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The paper, “Digital Media in Conflict-Prone Societies” that is the outcome of the work that originally motivated this blog has been published by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). I originally wrote the paper while a fellow at USIP, and now, more than a year later, it’s in print. Hopefully it’s still timely.

It seems that in the past year a lot of the issues discussed in the paper have reached more mainstream awareness. Conflicts in Georgia, Gaza, and Madagascar, civil unrest in Moldova, Iran, Fiji, China, and Guinea, and a terror attack in Mumbai have all played out in public spaces. Citizen media played important roles in each one of them, to organize opposition, to amplify alternative viewpoints, to report and record violence, and to track and identify opponents. Governments have responded by slowing or shutting internet and cell phone use (Iran, China). DDOS attacks and censorship have also been prominent (Georgia, Iran, China, Gaza) when governments and/or non-state supporters of parties to conflict have participated in shutting down opposing websites and cellular networks. Finally, activists and media have designed projects that support a greater flow of information, or attempt to map and parse information for accuracy and coherence (Madagascar, Mumbai, Gaza, Iran).

A short description, from CIMA, follows:

Throughout history, war has affected media, with conflict often creating an information void. In the 21st century, media has begun to affect war more than ever before. Digital media technologies – particularly participatory, networked tools – have increased communication and information dissemination in conflict settings, affecting all sides and involving new producers of news coverage. These new tools can be used to foment violence or to foster peace, and it is possible to build communication systems that encourage dialogue and nonviolent political solutions. The international media development community must adapt its conflict-zone programs to fit a new media environment, designing projects that encompass digital media applications that encourage more open communities and states, provide venues for dialogue, and reduce control of information.

We’ll be discussing the paper at CIMA October 27, together with Erik Hersman of Ushahidi. We’ll also consider a new generation of innovative digital media projects that focus on producing accurate information in conflict, often in the developing world, as local communities build digital media tools and applications for their own needs.

I had the pleasure of helping out on a talk given by Tole Nyatta a few days ago. Tole is a volunteer at Pamoja FM, a community radio station in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi. He’s in Washington DC to receive a media leadership award from Internews Network.

Tole Nyatta at mic


Kibera was the site of a great deal of violence during the post-election conflict in January and February, and Pamoja played a large role in trying to maintain or restore peace in the neighborhood. Pamoja was profiled in the Christian Science Monitor in January; saying:

“We’re doing news, but we don’t incite people,” says Mohammad Abubakr, a hip young volunteer who runs the midday reggae show, aimed at Kibera’s youth. Normally, Mr. Abubakr’s show covers topics such as the need to avoid drugs, gangs, and teen pregnancy, but since the political crisis, Pamoja has become a clearing house for the sort of basic information that people would need after a hurricane or other natural disaster.

“We don’t tell them [who should be] president, and make them want to fight,” says Abubakr. “We tell them the situation in Kibera, which shops are open, where there is food, where there is fuel, where they can buy airtime for their cellphones.”

A good deal has been written on the role of the media in post-election violence in Kenya, with policy recommendations, as well as several projects to work with Kenyan media on conflict-sensitive journalism, how to report on conflict, and support for coverage of the National Accord and Reconcilation Act’s implementation.

Internews conducted research and a ran a series of workshops around the country to “train[ ] journalists and presenters to constructively tell the stories of those affected by the violence in their struggle to restart their lives.”

International Media Support produced several reports and policy recommendations, and also created a manual on conflict sensitive reporting for Kenya by Ross Howard.

The BBC Wold Service Trust produced a policy briefing on the role of media.

All three organizations present detailed and sophisticated recommendations focusing on strategic engagement with media on training, technical capacity, and the skills to cover conflict. They bemoan a reflexive attitude on the part of governments and some in the international community to restrict or ban speech in crises, and to compare incidents of possible hate speech and incitement with the Rwanda genocide. The BBC says:

Most donors and development actors have attached a low priority to media and media support issues in the context of development and particularly in fragile states. Neither funding nor research in this area have (with some exceptions) been considered significant strategic priorities. A generic and generally rhetorical commitment to the importance of a free media has sufficed.

