No Chance for Politics: Ways for Youth to overcome Information Pressure in Conflict Zones

Have you ever thought about the effect you can produce with an update of your Facebook status?

A workshop delivered by Nikolay Kazantsev from AEGEE-Moscow covered one of the most important parts of peacemaking for conflict zones in Europe – resistance to nationalistic propaganda and information pressure from the official media, and declared a way that AEGEE members could contribute to peace building for creating a European identity.

It is natural for human beings to desire peace and people in conflict zones are not an exception. However, due to political struggles, people are counteracted by the nationalist norms that still govern their societies. These norms and core beliefs are accelerated by constant media support.  Academics argue that the influence of the media is especially strong in environments where a) citizens have little or no interest in politics and b) when they depend on a limited number of news sources[1]. That is exactly the case with conflict zones, when official (or national) media channels are declared as the only ones transmitting true facts (having monopoly on truth) while accesses to others are prohibited.

The question arises: could an objective picture of reality be transmitted through only one official information source, especially in conflict zones?

Comparison of press freedom around the conflict zones

In this research we took Press freedom index[2] to show the influence of media on conflict zones in European map (Picture 1). This index shows actual media transparency and determines how and why information is conveyed in different countries through various means.

According to Press freedom index national media is transparent when:

  1. There are many, often competing, sources of information;
  2. Much is known about the method of information delivery;
  3. Funding of media production is publicly available.

Independent media is characterized by demonstration of facts and subjective judgement from both sides, leaving decisions to listeners that implies an active reception of information by an audience, developing their own attitude towards a subject.

Dependent media shows the picture from only one side, with multiplied argumentation and repetition to support this vision. Attitude in this case is developed not by listener but by the journalist.

As it could be seen from Press freedom index, conflict zone in Balkans (Serbia/Kosovo, FYRM, etc.) as well as countries of Caucasus region (Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia) suffer from noticeable to very serious problems in media transparency and information transmission.

Information access as a human right

Information is a critical resource for proper decision-making. European laws support the freedom of speech, and deprivation of access to information, as well as limiting the available sources, is an act of crime. Article 10 of European Declaration on Human Rights discusses rights that include not only the right to express or disseminate information and ideas, but also the right to receive information and ideas.

Paradox: However, still there is no law that punishes for this crime on the national level, especially in conflict zones.

What information is sent to us by the media?

In order to detect the ways of information distortion in the media we will decompose the notion of “information”. Information is a conveyed message that contains:

  • Facts (data for analysis)

(includes answers to questions: who, when, what, how, etc.)

  • Emotional “enchanting” (inc. hate speech)

Emotions distract listeners from rethinking and understanding. It may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group.

  • Subjective judging (including nationalistic propaganda)

Subjectivity comes first of all from stakeholder’s ambitions.

  • Politicians often include patriotic messages that allow them to quickly collect support and create a positive image.
  • Military representatives are interested in long-term conflict and support fear of danger of a counterpart that increases governmental military spending etc.

The corrupted and emotionally enchanted information messages turn into propaganda. It is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) and even mixing up with some truths the audience wants to hear. It is generally an appeal to emotion, not rational response (intellect). Further propaganda results may be used for manipulation of target groups.

South Caucasus and media influence

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has shown the variety of emotional enchanting and subjective interpretation that has affected youth from both sides, playing on people’s emotional reactions. Influence of rhetoric here is very intensive. The region of the mountain Karabakh (unrecognized territory and a sphere of interest of both countries) in Armenian media is presented as de-facto independent (or, in nationalist lingo, ‘liberated’ Armenian land), while in Azerbaijan media it is illustrated as occupied Azerbaijan territory.

This polarization of views is kept so strong to keep the status quo in people’s separation. In this moment no link is made to centuries-old history of common neighborhood of both nations in this area. The same rhetoric (but much weaker) appeared in Russian-Ossetia-Abkhazian-Georgian conflict in 2008.

“Ramil Safarov’s case”[3] – was another example of media influence that complicated political relationships between two Caucasian countries even more.

After the murder of Armenian officer by Azerbaijan officer in 2006, official media of both sides strongly opposed each other.

  • Armenian media put an accent of cruelty and nationality on the case, describing vividly the steps of committed crime, making their residents virtual victims of murderer, and presented the crime as an act against the nation.
  • Azerbaijan media replied with an accent on national honor and humanity: a crime left without detailed description however vividly the historical background was described, the murderer’s feelings, and the crime was argued (and sometimes explained) by superiority of keeping national honor and revenge for perished relatives in Mountain Karabakh conflict.

These opposite views cannot be either true or false; each of them has an argumentation behind it. However, neither Armenian nor Azerbaijan side received the opposing point of view due to politically erected information barriers between the nations. Enormous amount of negative emotions (hate speech, nationalistic insults, and generalizations) multiplied by subjective judgement achieved the goal: now even people that have never seen their “counterparts” are motivated to hate them.

