Naureen Aqueel

Posts Tagged ‘media


Reshaping the media narrative about Islam and Muslims

An edited version of this was published in The Message International magazine. 

It seems that every time an act of terrorism is performed in the name of Islam, reporting and discussions in the mainstream media and social media tend to follow a predictable pattern – almost as if there were a template that journalists and analysts pull out when discussing the incident. The media often gets its groupthink going on “Islamic terrorism”, “Islamism” and “jihadism”. A familiar discourse of linking Islam to violence unfolds and talk shows on television and radio channels and comment sections in newspapers and websites are inundated with debates discussing what drives Muslims to violence; questioning Quranic injunctions often specific to war time; and examining the existence of blasphemy laws in various Muslim countries among other topics.

There have been a number of studies done in academia which have found Muslims are often negatively portrayed in popular media discourse. Such negative portrayals, though in existence for a long time, increased after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. A recent study done by a group of social science researchers in 2014 titled “The rise of anti-Muslim prejudice: Media and Islamophobia in Europe and the United States” found that media coverage surrounding the issue of the building of the Islamic Community Center in New York in 2010 was predominantly negative and those exposed to this coverage had negative attitudes about Islam and Muslims.

In 2012, Christopher Bail, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan conducted a study which found that negative portrayals of Muslims received more media attention than positive ones. Bail’s study also found that press releases from many Muslim organizations condemning acts of terrorism got lesser attention in the mainstream media than emotional messages from these organizations in response to acts of discrimination against Muslims.

It is unfortunate that positive everyday stories happening in the Muslim community rarely, if ever, make the headlines in the mainstream media. However, when negative incidents do happen and crimes are perpetrated by those who describe themselves as Muslims, the mainstream media are quick to pick on the Muslim or Islam association and promote a narrative about “Islamist violence” and “Islamic radicalism”. A study by Charles Kurzman in 2011 found that the kind of terrorism incidents by self-described Muslims that are reported in the media account for less than .0002 percent of murders in the United States since the September 11th attacks and .0003 percent of deaths each day worldwide. Yet, sadly, these are the stories that would pop up if one were to search for “Islam” or “Muslim” on the website of any popular mainstream media outlet.

Discussing the media narrative about Islam, Nabil Echchaibi, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a chapter on American Muslims and the media in “The Cambridge Companion to American Islam” writes: “Most probably, the suspicion of Islam and Muslims is also bred and animated by a media framework that reduces Muslims primarily to the role of the reactive, reinforcing thereby a perception of either complacency and indifference or powerlessness in the face of an overwhelmingly brutal religious force that is Islamic radicalism.”

Anyone familiar with the workings of the newsroom would know that the practices, news values and deadlines in newsrooms facilitate this stereotypical discourse. Stereotypes become the common understandings journalists turn to when making sense of events as they happen. Misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge fuel negative portrayals. Under tight deadlines and the frenzy that accompanies breaking news events, it becomes increasingly easy to draw on these stereotypes. Add to that a lack of voices to correctly represent the Muslim community and you have the perfect recipe for misrepresentation.

Muslims like any other community in the world have a number of positive things happening within the diverse worldwide community every day. Why, then, do a few negative incidents come to define the overarching narrative about the community? Why do discussions about Islam in the media always tend to focus on issues of violence, terrorism, oppression and radicalism? Why does no one talk about the incredible spirit of volunteerism present in the Muslim community? Why aren’t there reports of achievements by Muslims in mainstream society? Why aren’t there discussions about campaigns and new projects in the community?

Part of this can definitely be attributed to mainstream media news values and a newsroom culture that has been shaped by years of similar practices driven by stereotypes and misunderstandings. But part of the blame also lies within our own community. The fact is, very few of us step up to try to change this narrative either by engaging with the mainstream media or by producing our own. Some of the ways we can try to change this narrative include having discussions with and sending letters to those in the mainstream media; by providing the mainstream media access to authentic Muslim voices to represent us; by working with the mainstream media either as journalists, producers, anchors, writers, commentators and analysts; and by producing and supporting our own media.

Communicating with the mainstream media

This is one of the most common strategies Muslims have used to counter and respond to negative stereotyping of the community in the mainstream media. Individuals in the community and representative organizations have often written letters to the editor to be published or letters to media management to complain about the misrepresentation of Muslims in the media and suggest areas of improvement.