The underlying reason for this is a perspective that liberalized media undermine fragile and weak states, and that speech freedoms and information access should in certain contexts be restricted in favor of support to the state. This notion implies that a non-liberal or authoritarian media system is somehow more desirable, and suggests that those media support a broadly unbiased public good. In reality, as in the Kenyan situation, such media are nearly always aligned with the party in power. The abstract idea of supporting a “state” in fact means support for the ruling faction. International support for the state is hence interpreted locally as support for the ruling power.

Such ideas also presume that a country’s information space can still be controlled. Kenya, as with recent examples in Pakistan, Burma, and China, demonstrate that people simply turn to other communications technologies in the face of restrictions on media.

Based on Tole’s experience at Pamoja, together with the above reports, here’s a summary of some lessons on media and incitement in Kenya:

1) Banning of vernacular media is short-sighted.

The Kenyan government is considering a ban on vernacular radio stations, claiming they incited violence. However, the assumption that the media drive conflict is simplistic. Many vernacular stations sought to support peace, but were threatened by their community when they tried. Hate speech came from call-in programs and to a lesser extent, DJs – rather than from journalists. Reporting could be shallow or one-sided, but did not generally incite.

At Radio Lake Victoria for example, the station tried to program peace media. Crowds protested and forced journalists to support their movement, saying, ‘you represent our community, so you need to represent our views. A call for peace is akin to a call for the validation of the elections.’ One journalist told Tole, “If I don’t represent them, then I’m gonna get lynched.”

Lessons: Stations need:

  • Ongoing relationships across ethnic, communal, political divides, and media social networks outside of identification community;

  • Training for media in how to cover conflict, physical security.

2) Rwanda is not the automatic comparison point.

Attempts to use the experience of Rwanda as an excuse for censorship, vernacular language restrictions, or cutting off live programming ultimately will lead to new problems.


  • Hate speech laws are often used to deny rights to minority groups – an excuse for repression. Selective enforcement is one element of this; biased government, another.
  • Censorship of hate speech does not alter the fact of hatred – possibly it simply drives that hatred into other channels.
  • Blaming speech for incitement while not addressing other aspects of discrimination and underlying issues that cause violence simply scapegoats the media. Security comes from dialogue, relationships with neighbors, and the resolution of underlying issues.
  • In countries without functioning rule of law or weak judiciaries, hate speech laws are problematic because they can’t be properly adjudicated.

3) The KBC approach – broadcasting feel-good stories that flatter the government – is short-sighted and even harmful.

KBC misstatements about the security of a given town resulted in some Kikuyu returning home, only to be slaughtered.

Lesson: Managing the message during an emergency can have unforeseen consequences – the idea that peace messages are solutions in every context is naïve if not given in the context of accurate information.

4) Local-global continuum.

The Kenyan government banned live broadcasting and aggressive coverage of the elections, and of violence. This was based on a narrow, national vision of media, whereby information space could be controlled. However:

  • International broadcasters (BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera) showed more violence than local stations, upending the Kenyan stations’ caution;
  • Because of the ban, international programming couldn’t be countered by more specific, up-to-date local perspectives, creating a rash of rumor and supposition;
  • SMS messages and Internet provided avenues for information to race around the country, repeating what was seen on the international broadcasts, but with distortions and lack of clarity.
  • National governments do not control information spaces; attempting control simply causes people to seek information elsewhere, on other networks.

5) Question of incitement and authority of media – new v. old.

There were numerous incidents of highly volatile messages sent via SMS texting and Internet. Tole’s perspective on whether those messages resonated:

  • With mass media, people tend to believe. They associate media with authority, facts, and information. However, relationship is from distant speaker to diffuse audiences and thus effects are difficult to identify.

  • With SMS texting and email, people are more skeptical. They question the validity of the information. On the other hand, the contact is often personal, via friends and community networks, so there is a more direct kind of social pressure.

6) Digital Media.

