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Can words save lives?

Big-name experts to debate media's role in halting mass atrocities.
October 12, 2011
By Tom Peacock

Watch the live stream of “The Promise of the Media in Halting Mass Atrocities, a conference organised by MIGS.

The list of big-name experts speaking at an upcoming human rights conference, The Promise of the Media in Halting Mass Atrocities, is enough reason to attend, insists Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) lead researcher Kyle Matthews. “It’s a unique opportunity for people to meet some of the world’s foremost journalists, experts in human rights, and representatives from non-governmental organizations,” he says.

One such person is Sen. and LtGen Roméo Dallaire (ret), who will participate in a panel discussion entitled, The Link Between the News Media and Governmental Leadership. He will be joined by writer Andrew Potter and Sarah Sewall, who served as the first deputy assistant secretary for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance during the Clinton administration.

“A lot of governments refuse to act on atrocities until they are covered in the media,” Matthews explains. “Sometimes the media will write one bad story about something happening in a country, and that will sap political support to stay there.” The discussion will analyze the complicated relationship between news coverage and government action or inaction.

Another panel discussion, entitled From Streets to Tweets: Harnessing the Power of Social Media and Technology, will focus on the role of social media platforms in shaping major events such as revolutions and government crackdowns. The featured speakers include award-winning columnist Mona Eltahawy, who was a regular media commentator on the 18-day revolution that toppled Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, and Sheldon Himelfarb, an associate vice-president at the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP).

“The events of the last year, from the revolutions across the Middle East and North Africa, to the riots in London, have changed the contours of the debate around the role of social media” Himelfarb said at a recent conference. “Nearly everybody agrees that social media played a key role in all of those events.”

The MIGS conference was organized to mark the 10th anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The phrase refers to the UN’s commitment to protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. One panel at the MIGS Conference is entitled R2P in 2011: Lybia, Syria and Sudan. It will address the UN Security Council’s inconsistent application of the Responsibility to Protect in these countries.

“The question is what can we do to have the Responsibility to Protect applied equally?” Matthews says. “We’re doing it in Libya, but we’re not doing it in Sudan and Syria. We want to use this discussion to allow the journalists coming to the conference to understand more about the Responsibility to Protect and to look at the imbalances in how it’s applied.” The panel will feature Jonathan Hutson, who helped launch the Satellite Sentinel Project with George Clooney, C.J. Chivers, an award-winning war correspondent for the New York Times currently reporting from Afghanistan, and Gordon Smith, Canada’s former deputy minister of Foreign Affairs.

The challenges facing the media as they try to cover global events going forward are significant, explains MIGS director Frank Chalk. Bombarded by information and misinformation, the media face increasingly difficult decisions, often with fewer resources. Nevertheless, they must continue to play a vital role.

“Reporting will have to become more anticipatory, sustained, and rooted in a deeper understanding of processes more than immediate events,” he says. “It will have to offer a knowledgeable framework of interpretation, and move consumers of news away from efforts to drag them towards extreme nationalism, sensationalism, very narrow sources of information, hyper-emotionalism, strongly biased and inaccurate stories, and other instruments of psychological manipulation.”

What: The Promise of Media in Halting Mass Atrocities: A Conference to Mark the 10th Anniversary of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
When: October 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and October 21 from 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m.
Where: The Mount Stephen Club (1440 Drummond St.)

Related links:
•  MIGS site 
•  Conference site 

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