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The Public Sphere in Conflict and Transition State

The Public Sphere in Conflict and Transition States

By Am Johal

The public sphere as a concept which has been under development since the days of Socrates and Plato, continues to be the subject of modern debate. Socrates, in the end, was executed not for asserting the way the world should be, but for doubting the truths of others.[1] Non-conformism in the public sphere has thus historically often been dangerous intellectual terrain virtually since the beginning of modern civilization.

As state and institutional failures continue to affect modern nation-states, international and regional standards and approaches in responding to these areas are still in the early stages of formation. The post-colonial and post-Cold War world are still in the process of transition. The public sphere as a formal and informal public space for the contest of ideas still has severe limitations on its development and in the case of conflict states, there is still not a developed process regarding intervention when those systems are being compromised often leading to disastrous consequences to human life, national economies, regional destabilization and social disruption. What can be done then to enhance and support a dynamic, fair and active public sphere which genuinely involves the citizenry?

In fact, many non-governmental organizations, foreign affairs departments and international bodies are focused on these efforts. The twentieth century particularly has multiple examples of nation-states which could not withhold the underlying tensions which existed in their societies and which allowed a messianic ideology to play itself out in the form of genocide and war crimes. In many of these examples, media and other elements of the public sphere were manipulated and distorted to meet the ends of elite political formations.

Ross Howard of the Media and Democracy Group has argued that “incompetent, partisan and misinformed journalism has incited racist, hate-filled violence around the world particularly in places such as Rwanda, the Balkans and Cambodia.”

He recently wrote: “Reliable reporting, and responsibly written editorials and opinion, do things such as establish communication among disputant parties, correct misperceptions and identify underlying interests. The media provides an emotional outlet. It can offer solutions, and build confidence.” [2]

Hannah Arendt and Juergen Habermas have written extensively on the distortion of state systems by political apparatuses particularly in totalitarian states. It is particularly in this environment where the need to control every aspect of state systems violates concepts which are considered basic principles of modern democratic systems in nation-states such as the separation of powers. Though even in modern democratic states there are regular distortions of democratic processes, the separation of power allows for the excesses to be analyzed in public view. For example, the Liberal Party in Canada lost the recent federal election largely as a result of public concerns with political influence over government advertising contracts. Even those states which do not have a Western democratic model of governance, stability often times comes as a result of some variation of these basic themes even where a culture of democracy is not the prevailing system of organization of nation-states.

The emergence of state failure as a regular feature of international relations in the post-colonial era has led to interest in particular aspects of conflict prevention including humanitarian intervention in media related spheres. The European Union, as a major player in the region where many transition states exist without a history of democratic systems and processes, is still in the early stages of developing guidelines, benchmarks and precedents for intervention when appropriate. In fact, the European Union is now regularly assessing democratic systems in nation-states on objective criteria and publicly reporting on them. Since the end of the Second World War, over 50 million people have died in various conflicts in the world.[3]

In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt documents the modern rise of anti-semitism from the 1880’s and how the totalitarian system of Nazism fifty years later distorted state apparatuses to build a dangerous and racist public sphere out of a virulent form of nationalism based on historical grievances. German romanticism and the role of personality laid amongst the intellectuals of that time laid the foundations for the collapse that followed. The distortion of transforming anti-semitism in to a political weapon required a weakness on the part of the apparatuses of the state to remain independent and of the citizenry to have adequate structures in place in order to allow such a catastrophic failure to occur. Without a culture of developed civic involvement or a history of democratic participation, many of these nations were highly susceptible to elitist formations distorting power. [4]

Race and bureaucracy as elements of imperialism were utilized at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to often violent conclusions including the “Boers’ extermination of Hottentot tribes, the …murdering by Carl Peters in German Southeast Africa, the decimation of the peaceful Congo population – from 20 to 40 million reduced to 8 million people.” [5]

All of these totalitarian movements required the elite, the mob and the masses in order to overthrow the prevailing structures. In the example of totalitarian movements such as Bolshevik Russia or Nazi Germany, Arendt wrote that, “Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself; the masses have to be won by propaganda. Under conditions of constitutional government and freedom of opinion, totalitarian movements struggling for power can use terror to a limited extent only and share with other parties the necessity of winning adherents and of appearing plausible to a public which is not yet rigorously isolated from all other sources of information.”[6] Or as E. Kohn Bramstedt stated in Dictatorship and Political Police: The Technique of Control by Fear in 1945 that “terror without propaganda would lose most of its psychological effect, whereas propaganda without terror does not contain its full punch.” In the case of Stalin, he simply rewrote a new history of the Russian Revolution after the purges.

Totalitarian leadership in this era consistently showed that isolating mass communities and controlling information and propaganda were some of the basic tools used in practice. Safeguarding and maintaining this fictitious world was part of the apparatus of controlling the public sphere for the purposes of value formation and reality construction. Without the separation of systems, this distorted and perverted the entire state apparatus with the values of the totalitarian movement. [7] The elite formations, with what Hannah Arendt describes as the mob, were then in a position to utilize propaganda to mobilize the masses after taking over the institutions of the state: “Without the organizational division of the movement into elite formations, membership, and sympathizers, the lies of the Leader would not work.” [8] Totalitarian movements were distinguished from despotism, tyranny and dictatorship in that they required mass appeal.

