An Overview of Media Development and Post-Conflict Transition
An Overview of Media Development and Post-Conflict Transition
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Speech / Global 20+ minutes

An Overview of Media Development and Post-Conflict Transition

Presented in abbreviated form on 3 April 2009, at the Dialogue Forum, "The Role of the Media in Conflict Prevention", an initiative of Madariaga College of Europe Foundation and Folke Bernadotte Academy with the support of the Czech Presidency, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO) and the Bonn Network.

If you look at media-related projects in post-conflict situations in recent decades -- though you can go back much further, of course, as this is not a new field -- there appear to be lots of practical lessons learned, but they often seem specific to one theatre and at best only partially transferable to others.

The good thing is that few can doubt the importance of media development in an overall post-conflict package these days. After the horrific role played by Radio Mille Collines in driving the Rwandan genocide through its hate propaganda, there is a widespread understanding that irresponsible media can help tear apart a fragile society. And after success stories like the UN-sponsored Radio Okapi, which has been helping to foster a feeling of national unity in the shattered Democratic Republic of the Congo, there is a growing awareness that responsible media can help repair and even strengthen a post-conflict society.

The role media play in conflict resolution on a theoretical level is also quite clear. Groups deeply involved in conflict are rarely as monolithic and unified behind continued fighting as their leaderships would have us believe. The fractures and fissures of rival parties form splinters that can rearrange into new alliances that represent, if not exactly ever a middle ground, then at least new ground, where pro-resolution sentiments become possible. But the internal complexity of a group involved in a conflict is unlikely to emerge in a completely polarised media environment. The wider the public availability of diverse viewpoints, the greater the opportunity for competing voices to realise what they have in common.

Still, as several speakers at a one-day UN-sponsored conference on "Media and Communications in Peacebuilding" in December 2008 noted, there is some way to go for the idea of media development as a sector of conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction. Despite its seemingly broad international acceptance and the UN's willingness to support such meetings, the UN Peacebuilding Commission itself has no dedicated expert staff assigned to the issue. This suggests a lack of truly strategic thinking about media development as an integrated part of an international approach.

Media development NGOs and their funders, meanwhile, have been engaged in a lively discussion about what works on the ground and what doesn't. Given the difficulty of demonstrating the quantifiable impact of any specific media project on society, a significant amount of NGO hucksterism pervades the whole enterprise. Where governments and international organisations actually spend money thus varies hugely, as does the amount for any one project, from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Six Fields of Media Development

Overall, we can divide the field of post-conflict media development work into six broad categories, each of which has its rationale but which also begs various questions and includes inevitable trade-offs:

  1. Support for the legal framework: There must be laws and a functioning legal system to allow free media to operate, but in a post-conflict environment, laws on hate speech need to be firmly in place as well. There is a tension between and within media development groups about the relative strength of each, with Americans generally stronger on freedom of speech side and Europeans stronger on protections against hate speech.

    The state and other "violence providers" in a post-conflict situation will often have deep-seated fears about free speech, and though most of their attempts to regulate the media will be plain censorship designed to bolster their political position, not all of their concerns can be dismissed out of hand. In the context of mass unrest and recent state breakdown, the population has an interest in preventing false alarms of "fire!" in the crowded theatre of a scarred society. And even stable functioning democracies have laws against reporting troop movements and the like, not to mention anti-defamation legislation. In short, media freedom has to be balanced with media responsibility.

    To deal with these various issues surrounding the reasonable limits of free speech in post-conflict situations, self-regulating media bodies have been established and have managed to take much of the load in some countries, but this course hasn't worked in others. Tellingly, it seems to be countries that have more recent experience with something approximating rule of law that do better at self-regulation without resort to the courts. Of course, however, self-regulation can sometimes be even more stifling than official censorship, as unclear limits mean journalists prefer to play it safe, erring on the side of caution.

