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Freedom of the press is one of those basic building-blocks of a healthy democracy, a positive attribute of the civil society that is never questioned. But what if that freedom leads to hatred, fear-mongering and the dissemination of half-truths about individuals, ethnic or religious groups or other countries? What if it is a major factor leading to war and to the loss of many innocent lives? Is it reasonable to expect those who wield media power to behave responsibly and practise self-restraint in the midst of competition for readers and profits?

I think it is, and so does a small Vancouver-based organization I'm involved with, the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS). In a quiet and very Canadian way, IMPACS is becoming recognized internationally in an emerging area of foreign policy called media and peace-building, which basically says: In hostile societies, the media can be part of the problem or part of the solution, and being part of the solution is better. That's why IMPACS' executive director, B.C. social activist Shauna Sylvester, found herself sitting in a conference room in Kathmandu, Nepal, in the closing weeks of 1999, with 23 newspaper editors from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, helping them launch and mediate a South Asian Editors' Forum that can start building bridges of communication between implacable enemies.

These were not editors of English-language papers: they represented the Baluchi, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Newari, Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Sinhalese, Tamil and Urdu language press. All the papers command vast readerships in their respective countries, and their coverage of regional politics has tended to be inflammatory and undermining of peace. Last June, when the long-simmering Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir flared up into military clashes in an area called Kargil, Pakistani authorities handed over to their Indian counterparts the severely mutilated bodies of several Indian soldiers. India's foreign minister Jaswant Singh made an emotional public statement in which he accused Pakistani soldiers of disfiguring the Indians. The local Indian media went into a nationalistic uproar over the minister's statement, which naturally inflamed the population. Meanwhile, in Pakistan it was reported that the soldiers' bodies had been mutilated by wild animals. Readers in neither country knew what their neighbouring counterparts were being told.

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Why didn't they know? Apparently, 11 years ago the prime ministers of the two countries signed trade agreements that would, among other things, allow Indian papers and magazines to be sold in Pakistan and vice-versa. But the indigenous-language press in India, suspecting that its own country had given away too much in the negotiations, hounded the government until the agreements were abandoned. They remain unenforced today.

(Of course, TV signals cross the borders unimpeded and more and more Indians and Pakistanis own televisions, so local newspapers will not have such captive, gullible audiences for much longer. Perhaps that knowledge was one of the motives that brought the editors to the table -- "There are many channels of information available today," said one participant, New Delhi journalist Vichitra Sharma. "When print media contradict what people see in their lives, the people reject it.")

At the Kathmandu meeting, the editors agreed to put in place a series of journalistic exchanges, so that a Pakistani or Sri Lankan reporter will have a chance to work out of a Calcutta newsroom for two weeks and see how things look from the other side.

They also undertook to create a glossary of hate terms, inflammatory phrases and stereotypes that they know add oil to the flames of bigotry and xenophobia.

In the Pakistani press, that might mean easing up on the use of the word jihad (holy war) to describe the Kashmiri situation, and making an effort to call Indians "Indians" instead of the highly charged religious term "Hindus." (Hindus make up about 80 per cent of India's population, but the country prides itself on its multicultural makeup and finds that kind of religious pigeonholing particularly upsetting.) The Indian papers, for their part, may have to refrain from using such phrases as "terrorist state" and "failing state" to describe Pakistan, as well as describing the new leader of the country, General Pervez Musharraf, as a "dictator," "an Islamic fundamentalist" and a man having links with terrorists.

None of this is going to be easy, but you have to start somewhere. If you don't, you can end up with a situation like the Balkans, where the freeing of the media after the death of president Josip Tito led to the wildest excesses of hate-mongering. Slavenka Drakulic, the Croatian journalist, pointed the finger at her own profession in a 1993 conversation with The Globe and Mail: "Before there was a war [in Yugoslavia]" she said, "there was a media war. I've seen magazine fighting magazine, reviving hatreds to manipulate the population." Now, several wars later, media freedom in Bosnia is policed by something called the Independent Media Commission, under the auspices of SFOR [the international Stabilization Force in Bosnia] the huge multinational force that is charged with keeping the peace in that region.

When British journalist Simon Winchester visited Sarajevo earlier this year, he found the commissioners worrying over a news report from TV-St.George (run by Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's daughter) that claimed Muslim fighters were kidnapping Serbian children and feeding them to the lions in the Sarajevo zoo. The commission has the power to fine, suspend licenses, and seize equipment when such preposterous stories are put out as news, but the military commander Mr. Winchester talked to prefers a more direct approach. "We just go up the hill where they have the transmitter, and we find the switch and flick it up. Bingo! Turns everything off. And then we put a couple of sentries there so they can't go back and turn it on, and if they do, we blow it up. Quite simple, really."

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Simple perhaps, but effective in the long term? Probably not. IMPACS' media and peace-building approach isn't as sexy or as definitive as blowing up transmitters, but ultimately it's the only thing that will work between warring neighbours who must figure out a modus vivendi after the international press corps drifts on to the next trouble spot. The difficulty will be getting reporters and their editors to sign on, because they are trained to see the world in terms of duality and conflict, not building bridges. Journalism students everywhere are taught that this is what sells papers: if it bleeds, it leads.

I'm not suggesting that genuine conflicts should be papered over or ignored. Honest reporting of even the most appalling violence is an essential component of free journalism. But so much of what inflames public opinion are not actual deeds, but threats, rhetoric, rumour, image and spin, all of which fall within the media's power to control, highlight, de-fang or discard. A dogged search for the facts, a serious effort to contextualize, a humanizing impulse: these are journalism's -- not to mention a just society's -- essential tools. Bronwyn Drainie is a writer and journalist who taught journalism ethics at Ryerson University in the late 1990s. She is on the board of IMPACS, the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society.

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