Media coverage of a tragedy is able to increase the attention such a crisis receives from donors, UN agencies, NGOs and international and regional bodies. The media is also an important partner for peace operations, and constructive media coverage can complement and support a fragile peace process.

Media relations affect communication with the host community. The people of the country within which the peace operation takes place need to be informed about the peace process, and about the mandate and role of the peacekeepers.

Most recent peace operations include a public information component that is responsible for both liaison with the international and local media, and for managing the direct public information campaign directed towards the host community. The kind of work that emanates from the CIMIC branch is likely to attract positive media attention. The CIMIC Officer should work closely with military and civilian public information units to ensure that their activities are communicated to the host population, and to local and international media.

This chapter will touch on the role of the public information component in UN and African peace operations, and on the role the CIMIC Officer can play in support of the mission’s public information units. The chapter will conclude with information about UN guidelines for interacting with the media.

The Role of the Media in Peace Operations

We have all heard of the so-called ‘CNN factor’, that is, how the political-will to intervene in a conflict is amplified by international media attention, or how media coverage of a tragedy is able to increase the attention such a crisis receives from donors, UN agencies, NGOs and international and regional bodies.

Media Focus

The media can play a significant role in conflict situations. Their reporting can generate international attention that may result in increased political will to support the peace process, and may result in an increase in the flow of humanitarian and development assistance.

The media can also play an important role in keeping the public within a country recovering from conflict informed of progress and setbacks in the peace process. It is thus important for the peace operation to keep the international and local media’s attention focused on the peace process and to generate information that will be useful to the media.

Unfortunately, the news media has a very short attention span and a preference for dramatic stories. They are present in large numbers when there are battle scenes, significant numbers of deaths and dramatic human suffering, but their interest wanes considerably once the situation has been stabilised. Peacekeepers always complain that the media is not interested enough in ‘good news’ stories.

It is thus important for the peace operation to keep the international and local media’s attention focused on the peace process and to generate information that will be useful to the media.

UN and the Press

‘The United Nations is committed to being open and transparent in its dealings with the press. However, we must sometimes keep confidences – not to mislead or conceal, but to protect a diplomatic process. Our media policy must, therefore, balance the need to be open and the need to respect confidentiality.’

(Former Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan, 28 April 1999)

The Public Information Component in UN Peace Operations

The AU and UN have public information departments at their headquarters to deal with the media, and to generate information to inform various constituencies about their work. Each multidimensional AU and UN peace operation will also have a public information office that will be responsible for handling relations with both foreign and local media.

The public information office will develop and manage the mission’s communications strategy, assist the foreign and local media and ensure that the local population is informed about the mandate and the peace process. The public information office may operate its own radio station, or broadcast on local stations, produce video material for television, publish information brochures, posters and pamphlets all in a number of local languages.In some instances, the peace operation makes use of theatre groups to tour the countryside to convey certain information. For example, in Liberia such theatre groups would explain the DDR process through comedy sketches that made use of local storytelling techniques and traditions.

The public information office employs local staff – usually journalists – who have good knowledge and understanding of local customs and traditions.

In most cases the peacekeeping force may also have a military public information unit with a military spokesperson and military public information officers attached to sectors and contingents. If so, there needs to be a close working relationship between the civilian and military public information units to ensure that the operation has a coherent communications strategy.

Objectives of Public Information

1. Ensure the peace operation’s mandate and responsibilities are fully and widely understood.
2. Promote all aspects of the work of the peace operation to the national and international community.
3. Implement a communications strategy that actively supports the peace operation’s objectives.
4. Advance the peace process through the creation of timely and relevant information products.
5. Defend and protect the peace operation from unjustified criticism and misinformation.
6. Counter propaganda, false information and hate messages that are harmful to the objectives of the peace operation and peace process.

CIMIC Officers and the Media

AU and UN peace operations encourages transparency and openness with the media. This means that CIMIC Officers, and all peacekeepers for that matter, may talk to the media about their own work or area of responsibility in a factual manner.

The Role of CIMIC in Support of Public Information

CIMIC operations, especially those that are aimed at supporting and assisting local communities – such as rebuilding a school or a bridge – could be of media interest, and CIMIC Officers should keep the public information unit informed of any activities that may be newsworthy.

Because of the nature of CIMIC work, CIMIC Officers should anticipate that there may be journalists present whenever they are engaged in meetings with community leaders, undertaking CIMIC operations or liaising with their civilian counterparts in the humanitarian and development community. CIMIC Officers should thus get used to the idea of doing their jobs with the media watching. In fact, CIMIC Officers are likely to have more contact with journalists than the average soldier, and they should thus prepare themselves to manage media relations.

This means they must be careful to project the right image at all times. Positive behaviour reinforces the ability of the peace operation to help to move the peace process forward, and creates bonds of trust with the local population. Negative behaviour undermines the reputation of the peace operation and weakens the peace process. Parties to the conflict can exploit negative behaviour and use it to delay the peace process.

Although media coverage is important, CIMIC operations should never be undertaken solely for the purpose of generating media coverage. CIMIC operations should always be undertaken to serve the mandate and objectives of the mission. CIMIC operations undertaken in support of humanitarian agencies should always be carried out according to humanitarian principles. CIMIC operations in support of the community must be based on the needs of the community, approved by community leaders.

Interview Guidelines

CIMIC Officers are a likely source of information for the media, and they should keep the following interview guidelines in mind whenever they talk to the media. In peace operations, transparency and openness with the media is encouraged. This means that CIMIC Officers, and all peacekeepers for that matter, may talk to the media about their own work or area of responsibility in a factual manner.