The institutions where secrecy was required was where the elite formations carried out their actual planning. All public displays such as political party events were merely displays and simulacra for the actual process of public policy planning. This required control of police and secret services to maintain the culture of fear and domination towards any threat to the totalitarian movement. In the Soviet and Nazi regime, the masses were to be controlled, manipulated and brought in to line by any means necessary in order to fit the model of totalitarian control. [9]

Without strong political, cultural, social and historical conditions of civic engagement and the culture of a critical citizenry with developed public structures as safeguards, the masses were vulnerable to the misuses of history and persuasion to be attracted to what by appearances was a populist movement. In many respects these movements were part of a historical and cultural context, but could not have been deformed to the extent they were without the leadership apparatuses surrounding the leading personalities of Hitler and Stalin. It would also be fair to say that those very institutions were still in developmental stages themselves in comparison to more developed democracies and that historical factors which saw decades of centralized government in Germany and Russia were particularly fertile grounds for organized mass movements to utilize new organizing and communication methods to mobilize the masses. This creation of almost mass hysteria exhibited especially in Nazi Germany could not have been cultivated if the movement itself was not able to distort the historic grievances of the First World War and other illusory visions of grandeur in to a mass movement.

Arendt, in her concluding chapter to The Origins of Totalitarianism, identifies loneliness as the conditions under which totalitarianism can flourish. In her view, it is in this environment that seemingly normal people can support the mass organizing appeal of undemocratic movements due to their appeal to reason and distortion of dialectics. [10]

Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul has written that “To live within ideology, with utopian expectations, is to live in no place, to live in limbo. To live nowhere. To live in a void where the illusion of reality is usually created by highly sophisticated rational constructs.” [11]

He argues that in Western history, there have been four primary sources of legitimacy in wielding state power: God, king, groups or the individual citizenry acting in unison. Historically, the first three have negated the role of the individual citizen to a state of passivity. Even in the era of the medieval church, the concepts of faith, hope and charity as aspects of the human condition came from the negation of the individual self and imposed passivity as the prevailing social order. Individualism, distinct from the first three, requires participation as a precept to acquiring legitimacy. Saul has argued that modern Western democracies today function on the relationship between groups at the expense of the individual citizen - a de facto state of corporatism. [12]

Even in the contemporary post-modern context with the availability of multiple forms of media and the immediate speed of communication for many parts of the world, the manipulation of symbols and images in controlled and isolated environments can provide the same basis for contributing to institutional collapse and state failure if basic safeguards are not in place. Referring to processes of deliberation, Habermas has written:

Deliberation…refers to a certain attitude toward social cooperation, namely, that openness to persuasion by reasons referring to the claims of others as well as one’s own. The deliberative medium is a good faith exchange of views – including participants’ reports of their own understanding of their respective vital interests - …in which a vote, if any vote is taken, represents a pooling of judgments. [13]

He has also argued that exercise of freedoms in an open society have to be regularly put to action in order to adequately understand the prevailing norms and conditions which govern a state, whether formally or informally. In the context of the need for public and open deliberation of establishing these frameworks in a given society, Habermas also makes the distinction between rational and irrational public debate and the need for societies to define their barriers and limitations in an open public sphere. [14]

In the late twentieth century, there has been the added dynamic of a more developed concept of international laws and conventions which could be used as a framework of modern values which could be debated and deliberated upon and serve as a foundation of basic norms and values.

As John Ralston Saul explains in describing the underlying values of state organization:

It depends upon the commitment of the citizen to the common good. This is the true meaning of obligation. Those who govern or have power cannot on the one hand invoke obligation and on the other deny the common good and the real legitimacy of the citizen…Equilibrium, in the Western experience, is dependent not just on criticism, but on non-conformism in the public place. [15]

Deliberative democracy or citizen-based democracy is built upon systems of real, meaningful participation as a bulwark against imposed ideologies by political parties on state institutions. Certainly, disruptions or distortions of systems are one of the trip wires associated with monitoring legitimate uses of power by various institutional safeguards such as a civil service, legal system, a functioning civil society or a free press. A corporatist system contains features which allow for permanence, stability and power constellations, but can actively contribute to passivity in the public sphere by individual citizens due to limited access points for genuine participation. [16]

Saul identifies in much the same way as Habermas that concepts of free, open societies such as common sense, creativity, ethics, intuition, memory and reason can be either utilized as filters for public action and used as a basis of evaluation of a public sphere or they can be “exploited individually as a justification for ideology.” Even in the corporatist system, language has the tendency of being cut off from reality. [17]

What is also significant in the underlying current of historical examples is the myth of progress or as the historian Sidney Pollard noted in 1968 that “the assumption that a pattern of change exists in the history of mankind…that it consists of irreversible changes in one direction only, and that this direction is towards improvement” or in the words of the writer Ronald Wright, “Myth is an arrangement of the past, whether real or imagined, in patterns that reinforce a culture’s deepest values and aspirations…Myths are so fraught with meaning that we live and die by them. They are the maps by which cultures navigate through time.” [18]

However, certain myths, through the distortion of ideologies, and delivered through the apparatuses of mass propaganda without legitimate checks and balances can provide a rich breeding ground and potential for the conditions that can ultimately lead to state failure.

