Friday, October 28, 2011

Controversy may distract from peace message

One of the leaders of the peace journalism movement is getting into some hot water over comments he’s made about a research forum his Australian university is having with Israeli academics.

The research forum, “Shared Challenges, Future Solutions”, will be held next week, and will “bring together academics from the University of Sydney and leading Israeli institutions to discuss research innovations in key thematic areas including medicine; water, food and agriculture; pedagogy of teaching second languages and Dead Sea Scrolls; energy and information technology.”

Peace Journalist and Associate Professor Jake Lynch has urged his colleagues to withdraw from the research gathering, and the university administration to cancel it.” Why? Because he says that the event may offend Muslims, since the forum involves Israel.

In The Australian newspaper, Lynch said, “"The university risks sustaining reputational damage if the forum goes ahead." Dr. Lynch believes that the university “risks being seen as condoning the complicity by Israeli universities in Israel's breaches of international law and indirectly raises problems with the university's social inclusion policy."

I greatly admire and respect all the work that Lynch (among others) has done to legitimize peace journalism, and am concerned about the controversy that has been generated by these comments. I disagree with his stance, incidentally, but that’s not the point.

For me, the lesson that I take away from this controversy is to pick your battles. I won’t shy away from controversy if it is generated while I spread the word about peace journalism. However, I’d hate to generate any dispute over anything that isn’t peace journalism. For example, when I lived/worked in Uganda, I could have publically railed against that country’s proposed (and reprehensible) anti-homosexual law. I bit my tongue, however, because I knew that my tirade about the law would have only distracted from my peace message.

Given this, I wonder if Professor Lynch regrets disturbing this hornet’s nest.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Graphic Gaddafi images feed cycle of violence, retribution

The publication of photos and videos of Gaddafi’s demise raise a number of peace-journalism related issues.

I asked my Park University students if they would print or post graphic photos or video of dead Gaddafi. Some said yes, some no. I asked them to be thoughtful and deliberate in their choice, regardless of whether they would publish the photos/video or not. I also asked the student-journalists to consider the consequences of their actions. (This is particularly salient for media in the Arab world and in Libya itself). Would publishing these images inflame an already volatile situation (perhaps inter-tribal conflicts)? Would these images, if seen publicly, feed a cycle of retribution (violent act leads to retribution leads to more violence, ad infinitum).

I also “discussed” the Gaddafi death images with my online peace journalism students who are all Ugandan radio reporters. Here are some of their comments:

Stephen: “The photo is shocking and horrific! I even saw it in the national vernacular daily (Bukedde) and failed to give it a second sight! Such photos hardens the heart of the reader for more violence. No wonder, many people all over the world suggested that they would rather have Gaddafi tried than killed. Possible reasons for this could be due to the photos and footages shown on the killing of Libyan former president."

Mathias: “The picture is in bad taste, the media and news-wire administrators may not all be sensitized in peace journalism/conflict sensitive journalism approaches. But this cannot exonerate them from ethical level of responsibility required in handling gory scenes of this nature. Remember the ethical questions in publishing, and I do not need to recount this here. Always ask the question: what will it achieve, does it add value to the information already available to the reader/ listener? The 'Shock and Awe' style of journalism is exiting out the corner.”

Betty: Publishing dead Gaddafi's photos is just too inflammatory. If it was for assuring the world that he is dead, it would at least be a decent body, not naked and with all that blood oozing from every part of his body. So irritating to look at indeed.”

As the editor of an American or online publication, I would have probably posted some of the less bloody-images. As the editor of a Libyan publication, I would not have run any of these pictures or video because such images would feed a cycle of inter-tribal conflict and might even contribute to violent retribution. Certainly, Gaddafi's tribe and the rest of Libya now need to reconcile, and I believe publishing these images would make this reconciliation much more difficult.

Friday, October 14, 2011

History repeats itself in lynch-mob mentality media

Irresponsible, rumor mongering journalism, as an outstanding piece in the Kansas State Historical Society magazine reminds us, is hardly a new phenomenon.

The article, “A Public Burning: Race, Sex, and the Lynching of Fred Alexander” by Christopher C. Lovett, reminds us that the kind of writing and reporting that encourages hatred, inflames violence, and ignores or disdains peaceful conflict resolution is a hardly a creation of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Lovett’s piece chronicles the case of a lynching in 1900 in Leavenworth, Kansas that is a noteworthy lesson for journalists about the terrible power we had, and have, to create an atmosphere conducive to conflict and even mob violence.

What is truly fascinating is how applicable the principles of peace journalism (like not spreading rumors, understanding the consequences of what you report, and giving peacemakers a voice) would have been over a century ago.

