West Africa: Import of Media Messaging Strategies in Civilian Harm Mitigation

Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre with support from Open Society Initiative for West Africa recently held a one-day media interaction on the 'Protection of Civilians and Civilian Harm Mitigation in Armed Conflict'. Chiemelie Ezeobi reports that since images and news conveyed from conflict zones can have a decisive impact on the outcome of armed conflicts, therefore, accurate and impartial media reports are key

"Civilians are often recognised as the principal victims of conflict but rarely as the holders of rights". This cryptic statement by Program Manager, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Mr. Salaudeen Hashim, recently set the tone of a one-day media interaction in Lagos on the Protection of Civilians and Civilian Harm mitigation in Armed Conflict.

He went on to state the importance of media and information in conflict situations, stressing that the misuse of information can have deadly consequences in armed conflicts, just as information correctly employed can be life-saving.

Role of Peacekeepers in Civilian Protection

Over the years, civilians have increasingly become the victims of armed conflict. It was to mitigate that, that the Security Council of the United Nations made protecting civilians a focus of modern peacekeeping.

According peacekeeping.un.org, "during the mid-1990s, peacekeepers found themselves deployed in internal conflicts, in which the civilian population frequently became the target of attacks. Missions like UNAMIR in Rwanda and UNPROFOR in the former Yugoslavia were faced with systematic attacks on civilians that peacekeepers were ill-prepared to address. These conflicts, as well as those in Somalia, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste, witnessed armed groups targeting civilians, including the use of sexual violence as a tactic of war and grave violations of children's rights.

"As a result, the Security Council placed the protection of civilians on its agenda and developed an architecture of resolutions that strengthened the role of peacekeepers to protect. Mandates and rules of engagement were clarified to ensure that peacekeepers had the authority to act. The Council also passed resolutions to establish frameworks to address children in armed conflict and conflict related sexual violence.

"States always have the primary responsibility to protect their populations. Peacekeepers first role is to support governments to uphold their protection responsibilities through advice, technical and logistical support and capacity building. Peacekeeping missions also seek, through political good offices and mediation, to take a preventive approach to protecting civilians. As a last resort, however, many peacekeepers are authorised to act to physically protect civilians.

"More than 95 per cent of peacekeepers today are mandated to protect civilians. This including protecting children and protecting against conflict-related sexual violence.The vast majority of peacekeepers today serve in missions with mandates that prioritise the protection of civilians.

" The High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations found that protecting civilians is a core obligation of the whole UN, not only peacekeeping. This work finds its most visible expression, however, in the work of blue helmets. This challenging mandate is often the yardstick by which the international community, and those whom we endeavor to protect, judge our worth as peacekeepers."

Media and Information in Conflict Situation

According to CISLAC, the misuse of information can have deadly consequences in armed conflicts, just as information correctly employed can be life-saving.

"The "hate media" that were used to incite genocide in Rwanda are an extreme example of the way information can be manipulated to foment conflict and incite mass violence. Hate speech, misinformation, and hostile propaganda continue to be used as blunt instruments against civilians, triggering ethnic violence and forcing displacement.

" Preventing such activities and ensuring that accurate information is disseminated, is thus an essential part of the work of protecting civilians in armed conflict. If the first casualty of war is the truth, the next victims are those who are unable to draw attention to their need for protection. They are all too often rendered speechless and faceless by conflict, reduced to crude statistics in the news.

" Giving these victims a voice can be vital for mobilising the support necessary to protect human life. Informed public opinion can act as a brake on human rights abuses, by countering the culture of impunity and urging respect for local and international law. Communities have an obligation to counteract such misuse of information and the media collectively and creatively."

Objectives

It was to counter the consequences of championing inciting reportage that the one-day media interaction on the Protection of Civilians and Civilian Harm mitigation in Armed Conflict held.

Essentially, its objectives were to enhance, improve and strengthen the media to recognise that massive media campaigns can distort policy priorities, reliable media accounts, and adequate information management is an essential basis for decisions by governments, donors, international organisations, and non-governmental organisations.

While the welcome remarks was made by CISLAC Executive Director, Auwal Ibrahim Musa (Rafsanjani), the lecture on "Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Bridging the gap between Law and Reality: Setting the Context" and the "Review of short video and the Messaging - Presentation, Staging and Framing" was handled by Hashim while the breakout session was held by Program Officer (Defence and Security), CISLAC, Bertha Ogbimi.

