Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Micheál Martin, TD, “Media and Conflict” Conference
Address by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Micheál Martin, TD
“Media and Conflict” Conference
Dublin, 15 September 2010
Mr Chairperson, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank the European Commission for inviting me here this afternoon to participate in this discussion; it is a pleasure to be here. I would also like to pay tribute to our chair this afternoon, Mr Paul Gillespie of the Irish Times and the European Neighbourhood Journalism Network. Paul’s involvement with the Commission’s EuroMed Communications Programme is a fine example of the type of co-operation between countries and regions that the European Neighbourhood Programme and the Union for the Mediterranean were designed to encourage. I also welcome the presence here today of an impressive and diverse group of experts and practitioners from all over the world to explore the relationship between the media and conflict.
The Royal Irish Academy, in which we find ourselves this afternoon, has been bringing together scholars from diverse backgrounds and interests since 1785. In 1785, battles raged between nations and peoples just as they do today, yet news of the suffering and destruction caused by conflict did not travel quickly. People went about their daily lives with little knowledge of the atrocities which were being perpetrated in neighbouring countries, or sometimes within their own borders. With advances in technology in the nineteenth century, the horrors of war reached the mass media with ever increasing speed. Today, in the internet age, the traditional media must share the expanded public space with citizen journalists: amateur observers using modern technology who are equipped to report from the front line of conflict. In such a fragmented and fast-changing environment, which poses real threats to traditional journalism, journalists like you must earn the trust of your audience through a relentless search for accuracy and truth.
Integrity and objectivity can be difficult to maintain once opinions are formed and the lines between victim and aggressor are blurred. In the words of Ireland’s renowned playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who was no stranger to journalism: “The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it”. Good journalism is therefore difficult work. And it is even more difficult when reporting on situations of violent conflict. Yet, this is when good journalism is most fundamentally important.
The nature of the conflicts on which you report has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. In contrast to the experience of the 20th century, most conflict is now societal or civil in nature rather than the inter-state wars of the past. Contrast the blanket coverage of the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan with the almost forgotten conflicts in Chad, the Central African Republic and Nepal and we see the stark challenge facing our world. The conflicts affecting millions of people in developing countries where there is no direct western involvement are being ignored. As Foreign Minister, I see the consequences of these conflicts first hand on visits to affected regions. Galvanising resources to prevent future conflict in areas such as Liberia and the DRC is much more difficult because of a lack of media focus. The challenge facing you all is to instil a sense of urgency in your organisations about frozen or forgotten conflicts and to impart this also to your readership and audiences.
The internet has altered how news about conflicts is gathered, produced and digested. Communications channels such as Facebook and Wikileaks, as well as the internet pages of established and new media organisations, have transformed news delivery. This has important political repercussions. For example, in Iran, pro-reform media have moved en masse online following the regime’s widespread closure of independent newspapers. Twitter, journalist’s blogs and others tools have been of vital importance in enabling real-time communication with the outside world during protests against the regime. I believe such platforms, if freed from the restrictions which the Iranian authorities are continually seeking to impose, can play an important role in enabling the EU’s message of peaceful cooperation and engagement to reach the Iranian street.
As Ireland prepares to chair the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2012, we will work tirelessly to contribute to the resolution of such conflicts, drawing on our own experience in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process. The OSCE is also a champion of the freedom of the media. We will support the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, an office that has existed since 1997 and is the only inter-governmental media freedom institution in the world. I share the concern expressed recently by the Representative, Dunja Mijatovic, over the disappearance of Ukrainian journalist Vasil Klymentyev. It is vital that violence against journalists in reprisal for their work be fully investigated. I warmly welcome the commitment of the Ukrainian authorities to do everything possible to find Mr Klymentyev.
Attacks on journalists are an intolerable affront to the rule of law and I will place freedom of the media at the centre of our Chairmanship. The new media landscape I referred to earlier offers great opportunities to keep the citizens of the world better informed about decisions affecting their lives but it can also be manipulated to discredit those who seek out uncomfortable truths. I hope to make progress on strengthening and up-dating of commitments already undertaken by the OSCE and I would like to explore possible new mechanisms to ensure the media are free to operate without hindrance in all OSCE countries.
My Department has in recent years promoted more in-depth media coverage of the causes and consequences of poverty through the Simon Cumbers Media Fund. Some of you here today may have known Simon, whose life was cut tragically short while working as a cameraman in Saudi Arabia. The fund is a fitting tribute to all journalists who work in a challenging environment to ensure that news is reported, even from the most hostile of environments. In addition to this fund, Ireland is supporting programmes to build long-term capacity for independent reporting on issues relating to conflict, justice and poverty in Tanzania, Uganda and in Zambia. Training, particularly in the area of investigative journalism, has been prioritised.
I have devoted a lot of my time as Foreign Minister to the long running conflict in the Middle East. The Middle East has demanded the attention of Ministers and editors around the world for over half a century now. In a way this longevity has become part of the problem. The conflict is both too familiar and too little understood, urgent and yet too often forgotten.
