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Countering violent extremism debate: Origins, efforts, and challenges

14 June 2017
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What is countering violent extremism (CVE) and how is it related to media development:

CVE refers to the use of non-coercive means of tackling the “root causes of terrorism”. Root causes of terrorism refer to the pathways that make an individual vulnerable to extremist ideology and propaganda. These causes can be socio-economic (such as poverty, marginalisation, deprivation), psychological (alienation, loner, anti-social), or a predisposition to religious fundamentalism. Though the notion of CVE has been around since the Madrid and London attacks of 2004 and 2005, it gained momentum with the US government’s new counter-terrorism initiative of 2011 and the importance it assumed within national security priorities thereon. Though initially confined to US law enforcement circuits at local levels where it resuscitated post-9/11 community outreach programmes targeted at Muslim communities, it assumed common parlance and gained increasing traction due to the overwhelming and targeted use of online communication networks by ISIS, which emerged as the dominant threat to international security, and the corresponding strategies undertaken to combat such propaganda.

On 6 July 2015, during a White House CVE summit, President Obama reiterated that “[the] broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated with guns; they’re defeated by better ideas…. the United States will continue to do our part, by working with partners to counter ISIL’s hateful propaganda, especially online”. Subsequently in December of that year, the UN Secretary General adopted a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (PVE), calling on each country to develop its own national strategy. In February 2016, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) determined that certain activities undertaken for the purpose of PVE are eligible as Official Development Assistance (ODA). PVE was previously viewed in the same category as counter-terrorism and therefore denied as ODA. OECD’s orienting PVE activities as ODA signifies a fundamental conceptual shift as it marks out PVE as being related to development. It also indicates an enmeshing of security and development priorities by the OECD. This move by the OECD elicited a guidance document on how the EU too can expand its PVE spending across its range of geographic and thematic areas.

Given the fact that CVE tends to be rooted in strategic communication practice with techniques involving media support through counter-narrative programming, content, and communication including media training and capacity building, there exists an unavoidable intersection between media development and CVE practice, which is compounded by the problematics of funding for media development programmes aimed at democracy promotion in areas of protracted conflict. Since some commentators view CVE efforts as an extension of US foreign policy, this admixture of international security and development erodes the credibility of plural and independent media ecosystems that media development practitioners are trying to build in these areas. This is further compounded by the fact that calls for proposals for media development interventions are increasingly featuring CVE. Alignment with CVE-related mandates undermine and even endanger the lives of field staff working on media development programmes on the ground.

CVE and the media development community:

The re-orienting of CVE from security to development within international development assistance has expanded the scope of its implementation. This has given cause for concern to media development practitioners as they increasingly see their work being co-opted by strategic communication directives from donor agencies.

GFMD has always been at the forefront of convening coordination meetings between key industry stakeholders like NATO, UNDP, OSCE, EU Parliament, EC, Club de Madrid and UNESCO in order to examine and understand the implications of CVE programming on media development funding. In a GFMD workshop conducted in April 2016 with 35 representatives from media development organisations, communication firms, think tanks, and academia, it was felt that “there is anecdotal and off-the-record evidence suggesting that some of the funding previously dedicated to support for media development is being shifted to approaches involving strategic communications, or calling for journalism that actively counters extremist propaganda”. The workshop also identified the ambiguity of definition regarding CVE between the Global North and Global South and techniques and strategies favoured in their implementation. Key recommendations from the workshop involved increased advocacy, evidence- and data-sharing, and the need for safety principles.

To further this dialogue between media development organisations and practitioners, GFMD conducted a meeting with 20 individual consultants and representatives from media development organisation on the need for ethical “Do-No-Harm” principles for CVE during RightsCon, March 2017. According to the meeting participants, there is no need to create new principles, “we just need to reassert and apply the existing ones”. The 1996 Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information and 2013 Tshwane principles on National Security and the Right to Information lend themselves to adaptation to new realities presented by CVE. It was observed during the meeting that research into best practices will be an effective way to negotiate the rough terrain that lies at the intersection of CVE and media development. The meeting concluded with recommendations for a working group comprised of participants drawn from GFMD’s member network. The working group would work towards sharing information and coordinating efforts towards understanding and investigating the effectiveness of CVE with regard to its stated objectives and its impact on media development programming.