This historical development of the belief in progress with nationalist aims has also worked to create dangerous linkages when taken out of context by elite formations and perverted by the need for mass appeal of these movements. [19]

There are also numerous examples of the same principle working in democratic states to a much lesser extent. Some could argue that ideology and progress played a factor in the development of nuclear weapons as an advancement of civilization. There was also a rich debate when US State Department official Frances Fukuyama called capitalism and democracy the “end of history,” after the end of the Cold War. [20]

States, whether democratic, totalitarian, despotic or other, according to Wright, “arrogate to themselves the power of coercive violence: the right to crack the whip, execute prisoners, send young men to the battlefield. From this stems that venomous bloom which J.M. Coetzee has called, in his extraordinary novel Waiting for the Barbarians, “the black flower of civilization” – torture, wrongful imprisonment, violence for display – the forging of might into right.” [21]

The systems of decision-making and their ability to distort process to meet political ends, and the extent to which they will be taken are important factors of consideration in analyzing what safety mechanisms need to be in place so that a state of chaos and even elements of institutional failure do not occur. [22] The Hutton Inquiry in Britain over the death of weapons inspector David Kelly or the US’s own use of intelligence in the lead up to invading Iraq are recent examples where public interest questions regarding process distortion are relevant in a democratic context whether they occur or not. It is a central feature of the public sphere.

There are broader questions at play when discussing uses of history or even contemporary information for political ends. In response to the “interest theory” of memory construction, where the past can be manipulated to meet present needs, Michael Schudson suggests that the past is at least partially recorded and can develop with some sense of objectivity to measure against. Others such as Barry Schwartz have written that “given the constraints of a recorded history, the past cannot be literally constructed; it can only be selectively exploited.” Collective memory also has many similarities to myth in the sense that there is constant negotiation over time and is a fluid construction to fit historical circumstances. Social movements which become a political force bring together individual and collective representation. [23] Benedict Anderson has argued that “imagined” as well as “real” communities have been created by the mass media and in the 20th Century have been utilized numerous times for nationalist purposes in terms of memory construction. [24]

The failures of Weimar German society in the 1930’s which led to the rise of Hitler could not happen today in Germany due to the development of structures both within the state, civil society and even at the regional and international level. German identity after the Second World War involved decades of memory denial, reconstruction, and was debated at length with the themes of individual and collective guilt. Rituals of confession and guilt were built on various narratives of collective stigma until by the early 1970’s, admittance of collective guilt decoupled from individual complicity worked to heal ruptures in German society.

The kneeling of Social Democratic leader Willy Brandt in Poland while visiting the site of the ghetto uprising against German occupation served as a gesture of recognition of German complicity in war crimes, while providing a means of moving forward from a history that had plagued Germany for decades. As this was done in an international setting in a spontaneous way, it was a very public showing of the acceptance of responsibility. In this way, the public sphere can also be a place of collective reconciliation in transition states or a place to enact justice or revenge such as televising the execution of Nicolae Ceauºescu in Romania. [25]

The Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher has suggested that the enormity of the moral and institutional collapse related to the Holocaust may not even be understood with the passing of time:

I doubt when even in a thousand years people will understand Hitler, Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka better than we do now. Will they have a better historical perspective? On the contrary, posterity may even understand it all even less than we do.

Who can analyze the motives and the interests behind the enormities of Auschwitz…We are confronted here by a huge and ominous mystery of the generation of the human character that will forever baffle and terrify mankind. [26]

In Eastern and Central Europe there are dozens of empty synagogues from that period with only minor acknowledgement of their historical significance. The German Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen wrote in his diary before he was executed in 1944:

How much we really know about the vaults and caverns which lie somewhere under the structure of a great nation – about these psychic catacombs in which all our concealed desires, our fearful dreams and evil spirits, our vices and our forgotten and unexpiated sins, have been buried for generations? In healthy times, these emerge as the specters in our dreams…But suppose, now, that all of these things generally kept buried in our subconscious were to push their way to the surface, as in the blood-cleansing function of a boil? [27]

Major cultural traumas, superimposed by historical periods, always take on their own meanings and can delegitimize previous societal norms even in democratically robust and open societies. After September 11th, most of the United States had forgotten about the closeness of the 2000 election in Florida. After a period of mourning, the mass calls for a response also created a cultural atmosphere where an element of the mob responded. Muslim Americans and even a Sikh gas station attendant in the United States were killed by vigilantes attempting to exact some kind of irrational mob revenge.

As Habermas has noted, at points of cultural trauma or heightened power dynamics, the polarized views tend to dominate the public sphere and moderate voices become sidelined. This is one of the early stages of social rupture and can deteriorate in to a state of anomie, or moral chaos. The Polish academic Piotr Sztompka as well as many others have noted that:

Change is a universal and pervasive factor of social life. There is no society without change. Seemingly stable, unchanging phenomena are just congnitively frozen phases in the constant flow of social events, snapshots of the world, which as such, never stops in its tracks. Ontologically, society is nothing else but change, movement and transformation, action and interaction, construction and reconstruction, constant becoming rather than stable being. [28]

This observation begs the basic question of how then do we manage change, trauma and social rupture in nation-states? How can legitimate dynamism and negotiation of ideas in the public sphere be adequately given a space for contestation? What are the systems that need to be in place which ensure dynamism within the institutions of society which reflect the will of the people? Where do the boundaries become blurred? How is there genuine involvement of the citizenry?

