With extremism in its many manifestations, a free and independent media can be a beacon of hope in sea of chaotic, violent debates. They can provide an accountable and solid benchmark for news and discourse, whether in print or online.
As Daesh (ISIS) becomes a major security threat for many nations, attention has been drawn to the influence of social media in radicalization.
In an exclusive panel during World Press Freedom Day 2017 in Jakarta, journalists and activists from West Africa, Ukraine, Colombia along with Google, outlined the climate of extremism in their respective countries as well as the active role social media plays in facilitating the hostile environment online.
For many policymakers and journalists, a critical media can be a platform of reason and stability in spite of the fearmongering that occurs in several sides of the bigger picture. This would be the main concern as UNESCO launches its latest publication “Terrorism and the Media: A handbook for Journalists” which attempts to address how violent speech can be delegitimized through an elevation of peaceful voices at the grassroots levels.
The threat from violent extremist groups which combine their beliefs with religion in West Africa have been increasing and growing substantially. The terrorists often try to justify their immorality with fundamentalist religion narratives. Most of their purpose were to overthrow the current government and build a caliphate state instead.
Director General of Panos Institute West Africa Diana Senghor said there were 257 attacks happened last year and it is keep on increasing. The attacks are also expanding geographically.
The methods the groups use vary from open confrontation, targeted assassinations, ambushes, kidnapping, suicide bombing, etc.
According to Afrobarometer, these are Saharan Africa’s regional “hotspots” of extremist activity:
- Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region (Cameroon, Niger, and Nigeria)
- Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Mourabitoun (among others) in the Sahel region (Mali).
- Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa (Kenya and Uganda).
Senghor said that the groups mostly recruit young people. According to her, most of them are illiterate.
Based on a research by United States Institute of Peace (USIP), high levels of illiteracy linked to youth radicalization and extremism. Illiterate people can be more easily manipulated because they lack ability to critically question the narratives and doctrines of extremist groups.
The other reason is unemployment and poverty. National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) stated that Nigerian poverty rate jumped from 54.7 per cent in 2004 to 60.9 percent in 2010. A hundred million Nigerians lived in absolute poverty, 12.6 million were moderately poor in 2011.
Poverty, illiteracy, and radicalization are correlated. The poor unlikely be able to send their children to school, which likely leads to their illiteracy.
Russia’s military forces was sent to Crimea, an autonomous region of southern Ukraine with strong Russian loyalties, on March 1, 2014 after President Vladimir Putin’s request. Two weeks later, Crimea got annexed completely in a referendum which slammed by Ukraine and most of the world as illegitimate.
Kiev government launched its first formal military action against the pro-Russian rebels who have seized government buildings in towns and cities across eastern Ukraine on April 15, 2014.
This conflict between the extremism groups, the pro-European west and the pro-Russian, has been causing grief and danger, especially for people who live in the conflict zone. Since the conflict started in 2014, nearly 9.500 people have been killed in the violence, more than 22.100 injured in 2016. Executive Director of Independent Association of Broadcaster Kateryna Miasnikova stated that more than 10.000 people have been kidnapped.
Miasnikova said, young people in Ukrainian attracted in joining the pro-Russian group since they didn’t receive enough education about post-Soviet era. That caused the youth more inclined to think that era would give them better life, so they fought for it.
The media didn’t help in building peace at all either.
The independent press got shutted down, Russia controlled more of the story, spreading negative vibes about Ukraine.
In the light of the recent Jakarta elections, religious and racial extremism seemed unprecedented for many as Indonesia has been known for its long history of moderate religious values. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or better known as Ahok, was Jakarta’s first non-Muslim governor in 50 years since President Joko Widodo’s election.
The recent Jakarta elections sparked a sense of surprise when Ahok’s approval rating dropped from 75% to 39% after an anti-Chinese smear campaign was launched against him online.
For Savic Ali, Chief Operating Officer of NUTIZEN Digital Indonesia, this reveals a rising tide of extremism that certainly demands moderate Muslims to rise to the occasion and counter these contentions.
“We’re facing a big challenge in Islamic history. Since Indonesia’s Reformasi (Reformation) period, there has been a proliferation of new groups and committees, growing in villages and campuses. They have ultra conservative tendencies”.
“Their numbers are not big, but they are getting stronger every year. Hundreds and thousands of people follow this narrow minded perspective on Islam. They view Ahok as a blasphemy in Islam.”
Ali also commented that the reason of the extremists’ success in both the offline and online world is their high levels of activity and organization which outdoes that of the moderates.
In contrast with what Ali said, Ricardo Corredor, Executive Director of the Gabriel García Marquez New Journalism Foundation argues that even ideological extremism is not just a semblance of the past.
Colombia has been a region that has undergone about 52 years of intense armed conflict. President Juan Manuel Santos, whose administration initiated a peace agreement with guerrilla fighters, led to a massive polarization within the country. This was because his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe Vélez was completely against the peace negotiations and his popularity would become a game changer for public opinion.
According to Corredor, the impact of the conflict was felt more in the countryside which painted a very controversial and negative image on Santos’ move.
“Uribe used all his political power to fight against the negotiations, even though it was something that should have been positive. As a result, the government lost in a referendum nearing the end of the negotiations”.
“The media played a very important role… The coverage was emotional with insufficient context and was very personalized, based on the political feud.”
A Complicated Balance
In spite of the enormous challenge ahead in efforts to counter extremism, there is much potential for journalism to empower people in forming resistance against online radicalization. James Deane, Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action strongly believes in the power of a good quality and independent media for the people.
“Personally, I believe that a good quality media, a genuinely independent media that actually serves for the whole of the public engages with everyone, particularly the ones who are most vulnerable to violent extremism. [It does not] provide a kind of hostile environment for violent extremism to take hold. It makes it much more difficult for those messages to work. It doesn’t solve the problem, it doesn’t necessarily make violent extremism have less traction but it does make it much more difficult.”
“I think there was some elements to this where if you clampdown on the media, which is often the response from a lot of governments who are concerned about extremism and terrorism, you actually create corruption very often and we often know increasingly that corruption is driving violent extremism. So it can be very counterproductive.”
However, the agenda for countering violent extremism is not free from controversy either. Concerned experts, as reported by the Centre of International Media Assistance (CIMA) highlighted that this priority may undermine the independence of journalists, who strive to maintain their role as neutral, factual content creators.
Deane perceives the present information system as posing specific challenges, particularly when attempting to effectively combat extremism. Due to this and his experience with the BBC, he stated that he is more inclined to the role of a public service broadcaster that maintains a sense of autonomy.
“A public service broadcaster which is genuinely independent can be very important in this context because people want a sense of identity very often, a sense of national identity but also something democratic and free.”
“The other thing that could happen with the role of a public service broadcaster is to provide the linking mechanism in society because a lot of it is about misunderstanding or suspicion of others in society, whether religious or ethnic. What you need are platforms where people can engage and debate with each other, rather than this constant separation or different spaces where people are just arguing in their own groups and occupy their own echo chambers.”