Media a tool for crisis relief

Reliable information as crucial to civilians as food aid

As hundreds of thousands of refugees are shuffled out of Kosovo, international humanitarian agencies are scrambling to provide massive emergency relief in the form of food, blankets, or relocation. Such efforts are clearly aimed at enabling civilians to survive, but little is being done to keep them informed, regardless of whether they have crossed the border or not.

Only those with transistor radios are able to tune in to the BBC World Service, Radio Tirana, and other stations to find out what is happening. But even then, the information they receive isn't specifically geared to their needs. Reliable information is clearly not coming from the government-controlled media of President Slobodan Milosovic.

The result is that almost no credible information about Belgrade's security operations in Kosovo is reaching the Serb or Albanian populations. The only direct Western effort to respond to this monopoly is NATO's demand last week that, unless Serb-controlled radio and TV broadcast six hours of uncensored Western broadcasts a day, NATO will destroy all government transmitters. Relatively few Yugoslavs listen to short-wave broadcasts, which means the majority rely on government stations as their main news source.

After Afghanistan, Somalia, and Rwanda, the international community should have learned that reliable information is as crucial to civilians in war as food and medical relief. Keeping war-affected populations informed is crucial, particularly for people - be they refugees or civilians still living behind the lines - who are terrified, confused, and unsure of the future. Most fleeing populations, for example, have little or no money to buy local newspapers, if at all available. Nor do they have access to BBC World TV or CNN; anyone escaping persecution is unlikely to do so carrying a TV.

As numerous recent conflicts have shown, radio represents one of the most efficient and cost-effective means for reaching war-affected populations.

Access to balanced reporting could be dramatically improved by distributing cheap, wind-up radios to each family or group crossing the border. Such radios should also be distributed by aid workers to displaced civilians still inside the country, such as those now being turned back by Yugoslav security forces along Kosovo's borders with Macedonia and Albania.

While making reliable news broadcasts by the BBC, Voice of America, or Radio Free Europe more available to Serb audiences could change attitudes toward the war, programming specially tailored to the needs of beleaguered civilians could help dispel rumor, unite families, or deal with war trauma. It could help inform Kosovars about the intentions of the aid agencies, such as relief supply distribution in refugee camps, or the reasons for the current NATO military intervention.

Despite past experiences, however, countless opportunities continue to be lost. Many aid agencies and donors do not consider information dissemination to fleeing populations a priority. They fail to incorporate media intervention as part of their overall humanitarian strategies.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, has no plans for informing Kosovar refugees about its activities. Last year, it closed down its mass communications department, maintaining that sufficient outside media are covering such conflicts. But these tend to be primarily foreign journalists serving audiences at home, not the affected populations. The International Committee for the Red Cross, on the other hand, is expanding its dissemination efforts to communicate directly with civilians in crisis.

Many Kosovars don't wish to be relocated to third countries but are being poorly briefed, if at all, about the reasons behind the evacuations. The failure of aid agencies to communicate with the very constituents they seek to assist not only demonstrates a severe lack of foresight, but also a lack of responsibility for the respect of refugee rights.

Many humanitarians simply fail to understand how useful media can be for alleviating crises. Better information access can help reduce conflict, particularly if aimed at the belligerents themselves. Some human rights sources believe Serb security forces might be less enthusiastic in their repression if warned by meanstream media broadcasts that they may be held accountable under the Geneva Conventions for their actions.

Relief workers, too, are increasingly targeted in conflict situations, so it is crucial for local populations to be made aware of their missions. The same goes for peacekeepers, whose role needs to be repeatedly explained if the type of debacle experienced in Somalia is to be avoided.

THIS doesn't mean that the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or the relief agencies themselves should seek to set up radio stations of their own. A number of independent media initiatives are under way for improving information access to Kosovars. The BBC, which has Albanian-language broadcasts, is stepping up programming to the region. Radio Tirana, which reaches much of the Balkans, has offered to make its airwaves available for broadcasts geared for refugees. Several Western media organizations are seeking donors to support the development of more refugee-oriented programming.

The media's potential role, in good reporting and proactive intervention, is one of the most powerful forces for shaping the course of people's lives in time of war. Yet unless the international community sees the importance of assuring the delivery of reliable information to those who need it, it can forget about making real progress in resolving conflicts or implementing the fundamental changes needed for dealing with societies in turmoil.

*Edward Girardet, a former special correspondent of the Monitor, is editor of CROSSLINES Global Report, a Geneva-based independent news journal on humanitarian and conflict issues.

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