Digital media are increasingly popular in Kenya. Seven million cell phone users and an active online community, with sites such as the blog aggregator Kenyaunlimited, or Both SMSs and blogs had a mix of peace messages and virulent speech. Mashada had to shut its forum the end of January due to the volume of nastiness. was created to track conflict, verify events, create timelines, and provide space for dialogue. However, Tole says that Ushahidi was not well known among community media outlets. Such efforts are valuable but needs more outreach, awareness. As with international broadcasting, even services that reach a relatively small elite can have an effect, due to connectivity provided by cellular phone networks.

7) Truth and justice v. peace and reconciliation.

Journalism community describes their response to the crisis as a “failure” to uphold their watchdog role, and say attempts to calm the violence conflicts with their journalistic obligations. The IMS reports get into this in some detail.

Lessons: Journalists and media outlets are unprepared to report on mass violence in their own communities. They need:

  • Editorial guidance and resources.
  • Security (both training and resources).
  • Long-term perspective on investigative journalism into underlying issues.

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Sri Lanka’s long-running conflict has had an explosive year. The Sri Lankan government’s decision in January 2008 to pull out of the cease fire signed in 2002 between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE has led to the renewal of open war. The agreement had been in trouble for years, and analysts have argued that it would have collapsed sooner were it not for the tsunami and consequent weakening of the LTTE military, and diversion of resources from the GoSL.

Sri Lanka has a highly educated population with literacy rates exceeding 90%, and an active civil society, a vocal if partisan media, an influential and well-off diaspora, an active ICT sector, and numerous humanitarian organizations, and the UN present to observe both the cease fire and now, the return to war.

Sri Lanka is a great example of the diversification of information sources that coincide with conflict. Specifically, conflict encourages both media and various nonprofit and civil society groups to create new media projects to fill an information gap, or to find solutions to deal with lack of physical access to conflict zones, political violence, surveillance, and censorship. It’s also the case that resources to create such projects are directed to Sri Lanka because of the conflict as well as the savvy and organization of activists. Funding sources include international aid, citizens groups, diaspora, private foundations, and corporate social responsibility efforts.

The idea that conflict has effects on media, and spurs entrepreneurial and technological change has been observed by others. Ted Okada of Microsoft Humanitarian Systems, for instance, describes the work of his unit in complex humanitarian emergencies as a testing ground for new technologies that have applications both in emergencies and everyday contexts. Software tools such as Groove or testing for the smart personal technology watch and collaborations with media outlets to build communications networks, for instance in Afghanistan or earthquake relief in Kashmir, have resulted. Here, Ted is quoted by Jon Udall on Sri Lanka:

“We’ve been working with an NGO that was using Groove to negotiate between the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka. The two parties wouldn’t sit in the same room, but they did agree to use Groove to arbitrate the conflict.”

Sri Lanka’s civil society and media activists are technologically saavy and well connected to technologists around the world, and both work with other local and international initiatives, and create projects as innovative as anywhere else. Sahana, an open software tool for managing disasters created by the Lanka Software Foundation but picked up by the humanitarian community eslewhere, is an example of this.

So Sri Lanka is an example of how information in conflict zones will increasingly function in the 21st century. While much violent conflict occurs out of the public eye, it is becoming more common for wars to be fought in the midst of information access, and even abundance (Iraq and the Lebanese/Israel conflict are other examples). This is the case in Sri Lanka, starting with Tamilnet (see Whitaker’s Learning Politics from Sivaram for a compelling history of Tamil journalism), which began as a listserve in 1995, and became one an early successful online (if partisan) online newspapers in June 1997. It extends to a range of citizen journalism and participatory media projects coming out out of media development, activist, and human rights groups in Sri Lanka.

Increasingly, there is a convergence in the function of information providers, including news outlets, human rights research groups, participatory media projects, political analyses, and humanitarian organizations. Digital media technologies allow all of them to communicate directly with audiences, and thus we find bloggers providing news, humanitarian organizations providing editorials, freedom of expression groups reporting on access restrictions, human rights observers covering the front lines, and Wikipedia as both a news source and an active debate over the war.

