Conference Insights | Between Lines and Screens: Decoding Media’s Role in Global Crises

On Saturday, at CESS’ annual conference, a panel discussion on media discourses and their impact on public narratives, helmed by Karlyga Myssayeva of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University and Ainur Slamgazhy of Astana IT University, offered invaluable insights into how media in Central Asia and other regions shape global conversations.

Under the theme “Media Studies,” the panel dug into the dynamics of media framing, especially in the Central Asian context, and its broader implications in shaping public perceptions.

Unveiling Xinjiang: An Insight into China’s Western Frontier

  • Journalist Merkhat Sharipzhan discussed the Western media’s portrayal of Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. He emphasized the importance of understanding the Uyghurs as more than just a “minority” and highlighted the discrepancies in the portrayal of Uyghurs compared to Tibetans.
  • He underscored the need for informed reporting to bridge the information gap and convey the complexities of Xinjiang.

Framing the Atom: The Media’s Role in Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Policy

  • Kamilla Askhat presented her research on how Kazakhstan’s media framed nuclear policy, especially after Vladimir Putin’s 2019 announcement about a potential nuclear power plant.
  • Analysis revealed a divide between state media’s pro-nuclear stance and opposition media’s anti-nuclear position. Language, both Russian and Kazakh, played a pivotal role in these narratives.

The Media Ecosystem and its Pivotal Role in Conflict Resolution

  • Mohammad Sajjad Yasa, drawing from his experience as a war journalist, explored the media’s role in conflict resolution and how it has evolved with the rise of digital platforms.
  • Media, depending on its alignment and independence, can escalate conflicts or steer them towards resolution. Under-reporting or biased reporting can shape international perceptions and responses.
  • While media serves as a vital tool for conflict resolution, challenges persist, such as the need to align with dominant factions in conflict zones for protection, and governmental controls in certain countries.

Unveiling Xinjiang: An Insight into China’s Western Frontier

Merkhat Sharipzhan, a journalist with the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty team in Prague, Czech Republic, for over 28 years, offered a nuanced lens through which we can view the intricate cultural dynamics of Xinjiang. The revelations hint at the monumental task of bridging the information gap that exists between the West’s perceptions and the on-ground realities of this region. While the media’s overarching brush strokes often paint the Uyghurs in broad shades of minority statuses, Sharipzhan challenges us to delve deeper, to understand a community’s rich tapestry that remains largely overlooked.

The crux of Sharipzhan’s concerns revolves around the portrayal of Uyghurs in Western media. Terms such as “Chinese Muslims” or references to the Uyghurs merely as a “minority” belies the complexity and rich heritage of the group, an indigenous community with deep roots in Xinjiang. The broad strokes used in newscasts and headlines have inadvertently sown seeds of misunderstanding. The media often omits vital details, leaving the average Westerner misinformed.

Sharipzhan highlights the discrepancies in the portrayal of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs. While Tibet, recognized for its long stint as an independent nation, frequently garners attention, Xinjiang’s historical context often gets overshadowed. Xinjiang, meaning the “Uyghur Autonomous Region,” underscores the region’s inherent connection with its primary ethnic group, a fact that’s frequently overlooked.

With Xinjiang bordering countries from Mongolia to Pakistan, it holds a prominent geopolitical stance. Yet, when it comes to understanding its demographics, there’s a widespread misconception. Official Chinese data, Sharipzhan points out, indicates that almost 47% of Xinjiang’s population comprises Uyghurs. This majority status is rarely captured in media portrayals.

Using his journalistic acumen, Sharipzhan contrasts the terminologies employed by outlets such as Radio Free Europe with those of Reuters, Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse. The word “indigenous,” while controversial in Asian contexts due to its colonial undertones, can be instrumental in explaining the Uyghurs’ status in Xinjiang.

At the intersection of cultural understanding and geopolitical intricacies, Sharipzhan’s revelations underscore the importance of informed reporting. In a world where information spreads at lightning speed, ensuring accuracy and depth is paramount.

The overarching question remains: Can a nation historically subjugated by imperialism become an empire in its right? China’s position as both a victim of colonialism and a modern-day imperialistic force complicates the narrative. But as the discerning reader dives into the history and cultural richness of Xinjiang, a more holistic picture emerges.

As Sharipzhan concluded, the challenge is not just to convey news but to enlighten the audience genuinely. With Xinjiang standing as a testament to centuries of history and cultural evolution, it’s high time the narrative captures its essence, in all its complexity and richness.

The inability to conduct firsthand interviews in Xinjiang poses a significant challenge to understanding the situation on the ground. However, conversations with Xinjiang immigrants provide valuable insights. One such interaction was with Sarah So Ba, a notable ethnic Kazakh defector who was forced to teach her native language in a reeducation camp. Her testimony underscores a critical perspective: the struggle faced by ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is not solely based on religious persecution, as is often portrayed.

Framing the Atom: The Media’s Role in Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Policy

Kamilla Askhat, a senior student of program media and communication, introduced her research on nuclear policy framing. Her study, centered around nuclear power plant construction and its portrayal in Kazakhstan’s news media, sheds light on how global challenges are localized, constructed, and communicated.

Askhat’s research on nuclear policy framing in Kazakhstan is a testament to the profound influence media narratives have on shaping public perception. The duality of portrayals – from the state’s progressive stance to opposition’s cautionary tales – underscores the importance of recognizing underlying frames. The linguistic layers woven into these frames, from Russian to Kazakh, remind us that every narrative is flavored by the language in which it’s crafted.

Askhat’s empirical dive into Kazakhstan’s news media begins with Vladimir Putin’s 2019 announcement about a potential nuclear power plant. For three years following this proclamation, the media landscape was dotted with a multitude of narratives and frames, each echoing its stance on the issue.

