Tweets from a war zone, deconstructed

New technologies are changing the nature of how mass atrocities are reported, according to a panel held at the Mount Stephen Club last Friday as part of The Promise of the Media in Halting Mass Atrocities conference organized by the Montreal Institute of Genocide and Human Rights Studies.

On the 10th anniversary of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s “Responsibility to Protect” report, a group of prominent journalists and politicians came together to discuss the changing face of media and its role in reporting on mass atrocities.

One of the panel’s speakers, professor and columnist Jean-Paul Marthoz, said that traditional media methods of covering war are perhaps not capable of covering mass atrocities.

“The present paradigm of reporting doesn’t fit anymore,” said Marthoz. “Not only because of technology, but because the audience has changed because news travels faster.”

Marthoz said the media may have prevented mass atrocities in Syria recently, but that it took too much time to get the message out.

The host of the CBC radio show Dispatches, Rick MacInnes-Rae, said th new media is changing the landscape of conflict, but that it is not the complete answer.

“We’ve got Twitter, we’ve got blogs, we’ve got faster ways to tell things,” said Rae, acknowledging these media as tools which help journalists, but emphasizing that journalists need to be aware of what news stories they are covering. “Someone’s still got to be there. Someone’s still got to be on the ground.”

Rae also spoke of the possible dangers of social media. He referred to a colleague of his whose Twitter account was hacked, and was being used without her knowledge. He also told of a female journalist working in the Middle East who was stalked and threatened by a group using social media.

Rae said that he would rather face the chance of being wrong if it meant alerting governments sooner when potential atrocities are developing.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was brought up as an example of the world being notified too late. It was only well after 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed that the international community mobilized.

It was in the wake of this, as well as other atrocities in the 1990s, that Canada sponsored the “Responsibility to Protect” report in December 2001, which became the groundwork for the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. The report was adopted by the United Nations in 2005.

The coalition is a non-governmental organization that seeks as a mandate to strengthen the capacities to prevent and halt genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

André Pratte, editor-in-chief of La Presse, said that it is the images of the atrocities that cause the public to put pressure on governments to act. With the possibilities that social media offer, this notification process is sped up exponentially.

Former foreign affairs deputy minister Gordon Smith said that then prime minister Jean Chrétien was moved to action by the images on television of the Rwandan genocide. Smith said it was this “CNN effect” that caused him to act, though the UN did not engage until well after the genocide was over.

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