How could they change the status quo and oppose the subjectivism?

The only way for youth in countries with weak media transparency is to separate the facts from ways of official interpretation and to seek for alternative facts to make decision personally.

So where do we find a reliable source of data?

  • It is important to keep in mind that every writer, lecturer, reporter, and teacher has an opinion.
  • An internet article that provides news but does not provide a list of sources is not very trustworthy.
  • Movies are fiction (even movies based on real events are fiction).
  • Memoirs and autobiographies are nonfiction, but they contain a single person’s point of view and opinions.
  • Cable news, radio shows, and other media sources must make a profit. If you use these as sources, you must consider their many stakeholders and political slants. Profit-making potential can cause a book to be more scandalous and more sensational – and less truthful.
  • National history books are only a collection of events when other nations were in conflict with “our” nation. There is rare mention of when nations were cooperating, fighting a common enemy, or were partners in trade and handicraft. However, when a book publisher publishes a book, publisher takes responsibility for its truthfulness.
  • Works of literature and poetry could be used for broadening the understanding of other cultures and for developing tolerance. Usually, however, for obvious reasons, they are generally ignored or not spoken about.

What unites counterparts of conflict zones?

  • Not politicians but civilians from both sides are actual victims of conflict, suffering from its negative consequences.
  • Both sides are worried about the external influences.
  • Both sides perceive poverty as the biggest threat to the region.
  • A significant percentage hopes that their children will be better off than they are.
  • Both parts live being passive victims of conflicts

Workshop Outcomes:

  • Tendency to peace is natural for human beings; governments do not always express the views of a nation.
  • Educated open-minded people have no problems in communication with each other despite any national differences.
  • Nationalism has nothing in common with love to your country. It is a measure to achieve political goals and a hate towards other nations.
  • There are NO good and bad nations, but different people everywhere.
  • There is no monopoly on truth, no reliable information source but different data sources to compare.
  • Separation of political level from relationships between people is needed.
  • Regional identity instead of national identity could be a solution.

Personal recommendations:

–  Meet different points of view in European trainings (Youth In Action, Council of Europe Youth projects, Salto, etc.)

–  Try to understand opposing feelings and positions based on national classical literature and poetry

–  Find a social platform to discuss the views with opponents; regard topic without emotions

– Restrain from expressions which contain hatred against a nation: e.g. re-tweeting nationalistic thoughts of opponent’s politicians through your friends network (twitter, Facebook, etc.) that increases the risk of stereotyping and generalization

– Ability to separate and eliminate the propaganda from information is your part in peace-building

AEGEE contribution to peace building process

AEGEE unites open-minded students across Europe and has no national level. That is why it compasses a unique capability of solving national conflicts. The topic was started in frames of Eastern Partnership Project (EaP). In 2012, the project team has organised two successful events dedicated to conflict resolution:

  1. Conflict resolution Action Day on topic “Lingering conflicts in EaP countries” by AEGEE-Groningen in May 2012. The main idea of this event was to give understanding on current situation in the Caucasus region to Dutch students. The event had a huge success as this information was new for ordinary students who never travelled to that region and had no friends from there.
  2. Youth in Action project “Peace building in Europe” organized by AEGEE-Oviedo and EaP project in September 2012.  This event gathered 30 young people from Armenia, Greece, Georgia, Hungary, Moldova, Spain and Ukraine. This training was focusing on conflict resolution issues; participants had number of case studies on finding the best solutions on how to bring together youth from conflict zones.

Building a European youth identity by new members is impossible in situation of constant conflict between them. That is why conflict resolution within the whole network is a necessity of AEGEE, and particular peace building process in the Caucasian region is AEGEE’s zone of interest (Picture 2).

Project “Music as a common language for peace building among the Caucasus region” was one of the first initiatives developed by AEGEE members in cooperation with local partners – NGO’s in Russia, Georgia, Germany, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bulgaria and Turkey to create:

–  Series of charity concerts and trainings in public spaces (school halls, refugee camps etc.) together with musicians – representatives of confronting sides

– The support of AEGEE – network

 Aims and objectives of this project are:

–  Creating a platform of intercultural exchange  and long-life learning that brings together people who suffered through the conflict: civilians, refugees, etc. as well as AEGEE participants;

–  Non-formal education for AEGEE project team and local population

Peace building process needs you, dear AEGEE member.

Wake up and join!

Written by Nikolay Kazantsev, AEGEE-Moskva & Sandro Scordo, AEGEE-Roma

[1] In contrast, citizens that have alternative sources of  information are less subject to potential effects of media

[2] Press liberty index is created by French non-governmental “Reporters without borders” org.