Insensitivity that kills and the need of Peace Journalism

By Sirikit Syah, MA

1. Background

It may be difficult for people to swallow, but yes, insensitivity does kill. More than 200 people died in Nigeria in early 2003, hundreds more wounded, and thousands lost their family members, homes and lands. Some might see it as caused by Islamic intolerance and back-minded people of Nigeria. In fact, it happened simply because of insensitivity of the mass media and country leader. First, the Miss World committee was not sensitive enough by insisting to hold the contest in Nigeria, despite refusal and criticism by its majority people. It is hard to understand why other people could not or would not understand, that for Moslems, a parade of women wearing sexy dresses in public is against their believe. Especially in a sacred month like Ramadhan!

The second sensitivity belonged to the article writer, Isioma Daniel, in a newspaper called This Day. In response to criticism by Moslem groups against the contest, the article allegedly says, ‘What would Mohammad have thought if he was alive? He would not have rejected the idea and might even have picked one of them as a wife’. This could be considered as blasphemy. Without understanding Mohammad, the writer insensitively assumed that Mohammad would have just grabbed any beautiful woman he met for a wife. The Prophet Mohammad had never married women because they were beautiful. History told that his wives were widows –sometimes older, a young girl that he had waited for years before marrying, a slave, poor women, and the like. He was not God, he was a man, and he married several women. But he was never attempted by young, beautiful, sexy women for marry.

The lack of sensitivity was also shown by President Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, who was asked by High Council of Islam in Nigeria to cancel the contest and give sanction to This Day. He ignored these inputs and his country had to pay for that. Two hundred people died and hundreds of homes were damaged.

The Nigerian people, mostly Moslems, were angered by these insensitivities. It was a tragedy, how a good-intentional Miss World contest (to promote tourism in Nigeria and solidarity among nations?) resulted in a cold-blooded mass murder. How much more the Nigerian people had to suffer before people understood and accepted their value and norms? It was a tragedy and an irony, that while thousands of people were suffering from killings, wounding, and loosing homes, lands, and families; dozens of beautiful women were smiling innocently to the media, looking happy, and continuing their program by moving the show to London. However, a few contestants had shown their sensitivities by withdrawing and going home (Miss South Korea, Miss Canada, etc). Jang Yu-kyong, Miss South Korea, said: “I can’t continue smiling while hundreds of people died because of this.”

2. Social Contract

In April 2001, Time magazine offended Moslems in many countries by publishing a picture of Mohammad meeting the angel Gabriel. It then apologized for the ‘unintentional affront to the Islamic faith’. In February 2002, Newsweek did similar thing and was protested by Moslems in many countries, including Indonesia. And yet they accused Indonesia as ‘undemocratic’ and ‘attacking the freedom of the press and free flow of information’. Atmakusumah Astraatmadja, then the chairman of the Indonesian Press Council, said in Asia Magazine, Febuary 2002, “Freedom of the press is not only based on journalistic ethics and professionalism. It is a social contract as well. If most Moslems in Indonesia and the world are against the visualization of the Prophet, we have to respect that.” It is as simple as that.

If some people keep forcing their values and norms to other people, they should as well expect a resistance. How could somebody humiliate Mohammad the Prophet in public and expect Moslems not to be angered by that? Christians were also angered by a movie called ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, and now Jewish people were angered by ‘The Passion’, even though it is said to be according to the Bible. In the beginning of the 2nd Intifada, an insensitive Israeli minister had labeled Palestinians as ‘two-legged beasts’ and ‘lice’, and –later- he was murdered. The murder was wrong, and so did the labeling and humiliation imposed to the Palestinians.

Insensitivity also killed in many parts of Indonesia, as shown by the conflicts of Sampit (between Dayak and Madurese), West Kalimantan (Dayak-Madurese-Malay), Maluku and Sulawesi (Moslems-Christians). It also killed millions of people in the case of Tutsi and Huttu in Africa, provoked by an insensitive radio broadcast. In the US, insensitive endless broadcasting of footage of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers (who were whites) ended up with the burning of LA city by the enraged African American population.

