Preventing Violent Extremism or Media Development Aid?

EDITORIAL, 12 Oct 2020

#662 | Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

The distinctive ideology of the War on Terrorism was summarised by Richard Perle, a Reagan-era hawk who, at the time of the 9/11 suicide hijackings, headed the Pentagon’s in-house think-tank, the Defense Policy Board.

“We must decontextualise terror”, he intoned. “Any attempt to discuss the roots of terrorism is an attempt to justify it. It simply needs to be fought and destroyed”.

The day after the attacks, I flew to Macedonia for a meeting of journalists and journalism educators, and a hotel where all the local channels had given over their output to rolling coverage of the crisis on CNN. One presenter did at least challenge his studio guest – another Washington expert – over the wisdom of using military force:

“But isn’t terrorism like a multi-headed hydra?” “Yes”, he was told immediately: “And we’re gonna cut off all the heads”.

That impulse, to strike back regardless, has kept military industries in profitable business for two decades. But the strategy of fighting and destroying was always a failure even on its own terms. The first-anniversary report for the Oxford Research Group, by Paul Rogers and Scilla Elworthy, found that

“[Al Qaeda] and its associates have managed to plan, and often undertake, a remarkable range of activities, with these collectively showing a capability that exceeds that existing before the 11 September attacks. On that basis alone, it is difficult to accept any claim that the war on terror is being won”.

Since then, the War on Terrorism has faded from political rhetoric and media coverage alike. The Factiva database of global news sources reveals 1,405 mentions of the phrase in the month of September 2005; 331 in the same month five years later; 238 in September 2015, and just 94 last month.

But its assumptions still hold sway over foreign and military policies by the US and allied countries, and are indeed becoming ever-more deeply embedded, not least at the United Nations. The UK-based peace and security think-tank, Saferworld, has documented the campaign’s

“extraordinary costs… In Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, at least 480,000 people have been directly killed. A minimum of 240,000 of these were civilians”.

Its report also shows how counter-terrorism has grown into an undeclared “fourth pillar”, distorting and detracting from the UN’s work on peace, development and human rights.

As the Saferworld discussion paper shows, the basic concept voiced by Richard Perle back in 2001 has since evolved, assuming different labels in the process such as “countering” and “preventing violent extremism” (C/PVE). It has given rise to multiple interventions in societies affected by violent conflict, in various fields, among them information and communication. The website of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for instance, boasts specifically of its funding support for PVE communication campaigns, designated as a major item of Overseas Development Aid to fragile and failing states.

Such campaigns are criticised on numerous grounds: as inimical to human rights, particularly to free expression, for instance; and as stigmatising those already excluded from or on the margins of their societies. Its distinctive messaging assumptions are based on outdated concepts of strategic communication: likely at best to overlook “factors contributing to terrorism”, Matt Freear and Andrew Glazzard observe, in the Royal United Services Institute journal; at worst to stifle legitimate attempts to raise grievances over justice issues, where these are inexpedient to the authorities in partner and/or donor countries.

From its inception, the WoT carried a whiff of intellectual bad faith – that responsible policy-makers always knew it made no sense, but went along with it anyway to appease Washington hawks, bellicose newspapers or profit-hungry weapons manufacturers. In Britain, the Conservative foreign policy panjandrum and last Governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, argued that security concerns in Afghanistan would be better addressed with “carefully targeted development assistance” than the allegedly smart bombs then raining down on the country as the Administration of George W Bush took swift revenge.

It was a theme picked up months later when leaders of 50 poor countries met in Monterrey, Mexico in March 2002 to press for greater collective action to meet the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by the UN to halve global poverty by 2015. Speaker after speaker, the Associated Press reported, lined up to link this project to reducing the threat of terrorism.

“In the wake of September 11th, we will forcefully demand that development, peace and security are inseparable”, UN General Assembly president Han Seung-soo declared.

The MDGs gave way to the Sustainable Development Goals for the period to 2030, each of which is to be pursued by setting policy towards specific targets. SDG 16 seems to acknowledge Seung-soo’s demand by committing the aid and development community to deliver “peaceful and inclusive societies”. Its tenth target names “public access to information” as an essential co-requisite.