This convergence is especially evident in conflict zones because access to the actual conflict is still often highly restricted, and impartial unchaperoned reporting from front lines remains rare – when fighting actually occurs in restricted fields of military activity, rather than in the midst of civilian populations (subject of another post). In the Sri Lanka case, the challenge remains obtaining accurate, reliable, first-hand accounts of the fighting, documentation of disappearances, kidnappings, beatings, and other forms of political violence and harassment.

And the technology to access information is only one part of the story – what constitutes information is itself highly contested. The fight over content, spin, language, and interpretation rages across the information spectrum. From edit wars on Wikipedia to hate speech on blogs, attacks and incitement in newspaper editorials, to physical attacks, intimidation, and murder, Sri Lanka’s war sometimes seem to move seemlessly from information space to the real world.

Following is a rough map of information and communications pertaining to the Sri Lankan war. Following postings will deal with specific questions, including the May 10 eastern province elections, reporting of disappearances, and humanitarian information for IDPs.

Sri Lanka also has a strong government broadcaster, SLBC, and numerous private TV and radio stations and newspapers. Mass media are highly centralized, with most broadcasters based in and producing all programming out of Colombo, including terrestrial and satellite broadcasters. Exceptions include a number of smaller regional state radio broadcasters and government-owned community radio stations, such as Uva community radio, Ruhuna FM in Matara, Pirai FM, in Ampara, and Anoor FM in Puttalam, as well as smaller regional newspapers and regional inserts. Media development projects work with all sectors of the media: prominent local and international groups include Ya-TV, the Sri Lanka Press Institute, CPA, UNESCO, FOJO, and Internews.

Internet access is growing, though still under 3% of the total population. Cell phone subscribers are over 6 million, roughly 30% of the population, and currently growing at 2 million/year. However broadband wireless, 3G cellphone networks, and numerous carriers exist, and Sri Lanka has an active and well-educated ICT sector, both private and the ICTA, a government agency, promoting everything from e-government to rural Internet access points and telecentres.

Sri Lanka has seen the appearance of several interesting new media projects, including Jasmine News Wire, Groundviews, components of the Internews humanitarian information programs, also available on Voice of Reconciliation Radio online. There are also online versions and SMS text news services of newspapers such as Virakasari, online radio and TV stations such as Thaalam FM and others. Digital media are also used to create early warning systems for information delivery in emergencies. The Peace and Conflict Timeline is a new participatory media project that tracks the war’s trajectory.

Additional information and reporting sources in Sri Lanka include active research centers, human rights organizations, and policy analysis organizations. Insight on Conflict/Sri Lanka has a substantial list of these organizations. Notable include the Centre for Policy Alternatives, University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), Berghof Centre for Conflict Transformation, and ICG.

These efforts, both local and international, in sum, constitute extensive, well-conceived, and sometimes well-financed efforts to preserve space for dialogue, and freedom of expression, as well as efforts to accurately document the war.

Sri Lanka has an active blogging community, as well as Facebook and Twitter groups. Bridge blogs include Kottu and Achcharu. Bloggers include both strong supporters of peace processes, freedom of information, and civil society activism, and strong pro-government and military blogs replete with slander and hate speech.

Both the government and the LTTE have been accused of harrassment of journalists and NGOs at various times over the course of the conflict, and over the past two years numerous cases of harrassment have been documented.

Freedom of expression groups closely track censorship, attacks on journalists, and harassment. Sources include Amnesty international’s report titled Silencing Dissent, a stream of statements by the International Federation of Journalists, and continuous tracking by Sri Lanka’s Free Media Movement, as well as International Media Support, ICT4Peace, the citizen journalism website Groundviews, and the Sri Lanka Press Institute, as well as the South Asia Free Media Association, CPJ, and RSF.

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Ok, “serendipitous violence” is an unfortunate word pairing. Though part of the intent of these notes is to sort through concepts without clear terms, and maybe blow a few metaphors along the way. The idea behind serendipitous violence is that digital media extend access of communication and information beyond the reach of their original target community. Two most obvious cases in the past few years are the ‘Koran in the toilet’ incident that sparked riots in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad.

