Southern Africa is a flashpoint for conflict, with Zimbabwe renowned for political violence and South Africa for xenophobia, terrorism threats from Al Shabaab in Mozambique, including hunger and other forms of civil strife that have threatened to tear the region apart.
But in all these conflict situations, the media’s role in promoting peace has been emphasised because if unchecked, the media can be used as a weapon to spread hatred.
The African Peace-building Network (APN) last week gathered different scholars and journalists from the continent at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (Nust) to discuss how journalists can be peace builders and use their writing skills to douse conflict situations.
Dumisani Moyo, a Zimbabwean professor and deputy dean of humanities, teaching and learning at the University of Johannesburg warned that media can be used as a manipulative weapon to spread vitriol, which can be deadly if it remains unchecked.
Moyo cited how radio has been used as a communication medium to spread both positive and negatives messages in Africa, and worse still, in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where some radio stations are owned by politicians and can be used for political expediency.
“The media must provide platforms for diverse opinions and expose corruption and become neutral players; but more recently, the media has been weaponised by people with power who use it for their own interests,” Moyo said.
“If media is manipulated, then journalists are no longer neutral and they become selective in the manner they report issues, and media houses that are owned by politicians have a vested interest in the public political agenda of their owners. An example is the DRC where politicians own newspapers and radio stations,” he said.
He said it would be difficult to have media that promotes peace if ownership of media is by politicians, especially radio which is the most widely accessed medium of communication in Africa.
In Rwanda, for instance, radio was used to fan the Hutu and Tutsi conflict and to spread ethnc clashes, which culminated in the deaths of thousands of people.
“In Zimbabwe, the state media was used to create a very strong public opinion about the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) as aggressors and a threat to peace, while the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) was popularised as defenders of the hard won independence,” Moyo said.
“Most governments in Southern Africa inherited State media and they continue to use and abuse it, mostly to maintain and control power.”
In the current Zimbabwean elections, Moyo said it was sad that inflamatory language with the potential of spreading conflict, such as ‘crushing of cockroaches’ underpinned Rwandan genocide, was also being used.
He said choice of diction which promotes peace by the media is paramount during times when there are signs of possible conflict.
Moyo said there were also weak regulatory systems in most southern African countries, something which has allowed ruling parties to have control of the process of liberalisation of the airwaves.
“They open up the airwaves, but they give the licences to their cronies such that at the end, there is no diversity. There is also lack of training for media practitioners so that they are more equipped to report in a way that minimises conflict,” he said.
Nust vice-chancellor Tjama Tjivikua said well-trained journalists will mitigate the risks of the media causing conflict and misunderstandings.
“As the fourth estate, the media has an invaluable role to play as whistle-blowers to end violence and promote peace-building. The media has a duty as producers of content to promote peace,” Tjivikua said.
Nust dean of the faculty of Human Sciences Alinah Segobye said if the media was able to promote peace in the content they produce, this would contribute to the attainment of sustainable development goals (SDGs) in Africa.
APN programme director and Nigerian author and academic, Cyril Obi, encouraged social scientists to research more on how the media influences public discourse, peace and justice in its reports.
Unesco representative to Namibia, Jean-Pierre lLboudo, said African countries should have media laws that enable access to information, as well as an independent and pluralistic press which promotes peace in order to prevent violent conflict.
“Lack of information, can at any stage of conflict, make people desperate, restless, and easy to manipulate. In cases of conflict and crisis, international media can attract worldwide attention and media can assist solve crises,” lLboudo said.
Rose Jaji, an academic with the University of Zimbabwe, said there was need for peace during elections and mature debates where language is used to convey productive ideas and not insults and violence.
A Zimbabwean academic based at Nust, Admire Mare, said journalists should be able to use social media tools to preach peace as they are most likely to attract many followers.
His sentiments were echoed by another academic Clayton Peel, a communications lecturer at Nust, who said media needed to be sensitive when capturing pictures and writing about persons affected by conflict situations.
While reporting about conflict situations and promoting peace, academic and Nust lecturer Hugh Ellis said it was imperative for journalists to ensure their safety as they could also become victims during conflict situations.
University of Zimbabwe academic and journalism lecturer Stanley Tsarwe said media practitioners must shun ‘war journalism’ where there is so much use of hate speech which promotes violence.
“When reporting about elections, media practitioners must promote ‘peace journalism’ and give a voice to all political parties involved,” Tsarwe said.
Ylva Rodny Gumede, a professor with the University of Johannesburg, said there was need to cover positive stories about Africa.
“African continent reporting is often skewed with covering stories of conflict,” Gumede said.
As new media practitioners are currently being trained at different African universities, academics Nkosinothando Mpofu and Hatikanganwi Mapudzi have emphasised the need for transformation of journalism training so that students are trained to be peace builders when writing stories, and to shun fake news which was also causing unnecessary conflict in the continent.
Former Kenyan journalist and Nust lecturer Wanja Njuguna said Kenya was always in election mode and it was imperative for journalists to begin to promote peaceful elections in their stories.
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