Sztompka has highlighted the divisions between the sociological view of progress against the discourse of crisis. There are six historical themes he emphasizes amongst the discourse of crisis:

1) Lost community raised by Ferdinand Tönnies
2) Anomie, or moral chaos, raised by Emile Durkheim
3) Bureaucracy, or “extreme instrumental, manipulative rationality” developed by Max Weber
4) Decaying mass culture and the dangers of massification by Ortega Y Gasset
5) Ecological destruction, degradation of nature and “limits to growth”
6) Industrialization of war, genocide, state failure and the spread of terrorism and violence [29]

A third discourse of trauma has recently been developed which attempts to identify aspects of social change that deliver “profound shocks and wounds to the social and cultural tissue.” [30] Four traits of traumatogenic change include:

1) sudden and rapid change, or a lengthy process which reaches ‘point of saturation’
2) wide and comprehensive in scope and affects many actors and many actions
3) that it is radical, deep, fundamental and pervasive in the sense that it affects social or personal life in a universal way, whether public or private and can change the prevailing dominant values, prestige or hierarchy in the constitution of society
4) that which is widely unexpected by the masses [31]

The historian Tony Judt has written that the twentieth century has been unparalleled in its scientific, technological and social changes. In the context of this great upheaval, the public sphere in conflict states need to be viewed in this historic frame. The learning that has occurred under transition in various parts of the world and the development of international and regional institutions as well as the various examples of state failures have given the international community some sense of the basic norms in stable societies: the rule of law, the free competition of public ideas, dynamism on the social and economic front, the competition amongst political parties and within political institutions, the separation of powers, a free press as some examples. [32]

The sources of cultural trauma, as Sztompka points out, can be as varied as intensifying cultural contact, enhanced spatial mobility, the change of fundamental institutions and the incapacity of a population to follow the cultural imperatives of the new system such as the example of transition states in Eastern Europe, or a fundamental change of ideas at the level of “beliefs, creeds, doctrines, ideologies.” Societal responses to rapid change such as nostalgia for the past or a lack of faith in the institutions of the state are examples. [33]

In response to these broad themes of progress, crisis and trauma, John Ralston Saul would argue that the “process of seeking equilibrium is the essence of civilization.” [34]

According to Saul, “For a start, life is something that goes by, and when it’s over there isn’t any more. Time is therefore the essential human condition and fear of its passing the essential human emotion. Or worse still, fear of our ceasing to exist.” [35]

Additionally, the role of reason in the development of public ethics has also had numerous examples where it has been deformed from ethical and humanist foundations. Totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and other forms such as Apartheid-era South Africa all utilized a measure of reason and logic in bureaucratizing systems of deep and inhumane oppression. [36]

The 1993-1994 genocide in Rwanda took between 500,000-800,000 lives. The head of the UN peacekeeping force, Canadian Major-General Romeo Dallaire, repeatedly asked for permission from UN headquarter in New York to intervene. Eight months after the original request, he received 2,548 poorly trained troops. By the time the genocide began, the force was down to 450. [37]

Dallaire later had a breakdown and at one point was found drunk in the morning on a Montreal park bench. He would later publicly admit to two suicide attempts. As he later wrote in his own words:

There were more people killed , wounded, or made refugees in less than four months in Rwanda than in the long Yugoslav war. And we poured tens of thousands of troops into Yugoslavia…And so I came to the conclusion that the world’s response is fundamentally racist. I cannot, as many people urge, just put it behind me, get a new life. I can’t wash my hands, like Pontius Pilate, of 800,000 dead. I can’t forget…the people with all the hope they had, and then watching them as displaced people, seeing them after they had been chopped up – and when the survivors saw the blue beret, there was just bewilderment. What had happened? And seeing the terror, the horror in the eyes of children…You don’t, you don’t just say…damn, I did what I could, and it’s too bad. Not this stuff. I don’t think I’m allowed to do that morally.” [38]

Even in places with a history of democracy, rule of law and stability, failures of the public sphere to have legitimate and just barriers have led to numerous instances of incitement to violence by the dominant narratives which existed historically. In the United States, 4,742 blacks were lynched in the first sixty years of the 20th Century and there are even today numerous examples of violent beatings of homosexuals in democratic and free societies. [39]

In places of deep, historical divisions such as South Africa, Chile or Argentina, there are numerous examples of the role of public displays of reconciliation in order to create a communal starting point. As Jose Zalaguett of the Chilean Truth Commission has stated it this way: “Identity is memory. Identities forged out of half-remembered things or false memories easily commit transgressions.” [40]

Descartes, centuries ago, made the argument that we must learn to forget in order to free the mind. The nineteenth century French thinker Ernest Renan made the point that freedom could only be achieved by leaving behind parts of history. Certainly the 20th Century is littered with examples of distorted versions of history, past tragedies or wrongs being isolated from context and used as tools for racism, state-building and other imperial adventures. The modern tools of mass communication including propaganda and public relations certainly play a role in this regard. As many thinkers have highlighted including Habermas, Arendt and Saul, “reason used as an ideology has found memory a particularly useful mechanism to either denigrate or exploit.” [41]

The contemporary debate around global media ethics is led by academic institutes and UN agencies such as UNESCO. The UN recently held a “World Summit on the Information Society.” The European Union is actively developing standards for communication policies in member states. Dr. Stephen Ward on his new website on journalism ethics housed at the Sing Tao School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia highlights two reasons for a need for global media ethics:

1) Practical: a non-global ethic is no longer able to adequately address the new problems of journalism, and

2) Ethical: new global responsibilities come with global impact and reach. [42]

Not only by reframing the ethics debate in journalism in this way, international and domestic institutions can create appropriate legislation to set up the legislative framework for a free press in conflict and post-conflict states. As well, amateurs have utilized their positions to get information out in public ways which has raised ethics concerns related the organic development of a public sphere with legitimate barriers. Internet technology particularly has complicated the matter further.

