Written evidence submitted to the International Development Committee by Internews Europe to the Inquiry “Promoting dialogue and preventing atrocities: the UK government approach”
Internews is an international non-profit organisation set up in 1982, with headquarters in London (Internews Europe) and Washington DC (Internews Network). A media development organisation, Internews works in more than 80 countries worldwide to support media and other information providers to deliver trustworthy and accurate information. As part of its work fostering independent media and access to information, Internews has developed special global programs in health journalism, environmental journalism, humanitarian media, information and communications technology, and governance and transparency.
Internews has particular expertise in working in challenging environments for freedom of expression that are either post-conflict or experiencing conflict and has a number of ongoing programs specifically. Internews currently operates in 22 of the 39 states classified by the World Bank as fragile and conflict affected states, including with FCDO support through the Jo Cox Memorial Fund in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Aid Connect in Myanmar.
We welcome this enquiry, because:
1) Violent conflicts have increased by two thirds globally in recent decades and we believe this trend will be accelerated – Covid-19 has compounded the root causes of conflict including competition for resources, pressure on basic services and lack of trust in government, while the links between climate change and conflict are already evident and are acknowledged in the UK Government’s own Integrated Review of March 2021.
2) We have witnessed the way that media and information is instrumentalised to fuel conflict and polarisation but know that it can also play a key role in addressing the root causes of conflict. Therefore, any strategy which seeks to use peaceful means to prevent atrocities or promote dialogue must centre media.
Recent history contains many examples where media, online and social media platforms with significant reach have been deployed as part of deliberate efforts to dehumanise particular ethnic or religious groups, disseminate grievance-based narratives and incite violence: During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Radio Mille Collines broadcasts demonised Tutsis, moderate Hutus, Belgians and advocated for their annihilation; in Kenya, vernacular media amplified the hate speech driving the violence which followed the 2007/2008 Election, leaving over 1,100 dead; in Myanmar, military personnel used Facebook as the vehicle for a systematic propaganda campaign against the mostly Muslim Rohingya minority, leading to over 10,000 deaths and the mass displacement of over 700,000 people. Posts containing hate speech and incitement to ethnic violence were amplified by Facebook’s algorithms and left undetected because there were no local language moderators to monitor activity. In Ethiopia in 2021, calls for the murder and mass interment of ethnic Tigrayans were distributed across Facebook by the country’s leaders, enabled again by the absence of Amharic speaking moderators. Traditional media is prevented from reporting abuses of the state and thus fails to provide a counterweight or balanced, accurate perspective on the conflict. These are only the most high profile examples.
Yet activity in the media and on social media platforms can also act as an early warning mechanism, spaces where the signals of increased tensions can be identified with systematic monitoring. They can also provide a public forum for different groups within society to negotiate differences and the fair and equitable allocation of resources, build trust and foster inclusion and cohesion, as well as provide accurate, conflict-sensitive information to counter mis- and disinformation. Too often, however, this potential for media to contribute constructively is not realised.
Internews’ experience in the Western Balkans
As evidenced in numerous reports both during and after the conflict, the media was involved in promoting ethnic cleansing during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, High levels of media “capture” by the state were experienced during this period. In the Western Balkans today, independent media still struggle to compete against political capture and the media landscape is flooded with divisive tabloids and disinformation. In an effort to ensure the provision of accurate and trustworthy information to the public, Internews is currently helping independent media across five countries in the region to pursue financial sustainability, build loyal online audiences and meet emerging challenges created by the digital transition, political instability and the Covid-19 pandemic.
With US Government assistance, Internews has delivered sustained support to eleven key media partners selected for their commitment to independent, balanced reporting. These partners have increased their aggregate audience reach by 65% and advertising revenue by 1,000% since we first started supporting them in 2018. Internews has also supported an additional 50 media outlets in the region with Engaging Content Grants that enable the delivery of quality digital content and has provided consultation and grant assistance to support collaborative investigative journalism projects and spark cross-sectoral innovation. This work was highlighted in November 2021 in remarks by USAID Administrator Samantha Power as an example of the importance of maintaining the financial viability of media in order to promote good governance.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), open incitement to violence in the media remains relatively rare. Memories of atrocities committed during the 1992-1995 war are still fresh, however, this does not deter divisive -- and even warmongering -- rhetoric. Rather, it adds emotional depth and ‘justification’.
With this context in mind, Internews’ approach to reducing tensions and preventing possible new atrocities is twofold. On the one hand, we focus on supporting quality not-for-profit media in building up their individual and collective capacity to expose the irresponsible policies and statements of ethnic political leaders, and often their direct link to corruption. An example of this is the comprehensive support Internews has provided to investigative outlet Zurnal and their nation-wide network of partners. In 2021 alone, Zurnal tracked 51 cases of its investigative stories leading to a direct impact, such as an arrest or resignation. Most prominently, Zurnal’s reporting on the Prointer company and its links to the family of Republika Srpska strongman Milorad Dodik and former President of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of BiH, Milan Tegeltija, substantially contributed to the US decision to impose sanctions against these two prominent BiH politicians.
