On a sunny Thursday in the Finnish city of Pori, a large crowd convocated to hear a panel discussion titled ”The Role of Media in Conflict and Tension.” A part of the societal discussion week called SuomiAreena, the panel brought together a number of experienced personalities in the field of media and conflict resolution. The panelists included former president of Finland, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Chair of Crisis Management Initiative Mr. Martti Ahtisaari, Director General of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera Network Mr. Wadah Khanfar, and Chairman of the International Press Institute and Editor-In-Chief of Helsingin Sanomat Mr. Janne Virkkunen. The discussion was moderated by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland Mr. Alexander Stubb.
The main subject of the discussion was the role that media plays in conflict situations. Mr. Khanfar gave examples of moments, particularly in Iraq, where representatives of the Al Jazeera Network have stepped out of their roles as members of the competitive world of journalism, and instead considered the impact of the story on the civilian population. In this way, the panelists agreed, media is a very powerful actor and can in some cases even mediate conflict. Media’s attention is necessary to move forward on issues. On the other hand, a lack of integrity in reporting may lead to more harm than good. Reporting about war is dangerous, but reporters should also be encouraged to step out of their comfort zone. It should be kept in mind, however, that ”we cannot blame the media for everything,” said President Ahtisaari.
Mr. Khanfar also called for more investigative journalism, where matters are explored in-depth instead of focusing on short news flashes that often simplify the issues at hand. In this respect, Mr. Khanfar also mentioned the Middle East as an important topic. In the Middle East, Mr. Khanfar emphasized, “the issue of conflict has become such a part of our life, that it should be handled with care.”
The panelists also conversed about the role of nongovernmental organizations in resolving conflict. President Ahtisaari pointed out that on many occasions NGOs are able to delve into issues that governments cannot. Such processes are often so confidential that no media can be included. Nevertheless, NGOs benefit from counting media professionals amongst their staff.
According to Mr. Khanfar, journalists should strive to put the ordinary people at the center of their reporting. In this way, communicating only about the official views can be avoided. To understand the complexities of every conflict, it is important to gain a balanced understanding. “Follow many media, not just one,” said President Ahtisaari.
The event was organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland and parts of the discussion will be aired on MTV3 in Finland and Al Jazeera.