Media Reporting on Identity-Based Violence

Date: 28 April 2016

Country: UK

DSC_0051At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia earlier this month, where MDI was present, one of the panels, “Does independence in journalism have a future?” discussed the fine lines between advocacy and journalism. The debate included an account of the importance and the means, for journalists and media development associations, of nurturing and supporting grassroots voices from regions facing violent and extremist attacks.

Giulia Dessi of MDI interviewed one of the panellists, Kate Ferguson, experienced policy analyst and founder of Protection Approaches, on the role of the media in defending the rights of peoples around the world who are violently targeted because of their identity.

Why is it important to talk about identity-based violence today?

The term “Identity-Based Violence” provides a very useful umbrella: policies are shaped around buzzwords, whether this is counter-narratives or extremism, and there is so much knowledge and expertise in so many different sectors about the processes of division. If you look at the conflicts, at the major challenges the world faces – look at Syria, Burundi, the Islamic State, the refugee crisis, the rise of right-wing extremism, Donald Trump – it’s all about mobilising identity divisions and exploiting them. To look at common processes really champions the social cohesion agenda and I think it is really something to be supported and promoted as the long-term solution to many problems.

What is the general understanding of identity-based violence in the UK?

One of the reasons we used the term – and it’s a term I developed during my PhD research and my work in Rwanda – is because in the UK we have a pretty strong civil society. If someone is assaulted because they are gay in Birmingham, that’s often frontpage news and the whole country generally reacts that justice must be done and someone must be held accountable. In the UK, we are pretty good on something that happens on our street, on our doorstep, but then something happens when people feel further away. It’s about bringing that loss of humanity that happens when someone is attacked because the perpetrator thinks they deserve it because they belong to a certain identity group. It’s how the perpetrator identifies them, not the individual. That is something we already have a strong understanding of, and because we deal mainly with the big challenges of mass atrocities crimes, ethnic cleansing genocide, and also, increasingly, extremism, that actually is a way of bringing these problems – that seem very alien – closer to home. If you can understand why racism is wrong and why you would not tolerate it, and you can understand why the assault of an Iman because he’s Muslim – and not because the person knew him – is wrong, then maybe we can convey why it is their responsibility to speak up. Not just for that Iman, and his family, and his community, but also for people who are targeted on mass further away. If people are being attacked further away, it’s a weird maths suddenly, it’s less of a problem. That’s why we developed this approach. We work with grassroots, we work with policy makers and try to share it as a global phenomenon that everyone experiences it.

What is the role of the media in this?

We identified the media as one of our five actors of change. It is integral, either as a force for good or a force for more malign and negative attributes. We are developing a prediction model and that will include a set of of indicators of what the media, in a certain situation, does and how it responds. Is it holding the corrupted or the perpetrators to account? Or is it colluding? Or is it inciting? And what’s the role of incitement in our analysis of identity-based problems? We are developing workshops with early-career journalists about the sensitivity of being responsible for engaging in discourses around identity. You can either go for the tabloid line, but if you do, you won’t recognise actually that it is a step on a path towards undoing the social fabric of a society. And, equally, setting an agenda that promotes cohesion could be incredibly powerful.