We remember many leaders over many years who have tried to bring it to a resolution, and a long history of conferences, Summits, agreements and new beginnings, which have seemingly run into the sand. This can discourage Foreign Ministers and other leaders from committing precious time and energy to trying once again to resolve it.
In Ireland, perhaps because we remember the long years when our own conflict here also seemed to many to be incapable of resolution, we continue to have a strong and active commitment to try and assist in the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I strongly agree with the view expressed by Senator George Mitchell, a man who is now giving his time and effort to this conflict as he did to ours, that all conflicts made by man can be resolved by man.
The Middle East also poses strong challenges to journalists, beyond the obvious one of the physical dangers to which they are often exposed. It is a complex conflict, with many different actors, interests and arenas, and much of the coverage of it does not get below the surface level. Governments and other actors in conflict situations around the world, or who are major human rights offenders, have become much more knowing about how to play the media angle, presenting counterarguments and an appearance of remedial action, and aggressively targeting outlets and individual journalists for alleged lack of balance. The resulting “he said/ she said” type of coverage can often leave the casual viewer or reader not much wiser, or disengaged.
For a political actor like a Minister, one interacts with the media in different ways at different times and for different ends. When I visited Gaza in February this year, I was very conscious that no EU Minister had been allowed in since just after the war there a year earlier, and that international attention was waning while the situation in the territory had not improved or recovered at all. So a large part of my objective in going there was to call international attention back to the plight of the people of Gaza, and the need to do something about it – principally to pressure Israel to end the blockade.
Media coverage of my visit, both by accompanying Irish journalists and through a press conference for local and international media held at the UNRWA HQ in Gaza city, helped I believe to revive attention on the position of Gaza, as did an op-ed piece on the visit which I was pleased to pen for the International Herald Tribune. I was encouraged by the fact that my visit was followed by further visits by Baroness Ashton on behalf of the EU, by Ban Ki Moon and others in the weeks that followed.
I remain determined to keep a focus on this issue. As you will know, following the events of the Free Gaza flotilla in May and June, there has been a significant easing of the Israeli blockade, although it has not ended. This does not yet go far enough, not by a long way, but it is a work in progress and we will be following it very closely, and pressing for it to go further.
But it will come as no surprise if I argue conversely that publicity is not always welcome in a conflict like this. Many of you may remember that, following the attacks of 9/11, a western camera crew found a woman in Gaza loudly celebrating the event, and that image was broadcast round the world, doing I believe enormous damage to the cause of the Palestinian people, whose reaction to the attack was generally the same as our own. As Hannan Ashrawi, a leading PLO negotiator at the time, correctly observed, “You can find idiots in any city.” But those who gave prominence to that lady’s reaction, as supposedly illustrative of Palestinians, did a grave injury to a people who have suffered very greatly.
In a complex negotiation which will require painful compromises, daylight and publicity can be so destructive as to prevent progress at all. As we found in Northern Ireland, when people know they are going to be asked to make sacrifices, they have a tendency often not to believe their own leaders’ reassurances, but instead to believe the assurances they hear the other side’s leaders giving to their people. It is no accident that many of the breakthroughs in this process have been the result of completely secret discussions. It is often observed that, the less you hear coming out of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, the more chance that they are going somewhere.
It is very important that the talks now under way be allowed to proceed in confidence and without interference. However much some might doubt the chances of success, this is the best opportunity we are likely to have for a long time to reach a real comprehensive peace. The leaders on both sides need to be given the space to start relating to each other, rather than to the public outside, and to explore possibilities and compromises. There are plenty of people on both sides outside the process, who actively seek to make the talks fail.
Northern Ireland is an example of a successful peace process, and indeed a conflict, which has occurred in the modern media age. For many people what they see on the news and read in the papers has and continues to define their understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland. Throughout the Troubles, the media allowed those outside the North and the border region a glimpse of the painful ghastly reality of violence and conflict. But images and journalistic reporting and analysis have also helped the world to chart how we got here and where we are today. The conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland has coincided with huge advances in how, and how quickly, news is transmitted – from the grainy black and white coverage of Bloody Sunday in 1972 to the HD images of North South Ministerial Councils in 2010.
There are many images of Northern Ireland which are totemic for all of the wrong reasons: be it the horrific wreckage in the aftermath of a bomb or the sight of a priest waving a white handkerchief to secure safe passage for those carrying the body of a dying young man. And then there are the coffins; so many, too many, men women and children who lost their lives. So many images of grief stricken and shocked families emerging from churches to lay their loved ones to rest while the world watches and gets a poignant glimpse of a personal and overwhelming pain. In such circumstances the media have a difficult task, balancing respect and a wish not to intrude with a duty to show the world the agonising cost of conflict.
