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Making programmes about conflict is one thing. Getting them on air, and having them viewed, is a different matter.

Often the crucial role of the international media in raising public awareness of impending conflict and post-conflict situations is undermined by the short attention span of journalists and their editors.

Who can really tell the world about war? Politicians? Analysts? Peace negotiators? The ‘talking heads’ we see on the News? Or does the useful information really lie with ordinary people, those in the conflict zones who are trying to live their lives in the middle of it all? Surely their experience would help us to empathise and put pressure on our governments to end the conflict more than statistics about numbers killed and military hardware used?

These are questions raised by Internews, an international non-profit agency which works with local electronic media in conflict zones in order to go behind the headlines and find the people who are trying to survive them.

Take Ali Lahmar, for instance. This 38-year-old ticket collector daily traversed the deadliest rail route in one of the most dangerous countries on earth: Algeria, Northern Africa, where tens of thousands of people have died in civil war. Every day, Lahmar braved death on the Algiers-Oran route. One day, he faced it, and didn’t survive to tell the tale.

But he had told his story just before that. In a 20 minute documentary titled ‘Train of Hope’, which focused on the personal and intimate side of life in Algeria. Part of a series of documentaries called, ‘The Other Algeria’, it gave viewers an overall impression, not of violence, but of hope.

‘People say these terrible things are happening in our country,’ says Nayla Abdo-hanna, one -of the producers. ‘But we have to hope and to go on with our lives.’

The series was made with production grants, technical and editorial support from Internews, which also sponsored ‘Robert and Gasan: We Haven’t Changed That Much’. This documentary is based on a video conference between two old friends, Robert Saakiantz and Gasan Ismailzade. Respectively Armenian and Azeri, the two men were both born in Bake, and met in primary school. Their friendship continued even after Robert moved to Armenia, but, in 1988, ethnic conflict ruptured their personal links. Putting them in touch again for the first time in I3 years, Internews recorded the contact. During their three-hour exchange in August 1998, the two childhood friends discussed the conflict between their two countries.

Formed in 1982, and funded by public and private foundation grants, Internews tries to enhance tolerance and understanding by supporting independent media outlets in emerging democracies. It also promotes the use of the media to reduce conflict within and between countries. Projects in this area have been undertaken in the former Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

-Responding to the political changes in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, Internews assisted the formation of and helped to sustain the explosion of new media outlets in the former Soviet Union. As of the end of 1998, the agency produced 12 regular news and analysis programmes in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Some of these examined the role of the media or served educational purposes. Most were centred on depicting everyday lives - people long used to closed central government control.

-‘In the eight countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States where Internews currently supports non- governmental television, its innovative productions challenge both audiences and local journalists,’ says a report in the organisation’s newsletter.

Production efforts in the former Soviet Union began in 1993. The Moscow-based ‘Local Time’ brought together news stories from all over the former Soviet Union into a national television news magazine. Stations across the region each contributed a three-minute story. In return, they received a half-hour programme with news from other cities - unfiltered by state broadcasters.

A similar approach was adopted in other countries of the CIS, using programmes produced in local languages to enrich the media landscape. Viewer response was encouraging.

‘What Internews strives to do is to create the programmes that each country’s audience and stations need at any given time,’ says Manana Aslamazian, Executive Director of Internews Russia.

That often means focusing on people, working with the people who are driven apart by war, local producers not correspondents. ‘Kosov@: A View From Inside’, is a series of four 13 minute episodes co-produced by Internews and Media Project, an Albanian production company. ‘Our Daily Bread’ was the result of a video-conference link in which Serb and Albanian bakers talked frankly about the political situation and hostilities in Kosovo, the former- Yugoslavia.

The following excerpt from the diary of Violeta Curcic, Project Director for Internews Belgrade, helps convey the difficulties involved in this kind of journalism.