Ward further highlights how the practical implementation of global journalism ethics would be different if journalists would:

1) Act as global agents
Journalists should see themselves as agents of a global public sphere. The goal of their work should be an informed, diverse and tolerant global “info sphere” that challenges the distortions of tyranny and the manipulation of information by special interests.

2) Serve the citizens of the world
The global journalist’s primary loyalty is to the information needs of world citizens. Journalists should not see themselves as attached primarily to factions, regions or even countries.

3) Promote non-parochial understandings

The global journalist frames issues broadly and uses a diversity of sources and perspectives of understanding of issues from an international perspective. [43]

Ross Howard, a Canadian journalism instructor and founder of the Media and Democracy Group in October of 2004 wrote:

One doesn’t have to be a war correspondent to recognize that journalism and news media can incite violent conflict. In 1994, Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda incited gonocide by employing metaphors and hate speech. Serbian state broadcasting during the 1995 and 1999 Balkan conflict is almost equally infamous. Incompetent journalism and partisan news management can generate misinformation which inflames xenophobia, ethnic hatred, class warfare and violent conflict in almost any fragile state. The anti-Thai violence in Cambodia in 2003, triggered entirely by partisan media, is a more recent example. Radio Netherlands’ website on counteracting hate media indicates that hate radio is currently operating on five continents.” [44]

There are other examples where journalists actively select stories in conflict states which led to reconciliation during South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission rather than reporting on some which would have further inflamed public discourse. Media has the capacity to repeat stereotypes, engage in the deterioration of the public sphere and create conditions which lead to violence in a fragile situation. Or as Howard suggests, “conflict sensitive journalism can inject context, an appreciation for root causes…” [45]

International law encourages states to introduce legislation which penalizes incitement to hatred. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in Article 20 and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) have articles which prohibit these forms of communication.

Article 20 of the ICCPR states:

1. Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.
2. Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law. [46]

Balancing these provisions with the right to freedom of expression as set out in Article 19 of the ICCPR or Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights has been the subject of much debate in places where countries have moved forward with the requisite legislation. Many have made the argument that forcing extremists to moderate their language actually makes their message more palatable to the general public. [47]

In countries with longstanding disputes such as Israel and Palestine, there have been instances where some right wing Members of the Knesset have called for the ethnic transfer of Israeli Arabs or soccer crowds have chanted “Death to the Arabs” at matches, while in Gaza, there are Hamas rallies where crowds chant “Throw the Jews into the sea.” This type of conflict situation simply creates a cycle of suicide bombings and military attacks undermining the moderate narrative of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict. [48]

The prohibition of certain forms of public discourse or the failure to implement these positions into law may contribute to the replication of hate speech into the public sphere in many conflict states. Failure to set the boundaries of acceptable discourse in a public way that is negotiated in full view either organically within the public sphere itself or through the enactment or enforcement of legislation in extreme cases, there is the possibility that these narratives could become normalized in the dominant space of the public sphere. It is in these situations where, for example, conflicts related to ethnic minorities in nation-states can lead to ethnic cleansing and other stages of conflict in the most extreme of circumstances. [49]

In Hungary for example, I have walked past a newsstand and seen the daily newspaper have a picture with ten naked women on the cover holding soccer balls. This may be a normative part of the public sphere in Eastern Europe for a series of reasons, but Catherine MacKinnon has written that negative portrayals of women:

ought to be construed as a kind of “wound,” …because it proclaims
and effects the subordinated status of women. [50]

According to Ross Howard, conflict sensitive journalism begins with an understanding of “essential elements of rudimentary conflict analysis”:

  • Almost all conflict emerges from a handful of causes, most notably inadequately shared resources, housing, no communication between disputants, unresolved grievances…and when no common ground or shared interest can be established.

  • Violence can emerge in several forms, including cultural practices such as widely-practiced (religious or gender) discrimination. The violence can also be institutionalized by legally sanctioned colonialism, nepotism and corruption.

  • Conflict almost inevitably ends because of one-party dominance, withdrawal and irresolute transformation of a dispute into a shared solution. Journalists play some of the roles…to communities to resolve conflict. Successful resolution almost invariably involves a number of interests with new interests, trade-offs and alternatives.

  • Journalism risks being manipulated by narrow interests and unchallenged mythologies of elites. A basic analysis of a conflict broadens journalist’ insights, perspectives and …produces more diverse stories.

