Islamabad – In 2008, Islam Deen saw the harmony he had cherished in his neighbourhood collapse like a mud hut’s roof falling down in torrential rain, the ever-present risk of catastrophe materializing unexpectedly and out of his control.
That year, when sectarian conflict in Deen’s native Dera Ismail Khan escalated to pre-1990 levels, he barely escaped a retaliatory shower of bullets that was not meant for him.
Soon, the Shia community migrated from his Daraban Road neighbourhood out of the fear of persecution, the gatherings of Sunni and Shia friends at his Sunni family’s house replaced by cold stray bullet holes on the front gate.
It was a new violence for Deen, now 25, and it moved him to find peace.
Over the past two years, he has participated in peacebuilding and conflict management trainings conducted by local and foreign nongovernment organizations.
Deen, who self-identifies as a social worker, says he has learnt ways to diffuse arguments and talk people out of violence. But the trainings, he says, have also made him realize that mass mobilization for peace requires mass means of communications.
The media, he believes, can make a difference.
“People are influenced by the media,” Deen, himself a fan of a popular Urdu columnist who is famous for using historical anecdotes, says. “If the media present messages of peace and harmony clearly, they can help build agreement to end conflict.
In just over a decade, the Pakistani media, a term which has come to refer mostly to broadcast TV news channels, have risen to a place of immense power
The flow of information from the “idiot boxes” has had a somewhat empowering effect on the people — experts cite media coverage as one of the drivers of a high voter turnout during the 2013 general elections — but commercial interests of “Big Media”, ethical violations and constant jarring “breaking news” transitions are also beginning to annoy audiences.
However, peace activists and conflict management experts agree that media, including broadcast, can still be used to spread awareness for peace promotion. But this expectation that the media can help change social attitudes is matched by an equal demand for responsible journalism, pro-people programming and issues-based reporting.
“In the rural areas of Sindh, people think if something is on the media, it must be true,” says Rozeena Sindhu, who is a student at Karachi’s Sindh Madresatul Islam University and a “peace leader” under Search for Common Ground’s Pakistan Peace Initiative – a training programme for youth, community leaders and journalists.
Sindhu says people follow radio broadcasts often religiously in her father’s village in interior Sindh, a place where she says she has seen, and heard about, people acting violently before they even think the situation through.
“Media can act as mediators in such areas but the broadcast news is too negative most of the time,” she says. “Instead of sensationalism, media should focus on solutions.”
But the electronic media, which has the largest outreach among different types of media, is also the most problematic, says Aurangzeb Haneef, a Teaching Fellow at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).
“The basic problem is that these are all money-making enterprises and ratings are important to them,” Haneef, who has a master’s degree in Religion, Peace and Conflict, says.
Haneef recommends there should be “media peacebuilding and conflict indices”, which scientifically quantify the amount of hate speech aired or the way conflict is framed on broadcast news. He says these might serve to regulate the media or give the news organizations a reason perhaps to change their ways themselves.
Universities and media research organizations might help but for media to promote the “kind of discussions that contribute toward creating an environment conducive to conflict resolution,” journalists need to be trained in “responsible journalism,” Haneef says.
Only then would reporters and anchors be able to have focused discussions, ask better questions and utilize opinions from the academia effectively. Haneef admits all this is a difficult task given the current media organizational structure.
But there are other options, says Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker.
Minallah thinks alternative media — documentaries, citizen journalism videos and even visuals painted on trucks and rickshaws — can help promote conversations on sensitive issues including conflict.
“But the condition is that you make culturally relevant content for the local communities and screen it for them,” she says.
Broadcast media can also learn from this exercise. If instead of relying on the opinions of anchors, Minallah says, the news organizations go for interactive dialogue with communities, they can raise the voices of the masses.
One option could be video messages for peace sent by people from the communities, Minallah suggests.
Perhaps the mainstream media can reach out to hundreds of young peace activists, such as Sindhu and Deen, for such video messages and perhaps Deen’s message can even go viral, when he says gently but with a marked resolve, “Say what they will, but I think no one has the right to take someone else’s life.”