National advocacy organizations like the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) have often issued statements, sent letters and press releases to mainstream media organizations to complain about or respond to any misrepresentations of Muslims and Islam. These statements have often followed events in the national and global news for example, the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo office in France and the Ottawa shooting at Parliament Hill, as well as responding to specific statements in the media or specific coverage in the media that was found to be biased. Among some of the aims these organizations mention is the goal of monitoring local and national media to challenge stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

In addition to national and local Muslim advocacy organizations, individuals have also often written to the mainstream media to complain about or clarify misperceptions about Muslims. As readers and viewers of mainstream media and as active members of society, we should be more active in our engagement with the mainstream media when it comes to identifying and correcting misreporting and misrepresentations about Muslims. When negative events bring Muslims or Islam in the spotlight, one role we can play as individuals and as organizations is to condemn these acts and issue statements about them. We can also respond to specific mainstream media coverage that negatively represents Islam or Muslims in general by drawing attention to problems in such reporting or commentary and clarifying or correcting these misunderstandings. This would involve writing letters/emails to various mainstream media organizations, participating in online and offline campaigns to promote awareness and respond to mainstream media coverage and interacting with these media to draw attention to problematic coverage.

Providing access to authentic Muslim voices

Some journalists and scholars, however, argue that this traditional mode of Muslim engagement with the mainstream media is ineffective. Canadian Muslim journalist, Nazim Baksh, a broadcast producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) wrote an essay suggesting a strategy of moving beyond what he calls this traditional method of “confrontation and accusations”. His essay titled “Beyond Flak Attack: A New Engagement with the Newsroom” discusses how this strategy whereby Muslims “launch letter-writing campaigns, file complaints to the media-licensing bodies or the Ombudsman, and initiate boycotts and protests” serves to “deepen the chasm between Muslims, whether they live in majority or minority societies, and the Western mass media.”

Baksh writes: “To get past this impasse Muslims must abandon a media strategy that targets journalists with allegations of bias, lies, bigotry, racism and prejudice. Such accusations are usually interpreted as deeply personal in nature and perhaps will, more often than not, force journalists to defend their reports, even when they contain a mountain of factual mistakes, innuendos, generalizations, and stereotypes.”

Baksh does not advocate a complete end to what he calls media flak, but he proposes the strategy of establishing a Muslim equivalent of the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA) to effectively get alternative messages into the mainstream media. The IPA, which was set up in the late 1990s with the aim of ensuring that certain issues of public policy were addressed in the mainstream media, utilized the media’s dependence on a body of experts to provide analysis and commentary. The organization maintained a detailed and constantly updated database of producers, commentators and journalists at media organizations across North America and whenever there would be a breaking news event it would send out a list of experts that it wanted to promote to provide comment on a number of issues in the news. Baksh says that a Muslim equivalent of such an organization would be able to shape stories in the mainstream media by providing its own body of experts to the mainstream media.

A somewhat similar suggestion was recently put forward by renowned Islamic scholar Yasir Qadhi on his Facebook page where he encouraged members to e-mail mainstream media organizations with the names of Muslim voices they think represent them. Qadhi pointed to the fact that the media often do not know who to choose to interview as experts and commentators from the Muslim community and most of the time pick people who have been in the spotlight often for negative reasons. “If you want more mainstream voices to be heard on national media, such as CNN, NPR, and others, then YOU the people must tell these agencies who you want. Rather than having some crazy fanatics, or people with strange views, or people who don’t even believe in our faith, represent us, we need to pressure these news agencies to put on mainstream Muslims who can vocalize what we believe,” Qadhi wrote on his page.

By drawing the mainstream media’s attention towards experts that we think represent us, we can try to prevent the misrepresentation and misunderstandings that often result from the lack of authentic Muslim voices in the mass media.

Working with the mainstream media

While there are very few authentic Muslim voices contacted as commentators and experts by the mainstream, there are fewer Muslims who work in the mainstream media as journalists, reporters, producers, editors and writers. In order to have Muslim perspectives in the mainstream media, we need to have Muslims working within those media.