  • In acknowledging their innate capacity as mediators, and applying basic conflict analysis skills they can apply more rigorous scrutiny to the words and images they apply in their reporting:
  • -Avoiding emotional and imprecise words such as massacre and genocide, terrorist or extremist. Call people what they call themselves. Avoid words like devastated, tragedy etc.
    -Defining conflicts as multi-faceted, and seeking commonalities as well as points of tension among disputants, and seeking alternative perspectives and solutions to the conflict
    -Attributing claims and allegations, and avoiding unsubstantiated descriptions
    -Avoiding the unjustified use of racial or cultural identities in stories and exclusion of diversity in seeking perspectives and comment [50]

    Michael Edwards who directs the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society programs said in a recent interview that he sees a role for civil society to play in the development of a robust public sphere:

    The term [civil society] goes back to Aristotle, but dates in contemporary time to the fall of the Berlin Wall. People in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union latched into it as they struggled to find a new vision for their societies. They believed that independent citizens can change the world and that freedom and democracy could grow around small circles of dissidents – an idea that dates to Alexis de Tocqueville. When he came to America in the 19th century, de Toqueville saw groups of American citizens coming together voluntarily to fashion a new society in a new world. In the former Soviet bloc, small circles came together, gradually formed wider circles of resistance, and finally overthrew an authoritarian state.

    But the other meanings of civil society are also important – Aristotle’s ideal of the “good society,” that citizens should always be striving to create, and, more recently, the notion of the “public sphere,” in which citizens argue about what makes their societies “good.”

    There’s no simple equation. You have to consider the context and the times. Many people assume that the more opportunities people have to participate, the better. Rwanda, for example, had Africa’s highest density of voluntary associations at the time of the genocide. During 20 years of civil war, Lebanon had very well-developed voluntary associations, but many fomented conflict instead of mitigating it. In the United States, we’ve got no shortage of voluntary associations – a strong environmental lobby, women’s rights lobby, gun lobby, and so on, but they’re all focused on a narrow agenda. We have few bridges across the lines of party affiliation, race, gender or identity, and little sense of the common interest. So even though single-issue advocacy groups provide routes to public participation, some say they can lead to gridlock in the system…You almost never hear the words “public sphere” uttered in most discussions about civil society, even though it’s one of our most important ideas about democracy. Embedded in the idea of the public sphere is the conviction that, by talking to each other, groups of citizens can invent a new political consensus. The reality of today, however, is that public discussion is eroded and impoverished, and the public interest is therefore impossible to create and maintain. [51]

    There are also a number of other issues that are relevant in terms of having legitimate domestic and regional legislation in place related to mediating the public sphere. For example, organizations such as OSCE and the European Union have supported progressive and independent communications policies such as supporting freedom of information legislation, arms-length broadcasting legislation and by pushing for decriminalization of defamation and libel for journalists. Added to this are standards to assess the concentration of media ownership and broadcasting councils which can monitor prevalence of hate speech. There are also workable policies being put into place to promote internet usage and training so people have access to a greater variety of information rather than just domestic sources. In transition states, there are numerous examples of states passing the legal framework for the establishment of free media. [52]

    In much the same way that Habermas viewed the Marxist and Frankfurt School as having underestimated the importance of universal law, rights and sovereignty in social movements, the role of the public sphere was also neglected. Just as in Western democratic societies, transition societies recognize the increasingly important role of the media in politics, public life and in the process of value formation, but also in the manner in which corporate interests have colonized this sphere. The commercial nature of many media companies often implies that this idea of the “commons” is left in the hands of a marketplace as well as defining the dominant themes of public discussion in a given society. It can be argued that this almost seems a rational response to the frequent misuses of state-run media in the region historically.

    Many from the Frankfurt School have argued that the public sphere has been altered from a place of rational debate to one of consumption and passivity. This theme of the corporate colonization of the public sphere relates very strongly to the Gramscian view of hegemony and Althusser’s many writings on ideological state apparatuses. [53]

    States, under international protocols, have an obligation to prevent acts of hatred from occurring due to incitement in the public sphere. Measures to protect:

    individual and collective rights from incitement to hatred…include education on tolerance; measures to eliminate discrimination in education, employment, and housing; particular measures to ensure no discrimination in government bodies or agents, such as the police, or in the judiciary; ombudspersons empowered to receive and act on any complaints; and rigorous investigation and punishment of all crimes motivated by racial, religious and national hatred. [54]

    Hate speech and incitement in the public sphere has been the subject of much debate in places such as Israel where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was slain by a right wing extremist in 1995. In the years following the signing of the Oslo Peace Process, the Israeli Prime Minister had become the target of the extreme right in Israel in the public sphere. Judith Butler has written:

    We began by noting that hate speech calls into question linguistic survival, that being called a name can be the site of injury, and conclude by noting that this name-calling may be the initiating moment of counter-mobilization. The name one is called both subordinates and enables, producing a scene of agency from ambivalence, a set of effects that exceed the animating intentions of the call. To take up the name that one is called is no simple submission to prior authority, for the name is already unmoored from prior context, and entered into labor of self-definition. The word that wounds becomes an instrument of resistance in the redeployment that destroys the prior territory of its operation. [55]

    In the specific instance of media incited and sustained mass violence, the international community and regional bodies are still developing the best practices of media intervention in weak or failing conflict states. Broad questions of what an imposed ‘peace media’ could mean in such environments need to be analyzed objectively due to the fact that they bring up some of the same colonial themes that have been criticized for much of the 20th Century. On the other hand, actions such as jamming radio signals and taking interventionist action will always be viewed with concern. [55]

    On December 23, 2003, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found that “Ferdinand Nahimana, founder and ideologist of the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, high ranking board member of the Comite d’initiative of the RTLM and founding member of the Coalition for the Defense of Republic (CDR), and Hassan Ngeze, chief editor of Kangura newspaper, were convicted today for genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy, and crimes against humanity, extermination and persecution.” [56]