News men and women have shown great bravery and dedication in their coverage of Northern Ireland over many decades. They have held a mirror up to these islands and often what we saw was uncomfortable and difficult. We owe a real debt of gratitude to the many journalists who covered the North over the decades. Although it is not in the strict job description, many journalists directly and indirectly contributed to the peace process. In saying this, I know I am touching on an ongoing and thorny debate among journalists, and one which I’m sure will arise during this Conference.
We are often asked to consider what lessons from Northern Ireland can be shared with other places struggling to come out of conflict. This is always a difficult question because no two situations are alike and any approach no matter how innovative or successful in one region may not succeed in the particular circumstances of another. There are however, I think, a number of interesting factors which led to peace in Northern Ireland which it is worth exploring.
The first is the power of ordinary people. This is not a story of great leaders, although some were called to greatness. It is a story of ordinary people who, through their daily lives, demonstrated that change was not just possible but desired. The women who in the midst of terror and violence and loss – looked across the divide to see another mother, or sister – suffering just like them. Those in community centres and parish halls who were brave enough to step outside the comfortable inherited narrative of “us and them” and see “all of us” instead. People, living in their communities, who had seen and been through enough.
While it is absolutely true that both political and community leadership were crucial to the various breakthroughs which led to the Good Friday Agreement, this would not have been possible without the support of people on the ground, before, during and after. And when the process in earnest started those ordinary people began to hope. Hope – which for too many years had been maintained as only a small flicker was beginning to grow. People, in spite of all that they had been through and all they had seen, began to truly believe that the worst was over and that their leaders could make the breakthrough. And that hope was what got things over the line. Politicians saw that a new beginning and a peaceful future was what the people wanted and what they were coming to expect. So they delivered.
The news media played a crucial role in providing a necessary conduit between political leaders and their communities during those months and years. Vox pops, opinions polls and feature pieces demonstrated the will and aspiration of the people on the ground while press conferences, tv debates and political interviews allowed politicians to communicate what they were seeking to achieve.
In the years after the Agreement the media’s role in Northern Ireland, like society itself became more normalised but was none the less valuable for that. During the collapse and suspension of the Institutions, politicians were challenged about how this had come about and, more importantly, what would be done to rectify it. The St Andrews Agreement and the restoration of the Institutions, and the further agreement at Hillsborough earlier this year which led to the completion of the devolution of policing and justice, saw some more “historic days” for Northern Ireland but, by then, many of the international cameras and reporters packed up and moved on.
This is not a criticism, it is as it should be, a welcome sign of the progress we have made. There is still a very significant job to do and many excellent journalists from and in Northern Ireland to do it. Holding politicians to account, looking critically at the operation of Institutions as they consolidate and analysing how society is moving forward in terms of reconciliation.
There is a delicate line between politics and the media and it is not for me or my colleagues to prescribe action for the media but I believe that you have a unique role to play as Northern Ireland begins to build a shared future. The dramatic days of peace negotiations may be past but there is work yet to do if, as we committed in the Good Friday Agreement, we are to bequeath a cohesive community to generations to come.
What is needed in Northern Ireland is societal transformation and all have a responsibility to engage in that process. A proactive media can hold a mirror up to the uglier side of a post conflict society – to the lingering sectarianism and the marginalisation of communities – but it can also reveal and highlight the enormous efforts being made to heal old wounds and build new relationships.
Drawing on the success of the Northern Ireland peace process, and our direct experience of resolving that conflict, we in Ireland are in a position to share the lessons we have learned about conflict resolution. Combining this knowledge with Ireland’s proud history of UN peacekeeping and the depth of experience arising from our aid programme, gives us a unique perspective on conflict resolution and peacebuilding. Ireland is one of a small number of developed countries that can draw on such direct experiences. In carrying out our conflict resolution work, we draw on the vast reservoir of experience possessed by civil society organisations and academic institutions in Ireland and internationally.
I was pleased to see that one of the conference working groups relates to women and war. This October marks the tenth anniversary of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. My department is currently leading the development of Ireland’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, working with civil society. We have also sought to draw on the direct experiences of women from conflict affected areas in a cross-learning process bringing together participants from Ireland/Northern Ireland, Timor-Leste and Liberia. We will present a report to the UN Secretary General in October on the outcome of this process, containing recommendations for the UN system on issues related to women, peace and security.
Mr Chairperson, I have outlined some of the challenges facing the media as it reports on ever more complex conflicts in an ever more crowded media space. I would encourage you all to continue to attempt to unravel the deep rooted causes of conflict; and to understand as well as report.
As journalists and media professionals, you have a particular role to play in deepening public understanding of conflict. As professional communicators you are uniquely positioned to reach viewers, readers and listeners around the world – to transform the local to global. You identify that common thread of humanity that makes us empathise with a woman fleeing from atrocities in Darfur; a young soldier on his way to an uncertain future in Iraq or Afghanistan; or a Palestinian child sitting in the rubble of his school. And, beyond empathy, you encourage, and indeed shame us, into action on behalf of our fellow citizens.
Thank you Mr Chairperson.Top