When Muslims work as journalists, editors, writers, reporters and producers we have more chance of having the correct representation of Muslims and their issues. If we always have someone else telling our stories, as outsiders looking in, we cannot expect the correct representation of our issues. This applies as much to the entertainment media as it does to the news media. For many ordinary North Americans who do not know Muslims in real life, their only source of having any perception about this community is shaped by what they see in the media. If they always see Muslims as terrorists, ignorant oppressors and criminals, this is how they will be viewing us. Changing these perceptions involves working on representing the average Muslim to the average reader or viewer. We need the media to cover more stories about everyday happenings in the Muslim community. We need them to cover Muslim charities doing commendable work in their communities. We need them to cover Muslim members of congress and councillors and the work they are doing for their communities. We need them to cover Muslim sportsmen and sportswomen and their struggles and achievements. We need them to represent Muslims as ordinary Americans and ordinary Canadians and as beneficial members of society. We need ordinary Muslims featured in films, movies and sitcoms. We need to see more Muslims as neighbours, friends, store owners and chefs etc. in the movies and shows that are broadcast in the average North American household. And this would only be possible when we have Muslims working in the media who can bring out these stories and depictions from within their community with the correct perspective.

More Muslims need to train as journalists and work in the mainstream media. We also need members of our community who may be experts in their field like Islamic scholars, human rights activists, lawyers, academics, sociologists, psychologists, diplomats etc. to work with the mainstream media as commentators and analysts. This would include giving interviews as experts and writing features and op-ed pieces when comments are needed in their area of expertise.

Producing and supporting our own media

In addition to working with the mainstream media, we must also have our own media. It is true that ownership and established practices have a major effect on the goals of different media and consequently the kind of content they run. And that is why, even if we try very hard to engage with the mainstream media and even work with them, we will be unable to have a complete representation of all our issues in their proper context.

The mainstream media with their wide audience are not interested in covering the day to day stories of different communities. One cannot even realistically expect them to cover all the issues and stories of each different community in the world or a given region of the world. Stories that are important to our community, like for example, the opening of a new mosque or Islamic center in an area or a national Islamic convention in the country may not necessarily be of interest to the mainstream media’s wide and diverse audience. Therefore, in order for our stories to be told and in order to have a place where we can discuss and debate issues of importance specifically to our community, we must have our own media. Having our own media lets us have a platform to write our own narrative, tell our own stories, and to tell them the way we want to tell them, discuss and debate issues of importance to our community and foster a sense of identity and unity among its members. In addition to this, our own media can help counter stereotypes and misrepresentation promoted in the mainstream media and address specific cases of misrepresentation in the mainstream media. Our own media can in this way serve as effective alternatives to the mainstream media.

Although there are a number of such Muslim media in existence today, and a number of them have populated the Muslim media landscape in the past but have been discontinued due to sustainability issues, the need for more such media is always there. Muslim media like newspapers, magazines, websites, blogging websites, radio shows, television shows, podcasts and video streaming sites have performed important functions in the communities they served. They have given a voice to the marginalized, countered stereotypes, educated, informed and raised awareness about important issues, triggered valuable debates in the community, negotiated identity, fostered political and social engagement and simply provided a platform for a number of stories that would otherwise have not been read or heard.

However, many of these Muslim media that have existed in the past were unable to survive the financial and workforce challenges that are a part of the journalism industry and the history of the Muslim media in North America has been spotty and inconsistent with very few long lasting initiatives. That is where our second role comes in with regards to these media: that of supporting our own media. Why are Muslim media so inconsistent and financially unstable? Why do they find it so difficult to survive? Why do most of them close down due to “financial problems”? Without support from the community, these media are bound to run into such problems. Our community has a number of successful businesses and members who are working with major multinational corporations and those that have been blessed with many resources and skills. Why do we not support our own media by allotting a portion of our advertising budgets to them? Why don’t we support them with donations? Why don’t we volunteer our time and services to helping our own media?

Until we as a community take responsibility for our media and for representations of our community in the mainstream media, we will not be able to change the narrative about Islam and Muslims. It is easy to sit and complain and have armchair discussions about how the media is misrepresenting us, but it is difficult to actually do something about it. As individuals, organizations and communities we need to step up and play our part.

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An edited version of this article was published in Spider magazine, Dawn, April 2012. 

New communication technologies have always driven change in the media world. From Guttenberg to the internet – the media realm has undergone drastic transformations with each new medium bringing methodologies and techniques that have contributed to defining and shaping the nature of journalism itself.

Come the age of the internet and web 2.0 and we are witnessing a media metamorphosis like none other before. Not only has the digital age made information dissemination faster and more efficient, it has fundamentally altered the direction of this information-flow. Gone are the days when information used to flow in a one-way stream “top-down” from the powerful media barons to the passive audiences. Now, thanks to the social media boom, the audiences are actively influencing the kind of content that is aired and published in addition to producing that content themselves. A technologically empowered public has given birth to a new form of journalism all together, popularly called “participatory journalism”, “grassroots journalism”, “citizen journalism” or “crowd sourcing”.