    One interesting example of a media regulation body with mixed results and perhaps some useful lessons was the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Haute Autorite des Medias, HAM, mandated to encourage journalistic integrity, pluralism, neutrality and impartiality. As media freedom groups like Article 19 have noted, HAM was supposed to be an independent body, and it was able to impose sanctions against both government and opposition media. But given the partisan media in the DRC, this was very hard to do, especially during election campaigns. Its critics were numerous, and in 2007, the information minister refused to even acknowledge its existence. In January 2009, HAM was replaced by a new 15-member body under the direct supervision of Parliament.

    In general, the legal environment for commercial media must be clear, and if any media are connected to the state, their ultimate control must be out of the hands of politicians. Easier said than done.

    Still, on all these legal issues, teams of experts can go to post-conflict zones and advise all relevant parties, helping to establish everything from constitutional safeguards for free speech to creating fair libel law.
  2. Support for professional organisations of journalists: Journalist trade unions and similar professional organisations are essential for a healthy media environment. By having an instrument for collective negotiations over pay and working conditions, journalists can improve their standing, bringing a new sense of professionalism to the craft. In many post-conflict societies those taking up journalism are in a very low-paid game only until something better comes along -- and highly susceptible to bribes in the meantime. By turning journalism into a career path with long-term prospects, journalists take their reputation more seriously and stay longer in the occupation, improving their skills as they go.

    Journalist unions can also perform important additional functions that encourage professionalisation, including setting ethical codes and corresponding censure mechanisms for members, serving as focal points for journalism training, and encouraging journalist safety through instruction of -- and publicising cases of abuse against -- their members.
  3. Economic support for media outlets: How can media outlets afford to operate in a devastated society where traditional revenue streams of subscriptions and advertising are either severely constrained or impossible? Lots of money flooded into the Balkans, for example, after the war in various ways propping up media outlets there. But it was not sustainable in the long term, and we see similar problems in other places today.

    Look at the debate now about what to do with the hugely successful UN/NGO hybrid Radio Okapi in the DRC. Its national network cannot keep going as it is without UN support, but it's a very useful service, so everyone hopes it has a future even when the UN scales down. Nor is Okapi alone in the dilemma of economic sustainability. The US government funds Star Radio in Liberia, without a long-term business plan, so it theoretically could be switched off after a budget debate in Washington at pretty much any time. Visit the website today and the first thing you'll notice is a big thank you to named funders, with a reminder that US donations are tax deductable.

    Encouraging sustainability, which is a long-term process, often starts locally with very small steps. One of the biggest media development groups in the world, Internews, expects broadcasters to be able to earn money. Stations such as Radio Karabagh in Afghanistan charge for public notices: about $3 to tell the community about events, meetings, and funerals. They can sell local advertising, and Internews itself does advertising deals for stations with intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations. They have also given some Afghan stations the gear to run internet cafes, to provide another revenue stream.

    But the fact is that these societies are often simply too fragile, their populations too scattered, and the national economy too weak to make any media outlet -- let alone a serious news outlet -- commercially viable in the short to medium term. Even where financially possible, local commercial ownership too often puts an outlet under the control of one oligarch/warlord/party/business group (often the same thing in the places we deal with). Outside ownership by foreign media groups presents its own independence problems, though this has worked in some cases, such as in the Balkans, where social disintegration during the wars of the 1990s had not reached the terminal failed state levels we've seen elsewhere, leaving profitable avenues tempting outside investment.

    Another option for continuing the work of useful but unprofitable media outlets is transfer to state control -- so often called the "BBC model" though the institutional arrangement is rarely if ever as free from government editorial interference as the BBC is. This is hugely problematic in a post-conflict situation, where the reins of the state, or even the existence of the state itself, is the subject of deadly confrontation.

    The truth is, for many of these situations, continuing external assistance for major information providers would be the best solution if donors would make it possible for the long term. There is an additional, perhaps more controversial, argument to be made here as well. No one would question the need for long-term external donor support for, say, health and education projects in these places, and no one would ever think the market is going to solve such problems in the poorest regions. But isn't reliable, unbiased information just as important for rebuilding shattered societies? Shouldn't the same logic apply to media?

