For over 15 years, Albert Mbaya has worked as a reporter in one of the most dangerous contexts on earth for journalists, that of his home country, the conflict-stricken Central African Republic (CAR).
Ravaged by interreligious and ethnic violence, the country is a challenging place for media to operate, with local journalists struggling to access areas controlled by armed groups and to counter misinformation and war propaganda with independent reporting.
“The role of the media is that of denouncing, warning and contributing to the local population’s civic education by providing real time information over the threats to peace and coexistence,” says Mbaya, who is among the founding members of the KAICIID-supported Network of Conflict-Sensitive Journalists.
Training journalists to prevent conflict.
The Bangui-based organisation supports local journalists through training and resources aimed at developing their skills in countering hate speech and promoting peace.
Thanks to the Network, Mbaya could access areas and realities he would have otherwise struggled to investigate.
“As a member of the Network, I had a chance to broaden my knowledge over my country’s security context,” says Mbaya, who works for both print and broadcast media outlets.
“We carried out several advocacy missions against hate messages spreading across different provinces and this has allowed me to develop a different approach from the one I had always thought I should have.”
Mbaya used to work in the communication department of the Platform of Religious Confessions of the Central African Republic (PCRC), which launched the Network, known by its French name of Réseau des Journalistes Sensibles au conflit et de la Prévention des Messages de Haine (Network of Journalists Sensitive to Conflict and for the Prevention of Hate Messages), in 2018.
The Network, which is now also supported by the United Nations Multidimensional Mission for the Stabilisation of CAR (MINUSCA) now counts around 400 journalists among its members.
Preventing conflict in the country by contributing to the fight against hate speech is its broader objective, part of an action plan for the years 2020-2022 approved by the 2019 constituent assembly. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, the Network trains journalists to work in a conflict environment in a professional way, avoiding to fuel hatred and divisions.
It also brings journalists closer to local communities across the country, so that they can report on the challenges faced by people, make their voices heard and ultimately build their trust in media as promoters of peace rather than hate and divisions.
The risks involved.
This is no easy task in a country where travelling outside the capital involves enormous security concerns, especially for media representatives.
Through the Network, journalists do their best in order to acknowledge and minimise these risks.
“It is important to keep in mind that the Central African Republic has been affected by a political and military crisis for the past three decades,” Mbaye explains.
“The work of the Network brings us to the field, where we are aware of the risks we face and this is why we have created contact points in over ten prefectures, ideally planning on covering the entire territory.”
Even so, journalists travelling to the field remain exposed to a certain amount of risk they have to be prepared for. “Before departing on a mission, we take our time to assess the level of risk in the area and if we realise that it is too high we can cancel the trip,” Mbaye says.
“Even so though, we need to accept that we can’t predict everything and there will always be an uncontrollable risk margin.”
Curbing the spread of hatred.
Selda Junior Bouté, a journalist with six years of experience, currently an editor in the Agora newspaper, took part in a mission to the eastern town of Baoro, where both Muslim and Christian civilians were massacred by armed militia in the past years.
“The Network provided us with the resources we needed to travel there,” he recalls.
“We could talk to the local population, witness their living conditions and the way they are treated and this is important.”
According to Bouté, the work of the Network is supported by their connection to the PCRC and has been crucial to help address a crisis which is too often blamed on interreligious divisions rather than hate propaganda.
“The Network is very important and its work has really contributed to curb hatred,” he says.
“It makes journalists engage in the understanding of what the reality of the CAR crisis is and it helps the population understand it and overcome it.”
Bouté hopes the Network can keep operating in CAR and extend its operations to new areas, as he believes this could really help counter hate and bring peace.
“The Network has put up a good fight against hate speech by opening journalists’ ears, so that if we hear false information we can mobilise to counter it and curb the spread of hatred,” he said.
“Thanks to its work, journalists are now engaged in understanding what the crisis in the Central African Republic is about and the population is also given an opportunity to comprehend. There is hope that, if the Network broadens its reach, we may really get out of this situation.”
Bouté is convinced that looking at the example of other African countries who managed to overcome long and bloody conflicts where religious and ethnic divisions are used as a propaganda tool to spread hatred, may help the Network do an even better job in CAR.
“It would be good if the Network could get the support it may need to organise research missions to countries which have already gone through such crises, such as Ruanda, the DRC or Ivory Coast,” he said.
While remaining hopeful that better trained media professionals can help resolve conflicts in his violence-ravaged country, Bouté is well aware of the challenges journalists keep facing to work in CAR.
Besides the security risks they are confronted with, a lack of resources makes it difficult for them to produce high-quality news material and deliver it in a timely manner.
“We work with outdated devices, our phones are not the best and the audio-visuals we produce are sometimes not very good,” Bouté explains.
“At the same time, we struggle to face costs to go on assignment to remote areas, something the Network has helped with.”
Engaging media in peace dialogue.
KAICIID supports the Network as part of an effort to engage media in peace dialogue in conflict-stricken areas, a strategy which has so far proven effective in the central African country.
Its support to the Network of Conflict-Sensitive Journalists is not the only example of KAICIID’s action to engage media in interreligious and intercultural dialogue in war-stricken world regions.
Through its Arab Region Programme, KAICIID is also currently training 27 journalists from 11 countries in the Arab world through a Dialogue Journalism Fellowship Programme.
“Up until a few years ago, Central African newspapers were full of loaded language and the way information was shared around the country really contributed to the tension,” said KAICIID Programme Manager for Africa, Pietro Siena.
“This is why we decided that working to have a more conflict and religious sensitive reporting was a precondition for a successful peace engagement in the country.”