NOTE FROM IARJ EDITORS: “Is peace possible?” That’s one of the most common questions asked worldwide as we enter 2017. The veteran Nigerian journalist Odinga Modesty Nuhu Adiwu wrestles with this question every day in her work in the religiously volatile Plateau State of Nigeria. We invited Odinga to share her journalist’s perspective on the role of good reporting in the midst of religious conflict.
By ODINGA ADIWU
Over the past decade, the Plateau State in North Central Nigeria has been besieged with near-genocidal conflicts arising from ethno-religious cleavages.
In 2013, as the dust settled on of these conflicts, the NGO Search For Common Ground launched in Nigeria Voice of Peace, a radio program funded by the EU. Primary, the radio program reached out to traditional communities and influential leaders, complementing the efforts of CSOs, government and stakeholders. The radio program’s outreach includes voices of top journalists and academics studying religion. I shared ideas on peace and journalism with colleagues and scholars at the conference on “Covering religion and spirituality in Africa,” sponsored by the International Association of Religion Journalists at the University of Ghana in Accra, last July.
As time heals all wounds, the invisible wounds created by the violent conflicts in our different continents will take dedicated efforts of journalists and the true practice of our various religions, devoid of extremism, to take us to the path of peace.
Information is power. In any stage of conflict, a lack of accurate information can contribute to the crisis, making people restless, desperate and easy to manipulate. In contrast, the sharing fair, accurate and balanced reporting can impact public discourse in a positive direction. The ability to make informed decisions strengthens society and fosters economic growth. It also strengthens democratic structures and positive outlook on our future as a people, regardless of our faith/ethnicity, geographical location or color.
Our world is diverse and we are becoming more and more aware of our differences.
“We live in a world of difference, diversities even as human beings although we all belong or come from the same Creator,” says Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, professor of contemporary African Christianity at Trinity Theological Seminary, Accra. “We are different geographically, culturally and biologically. Some are black, some are white, some are short, some are tall. Also the languages we speak are different but difference should not lead to a sense of superiority in anyone. Part of the reasons why we have violence in the world is that we have become too opinionated. People who want to have their ways, irrespective of the rights of others. We trample on the religious beliefs of others. This kind of attitude is what has led to the kind of violence we see. If you oppress people, they will be violent, if you despise the religion of others, there will be violence. We have got to recognize other people’s spaces and respect them for who they are.”
Can religion journalists help their audiences appreciate the complexity of the world and undercut stereotypes and hate speech that are so common in social media today?
Yes, by reporting accurately on religion, journalists can accept this big responsibility and can make a difference. But, we need to remember that this is not a new concept in journalism.
Even in a country regarded as a “haven of peace” like Ghana, journalists have always assumed that their work contributes to that peace. Nana Appiah Acquaye, deputy news editor at The Republic newspaper, based in Accra, recalls the need for fair and balanced reporting. “We have to be guided by the values and ethics that drive our professional practice: fairness and balance. We need to avoid sensationalism and make it sure that all sides of the divide are covered and try as much as possible to offer an equal platform to every stakeholder that contributes to peace and dialogue in the country.”
“We need to spread understanding between cultures, between religions,” adds Algerian journalist Larbi Megari, who is co-managing director and a founder of the IARJ. “We need to know each other to understand our differences—not to focus on these differences, but to know them and tolerate them, and to establish a peaceful atmosphere between all religion believers”.
Dialogue is “a key ingredient in combating violence and fostering sustainable peace”, according to South African journalist Yazeed Kamaldien, a co-founder of the IARJ and a member of the Board of Directors. “We have a lot of conflicts around us, and too many situations where fire is being fought with fire presently and in the past. There are non-violent ways of dealing with conflict. What we need is to build trust because people do not trust each other anymore. Whether it is based on culture, race or religion, we have seen this happen over and over again throughout history. We need to also have people who are willing to take leadership of the process of dialogue.”
Interjecting too much sentimentality in reporting can be problematic. Responsible journalism involving religion does not need to stress sentimental themes, especially when touching on conflict. We should focus, instead, on producing true, balanced and fair accounts.
In order to achieve this, journalists have to stay clear of judgmental representations, take time to know the culture, traditions and religion of the people and describe reality without embellishment. To achieve this, journalists need access to information and need to cross-fertilize the ideas they are hearing. They need proper analysis of the status quo, practical information of facts on ground.
The United Nations Millennium Declaration itself stresses the role of journalists in fostering peace: “the need to ensure the freedom of the journalists to perform their essential role and the right of public to have access to information. Journalism does not need justification for its existence. Its service to society is justification in itself. Journalism and religion cannot only help to distribute information and create an atmosphere of peace but also counter hate speech and create an environment of balanced opinion on information equilibrium.”
In war-torn Liberia, journalist Abraham Wheon founded the Association of Religious Journalists of Liberia. “The best way to practice peace is by actions,” he says. “We must encourage religious co-existence. As Liberians, we know what the guns and the bullets did to us. The silencing of the guns was the beginning of peace for us.”
The defining conflict is not easy, and no two places of conflict are alike. Journalists should be armed with the knowledge of religious practice in a particular area, we need to know what to expect on site in order to define the objective of our project, which is using our profession, journalism, in promoting and building sustainable peace through our reporting.
Dr. Abel Ugba from Princeton Theological Seminary in the U.S. also says “peace is essential to individual and collective effort and for that to happen, we have to learn to respect and cherish one another. We need to appreciate the good in the other person. We should cultivate humility, that in many ways will create peaceful relations with the people we meet in our houses, communities and places of work on a wider global stage.”
When it comes to peace, journalists themselves become stakeholders, says Ambassador Mussie Hailu, the Regional Director for United Religions Initiative Africa and special adviser to the Economic, Social and culture Council of the African Union. “The issue of peace is something we all need to be stakeholders. We always want to live in a peaceful world but dreaming alone cannot make it happen. Peace begins with us; we need to treat others like we would like them treat us. We all need to take responsibilities and not only claiming our rights.”
The role of journalism in religion reporting cannot be complete if it ultimately does not build peace. Our peace cannot be separated regardless of race, culture, nationality or religion. We should all remember that before our religious beliefs, we are first of all human beings. And this is what we all experienced in the IARJ Ghana conference, while sharing ideas, challenges and insights.
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Odinga Modesty Nuhu Adiwu, was born in Zagun, situated in the Bassa area of Nigeria’s Plateau State. A broadcast journalist and a content producer, she is currently working at Plateau Radio and Television Corporation (PRTVC). Odinga Adiwu spent several years producing media content promoting inter-faith and religious dialogue across various platforms. She has attended various workshops and seminars on conflict management and peace building. She strongly believes that the media is a powerful tool in shaping opinions either positively or negatively.
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