Interview with Johan Galtung

Missed Angles of Conflict Prevention

The media tends to report bad news, and that rewards the perpetrators of violence. Peace initiatives seldom make the headlines. The superficiality of Western reporting means the public does not understand the context of many conflicts. Those are the views of the peace researcher Johan Galtung. He spoke to Claudia Isabel Rittel

The media tends to negative reporting, and that rewards the perpetrators of violence. Peace initiatives seldom make the headlines. Due to superficial reporting by Western newspapers and broadcasters, the public does not understand the context of many conflicts. Those are the views of the peace researcher Johan Galtung. He spoke to Claudia Isabel Rittel

What role should the media play?

Johan Galtung: Their main task is to define social discourse. The way one talks and writes about an actual situation is very important. If, for example, you are talking about Russia and Putin, this needs to be put into context. Yeltsin has to be mentioned, and so must the encirclement of Russia by NATO and the USA's close cooperation with Japan in the framework of the Armitage-Nye strategy. Only then it is possible to say something about the facts.

However, it usually works the other way around: first an angle is chosen and then the facts are delivered accordingly. Our perception is influenced very strongly by the close ties our countries have with the USA; the media are suggesting to the readers how to talk about certain topics and what they may remain ignorant of.

That sounds like censorship.

Galtung: Yes, but defining certain angles for views is even worse. Censorship only forbids one to spell out certain facts. However, if journalists skip important details – whether due to disinterest or incapacity – entire dimensions of reality are left out. You see, every angle only gives you a partial truth, and the other partial truths remain invisible. In any conflict, all parties have their own partial truths. Therefore, the media should serve as something like a meeting-point for different views, but most of the time they do not.

You coined the term "peace journalism". What is that?

Galtung: Peace journalism is about bringing news that promotes peace, not war. Positive feedback matters very much. The media reward acts of violence with coverage, but hardly do so in the case of acts of peace. Of course it is important to expose serious scandals. But you hardly ever find anything positive in the media. News about the Middle East is defined by violence, even though positive things do happen there too.

Take, for example, the case of two couples – one Israeli and one Palestinian – who lost their children in the conflict and formed an association to end the war. By reporting on violence, the media tells the perpetrators that they actually did a successful job. Meanwhile, the couples that support peace – despite all the adversity – do not experience this kind of positive feedback. Their activities are not reported, and that tells them that their initiative is not interesting, which is wrong.

Have you experienced that yourself?

Demonstration over Mohammed cartoons (Photo: AP)
"In the 'cartoon conflict' it was not the Mohammed cartoons that were at the heart of the matter, the problem was that the Danes refused to engage in dialogue."

​​Galtung: In the "cartoon conflict" of early 2006, I mediated between Muslim clergymen and the Danish government. It was not the Mohammed cartoons that were at the heart of the matter – not at all. But unfortunately the West did not understand that. The actual problem was that the Danes refused to engage in dialogue. I proposed a compromise.

The Danish government should issue an invitation to dialogue and, in return, arson should stop. On the following Monday, the Danish government made that invitation, and no more embassies burned. Media interest, however, dropped off immediately. They wanted to report on fires, but not discuss the resolution of the conflict. Positive news is not considered interesting.

Terrorists take advantage of that media attitude. But how should journalists act?

Galtung: They have to report, even though their work can serve the wrong interests. The war between Islam and the West began back in 711 with the Islamic attack on the Iberian Peninsula. The answer was the crusades. In contrast to the Islamic attack, which was essentially an occupation, the crusades were extraordinarily violent.

More and more atrocities were committed, carried out mostly by the West. Western powers attacked Arab and Muslim countries again and again during later periods in history too. We do not only have to ask about the causes of fundamentalism, but also about the reasons behind the causes.

However, Western media focus almost exclusively on violent crimes by Muslims. They reported on 11 September 2001 without any understanding about what the pact of 1945 between Saudi Arabia and the USA meant for Islam and for Wahhabism in particular.

Wahhabism is a puritanical form of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

Galtung: In the agreement, the USA committed itself to defend the royal family of Saudi Arabia against their own people. In return, the USA gained access to oil. Since this context is not mentioned, let alone explained, Islamic fundamentalism seems to have no reason at all.

From what they are told, newspaper readers and television audiences can only conclude that terrorists are evil. The other important angle is ignored. Other facts that are ignored in the West include that Italians flew history's first bombing, during which women and children were attacked as strategic targets, in Libya in 1911.

Britain did the same against Iraqi insurgents in 1922. These events are very important to the people of the countries concerned. School children read about them, everyone knows the facts. In the West, however, no one is aware of them.

Africans similarly accuse the international media, which is predominantly European and North American, of not covering positive developments.

Galtung: They do not report about Ubuntu, for example...

... an African life philosophy, based on the idea of humanity towards others.

Galtung: It says that we are all parts of one another. However, if you want to understand why the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was so successful, Ubuntu is a very important aspect. It was also not reported that, after the Truth Commission, there were no more politically motivated acts of violence by blacks against whites. Of course, there still is burglary and theft. But both are something quite different, especially in a society defined by exploitation.

What role do the media play in state building?

Galtung: The media could promote positive approaches, but once again, everything depends on perspectives. Building nation states is about imitating European history. It speaks for itself that the approach itself is never questioned at all. It is plainly assumed that the nation state is the best option. But perhaps there are completely different models that would prove more suitable for Africa.

Structuring Africa without states but as a network of regions might be a good idea. After all, the majority of African communities are nomadic; and moving on after a certain amount of time is a proven method to prevent and resolve conflicts.

However, state borders make that impossible. Moreover, Europeans should not forget that they drew the borders when they divided the continent among themselves at the Berlin Conference in 1885. These borders could just as well be removed again. Let's not forget that Africans have been promoting pan-African solutions.

You have said that development assistance should be reciprocal. What do you mean?

Galtung: I recently suggested that the European Commission invite a committee of experts from African countries to Western Europe to analyse our development. The idea was not to implement their recommendations directly, but to open our eyes to new perspectives.

Is that not very theoretical?

Galtung: No, it is not. That kind of exchange actually took place in the early 1970s. The Institute for Development Studies at Sussex University invited people from developing countries to England to find out what the main problems of Western society are. They discovered that the most urgent problem of our society is loneliness. Tension between ethnic groups – the Northern Ireland conflict – took second place.

The Africans also noted that many people in Western societies do not know about the meaning of life, and came up with suggestions as to what could be done about it. But that was not welcome politically, and Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister, cut the institute's funding.

You write that one cause of the worldwide poverty gap is a lack of respect. What do you mean?

Galtung: The main reason is the capitalist system. It systematically shifts wealth from the bottom to the top, with very different consequences, depending on whether one is standing at the bottom or the top. And once those at the top have too much liquidity, they do all sorts of stupid things. That is why we are in economic crisis. If one wants to improve people's circumstances, two methods help. First of all, national economies need the protection of tariffs – that is how the USA became wealthy. Second, welfare states should support the people who are poor.

Education and health services should be free of charge. However, these ideas conflict with the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and in many cases the exact opposite of what would help is done. However, things will not stay like this. That is evident, for instance, in the fact that Latin America has set up its own Banco del Sur.

Interview: Claudia Isabel Rittel

© Development and Cooperation 2008

Johan Galtung founded the world's first Peace Research Institute (PRIO) in Oslo in 1959. In 1987, the mathematician and sociologist received the alternative Nobel Prize for his work in the field of peace research. Today he heads the international TRANSCEND network for peace and development.

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