    Surely there are media outlets that simply need to be supported if there is to be any hope of reconciliation in society. And the scale need not be Okapi-sized in every case. Radio stations in the Maluku Islands, Indonesia -- working in the KBR68H network and supported by the Media Development Loan Fund -- may be relatively small scale, but as the only local source of information both Muslim and Christian communities listen to, they are an absolutely essential outlet. If there is ever to be social reconciliation in the wake of major sectarian upheaval in Ambon in 1999 and continuing tensions that erupt into violence from time to time today, then there must be a common platform for public information and debate to connect divided communities.
  4. Media training: Journalism training includes everything from teaching novices how to write an impartial news article, to talking with seasoned commentators about toning down their diatribes, to hostile environments training. There is also media training focusing on the business and marketing aspects of running a media outlet, as well as training for technicians. The training can take place at an established outlet or as part of a training project developing a new media outlet. Instruction for people in public institutions on how to communicate with the media better can also be useful in improving the flow of information to the general population. The money spent tends to be smallish, and results have admittedly been mixed.

    In some cases, training is wholly unsuited to the local environment. I remember being asked (and funders paying me) to teach online journalism to the Afghan news agency in Kabul in 2002, when they didn't even have a website -- or even internet access, for that matter. In other cases, training is simply impossible to implement or fails to augment free speech or conflict prevention in the country due to political circumstances. DW-AKADEMIE's work in Uzbekistan were useless or worse, as the skills taught to local journalists could not freely be put into practice in the strictly state-controlled media where they were working. The organisation was only in the country, "to raise the flag for Germany there", one of directors told me in mid-2008. Not a good reason for a media training project. Just a few months later, after some bad publicity in Germany, DW-AKADEMIE pulled the plug on their operations in Uzbekistan.

    But when it is designed with local conditions in mind and with the aim of serving independent journalism, then journalism training for reporters can produce good-value and high-profile results. A professional class of journalists is created on the ground, with a mix of ethnicities reporting on stories the more established media and better known outlets can't touch for either commercial or political reasons. Various agencies providing journalism training have very different approaches. Unlike their efforts in Uzbekistan, DW-AKADEMIE has had some good small-scale projects with radio in South East Asia. IWPR has had some very strong success stories with relatively small-scale projects focusing on labour-intensive editorial-based training in particular.

    One unique aspect of training journalists in post-conflict situations deserves special attention: reporters must learn how build public understanding of ongoing peace processes without endangering them. There is a trade-off here. The public, in particular civil society, needs to know how negotiations between parties are progressing, but the wrong detail released at the wrong time could sink talks in a sea of public outrage. All sides in a conflict will need to accept compromise eventually, but reporting only one half of the story or the unfinished story to the wider public, though a scoop, could help send a country back to war. Similarly, as elections are particularly tense times in post-conflict countries, early and wide-spread training for journalists in fair and objective -- or at least non-incendiary -- election reporting is a valuable investment.
  5. Straightforward information provision: Often via external radio and TV broadcasts or online, this has the challenge of not appearing like propaganda or psy-ops for the funding state or international agency. This is where the largest amounts of cash have been spent but with hugely varying degrees of success -- both in post-conflict situations and areas of potential conflict. Even just one country's efforts can demonstrate the huge range of results: the US's RFE/RL is a great example of editorial independence and value for money, while Al Hurra is the textbook case of piles of burnt cash for propaganda with no visible effect.

    There have been some very creative projects. We've seen funding for radio soap operas dealing with reconciliation and other post-conflict issues, which have won praise both in country and internationally, in places like Rwanda and Afghanistan. Search for Common Ground has done some interesting work in several African countries, having young people take the lead in creating and presenting radio programs directly addressing the issues that make them susceptible to being involved in violent conflicts. Then there are less political information provision projects, such as some of the radio health programs the BBC WS Trust has worked on dealing with AIDS -- not strictly post-conflict, but successful in post-conflict zones, too, and an easier first step if local officials are wary of outside interference.

