Naureen Aqueel

When 140 characters rule out 20 years

Posted on: July 15, 2010

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, July 15, 2010.

Recent happenings on the US media front have once again raised the debate about media freedom. The sacking of CNN Middle East Editor Octavia Nasr is one case in point. Who would have thought a 140 character tweet on a popular micro-blogging website would rule out 20 years of a journalism career? But it did. All hail freedom of speech.

Senior Middle East Editor for CNN, Octavia Nasr was forced to resign following a controversial tweet she made extolling the Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. In the tweet Nasr said “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”

After the tweet drew a raucous reaction on Twitter and ultimately the media landscape, Nasr followed it up with  a blog post on CNN.com expressing “deep regret” for her tweet about the man considered the spiritual guide of Hezbollah and who figured on a US “terrorist” list. She admitted that it was an error of judgment for her to write such a simplistic comment and apologised that it conveyed that she supported Fadlallah’s life’s works.  “That’s not the case at all,” she wrote.

However, CNN had already decided that Nasr would be leaving the company as her “credibility had been compromised.”

While one can debate whether the comments Nasr made were appropriate or not or whether admiring some of Fadlallah’s work would indeed reflect support of the terrorist ideology, one cannot deny that the incident has revealed fault lines in a media that prides itself for being free.

Last month, White House correspondent Helen Thomas retired after her comments about Israel brought her under fire. And we are all too familiar with the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal for speaking against US President Barack Obama’s policies in Afghanistan.

These incidents have raised important questions about media freedom and journalistic ethics. How free are journalists to hold their own opinions? How free are they to voice these opinions in forums other than those in their respective media organisations that demand objectivity as a requisite of their professions? Should media persons be fired just for stating their opinion on private or alternative forums?

What I see is a blurring of boundaries between the private and the public; the merging of a journalist’s media identity with his/her private identity; and the setting up of a system Orwell described as the ‘Thought Police’ that effectively filter out all conflicting viewpoints such that all ‘thought’ that is allowed to exist is only that which supports the dominant viewpoint.

Is objectivity being used to justify the elimination of all opinion? Are journalists allowed to hold and express their own opinions?

These are questions that need answers and the answers must come from the media itself. Because, this time, that is where the problem lies.

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