Social media platforms like blogs, micro-blogging sites like Twitter and social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Reditt etc are at the pinnacle of this new media revolution. The development of user friendly, low-cost or free online content management tools like Blogger, Blogspot, WordPress, Tumblr etc have helped facilitate the rapid growth and popularity of independently managed websites that are now sharing the role traditionally occupied by the mainstream media.

While some established media owners and professionals have responded to this new “invasion of the audiences” with suspicion, skepticism and even derision, others have gladly accepted it and integrated new media into the newsroom. For those not willing to embrace technology and the change it seeks in methodology and content, the future appears bleak. Audiences, readers or subscribers are now empowered by the multiple choices available in the marketplace that are faster at disseminating news. Add to that the collapse in advertising revenue faced by a large number of media organizations globally and you have the perfect formula that spells the demise of traditional print. Internet journalism in the form of news websites utilizing multi-media platforms, blogs and citizen journalism are now taking the place of mainstream print media.

The diminishing importance of print has been abetted by the competition from television news. News that makes it to the next day’s newspaper has already been broken and repeatedly broadcast on television and news websites. What little role of analysis and in-depth reporting print provided over television news from yesterday is now being taken over by news websites and blogs. By the time a story makes it to the newspaper the next day, it has already been covered with all possible angles on television and print.

Anyone with even a little exposure to today’s social media would be able to vouch for how social networks and micro-blogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been effective mediums for breaking news along with providing discussions and analysis. A number of major news events have been broken and reported in-depth on the social media by citizens. A major example is the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing which was first reported on Twitter by a Pakistani blogger Sohaib Athar when he unknowingly live tweeted the entire episode as US helicopters raided Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Upset by the noise of helicopters in his neighbourhood late at night, he tweeted “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM”. After a number of tweets that served as a live report for the entire raid, Athar tweeted “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

Similarly, reports of a number of bomb blasts have often made it to Twitter first before being reported on the local media. The Mumbai terror incident was also reported first on the social media. Describing the role played by Twitter in breaking the news, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone described how the first Twitter report of the ground shaking during earthquake tremors in California came nine minutes before the first Associated Press alert. “During the earthquake I am referring to, there was a lot of depth reporting as well – 36,000 separate updates on Twitter, which is the equivalent of a fifty thousand word book in terms of content size. And I’m confident that had the quake been worse, the next step would be in journalists using it to find human-interest stories.”

Other incidents that deserve special mention are those concerning the role of Twitter in the Iranian election protests of 2009 and in the Arab Spring movement. When protests broke out after the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in Iran, the government moved to suppress dissent and censor the traditional media. However, tweets by Iranian citizens evaded that censorship and delivered to the world real time updates happening on Iran’s very streets. U.S. State Department officials also asked Twitter to delay a scheduled network upgrade in order to keep receiving information about the protests inside Iran. Mainstream media outlets, facing reporting constraints due to the media crackdown in the country, turned to social media to gather information. News websites like those of The New York Times, The Guardian and CNN incorporated Twitter feeds into their reports with unverified information and videos from citizens in Iran. The Arab Spring was also chronicled via tweets from the people themselves many of which were utilized by the mainstream media.

Media around the world and in Pakistan too have begun to realize the importance of technology and the social media. In addition to introducing citizen journalism segments like CNN’s iReport and DawnNews’ ‘Citizen Journalist’, many news organizations have begun monitoring Twitter for news updates, trends, feedback and to find and create stories. Some journalists have also turned to Twitter, Facebook and other social media to find sources for stories along with its use to report the news and share links. There is also a relatively recent trend being witnessed in the Pakistani media of incorporating Tweets into news reports. Major news events are being live reported with tweets and social media reactions forming a sizable part of such reports.

While these trends show how new technologies and new journalism concepts are being embraced by the mainstream media, there is a need for the media to be cautious in its use of social media. Concerns about credibility and ethics are not unfounded. There is always much risk of inaccuracy, deliberate misinformation and spin. As one of the fundamental principles of journalism holds, being right trumps being first. Only organizations that are able to adapt themselves to changing technology and at the same time hold on to the essential principles of journalism will be able to survive in the future.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, May 20, 2011.

I remember the general reaction in the newsroom the day the news of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden broke. There was relief, felicitations of ‘Mubarak ho!’ and the excitement of covering what was perhaps one of the biggest stories of the year.

Throughout the day, and the days following the incident, I noted people’s reactions. While some openly celebrated the news, others quietly welcomed the news with relief, adding however that it was against their principles to celebrate death.