    Online projects tend to reach elites only, but that shouldn't be scoffed at, particularly in places where there are no free media on the ground: these outlets are often used even by local decision-makers to find out what's going on in their own country, and in any case they help to keep a portion of the population informed so that if there is eventually a political thaw, not everyone will be completely ignorant. I'd also mention Democratic Voice of Burma (or DVB), a non-profit media organisation based in Oslo, that has been hugely successful in getting video reports out of that country via satellite -- actually, theirs was the only footage being used by all international broadcasters at the beginning of the cyclone disaster: they essentially told the world about it.
  6. Media monitoring: Comprehensive monitoring of media, particularly of outlets in vernacular languages, can be an extremely valuable early warning tool in conflict prevention. Hate speech and incitement are often indicators that violence is not far off. This is work the international community can provide itself through the UN and other organisations, but given linguistic needs and the fact that the job requires a very fine sense of the local context to understand exactly what is inflammatory, almost any media monitoring system will necessarily involve many local employees. They of course will need to be vetted carefully to avoid bias, or at least have any partisan sentiments balanced across the group of monitors.

    For monitoring to be worthwhile, of course, the international community needs to be able to react quickly and appropriately to the warnings of the monitors. The right word from the right position at the right time can work wonders, as the example of Côte d'Ivoire in late 2004 demonstrated.

    In November 2004, the Ivorian government supplemented its military offensive against Forces Nouvelles rebels with a media campaign of hate speech and incitement to violence against northerners, immigrants and the French. UNSG Special Advisor Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide Juan Mendez quickly issued a statement, calling for an end to impunity and warning that the situation could be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC). This was followed by UN Security Council Resolution 1572, demanding that "the Ivorian authorities stop all radio and television broadcasting inciting hatred, intolerance and violence." Following these warnings, such media output notably subsided. It is thought the threat of an ICC referral in particular was very important in getting the authorities to change course.

    It is rather amazing how relatively easy such early warming media monitoring projects are to set up and how effective they can be, yet how infrequently they are actually established. The EU, for example, would never think of sending out an election observer mission to a country without someone to monitor the local media for fairness and access of coverage during an election campaign. But they do not make such monitoring tools an automatic part of aid packages, policing missions and peacekeeping efforts in fragile states and post-conflict areas.

    Obviously, different situations will tend to favour different post-conflict media development projects, and the phase of the conflict or potential conflict in particular will have a strong bearing on which strategies to prioritise. Media development experts themselves may disagree on both the diagnosis of a country's media weaknesses and the recommended medicine for relieving them. After showing the text of this speech to various people in the business, for example, I received comments both that I was putting too much emphasis on the legal aspects, and too little, both overemphasising journalism training and underemphasising it.

    In addition, often a project will fall into two or more of these categories. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting has been one of the most successful at marrying journalism training with the provision of information. Working with journalists in post-conflict countries and fragile states, it provides both classroom and editorial training that ends up with student reporters writing stories for both national newspapers and international publication including syndication.

    Another good example of this mix of information provision and professional training is the successful "Asia Calling" program, a one hour weekly regional current affairs show produced by Indonesian national radio news agency KBR68H. Started in 2003 with broadcasts on just a handful of stations in Indonesia, "Asia Calling" is currently broadcast in eight local languages by 237 radio stations in ten countries across Asia, including several conflict-affected ones, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma and Timor Leste.

    In addition to its aim of broadcasting programs offering a platform for increased understanding and respect among its different groups of listeners, the program offers training to its correspondents across the region. For the majority, this is their first access to any kind of professional training, and because they all work for other media outlets as well, the impact of the training is felt not just in "Asia Calling" content but also in their other work.

    Of course, even international radio outlets broadcasting in local languages -- such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, VOA and Radio Netherlands -- can be seen as a mixed information provider and trainer of local journalists on the ground.

Measuring Success

Evaluation of success in all these six categories, however, is very difficult. "How much peace are we building with this project?" is a standing joke between one funder and a journalism training organisation, but it highlights a key problem.

