Media-driven Conflict Management: Time for a new partnership?

Happily, I am not old enough to know how conflicts used to be addressed, but these days, without a doubt, response is driven by media action. I remember driving across snowy Saskatchewan (in Canada…) listening to live coverage of the 1991 invasion of Iraq over AM radio (indeed, you may need to google that), and in later years, 24 hour coverage by CNN of conflicts around the world. I came of age during the Yugoslav wars and the genocide in Rwanda. Elder sons of my parents’ friends served in both places as peacekeepers. Our neighbour lead forces in Syria. My own father played a role in the end of the Cold War and so it feels like my entire life lead up to studying and engaging in conflict resolution. I worked in Georgia (the country, home of wine), Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and later Indonesia and Solomon Islands. I have never not worked in a post-conflict country. It’s what I do.
So I can claim, without a doubt, that international response to conflict is directly related to how much and how intensely international media is covering it. How do I know? Because right now no one cares about what is happening in Myanmar – and not just in Rahkine. Indonesian Papua – do you know where that is? There’s Burundi, and southern Thailand and – my god – does anyone even care about South Sudan? Central African Republic has annual peace agreements (I exaggerate, but not by much), and the only people who seem to care about Yemen are the people that work there. And despite writing a dissertation on the subject, I’m not sure anyone outside of post-Soviet academia even knows where Nagorno Karabakh is.

International Crisis Group has pulled together a list of crises that need attention but just won’t get it because it’s not sexy media – there’s no immediate geopolitical impact for the West. Which is sad. But they (ICG) have done a good job.

As a student and practitioner of conflict management, I know that money and attention flows to the most high profile conflicts – the ones that have the greatest impact in the countries that create and pay for peace despite the fact that all conflicts impact humanity – lives and livelihoods and our senses of self. Trust me – the peace process in Aceh was all the rage during tsunami recovery, but now? Not so much. It sure isn’t sexy media.

The fathers of conflict management theory must be rolling in their graves – this is not how we do it. It’s supposed to be conflict identification first, analysis second, engagement of actors and then media attention. We are not ambulance chasers, for lack of a better term. But since that is what we have become, in effect, can we still apply standard conflict management theory?

I don’t know. Right now, I’m focussed in Rakhine and yet anything that happens there depends in how much media exposure UN agency reports are getting (which admittedly isn’t much, so admittedly, there hasn’t been anything that resembles classic conflict management undertaken). Short of going there (which no one is really allowed to do) classic conflict management approaches will be shelved and replaced by media bullying and shaming (because that’s what they’ve had to resort to short of any concerted international response).

To my thesis advisors, I’m very sorry, but our new reality dictates a need to have journalists take the, lead otherwise no one cares. What does this mean? It means a) conflict management theory needs to quickly catch up with the reality of how international relations plays out in the 21st century, and b) we need journalists who have some understanding of what it takes to resolve conflict, as they lead the discourse these days. Sad for those of us who went to school to learn this, but it doesn’t mean we can’t help. We’re the knowledge, th’re the voice.

So, in this age of forgotten conflicts, perhaps we, conflict management practitioners, need to be convincing leads, to get them to them follow. For the good of humanity. Because no conflict is more important than another in the eyes of those who suffer from it.

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