This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Belgium-Brussels – In times of conflict and war, truth may often become the first casualty, but the media still remain crucial as providers of information, interpreters and sometimes advocates for policy change.  For that role they are engaging in primary research of their own, but also draw on a wide range of official and public sources such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

We found that NGOs are playing an increasingly influential role in mediated debates about armed conflicts in the six cases of Syria, Israel/Palestine, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Macedonia and Kosovo.  In visibility of NGOs in conflict coverage has almost doubled in a period of only five years: the proportional share of media articles containing an explicit reference to NGOs has risen from under 1 percent to nearly 2 percent, not counting of course reports that rely on NGO contributions without explicitly mentioning it.

The share of local NGOs is higher than expected with around 30 percent amongst those references. The rise of local NGOs is particular strong in cases with high-levels of violence such as Syria where comparatively new and small organisations such as the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights or Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently have been able to report from places where political repression and the security situation have made it next to impossible for foreign but also domestic journalists to continue their work. These NGOs rely on flexible, technology-enabled networks of local volunteers and activists to provide event-related evidence, especially about the scale of casualties and human rights violations.

At the same time, most references to international NGOs originate from a small group of “advocacy superpowers” such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, or Doctors without Borders. They have large budgets compared to most media organisations and this enables them to hire and support country and issue experts as well as former journalists, providing the latter with job security and work conditions that have become the exception in most media organisations. Their influence is amplified by the long-term trend of media cut backs as a result of the funding crisis caused by a mixture of new technology, changing audience consumption patterns and shifts in advertising to the likes of Google, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook.

This small group of international NGOs has become increasingly more sophisticated in their communication and advocacy to target different domestic and international audiences, building their credibility through day-to-day information, good deeds in the fields and meticulously researched reports. But they also wield more indirect relational influence through sponsoring and supporting news coverage by providing travel funding, logistical support in the field, or contacts with local populations to journalists. Some NGOs, not only these large ones, are becoming more “media-like”, setting up newsrooms, editorial guidelines and working through social media such as Facebook and Twitter and their website to disseminate podcasts and short videos. Human Rights Watch has today more than 3 million followers on Twitter.

Does this increased presence mean that NGOs become the saviours or the gravediggers of independent and reliable conflict coverage?

One could justify this rising influence with their ability to provide highly relevant, reliable and verifiable factual information about conflicts that are otherwise hard to come-by, especially relating to less frequency covered countries. Some NGOs have established fact-checking standards superior to journalistic standards given that they are under less time-pressure with more resources, put a premium on protecting their reputation from errors, or need to reach evidential standards required by Courts. From the perspective of conflict prevention, the high-quality monitoring of Human rights abuses can serve as an early warning indicator of impending conflict escalation. Such escalation trends are typically missed by media that tend to pay attention only when large-scale violence has erupted and it is too late for preventive action.

By shedding light on human rights abuses and political repression and shaming the perpetrators, NGOs can also increase the political costs of such behaviour and counter-act impunity. Moreover, local NGOs can give voice to marginalized populations in situations where domestic media are not free to report and opposition parties are repressed or corrupted.

From the perspective of informed public debate, the growing influence of NGOs may however also gradually devalue independent journalistic research and lower the incentive for media organisations to invest in quality research and country or regional expertise. A diminishing role of journalists working as critical filters might increase the risk of news coverage reflecting inadvertently NGOs organisational agendas, whether related to their missions, mandates or fund-raising goals.

Given the strong presence of human rights-focused NGOs in conflict news, the risk arises that policy makers and public perceptions of a conflict is solely based on a moral or legal framing.

This can get in the way of better understanding the motives and strategies of all conflict parties and how they might be persuaded to engage with diplomacy and stop pursuing their aims through repression and violence – only few NGOs such as the International Crisis Group adopt this holistic perspective.

Furthermore, some NGOs go substantially beyond their area of expertise when offering conflict analyses or calling for particular kinds of action that are considered either unrealistic or could be counter-productive in specific situations, for instance, prematurely calling for punitive measures and asking for a referral to the International Criminal Court.

The case of Syria, particularly in the early phase of the conflict, illustrates the dangers of narrowing conflict coverage to this single lens and thus failing to appreciate the complex landscape of conflict actors, their motives and fears, and what kind of action might realistically prevent, stop or mitigate the conflict.

NGOs play today an indispensable part in providing citizens and policy-makers with knowledge about conflicts and human rights abuses that would otherwise be noticed to late, not at all or be misunderstood. Yet, NGOs need to better understand the limitations of their expertise and risks arising from their growing influence. Media organisations need to step-up their support for quality journalism and carefully consider in what ways collaboration with NGOs can help to advance rather than undermine public trust in journalism.