During the breakout sessions, the participants were divided into three groups on "What are the Protection architecture required to Protect Civilians in Armed Conflict? - internal and external to the security institutions"; "What do you consider as the best strategies/tools for Protection considering the emergence of technology and new media. Who Protects in rmed conflict?"; and "Where does the burden of proof rest to show the existence or absence of risk of harm? What are the culture of protection that could be engaged for the benefits of civilians?"

Complex Nature of Conflicts and Role of Media

CISLAC Executive Director, Auwal Ibrahim Musa (Rafsanjani) in his welcome address, noted that the "importance of a free, professional and plural media in contributing to Protection of Civilian and Civilian Harm Mitigation in Armed Conflict has gained traction in our work. A vibrant media gives people free flowing access to information, enables dialogue, encourages people to express their views, prompts greater political participation and encourages accountability. Conflicts today are, in many cases, more complex and multidimensional than ever before.

"This has continued to threaten protection of civilians in various levels. Most conflict deaths occur during internal wars rather than between states and regular armies. Over the past decade there has been an increase in conflict relapse rate. Conflicts are less likely to be resolved through traditional political settlements and this is due mainly to the emergence of organized crime that tends to exacerbate state fragility and undermine state legitimacy.

"Let me say that CISLAC remains deeply concerned by the high number of acts of violence against civilians in various theatres of operations across the country. It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth. Accurate, impartial media reports conveyed from conflict zones serves as fundamental to public interest. In the information era, images and news can have a decisive impact on the outcome of armed conflicts.

"As a consequence, the obstruction of journalistic tasks in times of armed conflict is alarmingly frequent. The spectrum of interference is wide, it ranges from access denial, censorship and harassment to arbitrary detention and direct attacks against media professionals.

"The velocity of today's communication often means that a journalist's ability to assess critically what is happening is reduced due to the difficulty of maintaining a balanced distance from events, leading to a horrible and potentially dangerous cycle of misinformation."

He further posited that expressing observations and opinions in soundbites and tweets and avoiding rational discourse and analysis can put civilian in harm's way, adding that "it is increasingly difficult for organisations to hold back sensitive information from the public until an appropriate time. The speed of communications and competition for audience share makes the media less likely to play a gatekeeper role by withholding certain information that could derail potential risk to vulnerable civilians. The accelerating speed of communications can have positive as well as negative consequences.

"The continued suffering of civilians, particularly the effects of sexual violence, loss of livelihood and constant attacks by non-state armed groups is a cause for deep concern, children and armed conflict and the psyche of the children in these environment is a potential harm to the society.

"Sexual violence in conflict is a niche issue, protecting civilians from sexual violence and other conflict-related mayhem is a step in the right direction. The stories from various IDP camps and locals in operation theatres are indeed sore tales".

On the measures taken, he disclosed that CISLAC, in collaboration with OSIWA has worked collectively to institutionalise a participatory system that is vibrant, robust and effective, harping that the nature of the media is changing rapidly, arguably more rapidly than any other sector.

He said: "Media is exploding and flourishing in Nigeria, with changes happening often very rapidly; new technologies, and particularly mobile telephony, are rapidly transforming information and communication opportunities, including for the poorest with poorly understood consequences. This shifting landscape has implications for the role of media in Protection of Civilian and Civilian Harm Mitigation in Armed Conflict.

"Social media places the audience as both content creators and consumers: "ordinary" people as opposed to professional journalists creating user-generated "news." In this way it can be emancipatory, giving voices to those who otherwise may not be heard, and thus having the potential to become a significant factor in effective and proactive protection of civilians. But this open information landscape also opens the door to abusive, intolerant and oftentimes malicious discourse.

"Learning to live with free expression in a digital age requires a new movement to help people understand that free speech is not without some responsibilities."

Bridging the Gap between Law and Reality

Giving a background during his presentation on "Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Bridging the Gap between Law and Reality: Setting the Context", CISLAC Program Manager, Mr. Salaudeen Hashim noted that "in 1991, during the first Iraq war, a destitute little girl in the holy city of Safwan stood in the middle of a crowd of displaced people with a placard around her neck: We don't need food, we need safety.' She epitomised a shift in the understanding of what civilians expect from government.