    The ICTR, in examining the role of radio station RTLM and the newspaper Kangura, reached a similar conclusion to the International Military Tribunal against the Nazi journalist Julius Streicher on the charge of inciting genocide. The 1948 UN Genocide Convention still serves as a primary element in the present day interpretation of international criminal justice. [57]

    In the case of Rwanda, the state controlled radio station was already sending a violently pro-Hutu message when moderates took over the Ministry of Information. In 1993, Hutu hardliners incorporated radio station RTLM in response to the moderates and began broadcasting despite the government ban on “harmful state propaganda.” This new station broadcasted on the same frequency as the state-owned Radio Rwanda, had formal links with state agencies and included some of the same personnel. The political and military elite supported RTLM as part of a broader strategy to thwart internal democratic reforms. The government also distributed free radios to give people access to RTLM. After the death of the President in a plane crash, the genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus began. The station developed a spontaneous style, and along with Radio Rwanda and the newspaper Kangura, openly led incitations to slaughter with directions on how to carry it out. [58]

    Even though General Romeo Dallaire called for a jamming of the radio station, he could not get approval from the UN. Due partly to an earlier failure in an intervention in Somalia, the US argued that radio jamming constituted an act of interference and was therefore a violation of international law. RTLM continued to use populist rhetoric and broadcasted names, addresses and license plates of Tutsi targets. [59]

    In Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic ascended to the leadership of the Serbian League of Communists by publishing a Memorandum which listed Serb grievances and stoked feelings of Serb nationalism. Milosevic met with the head of Belgrade Radio-Television every day. According to one account, he was:

    Exploiting control over the airwaves and printing presses in Serbia, Milosevic’s media machine sought to persuade ethnic Serbs that they faced imminent danger from their fellow citizens in other former Yugoslav republics and provinces. Incessant chauvinistic demands broadcast by the media undermined the principles of national equality cultivated for decades by Marshal Tito. The hysteric nationalist mythology churned out by the Serbian media after 1987 fuelled nationalist sentiment among other ethnic and religious communities. [60]

    Milosevic in 1987, after returning to Kosovo said, “What we are discussing here can no longer be called politics, it is a question of our fatherland.” In this way, he was able to use state resources to build a sense of a “Greater Serbia.” The media of that period made many uses of past conflicts including references to the Second World War. Some observers from that period have noted that these historical moments were being manipulated for the purposes of precipitating another war. Some of the footage was dubbed with music such as Dire Strait’s “Brothers in Arms.” Other images such as the ones from the Second World War were used to discredit NATO intervention. Another station which was a supporter of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzik, mixed footage between Nazi soldiers and NATO forces to draw inferences between the two. In a relatively short space of time, all sides of the conflict were well versed in propaganda techniques. [61]

    Violent conflict is rarely exclusively a result of inflammatory media, but it certainly plays an important role in fomenting popular support for normalizing such an action. In the instance of state failure common in the post-Cold War era, it is defined as the inability of a state to “uphold an effective monopoly of violence over its whole territory, a failure to uphold the law, an inability to meet international obligations such as debt repayment and the use of its territory for the perpetration of violence.” [62]

    Often times, this coincides with the state’s inability to supply basic public services. In all of these types of situations, many NGO’s specializing in communications including Article 19 and Internews, support the training of journalists, support for independent media, and the monitoring of local media content. According to the Sarai Journal, there are three types of possible intervention:

    1) Structural interventions (support for independent media and diversity in media
    ownership, journalism training, legislative interventions to protect private media outlets and address hateful and antagonistic content, cooperation with international media networks as well as NGO’s to complement and monitor local media outlets), and aggressive interventions (using force or prohibiting media outlets from operating).

    2) Content Specific Interventions (directly addressing the content produced
    by media outlets).

    3) Aggressive Interventions (using force or prohibiting media outlets from
    operating). [63]

    Added to these intervention options is the emergence of new forms of diplomacy which are both international and regional in their scope. They are widely known in terms such as ‘new diplomacy, new internationalism, new institutionalism and cooperative mulilateralism.’ At its core, it places the interests of humanity before the interests of nation states by working with and mobilizing citizen groups “to rally public opinion within and between nation-states.” Some examples of the successes of this approach include the Ottawa Landmines Treaty, the International Criminal Court, passage of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine at the United Nations and the Convention on Cultural Diversity adopted by UNESCO and others like the Kyoto Protocol. [64]

    Even though there are troubling signs such as the mass killings in the Darfur region of Sudan where the international community chose not to intervene in the early stages despite visits by then US Secretary of State Colin Powell prior to the slaughter occurring, the latest studies indicate that the amount of armed conflicts are actually decreasing in the world. Andrew Mack, former Director of Strategic Planning under Kofi Annan at the UN and currently with UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues, released the Human Security Report in October 2005 which showed that wars are not becoming more frequent or more deadly, nor is terrorism the main threat to human security. The gravest threat is in fact in known trouble spots where the UN is not actively involved in intervening in conflict prevention, peacemaking or peacebuilding. [65]

    Vaclav Havel has written extensively about the need for societies to be structured around the freedom of the individual and that the citizenry should be actively engaged as part of the development of society. Even in this respect, transition states need to develop standards for the structure of the public sphere in such a manner that it does not reinforce negative stereotypes which are out of the norm of international and domestic standards of public discourse. This relationship between freedom and responsibility is related very closely to what Habermas calls rational public debate. In the case of transition states, there is the much more complicated question of how to proceed with this process of reinvention. [66]

