By Mark Vlasic
As leaders and members of the international community descend upon the United Nations headquarters in Turtle Bay to discuss the war in Ukraine, I cannot help but remember my time at the UN, at a mission far from the global leadership hub in New York, at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
As the most junior prosecutor at the UN tribunal, I was part of a global effort to bring some sense of justice to those who were slaughtered in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when politicians like Slobodan Milosevic leveraged their power over media channels to stoke religious division. This amplification of hate in the Balkans led to a humanitarian disaster, with over 130,000 dead and four million displaced. To many, the evidence was incontrovertible: Milosevic and his lieutenants weaponized the media to normalize their campaign of religious violence.
Once published material becomes materiel, there is often no turning back. In a devastating assessment of the Balkans War from Christopher Bennet on PBS Frontline, he observes, “Years before the first shots were fired, the media were already at war and the journalists who deliberately fanned the flames of national hatred must bear a heavy responsibility for the carnage.”
These memories echo in my mind, with every update of the carnage in Ukraine, as – yet again – religion and media are being weaponized more than 20 years later, in order to help devastate civilian populations from Donetsk to Luhansk to Kyiv. As it has been said: “history may not repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.”
Particularly concerning today is the impact of social media, with many bad actors bypassing traditional media channels and making their case directly to the public. Had social media been around in the 1990s, I shudder to think how it almost certainly would have worsened an already vicious Balkan war.
This is not an indictment of the media, though—traditional or social. Rather, it is an illustration of its significant influence, and the sway it holds over the hearts and minds of the public. Like faith and religion, the two sectors stand shoulder to shoulder in their ability to shape—or destroy—a society.
Recently, new research by the Fund for Peace funded by the Faith and Media Initiative identified social media’s role in amplifying incorrect, incomplete and biased information, as well as hate speech, about different religious groups. Critically, the report makes the evidence-based case that strengthening the relationship between the media and faith sectors “can help build more resilient communities and countries.”
A related report observes that 80% of people in the world affiliate with a religion. Media drives our collective understanding of the world and of one another, for bad or for good. By bringing together media and faith stakeholders, then, we can ensure better understanding of faith communities through quality reporting and commentary. If we build the capacity of both reporters and faith leaders to work together, we may be able to help combat the disinformation and hate speech that has led to global tragedies for far too long.
Of course, a necessary partner to resilience is vigilance. Safeguarding the rights of a people, protecting democracy, motivating progress is not a “one and done” proposition. By maintaining vigilance, we can try to curb inflammatory propaganda, and replace it with authentic stories that elevate cohesion, not exacerbate division.
It is estimated that 140 reporters and other media workers were killed during the Balkans War and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Some died in the heat of battle, but too many civilians died because the stories they were reporting belied the official party line. We can debate the criteria for being a hero. Certainly, it doesn’t require being lost to war. Maybe just telling the best stories, the stories we need to hear (rather than want to hear), regardless of the consequences, is good enough?
As we gather in Turtle Bay, let’s commit to making sure those stories get told. If we help faith and media sectors to work together, we can improve a community – or a country’s – ability to withstand shocks, weather crises, or survive threats to its culture and way of life. And, if we pledge to remember the lessons we’ve already learned, we can help forestall the march of tyranny before the damage becomes devastating.
We all want a peaceful world; as someone who has seen the sickening results of war closeup, me as much as anyone. One garden in which we can sow the seeds for that peace is the content we create and consume about those who pray like us, and those that don’t.
Mark Vlasic is a senior fellow & adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, a member of the Faith & Media Initiative task force and fellow with the UN Alliance of Civilizations, served on the Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution teams at the UN war crimes tribunal.