Funding for media development projects tends to be very short-term, with three years a luxurious maximum but one year far more common. This not only makes devising effective programs very problematic, but it also stymies our ability to track success and follow up with those involved in the programs over a longer period of time. The task is after all to incubate a new professional class of people -- journalists -- and this will nowhere happen overnight. The emphasis ends up being on demonstrating only the much less meaningful results that provide simple metrics, like number of journalists trained, a list of activities conducted, the number of articles published or even an estimated number of listeners to a radio show.

More useful may be longer term measurements of the strength of media in a country, along the lines of IREX's Media Sustainability Index (MSI), but then, that would not say anything about the value of one particular media development program. So the issue remains: what precisely is the impact of any project on solidifying peace in an unstable society?

And yet, the anecdotal signs of success are obvious. We know media development has succeeded when it has contributed significantly towards there being a group of people who self-identify as journalists, who have picked up critical momentum in acquiring the skills and experience to be considered such by international colleagues -- and who are even prepared to risk life and liberty for journalistic values. With this, the ultimate yard stick, it is worth pointing out that media development has worked pretty much everywhere, including the most difficult situations like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Of course, a project that has been shown to work in one country will not necessarily work in a new setting. One stream of the media development crowd moved from the Balkans, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Darfur, and it took them, and their funders, a while to realise they couldn't just cut-and-paste their grant proposals each time.

Quite frankly, there's a lot of trial and error going on every time, but that's perhaps inevitable -- and not exactly undesirable. It takes both international expertise with familiarity of the options available and local knowledge to figure out what might work in country X. As with other development sectors, how quickly new projects succeed depends hugely on initial local hiring decisions: getting the right people involved as early as possible.

Guidelines for Supporting Media Development: IC

From the standpoint of the funders, perhaps the most important thing they can do is prepare themselves institutionally to address media development issues. Every large-scale funder of humanitarian aid and development assistance should have its own internal expertise on media development and evaluate funding proposals through its own media development department or unit that works from within to ensure media development efforts fit into their overall recovery effort.

With that institutional arrangement in place, funders should properly analyse each situation to come up with specific media responses at a macro level, then see how each micro project fits in using a few clear guidelines:

First, start small.

Far too often, funders prefer big, high-profile projects that boost their image with a wow factor. And there never seems to be any shortage of newcomers to media development -- former journalists, NGO types and government officials -- willing to feed their visions with grand proposals. For funders, I would strongly caution against such an approach, particularly if you are spending your tax-payers' money.

It is best to start with small projects and, if they show signs of success -- that is, once you know you have a team that can produce results -- scale them up. Start with a city-wide radio station before going national, for example. Train an initial group of local news reporters, identify which ones show the most promise, and then support them to teach others in a broader training effort across the country.

Don't expect big results in the first year or two: let successful projects find their feet. This is not about distributing sacks of rice, which you can expect to be complete in some reasonably short timeframe. It's about changing mindsets, both of media producers and consumers, so it takes time.

Second, favour local when possible.

Funders may naturally have a tendency towards international media development organizations, because they have experience of working in similar environments and offer the ability to get a project up and running quickly. A known provider can also seem to offer some guarantee that funds will not disappear.

The risk is, of course, that in the rush to meet an urgent need, the international organization will choose a cookie cutter approach to media development, assuming that what has worked elsewhere will also work in the new context. There are also occasions when these organisations come in paying locally high salaries to a few local journalists to run projects on the ground, in the process distorting the labour market and undermining the ability of local media organisations to operate professionally -- a most counter-productive result.

But if projects start off small, as they should do, then there may be room for indigenous institutions that could, if properly engaged, provide valuable insights into the reality on the ground and, if properly assisted, could develop into strong and credible institutions with a core of skilled professionals that, once international agencies have left, remain to continue the work for the long haul.

