YANGON (March 11, 2014) – A panel of experts debated both the concept of peace journalism and its greater implications for covering worldwide and domestic conflict today during the East-West Center’s International Media Conference held this week in Yangon, Myanmar. The panel included the director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies Jake Lynch, Indian freelance journalist Dilnaz Boga, Voice of America Burmese Service Chief Than Lwin Htun, and Aung Nang Oo of the Myanmar Peace Center. (Watch the video of the panel)
Throughout the panel, both Lynch and Boga argued for the necessity of peace journalism to better defuse violence and to understand conflict, such as the current ethnic violence in Myanmar described in a report by Than Lwin Htun. Aung Nang Oo remained critical of journalists throughout the discussion, noting that journalists’ lack of sensitivity regarding precarious peace negotiations could be destructive.
Lynch began the panel by outlining the definition of peace journalism, and drawing parallels between the necessity for peace journalism in covering Australia’s current treatment of asylum-seekers and in covering Myanmar’s ethnic violence in Rakhine state.
Having studied the idea of peace journalism for 17 years, both as a professional journalist and as an academic, Lynch defined it as a global movement to reform journalism and develop greater responsibility when covering conflict. Peace journalism is not peace advocacy, he said; rather, it is awareness that the choice of a story’s framing, facts, and tone could unwittingly mobilize the public to support violence during a conflict.
Lynch said that peace journalism does not focus solely on violence but instead comprehensively examines all possible solutions to a conflict. He also cautioned about the potential for journalism to create a political spectacle, in which one group is constructed by media coverage as an enemy. This distracts citizens from deeper, more complex issues and allows politicians to easily garner public favor by denouncing ostracized groups, he said.
Lynch wondered whether the widespread prejudice against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state could be such a spectacle, distracting the general population from vast inequality in resource distribution and widespread poverty.
“Could it be that in Myanmar today there are ‘out’ groups, who are at risk of being labeled as a threat and psychologically distanced in order to promote political agendas?” Lynch asked.
Than Lwin Htun presented a report by the U.S. Institute of Peace, which drew from interviews with ethnic minority members, government leaders, religious leaders, journalists and human rights groups to examine the current conflict in Myanmar.
“Burma is in transition,” Than Lwin Htun said. “And, in transition and in a peace building process, we have to deal with conflict.”
Boga echoed the importance of using peace journalism to cover conflicts, drawing on her experiences covering the displacement of tribal people in India to make way for corporate development. She encouraged journalists to look beyond easily reported events to examine long-term processes.
“Peace journalism allows one to present all the layers in a conflict and increase its chance of resolution through public intervention,” Boga said.
Lynch described how the lack of complete context could result in media coverage that fails to investigate the motives of one party in a conflict. Doing so could paint that party as unreasonable, he said, leading audiences to believe that violence is the only way to resolve the conflict.
While both Lynch and Boga championed the ability of journalists to look past violence and public spectacle to analyze and contextualize, Aung Nang Oo criticized Myanmar journalists’ for “identity crisis,” “bloated writing,” and lack of understanding regarding the sensitivity of the nation’s ongoing peace process.
“This democracy has only been around for three years,” Aung Nang Oo said. “A lot of the politicians are very thin-skinned. The media doesn’t appreciate the sensitivity of the changes that are associated with the peace process.”
He pointed to better training and increased communication between journalists and the government as possible solutions. However, he continued to express concern and fear over the sudden, broad freedoms allowed to the media in Myanmar.
“The last thing we want to see is the media standing in the way of the peace process,” Aung Nang Oo said. “We want the media working with the peace process.”
–Reporting by Jessica Anania & photos by Ninh Pham, Missouri School of Journalism