As the SDGs were being adopted, a review of C/PVE information and communication initiatives found no evidence of their effectiveness, even on their own terms. Instead, the author, Dr Kate Ferguson of the UK’s Partnership for Conflict, Crime and Security Research found that

“alternative approaches”, based on providing aid for media development, “are supported by a stronger and more established research base, drawn from the multi-disciplinary fields of development, peace building, and social cohesion”.

Independent media can build up resources of trust in at-risk communities and enable justice issues to be articulated, thus undercutting appeals to take up arms.

However, James Deane, head of policy and research for BBC Media Action, warned a recent seminar of a

“massive collapse in independent media around the world”, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. “The market model supporting independent media has gone”, he continued. “The worst effects are in low-income countries”.

So there should be no qualms among development agencies over investing to replace the market model as a means of sustaining such media. This activity should, of course, build on the established research base as to what is effective in protecting fragile societies. How could there be confidence that new media structures, supported by public money, would help? The present crisis leads us back to 2002, when the then Director of the Toda Institute for Peace and Future Research, the late Professor Majid Tehranian, proposed Peace Journalism as the key to “negotiating global media ethics” and to a new UN funding agency, a specialised Media Development Bank, to take on such responsibilities.

Since then, Peace Journalism – an ideational set of distinctions in the reporting of conflict, originally modelled by Johan Galtung – has emerged as the organising principle both for initiatives in media development aid, typically in the form of journalist training courses, and scholarship. Researchers have established that it exists in reality, by deriving, from the model, evaluative criteria for content analysis; and that it makes a difference in audience responses.

Where evidence is more patchy is in whether and how far editors and reporters, who take part in a purposive activity such as a training course, can implement their new ideas – although a pilot study with alumni of my Conflict-resolving Media course at the University of Sydney provided at least some basis for assuming they can. It is where aid spending has enabled the creation of new, non-market driven media structures – such as the excellent Mindanews in the southern Philippines, whose original staff attended the course in 2003 – that Peace Journalism has been most firmly implanted and proven most durable.

The War on Terrorism was built on foundations of intellectual dishonesty. At worst, it was a pretext for continued military spending and deployment, iterated with a ferocity that waxed in precisely inverse proportion to the rapidly emerging evidence of its inefficacy in preventing terrorism. Its lineal descendants – initiatives to “counter” or “prevent violent extremism” have, likewise tended to grind remorselessly on, including in the fields of information and communication, despite having no evidential basis for expectation of success, even on their own terms.

In providing for justice issues to take their place in public spheres, independent media doing Peace Journalism can build trust in communities that can protect them from the claims of fighting and destroying. They can prompt and enable audiences to consider and value nonviolent responses to conflict. Investment is needed now to support journalism in its moment of crisis. That, not misconceived campaigns of strategic communication, should be the emphasis of aid and development in the information space, to allow peaceful and inclusive societies to take shape.


I will be speaking about these themes at next month’s Rising Global Peace Conference at Coventry University.

Jake Lynch is a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Coventry University for 2019-20, after which he will return to the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His debut novel, Blood on the Stone: An Oxford Detective Story of the 17th Century, is published by Unbound Books. Jake has spent 20 years developing and researching Peace Journalism, in theory and practice. He is the author of seven books and over 50 refereed articles and book chapters. His work in this field was recognised with the award of the 2017 Luxembourg Peace Prize, by the Schengen Peace Foundation. He served for two years as Secretary General of the International Peace Research Association, having organised its biennial global conference in Sydney, in 2010. Before taking up an academic post, Jake enjoyed a 17-year career in journalism, with spells as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, for Sky News, and the Sydney Correspondent for the Independent newspaper, culminating in a role as an on-screen presenter for BBC World Television News. Lynch is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and advisor for TRANSCEND Media Service. He is the co-author, with Annabel McGoldrick, of Peace Journalism (Hawthorn Press, 2005), and Debates in Peace Journalism, Sydney University Press and TRANSCEND University Press. He also co-authored with Johan Galtung and Annabel McGoldrick, Reporting Conflict: An Introduction to Peace Journalism, which TMS editor Antonio C. S. Rosa translated to Portuguese. His most recent book of scholarly research is A Global Standard for Reporting Conflict (Taylor & Francis, 2014).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 Oct 2020.

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