On the other hand, we focus on supporting quality and relevant mainstream media, so that they become dominant purveyors of balanced and responsible reporting. For example, after four years of intensive management consulting, technical assistance and production support, Internews partner, the Oslobodjenje Group, has undergone a complete revitalisation, tripling its audience and positioning itself as one of the leading voices for reform in BiH. Oslobodjenje’s improved management and organization has allowed it to focus on this mission. in November 2021, during the most profound period of political and constitutional crisis in the post-war period, Oslobodjenje facilitated dialogue by convening an unprecedented, high-level virtual round table attended by twenty leading global experts and dignitaries, who provided constructive suggestions for how to preserve the letter and spirit of the Dayton Agreement. Not long after, in December 2021, the Oslobodjenje Group was awarded the Transatlantic Leadership Network’s inaugural Freedom of the Media Award – one of only six world-class media to receive this recognition, alongside the Washington Post, Al Jazeera and others.
This approach in the media sector must also be applied to countering any potential malign foreign influence in BiH. These include allegedly politically motivated acquisitions and take-overs of influential BiH media outlets.
By helping independent media achieve financial sustainability, Internews is supporting their continued editorial independence. Internews has also supported cross-border investigative reporting between Zurnal and partner media in Serbia and Montenegro to uncover corruption and malign foreign influence in the energy sector.
In a region that is generally considered to have the lowest media literacy in Europe, there is also a clear need to improve media literacy. This can help slow the spread of inflammatory content online and increase trust in objective information. Internews and the US State Department are directly engaging media in this effort, piloting a regional initiative which uses audience analytics to follow trending topics, providing verified information and content around those topics that promotes media literacy.
Other recent programs in the region have also included analysis of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on freedom of expression and the financial viability of independent media, as well as promotion of cross-border reporting to improve access to diverse perspectives.
Role of media in preventing atrocities: Internews’ experience in the rest of the world
Democratic Republic of CongoIn the Democratic Republic of Congo, Internews has been working with local partners to strengthen women-led civil society in conflict prevention to reduce the risk of identity-based violence through a series of conflict prevention, analysis and community dialogue activities. With funding from the Jo Cox Memorial Fund, 28 early warning groups have been established involving 822 people, 75% of whom are women. These groups have been integrated into the provincial conflict resolution platforms. 237 conflicts have been identified, with 121 of those resolved. 450 cases of reduced tensions have been documented.
In Myanmar, Internews works with social media platforms to ensure they understand the needs of media, civil society and vulnerable, ethnically diverse communities impacted by disinformation and hate speech linked to the ongoing conflict. The goal is to improve platforms’ provision of adequate reporting mechanisms and resources in local languages. In addition, we provide journalists and media outlets with digital and physical safety training and support to produce conflict-sensitive reporting and report on human rights violations. We also support the production of audio content for marginalised communities with limited access to information, including in Rohingya and Rakhine language.
As with DRC, supporting women as facilitators of dialogue and conflict prevention has emerged as a key element of our work in Myanmar. In a report released in June 2020, the United Nations revealed that sexual abuse and gender-based violence was a “hallmark” of Myanmar military cleansing operations against Rohingyas in 2016 and 2017. The analysis also highlighted that the continual clashes among the Tatmadaw and the Northern Alliance are the primary cause behind women and children trafficking, forced marriages and pregnancies, sexual exploitation, forced labour, and internal displacement. In this way, women in the most remote areas of Myanmar are routinely marginalised and undermined. Despite this, many female voices have been fighting to be heard in the civic arena, advocating for a fairer social and political representation.
In this context, Internews has undertaken to empower women in Myanmar, particularly in relation to their role in the national peace process. The “Women Peace and Media” (WMP) project, launched in late 2018 and funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development and Cooperation (NORAD), has been promoting the civic participation of girls and women in Myanmar as the true key to the sustainability of the national peace process. WMP has two key objectives: to strengthen the advocacy and media outreach capacity of women’s organisations and networks, and to increase the inclusion of women’s voices and their perspectives on the peace process. The underlying goal of the project is to allow women and all citizens living in warring areas to be better informed about the dynamics of Myanmar’s peace process. Enabling women to lead their respective communities through in-person events and online forums has been a vital component of earning these achievements.
Internews delivers a diverse range of strategies in other fragile contexts, including a core conflict-sensitive journalism curriculum which supports journalists to develop a more sophisticated understanding of conflict within their own societies and contribute to peacebuilding and conflict transformation. This has been adapted for multiple locations including Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, South Sudan and Central Asia.
Our work is necessary in these places because of the way that media and information platforms can be used to exacerbate conflict, fuel division and direct violence, but also because of the potential for these same platforms to reduce tensions by creating public spaces where different groups can negotiate differences and provide an alternative to mis- and disinformation which fuels mistrust.
Recommendations for FCDO
Oral evidence: Internews would be happy to give oral evidence to the committee.
 Overseas Development Institute and International Rescue Committee, SDG progress: Fragility, crisis and leaving no one behind, 2018, pg. 13
 “Transnational challenges: such as climate change, global health risks, illicit finance, SOC and terrorism. These threaten our shared security and prosperity, requiring collective action and multilateral cooperation to address them. Of these transnational challenges, climate change and biodiversity loss present the most severe tests to global resilience and will require particularly urgent action.” https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy/global-britain-in-a-competitive-age-the-integrated-review-of-security-defence-development-and-foreign-policy
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