Free press is not sterile from values, and as Atmakusumah mentioned, it is a social contract. The ultimate responsibility of the press is not to its owner or its government, but to its readers/audience. So, when a community of readers/audience rejects the contents of the press, the worst the press could do is to blame its readers/audience by calling them undemocratic or a threat to the freedom of the press.

3. Peace Journalism

a. Principles of Peace Journalism

Peace Journalism is a journalistic approach with a mission, which is to focus media coverage in conflict regions on peaceful solution, instead of continuing war. It is not exposing win-loose solution, but seeking any possibility of win-win solution. In fact, the standard of PJ reporting is similar to any journalistic standards that have been acknowledged for many years. There are only several modifications of criteria of ‘what makes news’, such as:
– PJ reporters would interview more grass-root people, as opposed to the criteria of ‘prominence’ on conventional journalistic standard –giving voice to the voiceless.
– PJ reporters would give attention to small efforts of peace in conflict situation, as opposed to ‘magnitude’ –small things also matter, small peace efforts count.
– PJ reporters would not concentrate on conflict/controversy, but rather on peace and positive things happening in the region –good/positive news is also news.
– Coverage is not based on number of victims and scale of damages, but on the process and background of conflict.
– Cover both sides is not enough in PJ reporting, because it might even make the situation worse by polarizing the conflict into two warring sides. Many sides and many angles would be the perspectives of PJ reporting.
– Objectivity is not the ‘god’ of PJ reporting, but ‘fairness’ is.
– PJ reporters are careful with language being used, particularly by avoiding the use of labeling, stereotyping, adjectives, connotative words, etc.

b. Obstacles & Challenges

Based on experience in training Peace Journalism to hundreds of Indonesian journalists (most of them are war journalists from the conflict regions), it is obvious that many journalists are reluctant to adopt PJ. The reasons of this are:
– The myth of rating that ‘violence sells’.
– A believe that journalists shall present facts, and a misconception that PJ hides facts. Facts presented in the media are always selected, not only in PJ.
– A believe that objectivity is the ‘aim’ of reporting.
– High cost and time consuming of PJ reporting.
– Only reporters are trained on Peace Journalism, while decision making in the newsrooms lays in the hands of editors and chief editors.

4. Conclusion and Recommendation

To avoid unnecessary damage because of insensitive and provocative reporting, the practice of Peace Journalism is highly recommended. The key point should be socialized widely, that ‘Peace Journalism is not hiding facts, but –as other kinds of journalism- selecting facts, for the purpose of a more peaceful society’.

Convention of journalism should be remodified by replacing several news criteria, such as magnitude, prominence, both-sides coverage, objectivity, with more down-to-earth and pro-poor criteria. Also, journalists-to be shall be taught that controversy may be a good news, but ‘good news is also news’. The credo of the press that ‘we just observe and report’ shall be replaced that ‘the press does not only act as observer, but as participant too’ in any situation, war or peace.

Training on Peace Journalism shall be addressed also to editors, chief editors, and media owners, since they are the ones who decide in the newsrooms. Commitments shall be made by these high-ranking people in the media, not only by journalists in the conflict regions. To prove that the high rating of ‘violence’ is only a myth, there shall be a survey research among media consumers (readers/audience). Survey shall not be targeted to people who watch violence, but to people who don’t, by asking question ‘why they don’t watch violence, and what they really want to watch/read?’

Universities and other media-related institutions shall give more attention to audience research, instead of content/program research.

End of Paper 2004

The writer is the founder and vice chairman of LKM, a media watch organization, vice-chairman of Stikosa-AWS (School of Mass Communication), and chairman of East Java Broadcasting Commission, based in Surabaya, Indonesia.


Perihal LKM Media Watch
Mass media are watchdogs. But who watch the media? Let's do it together. Watch this very powerful entity, for better journalism, better Indonesia, better world.

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