    The Hungarian dissident and thinker Istvan Bibo wrote that “To be a democrat is to not be afraid.” [67] Just as Albert Camus explored in the themes of The Rebel, John Ralston Saul also points out:

    Equilibrium, in the Western experience, is dependent not just on criticism, but on non-conformism in the public place. The road away from the illusions of ideology towards reality is passable only if that anti-conformism makes full use of our qualities and strengths in order to maintain the tension of uncertainty. The examined life makes a virtue of uncertainty. It celebrates doubt. [68]

    While the European Union and the institutions it created were built as entities to prevent another war from occurring, it did not initially have a security focus. With the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992 which called for further cooperation and a commitment to a Common Foreign and Security Policy. The European Constitutional Treaty of 2004, which still requires the formal approval of member states, has led to development of a Security Strategy and the initiation of the European Defense Agency. The Balkan Wars exposed many of the weaknesses of the European Union in terms of its ability to respond to regional matters. The expansion itself is a further indication that the European Union remains a relevant force for establishing stability in some transition states. As the European Union expands its role, there will be a need to integrate with the existing roles of the UN, NATO and OSCE. There will remain the tension in this environment for EU member states to want to have a common approach while others will strive to maintain national sovereignty over foreign affairs. [69]

    Recently on the website Reinventing Central Europe, Elemer Hankiss described some of the deficiencies in Hungary’s public sphere as the following:

  • political parties have monopolized the spheres of decision making, and the space of public debate;

  • institutions and channels facilitating public participation do not exist or are far too weak;

  • people are unaware of the fact that they have the right, and have to acquire the means, to shape their own future and protect their interests;

  • apart from lobbyists in the economic sector, the majority of society is relegated into political passivity, and in fact, as a mater of historic legacy, is itself inclined toward passivity. However, under certain circumstances this same passive society can become overnight able and willing to mobilize itself and take action. Hungarians were active not only in the street fighting of the 1956 revolution but also in the reform process of the late 1980's, and the peaceful revolution of 1989. [70]

  • In this type of evolving environment, the European Union is developing capabilities of not only signing Association Agreements with neighboring states, funding civil society in transition states, but also developing their instruments to apply pressure externally where state failure and distortions of the public sphere are a matter of broader international concern. The development of these regional and international mechanisms working with locally based civil society organizations should bolster the ability of these institutions to take pre-emptive action against states which veer from the norm of international conventions and which threaten regional stability. By being able to objectively monitor distortions in the public sphere and state apparatuses, there may be greater opportunities for productive engagement and capacity development. Additionally, developing better standards of communication policy and monitoring methods through regional and international bodies, the European Union and regional nation-states can integrate in a more holistic manner with a more common framework of engagement in coordination with the United Nations. Concepts such as Global Public Goods developed by the UNDP provide a great starting point around which transition states can articulate the need for basic standards in their societies. [71]

    The European Union will particularly be challenged in the coming years on their relationship to regional Muslim countries and will need to develop a framework for constructive engagement. As well, the development of structures and systems could be open to legitimate criticism as being too western and not responsive to the nuances of particular regions. Any attempts to elevate the public sphere must have support from within societies.

    In the end, a vibrant public sphere needs to be organically developed, be robust with sufficient barriers to withstand deformations which could see extreme views enter the mainstream and have responsibilities attached to the freedoms it provides as a space of public discourse in democratic societies where open discussion and a life of civic interplay can be nurtured in a free way. The space between legitimate and illegitimate dissent in a free society will always be a moving target in the sense that it is a space of constant negotiation and will often be dependent on the mainstream support such actions can receive. Since post-modernism is largely built on the rejection of meta-narratives, there will certainly be space created for marginalized narratives which attempt to penetrate the mainstream. By strengthening norms and standards, the culture of a public sphere as part of free and open societies can be cultivated in transition states which can enhance the possibilities of long term stability and enhance their role in an interconnected global public sphere. A rich and diverse public sphere should be viewed as a foundation for developing a stable, deliberative model of democracy.



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    2 Howard, Ross. Conflict Sensitive Journalism in Practise. (, October, 2005).
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    4 Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Orlando: Harcourt, 1968), pg. 35.
    5 Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Orlando: Harcourt, 1968), pg. 189.
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    8 Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Orlando: Harcourt, 1968), pg. 383.
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    18 Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. (Toronto: Anansi, 2004), pg. 4.
    19 Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. (Orlando: Harcourt, 1968), pg. 348.
    20 Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. (Toronto: Anansi, 2004), pg. 6.
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    22 Cahn, Stephen. Political Philosophy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pg. 531.
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    24 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pg. 9.
    25 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pg. 131.
    26 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et. al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pg. 223.
    27 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin), pg. 195.
    28 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et. al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pg. 155.
    29 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et. al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. 156-57.
    30 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et. al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pg. 157.
    31 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et. al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pg. 157.
    32 Cahn, Stephen. Political Philosophy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pg. 436-72.
    33 Alexander, Jeffrey C. et. al. Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. (Berkeley: University of California Press), pg. 175.
    34 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 14.
    35 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 15.
    36 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 91.
    37 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 79.
    38 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 81.
    39 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 199.
    40 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 230.
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    38 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 81.
    39 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 199.
    40 Saul, John Ralston. On Equilibrium. (Toronto: Penguin, 2001), pg. 230.
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