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Pernilla Ahlsén and Jake Lynch go through news articles on the internet together with Una Cilic and Dijana Gajić, during a group assignment. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Anna Lithander.
Pernilla Ahlsén and Jake Lynch go through news articles on the internet together with Una Cilic and Dijana Gajić, during a group assignment. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Anna Lithander.

Journalism that changes wars

An anonymous woman crying. A man in uniform acting as an expert. Stereotypes in media reporting of conflicts are common, but it doesn’t have to be that way – not if using peace journalism.

Not far from the Media Centar’s premises in the outskirts of Sarajevo lies the Holiday Inn. The hotel with its distinctive yellow facade, then full of bullet holes, became world famous during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. This was were the international war correspondents lived and worked during the four years that Sarajevo was besieged. And it was here that the news agenda of the war was decided on for the rest of the world.

Power of the media and how journalists can reinforce conflict as well as contribute to a solution, are the subjects of the day at the Media Centar. Pernilla Ahlsén, journalist, and Jake Lynch, former BBC reporter and director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, are holding a workshop in peace journalism, organised by Kvinna till Kvinna.

“Peace journalism is the antithesis of war journalism. Its approach is to shift focus from the war, from the conflict between two parties, and instead look for solutions. To let other voices than just politicians’ and the militaries’ speak. To explain the background, not just report events without context,” says Jake Lynch, who has developed peace journalism from a concept introduced by peace researcher Johan Galtung in the 1960s.

Contribute to conflict resolution

The idea is that journalism, by adopting a peace perspective, not only provides a more accurate picture of what is happening but also can contribute to conflict resolution.

To allow more voices to be heard also means to challenge gender stereotypes. There are many examples over the years of how women have been made invisible in war reporting, something that also Kvinna till Kvinna addresses in the publication Peace journalism. Women are being described as victims, who have been subjected to violence and abuse. Often, they are anonymous and without a say. Women are rarely asked about the war or a solution.

“How are we to understand a conflict if not all get to speak? If no women are visible, what image do we get of women and their reality? They are victims of war, but they are so much more. If we do not convey a different image, women’s perspective will never be seen, nor their needs and ideas for change,” says Pernilla Ahlsén.

Pernilla Ahlsén shows stereotypes that permeate all areas of media, from texts to photos. How women politicians are asked about how they manage to combine work with having children – a question their male colleagues never get. How the female body is constantly exposed. How journalists ask women in war areas if they have been raped and are willing to be in a photo.

Transfer the shame

The workshop’s participants get to reflect on how reporting about abuse in war could be done if using a peace perspective. Putting focus on the perpetrator is one example. To transfer the shame from the woman to the one who has abused her. Or to highlight the efforts of women’s rights activists to support the vulnerable and demand justice, as in the documentary Women’s War.

Among the participants are researchers, NGO representatives and journalists. They are all active in a Bosnia-Herzegovina that no longer is at war, but where ethnic tensions still are strong. Politics is divided according to old enemy lines and power seems to be inherited. All around Sarajevo, large campaign signs for the autumn elections show Bakir Izetbegović – son of Alija Izetbegović who was president during the war. The workshop in peace journalism is an opportunity to reflect on what the media scene looks like and what can be done to bring about change.

“Our media channels are vessels for politicians’ opinions. One of our leading politicians even owns one of the newspapers. People do not feel that politics is for them, but something far away among an elite,” says researcher Melina Sadikovic, who also tells how media voices that are criticizing the power are being threatened and silenced.

“I think I can see how a kind of war journalism is used even today, although it does not involve armed conflict. When Bosnia was hit by massive floods this summer, the water was appointed the enemy. It was us against the water and noone reflected on why there was a flooding. There were of course many factors, like inadequate infrastructure and poorly built houses, but that didn’t get any media coverage,” says Dijana Gajić, who works at a magazine for women in Banja Luka.

Alternative stories

Sunita Dautbegović-Bošnjaković from the peace organisation Forum ZFD, believes that some small changes can be seen; an opening in media’s approach to alternative stories.

“Up until a few years ago, it was almost impossible to sell a positive story from the war. About neighbors who helped each other across ethnic boundaries, for example. Now the door is not quite as closed.”

Jake Lynch points out that peace journalism is a perspective not only for wars.

“It is useful for all types of conflicts. Like social changes that people react to differently, there you have conflict. The main idea is to always look at events and developments from more than one side. Not just focus on who will win or lose a war.”

Anna Lithander

Updated in: 2014-09-16