The Free Flow of Information plays an important part in the UN’s Culture of Peace Initiative
The UN’s Culture for Peace Initiative depends greatly on participatory communication and the free flow of information and knowledge. The original UNESCO document stated that freedom of opinion, expression and information is needed to replace the secrecy and manipulation of information which characterise the culture of war. The free flow of information is essential to a well-informed society.
Accurate and well-distributed information underpins the free market, improves human capital, provides transparency of government decisions, and improves judicial and government decisions. The free flow of information is an attempt to account for the degree of access to information as well as the independence of that information from vested political and economic interests. In this respect, freedom of the press is also helpful in countering corruption, as greater transparency can provide a means for increasing the oversight of resource distribution by the media. Therefore, the media can be a powerful partner for the construction of a culture of peace. Its technological advances and pervasive growth have made it possible for every person to take part in the making of history, enabling a truly global movement for a culture of peace. On the one hand, it is essential for the consciousness-raising and networking that can make the transition possible from the culture of war to a culture of peace, especially in the hands of the young generation.
On another side, however, the media is sometimes misused to create and disseminate enemy images, violence and even genocide against other ethnic and national groups, and to portray and glorify violence in many forms. The control of information by the state and its commercial allies has become the chief weapon of the culture of war. Also, secrecy is on the increase, justified in terms of national security and economic competitiveness, whereas in fact more transparency is needed in governance and economic decision-making.
In many fragile countries, fact-based, independent, transparent, accountable, and impartial reporting does not exist because of the business and political interests of media owners and the lack of pay and training for journalists. In others, it is often subject to increased censorship, regulation and attack from parties that want to undermine its influence. Media can be an instrument of conflict, used to incubate hatred and fan violence. It can reinforce the politics of division and identity rather than fostering social cohesion. It can bolster currently held belief systems rather than enlighten, inform and emancipate. Anyone anywhere has the potential to play a role on a global scale with a local tweet or Facebook post or a blog. With that comes the obvious danger that irresponsible, ill-informed, inflammatory comment can ignite violence.
There are many challenges we face in this area of the culture for peace, especially for independent media. Many conflict- or transitional environments constitute a disabling, rather than enabling, environment for independent media to flourish - corruption is rampant, pay is low, sources (official and unofficial) often refuse or are afraid to talk to journalists, unions and associations, if existent, are usually weak and the regulatory and legislative environments are more punitive than supportive of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
Media ownership and the diversity of ownership models (private, state/public, community) as well as alignment with political parties and/or ideologies, are likely to have implications for the roles media are able to play. State media that serves as a mouthpiece for a regime cannot hold leaders to account. Private media, while technically independent, may become highly factionalised when influenced or co-opted by political or business figures with an interest in manipulating editorial coverage.
Ideally, legal and regulatory frameworks should support a system conducive to freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity of the media, but regulatory bodies are often aligned or connected in some way with the state. These regulators can have undue influence on the work of journalists, they can restrict what is broadcast or published or even shut down media outlets. Social media is increasingly being subjected to government regulation, especially as government agencies monitor online sites in their effort to identify would-be extremist attackers. Governments have called for internet platforms to remove accounts and/or content that promotes or supports extremism. They have also expanded surveillance efforts and called for restrictions on encryption – whether in the name of the war on terrorism, extremism or simply xenophobia.
Internet access is still low in conflict-prone countries. For all the talk about the rapidly shifting sands of the media landscape, ‘traditional’ media, often remains the best way to reach people in conflict- affected countries in the least developed world because it is widely accessed and tends to be more trusted than other media. For instance, according to BBC Media Action research, radio is the most accessed media platform for information and the most trusted in Kenya, Nigeria and Tanzania. In Afghanistan, radio was still the most popular source of information in 2016. In 2016, 90% of Nepalis listened to the radio and 83% watched the TV, while in the Palestine Territories, TV was the dominant medium (98%) with radio trailing (43%). Syria is also a TV oriented country, with access to satellite television being almost ubiquitous, even in refugee camps.
Going forwards, there are many developments for those who work towards the free flow of information: My first proposal is that UN agencies, state and civil societies should promote and help to build linkages between media and other institutions at all levels to enhance the collaboration and effectiveness especially in the post-conflict environments.
Much of the work with media in conflict management to date has focused on the media sector itself rather than examining its interplay with other sub-systems and the greater system overall. It is crucial to build key linkages between peacebuilding and state building institutions and media institutions, thereby supporting more effective media development in post-conflict environments, especially within areas that internet access is particular low and traditional media is heavily relied on. For example, media-military dialogues can be useful for building trust and understanding between those two sectors and beyond to the communities they serve.
My second proposal is that UN and governmental organisations to promote regulatory reform as part of peace settlements and their implementation. To implement this, media regulation has to be part of the political settlement in any fragile state. The regulatory framework needs to include rules for proportionate political coverage of parties and mechanisms for including minority political and cultural interests. It must also include transparent guidelines for setting licences for stations under terms that allow all media actors, including small and independent ones – to participate.