‘Pristina, May 1998
Everyone is very nervous. It is the day of the link for ‘Our Daily Bread.’ This is a difficult one. Safet and Mica are bakers. Safet is Albanian, born in Belgrade, used to live in Kanjiza in Vojvodina, speaks Hungarian. By the end of the day he will sit down to talk via satellite with his counterpart, Mica, a Serb from Belgrade. Both of them have a lot to lose - Safet a bit more. He is concerned about the public reception of the link in his own community and what he is going to say or not say. At the same time, he is afraid of the police. ‘People are getting killed and beaten up very easily these days,’ he says, ‘and I have a family to support’. Later, Safet decides that the best way for him will be to speak in metaphors, in the traditional Albanian fashion. People in Serbia and Kosovo have learned to understand eloquent silences, innuendoes, meaningful smiles and sighs. Afterwards, I realise that the real story of these two men is not only in what they said during the link, but in what they didn’t say.

Similar technology was utilised to good effect in a celebrated coup for Internews: the unprecedented live video dialogue between Americans and Iranians that occurred during the FIFA World Cup in 1998. A digital satellite link allowed soccer fans in New York and Tehran to have a face to face meeting. They discussed the widely anticipated World Cup game between Iran and the United States, sports in general, shared personal aspirations and touched on the political tensions between their countries. Video diaries were shared about their lives.

That video link was maintained during the course of the game. The audience reaction was filmed as developments unfolded on the field. There were strong images of Iranians cheering their team’s goal, Americans showing their disappointment. (Iran won the game, 2-1) Producer Stephen Lawrence says over 30 television, radio and print news media across the globe covered the Intemews link.

Fewer participants were involved but there was no absence of passion in ‘Vis a Vis: Blue and Black’, a digital video link facilitated by Internews involving a black South African policeman, and his American counterpart. Sergeant Hendriek Mohale of the South African Police Service was based in Soweto; Sergeant David Van, a patrol officer in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Philadelphia, the 23rd District. Meeting via television monitors from their homes and workplaces, the two men discussed their lives and experiences, shared video diaries, and formed a friendship.

The programme was the second to be aired on the American Public Broadcasting Senice. In the previous one, ‘Vis a Vis: Beyond the Veil’, broadcast August 27, 1998, an American and an Iranian English teacher, one in Washington DC, the other in Teheran, talked about the differences that had kept their two countries apart.

Both were pilot programmes. They were developed by Internews as part of an educational series on conflict for American Public Television and will serve as a model for other educational programmes.

But making programmes about conflict is one thing. Getting them on air, and having them viewed, is a different kettle of fish. Often the crucial role of the international media in raising public awareness of impending conflict and post-conflict situations is undermined by the short attention span of journalists and their editors. Hard economic facts of media life also play a part. Interest is sustained only as long as there are bodies to be counted and explosions to film. That ignores two crucial phases: the period before the conflict erupts, and its aftermath.

‘The blood and guts of actual conflict bring rating points and profit whereas programming that focuses on preventing conflict is often too abstract to attract public attention,’ says Paul Greenberg, Internews’ Director of International Co-productions. ‘We see a real lack of information in the West about conflicts that have not yet fumed violent but could in the near future. We also see the international media regularly ignoring conflicts that have supposedly ‘ended’, but in fact have continued to fester because international assistance was too rapidly diverted.’

To overcome this problem, Internews has developed a project called Media Rapid Response, involving the creation of several mobile television crews equipped with flyaway satellite communications systems. These would be deployed to areas like Kosovo, where conflict is brewing, and footage provided to both Western broadcasters and local stations on both sides of the conflict.

Coverage of the ‘pre-conflict’ situation would be provided at below-market cost to news agencies around the world. Eventually Internews would work with channels in the west to develop ‘early warning’ sections of their broadcasts that could highlight the mechanics of emerging conflict in a clear and understandable fashion. Educational programmes will also be developed on the nature of local conflict, involving schools, universities and public television channels. In this way a constituency of viewers would be built up that could become more reactive to local conflict and exert more pressure on governments.

A third approach is Pre- and Post-Conflict programming for local channels. In addition to providing footage and programming to Western channels, programming would be developed on a local level that deals with local conflicts on site - as is currently being done in the former Yugoslavia and the Caucasus.

The distribution of constructive radio or television programming, Internews staff believe, could help lower tensions in countries like Congo, Albania and Turkey, and in instances forestall eruption of full-scale war.

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