Briefing paper

Fragile states: the role of media and communication

Communications Information technology

Executive summary: Fragile states are an increasing priority for international diplomatic and development attention. The media – defined here as both traditional and digital media – is being transformed in most fragile states. Such transformations are unleashing unprecedented democratic energy, with profound political and social consequences.

Fragile states are often fractured states, divided along religious, political, ethnic or other factional fault lines. For all the fresh potential they offer citizens to hold government to account, new media landscapes are also increasingly fractured – and are often fragmenting along the same fault lines that divide society. Co-option of the media by narrow factional interests appears to be growing.

Successful political settlements in fractured fragile states depend on societies developing a stronger sense of shared identity. In the past, critics of support to media in fragile states have argued that a free and diverse media can foster division, reinforce factional identities and undermine state stability. The prospects of more open, free and vibrant media environments have prompted wariness in the past among those working to support state stability where government and governance is sometimes weak.

This briefing examines how current media trends are affecting state and societal fragility, both positively and negatively. It argues that development actors should embrace the reality and opportunities provided by changed media and communication environments and that the role of a free and plural media should be prioritised rather than – as seems the case at present – marginalised in much fragile states policy.

It argues that shared identity and sustainable political settlements will be best enabled by national and local dialogue. Such dialogue is dependent on a free media that is independent of undue factional or governmental control. Efforts to shut down the media, even if feasible, risk doing more harm than good in fragile states as elsewhere. Support to the media in fragile states designed to minimise the risk of division and maximise the opportunities for dialogue should feature more prominently in assistance to such states.

The briefing is designed principally for policy- makers working to support development in fragile states. It draws on and summarises some of the conclusions drawn from earlier policy briefings published by BBC Media Action on the role of the media and communication in four fragile states – Afghanistan, Iraq, Kenya and Somalia. The central section (pages 14–28) provides a summary of each of these briefings. The rest of the document seeks to draw some insights and conclusions from this and other BBC Media Action research and experience relevant to fragile states.

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