From the 331 publications studied, a pattern emerged. State media publications leaned heavily towards pro-nuclear frames, emphasizing progress, energy independence, and a cautious acceptance of nuclear power as a technological inevitability. One Russian language publication from the state media posited that nuclear power plant construction was pivotal for future electricity demands in Kazakhstan, pegging Rosatom, the Russian nuclear corporation, as a key player.

On the other hand, opposition media offered a stark contrast, characterized by anti-nuclear frames. They raised concerns of public accountability, potential environmental catastrophes, and financial interests of corporations. Strikingly, the ‘Devil’s Bargain’ frame emerged, a complex amalgamation of pro and anti-nuclear stances.

Language emerged as a distinct layer in this framing analysis. Russian and Kazakh languages, both prominent in Kazakhstan, influenced the way frames were constructed and presented. For instance, in Russian-language state media, Russia’s Rosatom was seen as a strategic partner, while Kazakh-language publications painted South and East Asia in a similar light. This linguistic distinction even played out in the use of historical references, with the Russian narrative aligning with global nuclear disasters like Chernobyl, while Kazakh stories localized the narrative.

Despite broadly falling into pro and anti-nuclear categories, individual frames often contained information that seemed to contradict the overarching stance. This inconsistency raises pertinent questions about the nature of frames themselves. How rigid are they? Can they evolve over time? And crucially, in linguistically diverse landscapes like Kazakhstan, how does one navigate these intricacies in media analysis?

Askhat’s exploration into nuclear policy framing is more than an academic endeavor; it’s a mirror to society, reflecting our biases, beliefs, and the power dynamics at play. In a world increasingly dominated by narratives, understanding the art of framing is no longer just the domain of scholars; it’s a requisite for informed global citizenship.

The Media Ecosystem and its Pivotal Role in Conflict Resolution

Mohammad Sajjad Yasa, PhD candidate at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University · Department of Print, and Internet Journalism, is a former news anchor and war journalist in Afghanistan. Yasa, with his unique vantage point as both an academic and a war journalist, looked at media and its ever-evolving ecosystem as the cornerstone of societal development, not just as mere informants but as influential game-changers in conflict settlement. 

Historically, media has acted as a dual-edged sword – on the one hand, it can amplify conflict, and on the other, it has the power to pacify and bring resolution, says Yasa. This dichotomy and its far-reaching implications are worth exploring.

Unlike its predecessors, modern media isn’t confined to newspapers, radios, and television. Today, we see a convergence of these traditional mediums with a myriad of digital platforms, most notably social media, creating what can aptly be termed as a ‘media ecosystem’. This evolution from traditional media to an interconnected web of communication has amplified its influence in shaping perceptions, agendas, and consequently, the international discourse on conflict.

Yasa takes as an exxample, the Arab Spring. One of the landmark uprisings that etched the significance of the media ecosystem into the annals of history. This movement underscored the potential that a digitally connected society has in shaping revolutions.

But the role media plays in conflict isn’t without its intricacies. Depending on several factors, including their relationship with conflicting parties and their degree of independence from power structures, media can either escalate a situation or help steer it towards resolution.

For instance, ongoing conflicts like those between Israel and Palestine or Ukraine and Russia have seen media play both roles. The framing, bias, and even the priority given by media to one conflict over another can shape international perceptions and subsequently international responses.

Silent crises – like many African conflicts where millions have lost their lives, often go under-reported due to a lack of international media coverage. The Congo wars post-1997, internal conflicts in Afghanistan, and many others have not received the attention they critically warrant, leading to an absence of international intervention and resolution.

An alarming phenomenon being observed is the emergence of ‘institutionalized war economies’. These are conflicts that perpetuate primarily because peace isn’t economically favorable. Sadly, without the intervention of the media ecosystem, such conflicts can simmer for years with the international community remaining largely oblivious.

The case of Myanmar stands as a testament. It was only when the media highlighted the gravity of the internal conflict, that the international community was jolted into action, influencing policy decisions and resolutions.

However, as influential as the media ecosystem is, its credibility remains its greatest asset. Any reporting disparity, as seen in a recent BBC World Service article on the Israel-Gaza conflict, can significantly impact its reputation and efficacy.

The phenomenon known as “media dependency” is often regarded with disdain. Traditional journalism ethics espouses the virtues of independence. However, this independence can equate to vulnerability for media houses operating in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Journalists risk persecution, detention, and even death. To navigate these waters, media outlets might forge allegiances or dependencies with a dominant faction, thereby ensuring some form of protection.

In nations like China, Iran, and North Korea, the challenges are further intensified by stringent governmental controls and bans on media, particularly social media platforms.

Media doesn’t simply report on conflicts; it can shape and steer them. A significant instance is the choice of which events to highlight and which to ignore, which stories get prime-time attention, and which are relegated to the back pages. Case in point, bombings of hospitals or significant infrastructural damage might gain intense media focus, sidelining other crucial events or narratives. This essentially makes media an actor in the conflict.

However, the silver lining is evident. When utilized effectively, media serves as a potent tool for conflict resolution. By shedding light on underlying societal issues and fostering discussions in non-violent avenues, media can create sustainable platforms for dialogue and resolution.

Yet, one of the most significant dilemmas in conflict journalism is the inherent need to take a stance. While the pursuit of peace is noble, it often means aligning with one faction over another. The dangers of this alignment are profound. Not only does it jeopardize journalistic integrity and independence, but it also makes journalists even more significant targets.

In the grand tapestry of global narratives, the media is both an illustrator and an interpreter. As we peel back layers of complex geopolitical issues – from the intricate dance of cultures in China’s Xinjiang region to the nuclear crossroads in Kazakhstan and the seismic ripples of conflict zones – a common thread emerges: the transformative power of media.