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Conflict and media freedom

Dev Raj Dahal

English Philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote, “Knowledge is power.” Knowledge is not neutral in meaning, interpretation and application. Access to knowledge is essential for the citizens to participate in the state, market and civil society and to attain empowerment. While pluralist formation of knowledge and opinion can contribute to social justice, a tight monopoly of information by dominant class of society hobbles citizens’ ability to influence government’s decision and the government’s ability to make correct policies as well as to reach to the public.

Media in democracy thus forms the medium of communicative power and helps to shape public opinion. Journalists can become a part of the conflict or a part of solution depending on the selection and evaluation of information they report. This is the reason media freedom is central to understand the state of the nation. Responsible journalists deal with conflict occurring in everyday life and report the societal feedbacks into the circulation of power and its resistance seeking to nurture normative political order based on dialogue, negotiation, consensus and peace. A vision of a normative political order where basic human security is ensured is possible if there is a harmony between the ends and means of political power.

What has media learned from the seven years of violent conflict and tragedies and what message do they convey to the Nepalese citizens? Where do journalists stand in the conflict? How can a violent conflict be transformed into a non-violent phase? What are its legitimate mechanisms? How can “balanced reporting” be obtained? How can media provide common grounds for contending actors for agreement? How can all conflicting parties return to a common vision, determination and patience? How media can help achieve democratic peace?


Reporting the meta or high-intensity conflict means taking up an agenda, exposing the motives of the actors involved in the conflict and equipping the public with conflict transformation ideas, opinion, insight and knowledge. Media can inflame conflict by circulating “negative message,” in society. It can also become a messenger of peace, reconciliation and unity of people. This is the reason professionalism and credibility of journalists is absolutely essential to understand the sinews of media power. Of course, media power works in multiple ways. What is the reference point of journalists in the conflict—human values, public interests, pecuniary instinct, class interest or geopolitical considerations? Where do they fit into the diverse political spectrum and social hierarchies? Obviously, the most important mission of reporting events is to assume public interests into account and renew human sensitivity during conflicts. A legitimate government as an instrument of public power helps media more to assume this responsibility than coercing them to manufacture consent by limiting the freedom of choice.

The role of democratic government lies in enhancing media freedom and competition, reducing restrictions on the entry of independent media and establishing a reasonable regulatory framework. The pattern and identity of media ownership are other two important considerations for their conflict sensitivity. For example, if there are commercial, social or political interests of contending forces in worsening the conflict, then media owned by them can hardly contribute to the mitigation of conflict. Because sectoral perspective of the media tends to absolutize the differences, breeds conflict and does not grasp the wholeness of the issue. Media should judge the fact that whether the power used by contending forces is legitimate and consistent with people’s aspirations for peace, democracy and social justice or just resisting each other’s power to enervate national strength? In a situation of political uncertainty, what is critically important is how political actors can achieve common good together, not what they oppose.

It is the responsibility of the media to inform the public and politicians about national situation and suggest ways on how to protect conducive human rights situation in the country. A free and responsible media is crucial for conflict-sensitive reporting. Because only responsible media can help formulate the problem rationally, define proper strategies, prevent the erosion of the growing trust between the state and the people and take part in the political process in a meaningful way. How is information gathered, processed and disseminated in a political system is thus a matter of great public concern.


Value of transparency and openness has been acknowledged by the Nepalese Constitution. It has also recognized people’s right to information, expression and legitimate organizations and set codes of conduct for media to minimize harm in society. In plural societies like Nepal, the watchdog function of media narrows the knowledge gap, helps to capture the diversity of perspectives and gives voice to the voiceless’ people’s desire for social change. A deficient structure and culture where people live breeds structural injustices and perpetuates the cycles of violence and counter-violence in a vicious way.

Responsible press tries to bring knowledge to the public, provides a voice for the citizens to be heard and heeded, helps build public consensus to bring desired social transformation and enables the government institutions to perform. In a situation of violent conflict, media’s role lies in debating objectively about the health of the country and people, framing and phrasing conflicts in a rational manner, offering concrete options rather than just criticism of actors, and furnishing practical initiatives to the conflicting parties to resolve their conflicts of various kinds—structural, manifest, perceptual and latent.

Ownership of Peace

Every problem formulated rationally is capable of solution. If conflict is a common problem of all the Nepalese, it requires a shared solution of all the stakeholders. Democracy offers the media to mediate contending perspectives through dialogue and collective action. This means media should seek the unity of those connectors of society, rather than dividers, and attempt for a symbiosis in peaceful coexistence of diverse life-forms in the national state. Journalists can contribute to conflict management by providing democratic space for dialogue, mobilizing public opinion on the desirability of non-violent conflict transformation and focusing on the accountability of leaders for their actions. They can also offer the analysis of the causes, options and possible solutions of the conflict. But, the structures of peace become durable only if it is based on solid democratic principles and values rather than power equation of dominant actors. Nepal needs to assume responsibility for its own security. No outsiders can shoulder the entire responsibility of transforming Nepal’s conflict into peace. They as external stakeholders can offer needed skills, expertise and resources for negotiation and contribute to peace-building efforts. Any effort to peace process must be owned by the Nepalese themselves.

Note: This article has been published in 'The Kathmandu Post' (1 April 2004)

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