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3 December 2009

The power to kill

The media are fundamental to the reconstruction of broken societies and can have a critical impact o

By Martin Bell

To the old adage that in war the first casualty is truth, I would add an afterthought that the second casualty is news. When things go well, truth and news bear a certain relationship to each other, often rather distant. When they go badly, especially in wars within failed states, news first degrades into crude propaganda, and then just disappears. Supplies of newsprint are cut off. The electricity grid fails and television screens go blank. Radios last until the batteries run out. At this point, news is replaced by rumour. The wildest atrocity stories are believed. Divided communities expect the worst of each other and tend, themselves, to live up to those expectations. This is the point at which only survival matters. People will arm their children. They will fight or flee. Only when the war is over – as often from exhaustion as from a battlefield outcome – will any sort of news service resume. Even then, the story of the war will be rewritten from the perspective of each side’s experience of its sufferings.

Everyone’s business

We are coming to the realisation that, in an interconnected world, other people’s wars are everyone’s business. Wars threaten us all. Broken societies are not easily brought back together. I have not studied the theory of this, but I do know something about the practice. In discussions about postwar reconstruction, there may occasionally be too much emphasis on the abstractions of governance and capacity-building, and not enough on the role of the media in a country or community convalescing from war. The media – the press, broadcasting and now the internet, too – are not peripheral, but central to the process of rebuilding, and especially to striking the balance between truth and reconciliation.

I am not arguing for state control, but there has to be a degree of media regulation in any country, as there is in Britain (and perhaps ours is not firm enough). From experience, I know the power of the press in war zones and I believe that, prudently harnessed, with professional and
financial support, training programmes and targeted subsidies, it can help in achieving the goal known in the UN as “building back better”. One of the building blocks has to be a law against the incitement of hatred. Hate radio especially has no place in a free society.

The most notorious recent example of the use of the airwaves as a weapon of war was the role of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994. The radio station thrived on a formula of music, humour and propaganda aimed at an audience of mostly young Hutus. It spewed out a message of hatred directed against the Tutsis, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda and its commander, the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire. After the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down in April 1994, the radio station joined the chorus blaming the Tutsis and calling for their extermination. The coded phrase for the genocide was “Cut down the tall trees”.

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Radio in Africa was then, and still is, more influential than television. Like the press everywhere, its moral impact depends on the hands into which it falls. It can be a force for good or a force for evil. In this case, it was a powerful force for evil. Three of the station’s managers were convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha.

Voice of government

In more developed societies, television is of greater importance. In Yugoslavia, under Tito and his various successors, it was never far from being the voice of the government. When the Serbs declared independence and established their mini-state at the start of the Bosnian war, one of their first acts was to set up their own television service in Pale, their mini-capital. They even hijacked some equipment left behind by certain BBC colleagues of mine, who fled under fire from Sarajevo in May 1992.

The Serbs continued to report the war as a series of victories and heroic offensives until their front lines crumbled in the autumn of 1995. Paddy Ashdown, in his role as the EU’s high representative, devoted a great deal of his time to muffling the voices of nationalism on Bosnian television. He was not always successful. To this day, Bosnia’s fractured media reflect the fragile state of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war.

One of my abiding memories of war­time Bosnia was a front line in the Muslim-Croat war near Travnik, early in 1994. It was defended by the Croats with a range of improvised explosive devices, scattered in hedges and ditches. One of these was an old television set that had been filled with explosives and turned into a booby trap. So much for nation speaking peace unto nation. There seemed something ominously symbolic about it: the power of television at this extreme was the power to kill and to maim.

Nato’s bombing of Belgrade Television during the Kosovo crisis reflected the importance of the TV station as a buttress of the Milosevic regime. At the time, Allied spokesmen sought to justify the attack on the grounds that the station was broadcasting lies. Nonetheless, it was a disgraceful act. The answer to lies can never be bombs, but truths.

And it was not the bombs, but the popular will that brought Slobodan Milosevic down. Serbia today is a functioning democracy. It is not perfect, but neither is ours. And the country enjoys a remarkably free and vigorous press. That was not imposed by force, either. It emerged from the collapse of the dictatorship and the people’s dislike of being fed a diet of lies.

It may even be that new democracies such as Serbia enjoy a state of grace in the period between the end of conflict and the onset of globalisation. They do not take their freedoms for granted, but are not yet seen on Spaceship Murdoch as targets for acquisition.

Martin Bell is the Unicef UK ambassador for humanitarian emergencies. He has reported 18 wars


This piece was originally published as part of a supplement, “Propagating Peace”, sponsored by Atos Consulting in the 7 December 2009 issue.

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