Content aggregators, translation tools, and internet create global reach for local or community-specific information. Groups that thought they were talking only to themselves find they have a larger audience. It’s not necessarily hate speech or incitement – intentional, targeted language – but a result of incidental conflict between world views, language usage, discourses. Conflict results from the spread of information beyond traditional audiences. And it’s likely to keep happening. Digital media tools and technology change quickly and provide tremendous opportunities for access, but human culture and social organization are more resistant. Out of this friction comes something else – perhaps call it correlative, or better, incidental incitement.

Returning to the LiveLeak story – in addition to it being another instance of incidental incitement, what struck me is that I first got the story through International SOS – a private health, security, and evacuation firm that provides a news feed for its members/clients , and one version of the walled garden, situated inside the design of a security, health, and on security issues. Interesting, not because it’s a private information service, but because it’s a version of the ‘walled garden’ vision of information distribution, nicely articulated by Jonathan Taplin, a USC Annenberg professor, in which some people will agree to pay a high price for accurate, vetted information uncluttered by advertisements by subscription, while others will accept information, even cell phone calls, provided they first view or listen to extensive advertising. Taplin made those remarks on a panel at a conference at USC’s Annenberg School, thrown by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and liveblogged by EthanZ here.

The conference, “on the state of the field of participatory media within the overall news and information environment,” burned a lot of mental energy trying to define terms – in the wonderfully solipsistic way media discusses media discussing media. I’ll skip the well-chewed discussions of what to call participatory media, a sample of which you can find on media re:public’s site, narrated by the able P, and move on to that other walled garden, America, and unfortunate habit of viewing participatory media (PM?) only through the American experience, despite the many and colorful instances of digital media projects around the world, and often in the developing world.

An aside – it’s interesting to discuss developed countries as having some of the same attributes and problems as developing world countries (arguably the US has a developing world living inside it, the community formerly known as the underclass, even if class analysis went out with the Berlin wall, and has never really regained it’s influence – though it’s still relevant all the time in political discourse, and policies, in the developing world (“eat the rich,” my favorite graffiti tag).

The underclass was also not well represented today, and presumably, therefore, rarely get to enjoy one of these:


a double headed hydra nozzle – perfect for conference-goers who stay up too late before important meetings with their donors.

I should mention, before I go on – this blog looks at digital media’s functional relationship to conflict, and specifically, to political violence in developing countries. It’s meant as a space for rough notes, questions, and conversation for a research project I’m working on at the US Institute for Peace. Broadly, the research considers the relationship between rapidly growing digital media networks and the numerous developing world states with weak or fragile governance, weak states, and contested political contexts.

I’ll also look at media and development, conflict, photography, along with the usual miscellany.

So, quick and dirty explanation:

Why functional? Because examining how digital media affects a particular issue focuses us on its effects.

Why political violence? Because violence, and conflict are what happens when law, persuasion, rhetoric, and other forms of nonphysical coercion stop. Conflict exposes the roots of power and interest, and tears apart the fabric of law and social norms that usually guide interactions and communication in the public sphere.

Why developing countries? Because many of them are weak or fragile states, and have a greater likelihood of tipping into conflict through contested politics, civil conflicts, struggles for autonomy or independence, and disputes over sovereignty. Susan Rice at Brookings has a recent comprehensive mapping of weak states on the Brookings site, here.

Why digital media technologies? They allow for significantly more people around the world to participate in public discussions and produce information. This is true in weak states in the developing world as well as the developed world (more on digital divide later).

While it is extremely difficult to predict how technology will ultimately alter media and information delivery, it is very likely that in the medium to long term, media will become radically more open and participatory. This is already having significant impact on the production and dissemination of information and on the practice of journalism, the scope and extent of dialogue and debate on local, national, and international levels, and on social and political participation.

Digital media technologies and applications have a disruptive, multifaceted impact in how news and information is gathered, produced, and disseminated in and around conflict-prone settings. Yet most research, policy makers, the donor community, and media assistance organizations still remain predominantly focused on the role of traditional media in relation to conflict.

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