There is a balance to be struck when building indigenous media capacity: between hiring outsiders whose experience allows them to act quickly but who may not understand enough of the local contexts to offer the best support for local journalists, and hiring local people who usually cannot do it on their own but who will be much more effective once they can. The way to square this circle is to keep the expertise as an input but have locals in charge of the media outputs. Try to avoid funding anything which has foreigners front of house: that is, have external advisers and trainers, but make sure locals are the ones on air and deciding that day's running order.

Furthermore, when working with an international organisation, look for a proven track record of media development work. This is not a new field, and there are a number of known organisations that have been doing very good work in very different environments for years. Be wary of the untested selling you the untried.

Third, encourage projects that are strictly time-limited or have a vision for local sustainability, but don't avoid longer-term funding.

Even in a free and peaceful society, new media ventures start up and go bust all the time. Again, small is more often beautiful. Resist the temptation of grand schemes that parachute in huge initial resources only to leave unsustainable capacity in their wake.

Realise that the funders who only support short-term programs can actually inhibit the development of high quality indigenous organizations. When there is no financial security for these organizations beyond the next short term grant, there is no incentive to develop a long term strategy or to invest in the development of skills of their staff, because there is no certainty that the organization will continue to exist. They may develop a kind of Red Queen's race fundraising capacity, running to stand in place financially, but that's about it.

Guidelines for Supporting Media Development: Local Governments

The advice to policy makers in countries emerging from conflict would be along much the same lines, though it is telling there seems to be far less literature out there examining media development from the recipient country's point of view.

Generally speaking, a country's goal should be to professionalise its media: to have a solid corps of reporters, commentators and editors working for a variety of economically viable media outlets. But of course, that "should" is the tricky part.

The political leadership of a post-conflict country may be highly suspicious of free media, at best subscribing to the aims listed here as an ideal or a luxury to be achieved at some point in future but with no willingness whatsoever to take practical steps today to move down that road. There are some exceptions to this rule, of course, and key the very existence of the successful Radio Okapi in the Congo, for example, was the fact that it had buy-in from all the major political players in the country from the first day it went on air.

More common however is paranoia in the political leadership about anything they don't control by some direct or indirect threat, resulting in an overall environment that is either authoritarian in orientation or extremely polarised between the government and other equally rigid parties most likely closely related to armed or previously armed groups. For example, the Khartoum government, currently blocking the UN mission UNAMID in all sorts of areas, is hardly interested in copying anything like UNMIS's Miraya FM network in Southern Sudan. Getting the opposing sides in a conflict to see the media as anything but a weapon to be wielded against their enemy is the bulk of the problem in the first place.

Sadly, hoping for journalists themselves to take the lead and drive the agenda of professionalisation forward is often fraught with problems. Journalists are often just as deeply polarised as a country's leaders, and even those who see the benefit of professionalising their trade may feel that such a goal faces too many political obstacles to be achieved in anything like the near and personally useful future.

It is too much to hope that journalists emerging from a violent conflict will be somehow non-partisan when their societies have split violently. But it is not impossible to get journalists to avoid hate speech and other incendiary work through self-regulating media bodies or unions. Such institutions, like all institutions in a post-conflict situation, should not be expected to perform perfectly right away. Bedding down their prerogatives is ultimately, however, in all journalists' interest, so cross-community support can be expected, even if grudging at first.

Still, it is on the level of politicians that change is most needed. Enlightened leaders could realise that media under strict censorship are never as respected by the public as independent media. With this in mind, they could see free, fair and engaged media as something that works in their favour, helping to bring their side's message across in a more credible way, while keeping a publically respected watchful eye on their political competition.

How realistic this is depends on the particulars of every situation. Almost by definition, "enlightened leaders" are never in great supply in post-conflict countries... So if media professionalisation is not to be twisted into a euphemism for censorship through fear, and if media are to become part of conflict resolution instead of a precursor to another round of war, then outside help in support of free media is as essential as other forms of post-conflict development aid.

Produced for the 3 April 2009 Dialogue Forum, “The Role of the Media in Conflict Prevention”, an initiative of Madariaga College of Europe Foundation and Folke Bernadotte Academy with the support of the Czech Presidency, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO) and the Bonn Network.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.