted a current attempt to stifle alternative news stories here in the WSIS, where thousands of copies of the onsite newspaper ‘Terra Viva’ produced by progressive news agency IPS, have been snapped up and removed by Tunisian attendees suspected to be part of their country’s official delegation. Terra Viva has been carrying articles critical of the human rights record of the Tunisian government, hosts of the continuation in WSIS 2005.
Luis Fernando Baron of CINEP, Colombia, outlined some of the results of an investigation carried out on war and peace and communication in Colombia. The investigation found that the war is considered the most significant factor determining the present and the future in Colombia. TV and radio reinforce this discourse, simplifying the war in black-and-white terms, portraying people as victims or victimisers and political figures as either saviours or arch-villains. This, says Luis, is generating a general climate of desperation, fear and uncertainty.
Responding to Luis’ call to break this cycle of fear, Olga Gutierrez, representative of CRIS Colombia, offered suggestions for creating peace. Violence strikes communities dumb she said, while peace requires a dialogue.
Among CRIS Colombia recommendations are the need to build the public visibility of community organisations, to protect media installations and rural telecentres from attack, to value dissent (which is often branded as ‘unpatriotic’), to move opinion programming on TV from its typical post-midnight slot to an earlier and more visible hour, and to involve citizens in the resolution of the conflict (usually restricted to the military, guerrillas and the government).
Denise Odhiambo (ICT Telecenters for Reconciliation, Education, and Development in Rwanda) outlined how Kenyan technologists are helping young Rwandans affected by the 1994-5 genocide to gain computer skills that will help them get jobs and at the same promote peace. People are attracted to the telecentre, regardless of their ethnicity.
Clemencia Rodriguez, a Colombian academic working at the University of Oklahoma is investigating the role that citizen-led media can have in reconciling and rebuilding war-ravaged communities. Violence breaks the threads that constitute the social fabric of a society, she said, but community media can reconstitute some of those threads. She presented tangible examples including a Rwandan at a refugee camp in Tanzania who, having watched a video of his neighbour back in his hometown, decided to return after this proof that those who had already gone back had not actually been killed as he and his family believed.