Further challenges:

As evinced during RightsCon the fields of media development and digital rights are increasing converging and therefore ethical and human rights considerations, which are integral to media development practice, are also assuming digital dimensions. Given the circulation of extremist content online and the well-documented threat of online radicalisation due to social media, there is lack of consensus on the responsibility of social media companies in addressing the phenomenon. While some argue for increased role of social media companies in becoming an arbiter for extremist content, others view this as private companies acquiring increased powers of censorship over content which can be used to stifle dissenting voices. The massive scale of social media users make it nearly impossible for a team of moderators at a company level to apply informed and uniform editorial policies with regard to online content, which are context and culture specific. The phenomenon of fake news and unsubstantiated content has further exacerbated issues of reliable information and undermined the access to free and independent information mandate of media development organisations, thereby adding misinformation to the messy and entangled nature of CVE and counter-narrative/ counter- propaganda initiatives.

Is CVE really as effective as it claims to be:

CVE is criticised for increasing surveillance of target communities and as an excuse used by autocratic regimes for silencing opposition and dissenters. The most recent examples include that of Egyptian authorities blocking 21 news outlets for allegedly supporting terrorism and reporting “false news”. Saudi Ministry of Media has issued an order to close the office of Al Jazeera for “promoting the plans of terrorist groups, inciting separatism, and threatening the kingdom's sovereignty” amidst a diplomatic crisis between Qatar on one hand and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt on the other. Emirati Attorney General, Hamad Saif al-Shamsi threatened to imprison and fine anyone who criticised the Saudi-Emirati stance on Qatar and book them under the country’s law on Combatting Information Technology Crimes. With the run up to President Erdogan consolidating his power in Turkey, there have been instances of well-documented crackdowns on media outlets that did not toe the government line. In order to combat extremist propaganda, CVE essentially entails media monitoring, which increases the capacity for state surveillance. In India, internet shutdowns have increased substantially over the last couple of years, especially in zones with existing conflict or potential unrest, with a tendency of criminal cases being filed against individuals for sharing content on social media platforms.

Moreover, the entire premise on which CVE is conceptualised, i.e. eradicating the “root causes” of terrorism, has not found traction within empirical studies. There is no template of a profile for terrorists and indicators of vulnerabilities that make an individual susceptible to radicalisation. According to a restricted MI5 report, seen by the Guardian, there is no identifiable “pathway” to radicalisation and most British terrorist are demographically unremarkable. In an article for the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism- The Hague, interrogating the validity of individual pathways to radicalisation, Alex Schmid writes “By focusing almost exclusively on the vulnerable individual turning terrorist either by recruitment or self-radicalisation via for example the internet, the role of alternative – and perhaps more uncomfortable [wider social analysis that can act as the precipitating environment] – explanations in the search for root causes of terrorism has been neglected…. Many types of individuals, not just losers and misfits, have embraced terrorism, and there is not one pathway to terrorism, but there are many. As a consequence, profiling individuals on a trajectory to terrorism turned out to be nearly impossible. True, some vulnerable individuals were radicalised and then engaged in terrorism; however many others were first recruited and only then radicalised. Yet others who engage in terrorism were never radicals and, most importantly, most radicals never turn to terrorism.” Moreover, according to the research conducted by Kate Ferguson for the Partnership for Conflict, Crime, and Security Research, projects that are most successful do not seek to comprehensively change the status quo but rather aim to facilitate conversation, encourage awareness, or dispel misinformation.

These debates show how CVE frameworks and their expected versus real effectiveness need to be questioned and evaluated in light of its risks and contributions towards the strengthening of democratic values and expanding equity and opportunities for vulnerable populations around the world.