An ECOMOG soldier, part of the West African peacekeeping force, interacts with locals on a street in Monrovia, Liberia, in August 2003. After a month of heavy fighting, the Liberian government signed an agreement with the two main rebel groups giving aid agencies a chance to visit all areas of the West African country.

Nobody is obliged to speak to reporters if they do not want to. Peacekeepers may decline, politely, if they wish. However, in AU and UN peace operations, CIMIC officers should understand that they are authorised to speak within the limited area of their work and personal responsibility. Past experience shows that peacekeepers who talk to the media about their work can be very effective in conveying positive messages.

When talking about their work, CIMIC Officers should convey a sense of pride in what they do. They should be positive about their role in the peace process. They should always be factual and impartial in the way they convey information. CIMIC Officers should obviously speak respectfully about the local population.

Interview Technique

The basic rules for handling an interview are few and simple:

  • The camera or the reporter should not intimidate you. If you are speaking to a reporter look directly at the person interviewing you, not the camera.
  • To avoid making mistakes or losing face with a wrong answer, listen carefully to each question. If necessary, ask the reporter to repeat it to you. Take the time to compose your answer and then stick to what you know.
  • Speak naturally and focus on the facts, avoiding exaggerated movements with your hands and face.
  • Decline to answer questions you are not authorised to, or where you don’t have the information – don’t speculate.
  • If you say ‘no comment,’ the reporter and the public will have the impression that you are trying to hide something. It is much better to answer, ‘I don’t know,’ or to refer the question to someone who may know more about the issue.
  • Answering with only a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ can give the same impression. Use small sentences. For example answer, ‘Do you like your work?’ with, ‘Yes, I enjoy working with the AU (or UN)’ – or a similar short and clear answer.
  • The expression ‘off the record’ may suggest that what you say is only for the reporter, and will not be published or transmitted. However, this is a professional terminology and it applies basically to professionals of the media. If you say something of interest, the reporter may decide to use it. If you are unsure whether or not you can say something then it is better not to say it.

Media Relations … Do’s

When dealing with the media, do:
• Speak to the media about your direct work. Don’t give information about something you are not directly responsible for.
• Plan what you will say to the media beforehand. Focus on three or less key messages that you want to convey.
• Stick to facts. These can’t be refuted.
• Refer reporters to the public information unit, if they ask you any questions that you are unable or unauthorised to answer.
• Always be polite to journalists, even if they appear rude or unfriendly.
• They may be under pressure to get the news. You should always keep your professionalism and maintain a calm and polite attitude.
• Do be brief and precise. If your answers are too long or unclear, the message you want to convey will be lost.

Media Relations … Don’ts

When dealing with the media, don’t:
• Offer your personal opinion about the peace process or about the peace operation.
• Answer questions that are speculative, such as ‘what will happen if …?’ Speculations are just that.
• Give any information about the operation’s security plans or procedures. And don’t give any information on incidents that are under investigation or that will require an investigation, for instance, a car accident.
• Give names of persons that have been injured or died. T heir next of kin has to be informed first.
• Appear to support or favour one side over the other. Remember at all times that you are impartial.

As a peacekeeper in the field, remember that you represent the peace operation, and the AU or UN, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Your behaviour and anything you say may be perceived as the opinion of the peace operation, on or off duty. Thus, take care to provide information as authorised, and do not give your opinion on matters for which you are not directly responsible.

With the help of technology, an interview with you, or news coverage of an event you are involved in, may be broadcast to millions of viewers across the world before your own immediate superiors have received information about it. In emergency situations, be mindful of your regulations not to divulge information about people who have been injured or died before their next of kin has been informed.

Press Release Guidelines

Under normal circumstances the military or civilian public information units will be responsible for specific media actions, such as press releases. In some cases, however, you may be on your own. In the event that you need to prepare a press release here are some basic guidelines:

  • How do you structure a press release? Make sure you have an angle that is likely to be of interest to the media.
  • Step into their shoes and ask yourself what would be interesting from their perspective.
  • Come up with a short clear title that is descriptive of the event and the angle you want to portray.
  • Present the key information in the first paragraph and then follow-up with the rest of the information.
  • Finish with contact details and the date.
  • A press release should rarely be more than one page.
  • Background information can be attached, or provided in a briefing pack, if necessary.
  • Keep in mind that the people who will read the information you have provided do not work with these issues on a daily basis. Thus, don’t assume that people will know what you are talking about and explain everything in everyday language. Don’t use abbreviations and acronyms, and if you have to, write it out in full the first time you do. Don’t use technical or professional terminology like ‘vulnerable populations’.

Case Study

Here is an example of a poor press release:

KENBAT CIMIC Patrols: During September KENBAT will undertake a number of CIMIC Patrols in the north-eastern sector of their AO. The patrols will make an initial CIMIC assessment of the beneficiary population with a view to developing a comprehensive CIMIC campaign plan in support of Operation X-ray, that will commence after the rainy season.

Here is an example of a better version of the same information:

UN Peace Operation Prepare’ to Assist Kalimu Province over the next few weeks: Starting on 10 September, people in the Kalimu Province can expect to meet members of the Kenyan Battalion (KENBAT) on patrol. They will be visiting most villages in the province to make an assessment of the living conditions and needs of the community. KENBAT has been working closely with the UN agencies and NGOs in the province to prepare their support and assistance to the local communities when the rainy season comes to an end. For more information contact Major Simba Hambari, KENBAT Headquarters, Kalimu: Tel/Fax/Mobile.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reads his speech at the UN headquarters in Addis Ababa.