"Monitoring and reporting on potential harm' and violations' or educating people on their rights can play a part in protection programmes, they are part of a wider options available. Some actions can be used to reduce the level of threat against civilians: advocacy to persuade others to protect; capacity-building to help them protect; and presence to deter potential perpetrators. Others can be used to reduce people's vulnerability or exposure to threats. the provision of assistance or information; and helping civilians have a stronger voice' to negotiate or advocate for their own safety."

Protection of Civilians

Expantiating on the protection of civilians, he further posited that one must ensure that "information on a wide spectrum of protection of Civilians and Civilian Harm is captured, including in particular sexual violence, extortion, pillage and other exactions against local civilian populations, as well as communal violence and patterns of criminal violence linked to the conflict;

"Provide real-time information from territories to which access is difficult or denied for CSOs; ensure that warnings quickly reach the communities that are most under threat; and

enable local community interests and perspectives to be regularly reflected into protection processes".

Protection Architecture

Shedding light on protection architecture in a conflict situation, Hashim noted that as the concept of protection of civilians has filtered into humanitarian action at least on a strategic level, even if perhaps less successfully on an operational level, "there has also been an increased focus on the protection of specific categories of civilians: women, children, the elderly, the disabled, refugees, IDPs; and a proliferation of organisations concerned with protection threats to these specific groups

-"There is a need to 'de-mystify the concept by moving away from the notion that protection is the sole remit of specialists', and do more to mainstream protection across all sectors of the protection response.

"Cause of action are more powerful that the cause of inaction. Community self protection strategy. Appreciate different conception protection. Adultery can be an issue of protection locally but not recognised by law. How rationale are community justice mechanisms?"

Importance of Media

In this regard, why is the media very important? The value of the media in crafting its media messaging strategies is key. To achieve this, Hashim noted that they must "establish a valuable mechanism for collecting information on violations against civilians in armed conflict. A similar information-gathering arrangement could be created in relation to POC-CHM Legislation;

"Understand that accurate information on violations is essential for enhancing compliance with proposed legislation and to an effective response; and link the morale of personnel in armed conflict to respect, prevent and protect civilians from harm".

Value of Legislation

According to Hashim, the value of a legislation in this regard cannot be understated. He listed their duties to include; "providing direct physical protection to populations and individuals experiencing threats of violence; strengthening local infrastructures for violence prevention, self protection, conflict management and peace building; and increasing and improving responsiveness of duty bearers, state and non state actors to protect civilians"

Communication in PoC-CHM

The use of communications technology and media has significantly amplified their voice, and it is thanks to mobile phones and the internet that news gets out of places where security agencies have no or only limited physical presence, he posited, adding that "checking the veracity of information is equally challenging, and the perception that affected communities and humanitarian organisations are providing information on violations may have a detrimental impact on their safety.

"Affected people are not passive in the face of threats; they make arrangements with belligerents, work to prevent violence against their communities, document violations, train communities on where to find refuge during attacks and teach armed groups the basics of IHL (international humanitarian law)".

Agenda Setting for the Media

For the media, he said the must "promote awareness of humanitarian principles to a similarly broad range of audiences; intensify dissemination of POC to a broad range of audiences, including states and their armed forces, judges, legislators, ANSAs, the staff of international and non-governmental organisations and the general public, in peacetime as well as during conflict;

"Incorporate POC into military manuals and operational orders and directives and establish internal investigative and disciplinary mechanisms; ensure that humanitarian principles, especially good practice, are shared more widely among humanitarian agencies; as well as establish a Journalists Action on Protection Network reporting directly to the as an advocacy framework on POC-CHM".

Way Forward

What is the forward? How do we protect the people affected by a conflict? According to the strategic guidance of UN peace keeping, modern peacekeeping has a number of tools to support the protection of civilians and they include the fact that political leaders should engage with governments and other actors to mitigate and prevent conflict; civilian experts, including Child Protection Advisers, Women's Protection Adviser's and Protection of Civilians Advisers, engage in a range of activities, including demobilising child soldiers, persuading armed groups to stop sexual violence and coordinating military operations to protect civilians;

military and police personnel bring unique skills to provide security and stability; while the experts in strengthening the rule of law and human rights further ensure the establishment of a protective environment.

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