Journalism challenging war

An anonymous woman crying. A man dressed in uniform acting as an expert. Stereotypes in media reporting from conflicts zones are discussed intensively during the workshops that are being arranged within the project “Peace journalism with a gender perspective”.

The project, implemented by Kvinna till Kvinna, was granted funding from the FBA in 2013. The project aims to train peace activists, women’s rights activists and media actors on the concept of peace journalism with a gender perspective.

Within the realm of the project a training and method material has been developed in English, Arabic and Bosnian, and training sessions have been held in the Middle East and in the Balkans. All activities are carried out in cooperation with local women’s organizations, media centres, journalists and universities in order to promote the exchange of experiences.

The project, set to end in 2015, has faced a number of challenges. For example, Kvinna till Kvinna has been forced to move the training sessions several times, both with regards to time and location; sometimes even to other countries. The participants’ security has been of great concern and the representatives from women’s organizations have faced threats and harassment. Read more about two specific training sessions below.

Workshop in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

Lina Quadri and Lama Abu Baker discuss the image of women in Palestinian media at the Ramallah workshop on gender equal reporting. Photo: Pernilla Ahlsén.

Not far from the Media Centar’s premises in the outskirts of Sarajevo lies the Holiday Inn. The hotel, with its distinctive yellow facade, then full of bullet holes, became world famous during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. This was where the international war correspondents lived and worked during the four years that Sarajevo was besieged.

Today, the subjects are power of the media and how journalists can reinforce a conflict as well as contribute to a solution. Pernilla Ahlsén, journalist, and Jake Lynch, former BBC reporter and director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, are holding a workshop on peace journalism at the hotel.

– Peace journalism is the antithesis of war journalism. Its approach is to shift focus from the war, from the conflict between two parties, and instead look for solutions. To let other voices than just politicians’ and the militaries’ voices speak. To explain the background, not just report events without context, Jake Lynch says.

He has developed peace journalism from a concept introduced in the 1960s by peace researcher Johan Galtung. The main idea is that journalism adopting a peace perspective not only gives a more accurate picture of reality, but also contributes to conflict resolution.

To allow more voices to be heard also means to challenge gender stereotypes. There are many examples of how women have been made invisible in war reporting over the years, a subject which Kvinna till Kvinna also addresses in the publication Peace Journalism. Women are being described as victims, subjected to violence and abuse. They are often anonymous and without a say. Women are rarely asked about the war or a solution.

The workshop’s participants are asked to reflect on how reporting about abuse in war could be done using a peace perspective. To put focus on the perpetrator is one example. To transfer the shame from the woman to the one who has abused her. Or, to highlight the efforts of women’s rights activists to support those who are vulnerable and to demand justice.

Among the participants are researchers, representatives from NGOs, and journalists. They all work in a Bosnia-Herzegovina that no longer is at war, but where ethnic tensions are still strong.The workshop on peace journalism is an opportunity to reflect on the media scene in the country, and on what can be done to bring about change.

Sunita Dautbegović-Bošnjaković, from the peace organization Forum ZFD, believes that some small changes can already be seen; there is an opening in the media’s approach to alternative stories.
– Up until a few years ago, it was almost impossible to sell a positive story from the war. For example about neighbours who helped each other across ethnic boundaries. Now the door is not quite as closed.

Workshop in Ramallah, Palestine

Pernilla Ahlsén and Jake Lynch go through news articles on the internet together with Una Cilic and Dijana Gajić, during a group assignment. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Anna Lithander.

At the Bir Zeit University in Ramallah on the West Bank, Palestine, Swedish journalist Pernilla Ahlsén is holding a workshop for participants from Women’s Affairs Center, Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and Palestinian journalists, among others. They start by analysing a couple of Palestinian newspapers, by looking at the number of women and men present, which roles they have and how they are being presented. The participants are analytical and critical and find the results disappointing. If there are women in the photos, their names are often not in the caption and they are not mentioned in the article. Two crying refugee women are set to illustrate an article about the war in Iraq.

In the sports section it becomes even more apparent. A text about the Palestinian karate association for women is illustrated with photos of – men.

A vivid discussion takes place, sorting out several reasons for this imbalance: patriarchal structures, a lack of interest in women’s views, unawareness about how unequal the media is, and ignorance regarding how to go about to find female experts in different fields. Another obstacle is that male journalists are sometimes not allowed to talk to women directly, they have to ask the women’s husbands for permission and the answer is often no.

The frustration is widespread but the discussion continues and the group tries to find solutions, under guidance from Pernilla Ahlsén. They all agree that one good way of increasing the representation of women in the media would be to make a list of female business leaders, politicians, professional athletes and more, and use it when in need of people to interview. Pernilla Ahlsén describes the Swedish Equalisters – an organization using social media to gather names of female experts within different fields, names that are passed on to editorial staff.

However, a reoccurring opinion during the workshop is that a stronger female representation in Palestinian media is not possible until there are more women occupying high positions in society.

One of the most experienced journalists in the group says that he can not interview women just for the sake of them being women.
– They must have something to say. Otherwise, there is a risk that I put words in their mouths, only because I am so eager to get more women into the paper.

After the workshop, the participants are convinced that the discussion on how to make women more visible in the media will continue. They feel that the project has given them several useful tools that they will be able to use in their future work.

Kvinna till Kvinna has also received a request to hold a similar workshop in Gaza.
– We have this concept now and we would really like to use it again. Hopefully, we will be able to hold the workshop in Gaza during 2016, and we are also discussing the possibility of carrying out training sessions in other countries where Kvinna till Kvinna operates, says Christina Hager, Head of Communications at Kvinna till Kvinna.


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Saba Nowzari

Saba Nowzari is expert on women, peace and security, Mali and the Middle East

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