Lovett’s article chronicles the racially motivated lynching (actually, ritual burning at the stake) of a rape/murder suspect, a black man named Fred Alexander, and the media’s role in encouraging this vigilantism. The article stated, “In the late summer and fall of 1900, right before the election, rumors spread throughout the city that a number of white females had been sexually assaulted by unknown black males. E. W. Howe of the Atchison Daily Globe, writing after Alexander’s lynching, put the number of alleged assaults at thirteen. A review of arrest records does not support this claim. Even still the Leavenworth Times made no effort to dispel the rumors…Even though it reported this was “the only instance,” the Times and other papers did nothing to refute the popularly held belief that a black male was roaming Leavenworth streets preying upon vulnerable white females.”

As I teach peace journalism, we talk a great deal about atmosphere—specifically, a journalist’s responsibility to help create an atmosphere where peace and non-violence can flourish. Clearly, the opposite occurred in Leavenworth in 1900. Lovett wrote, “The reports of Pearl Forbes’s death (for which the mob murder of Fred Alexander occurred) appeared in all the local papers, but it was especially the Times that fomented the public’s outrage and escalated the racial prejudice that captivated Leavenworth.”

Not only were the newspapers guilty of nurturing a lynch mob atmosphere, they even went a step further. “…The newspapers fabricated and encouraged the assumption that the assailant was black, with no hard evidence to support that supposition, particularly when the Times reported ‘a colored man well known in the southwestern portion of the city who was seen walking west on Spruce street about the time of the murder . . . is behind bars and . . . he had in his pocket a handkerchief with the initials of the girl on it. Like in many police inquiries, rumors and impending arrests proved to be untrue,” according the article.

Think this is all behind us, that we’re too sophisticated today to repeat the Leavenworth Times’ errors from 110 years ago? I believe the media-induced lynch mob is alive and well, and exhibit A is Nancy Grace and Casey Anthony, who hasn’t been lynched but is undoubtedly the target for any number of potential vigilantes thanks to hateful press coverage. Exhibit B are the many sad examples of media induced violence worldwide in places like Kenya (2010, following presidential elections), Uganda (tribal/racial violence stirred by radio in 2009) and even Rwanda, where radio played a large role in the 1994 genocide.

Moreover, I would argue that an anti-terrorism (some would say anti-Muslim) frenzy whipped up by an irresponsible media has in part created an atmosphere where Americans are indifferent or even tolerant when our government chooses to murder terrorists (including an American citizen) abroad rather than dealing with them using non-violent means.

Unfortunately, the kind of irresponsible journalism practiced by the Leavenworth Times in 1900 is still thriving today.

Also see:

Friday, October 7, 2011

Are peace provocateurs ethical journalists? Does it matter?

Journalists in conflict situations are constantly toeing the line between journalistically ethical and unethical behavior.

I for one have been in conflict or post conflict situations wondering if I should fork over some cash to help ease things a bit for a poor victim. I usually donate that money, but often ask myself if I should do more to assist, even if this means crossing the line, journalistically speaking.

An interesting case has just surfaced in Indonesia wherein citizen journalists may--or may not--have crossed the line. Social media wielding citizens calling themselves “peace provocateurs” are taking action to defuse a volatile situation in Ambon, Indonesia.

Part of what they are doing—verifying stories and discrediting potentially inflammatory rumors—is classic peace journalism. That this is being practiced in the social media is especially noteworthy, given, for example, Twitter’s tremendous potential to spread both constructive and destructive information.

However, some of the peace provocateurs’ activities (like connecting neighborhood leaders) probably cross the line of what traditionalists would consider ethical journalistic behavior. These activities involve the provocateurs in the story to the point that they are no longer observers and reporters, but active participants.
Whether they are ethical journalists are not, these peace provocateurs are nonetheless ethical citizens who are striving to prevent violence in their community.

The following report is from The Interpreter-Lowry Institute.

…”Last month in the Indonesian city of Ambon, the suspicious death of a Muslim motorcycle taxi driver led to clashes between Muslims and Christians in this provincial capital and raised fears of a return to the communal fighting that wracked the region from 1999 to 2002. At one point, rumours swirled by SMS and word of mouth that a Christian child had been killed (she had not). Muslim houses were set on fire, and retaliation against Christians soon followed.
By the time it stopped, the two days of violence had left seven dead and dozens wounded. Over 150 homes, roughly split between the two communities, were burned to the ground.

What is most remarkable is not that violence re-occurred (something sadly all too common in post-conflict societies), but how it was stopped, in part, through some far-sighted networking and deft thumb work by a group calling themselves 'peace provocateurs' who worked across communities and together with local officials to calm down a volatile situation.

It was an extraordinary effort by a group of about ten people, Christian and Muslim, who decided, at enormous risk to themselves, to go into the areas where violence had erupted to seek truth and then text, upload, and share it.

Every time they heard a rumour, for example, that a church was burned down or that a mosque had been damaged, they went and took photographs of the actual site. With even provincial capitals well serviced by mobile telephone and data services, it was then not hard for them to circulate this proof on Twitter and Facebook using their mobile phones. Given that Indonesians are some of the world's most avid users of these social media, it was an inspired strategy. They sought to calm the level of violence, and it worked.

…They identified influential 'strategic partners' in border neighbourhoods and put them in touch with one another to help coordinate the dissemination of information. They were very conscious of the impact national media could have on the way the unrest was being portrayed outside Ambon and designated one person to monitor the reporting and send clarifications as necessary to the relevant journalists. Their activities focused on collecting and verifying reports of attacks, threats, street blockades, injuries or crowds massing, and then trying to defuse the threats.
Had it not been for their messages, tweets, and posts, the violence would have been infinitely harder to bring under control.”

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Goodbye, Parkville Luminary

NOTE: The following is the "obituary" I wrote in the last edition of my hometown newspaper, The Parkville Luminary, which was one of the best weekly newspapers anywhere. Thanks, editor/publisher Mark Vasto, for giving me, and peace journalism, a voice.

No flowers, please

From the Parkville Luminary

There’s nothing I hate worse than our society’s death rituals, which run the gamut from maudlin to nearly barbaric.

I, for one, refuse to walk past an open casket to see the dead guy. I’d prefer to remember the live person, thankyouverymuch, even though everyone at a funeral always comments on how good the corpse looks. In fact, my aunt and I have a macabre pact. Whoever goes first, the survivor is required to march past the stiff and then pronounce, very loudly, “man, he looks like sh&*.”

I also hate the custom of wasting hundreds (thousands?) of dollars on flowers. Although I like flowers as much as the next guy, I do not want them when I am dead, since I will not be able to enjoy them as much. If you’d like to send me flowers now, I’ll gladly accept them (Park University, Copley Hall, room 210). However, if you waste one cent on flowers for me when I’m vertically challenged, I’ll haunt you.
Overall, our death rituals make a bad situation worse.

Keeping this in mind, I will neither send flowers nor stroll past the casket as we say goodbye to our good friend The Parkville Luminary this week. Instead, in the spirit of a good Irish wake, I’d prefer to remember the good times.

The best times, from a journalistic perspective, are surely the Luminary’s unswerving opposition to the cabal that runs downtown Parkville from the shadows. As a Parkville resident, I only hope that enough light has been shed on this situation to render it transparent, or more transparent, than it was before the newspaper’s crusade. I worry about who, if anyone, will be left to point out conflicts of interest and cronyism in our fair town.

There were also some awfully good times in the Luminary courtesy of the paper’s emeritus columnists Bill Grigsby and Nancy Jack. Some of my favorite times with Nancy were during the Luminary Hour, a radio show that aired on KGSP 90.5FM. I initially thought the Luminary’s publisher was picking on Nancy (“here with a comment is the Luminary’s hip-hop correspondent Nancy Jack”) until I learned that Nancy was as defenseless as a mountain lion.

The Luminary also provided an important forum for our local glitterati. I loved Dr. Don Breckon’s last piece rightly criticizing the decision not to place the KC Zoo issue on the ballot, and scratched my head at Catherine Bleisch’s column about a free-thinker’s conclave in New England. Bill Gresham appeared too infrequently, but always had something important to say. I sincerely hope their voices will not go silent.

Of course, during the last six years or so, the Luminary has also provided a platform for my odd musings, most of which had little or nothing to do with Parkville. In what other weekly community newspaper could readers hear about Ugandan orphans or my holey underwear? (My wife was accosted by a stirred up patron at a local grocery store who inquired about how she, my wife, could send me to the Republic of Georgia with only three pairs of shredded underwear).

One of the things I admire about the newspaper is its commitment to provide a range of opinions, even though the publisher clearly sits right of center politically. Thus, during the last presidential election, I was allowed to rant on about the qualities of Barak Obama even though this nauseated the publisher and most of the Luminary’s conservative readers.

So as we say goodbye to our old friend, let us remember these good times, and thank the Luminary’s publisher Mark Vasto for showing the world that newspapers are still viable, and vital, to the health of our communities. I’m sure Mark would appreciate a thank-you cocktail. However, the family requests no flowers, please.