Sure, there was shock and anger against the political and military leadership and condemnation about the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but I did not come across a single person who hailed Bin Laden as a ‘hero.’

Sure, there were some who questioned the media’s account and said that if the media’s portrayal and reporting about this terrorist figure were true, then it was indeed good news, but no one I met or spoke to supported the al Qaeda kingpin’s ideology or praised his actions which led to the killing of thousands of innocent people.

Sure, there were conspiracy theories questioning whether Bin Laden was really dead, but there was no one who vowed to become another Bin Laden and avenge his death.

Interestingly however, when the international media tried to find out how Pakistanis were reacting to the news, the world saw an entirely different picture from what was just related above.

There were reports of “scores of people” taking to the streets to pay homage to the al Qaeda chief and calling for war against America.

There were pictures of enraged people shouting anti-American slogans and burning down US flags.

There were quotations from children calling Osama their hero and wishing to grow up to be like him.

Many of us were baffled by the coverage of reactions to the killing – they were completely misrepresenting the general viewpoint of Pakistanis. Pakistani newspapers welcomed the death in Op-eds and editorials, but news reports showed that the general population was idolising Bin Laden and were angered by his death. The same reports barely mentioned the other side of the story. There were no quotes from people who had welcomed the news or more so, were indifferent to it. The media seemed to be giving the impression as if all of Pakistan was supporting Bin Laden barring a few “intellectual elite” who were celebrating his death.

The incident taught us something about balanced reporting and media agenda setting that often tends to ignore this. Most media organisations (and wires services specifically) often have conventional patterns of reporting that they operate under, consciously or subconsciously. The dominant narrative and the underlying motive to have a “juicy” story that “sells” lead them to focus on a small pocket of people who support that narrative.

Why did no reporter speak to people who cared less whether Bin Laden was dead or alive because it made no difference to their daily lives?

Why did no reporter speak to the victims of terrorism whose lives have been ruined by terrorists supporting al Qaeda’s ideology?

Why did no reporter speak to investors and businessmen whose interests are hurt every time there is a terrorist attack in the country?

One wonders if there really is any such thing as objective journalism.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, November 28, 2011.

When the Airblue flight ED 202 crashed into the Margalla hills, there was a barrage of criticism against the media reportage of the incident. Sensationalist, unethical and downright insensitive were the allegations against the Pakistani media, and to be honest, they were not misplaced.

From boasting to be the first ones to have broken the news to showing gory footage of blood and body parts, running after families of the victims for juicy soundbytes depicting their pain and giving false hope by airing incorrect reports of survivors, the media certainly had a chargesheet of complaints against it, and justifiably so.

Bloggers and Twitter users in the Pakistani cyberspace were the first ones to jump up and attack the media for its insensitivity and lack of ethics. Twitter was awash with criticism and so were blogs. There were calls to rein in the media and complaints that the freedom everyone had so passionately fought to get for the media was being misused. But yesterday, when another plane crashed in Karachi, I saw the whole situation in an entirely new light. When I logged on to Twitter to check tweets about the crash while updating the story on the website, I realised that it is not only the media that was unethical and insensitive.

People jump at tragedy, and they jump at conspiracy and spicy bits of information all the more. Amid the chaos of sifting through tweets that carried information and perspective about the crash I also came across numerous tweets like these:

Who cooked up the name CHIPA 😉 its a weird name for an ambulance service #karachi – still cant stomach it

This guy says he heard heavy gun fire just b4 plane crashed in #Karachi / w00t now the fun starts, UFOs?

no it wasn’t a UFO. it was HAARP or probably a missile by militants or blackwater

me likes the Blackwater twist > do you think Blackwater had anything to do with #Karachi 😉 [jking]

I do not blame the entire Twitter community nor would I judge thesebloggers based on a single incident. There were indeed a lot of serious and helpful updates on Twitter that helped spread awareness and possibly assisted reporting and rescue efforts. But, one thing that I did realise after this experience was that media’s sensationalism does not exist in a vacuum. Media barons and decision makers prefer to air gore, tragedy, sex and controversy because the readers and audience like it. Spicy bits of information are highlighted because those are things the readers and viewers jump at. Masala and sensationalism gets the highest number of hits because readers enjoy it. So, can we blame the media for what people want to see and read?

Perhaps all of us need a dose of ethics.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, November 9, 2010.

The last few days have been busy for people in the news media, with bomb blasts, a plane crash and the tragic final homecoming of a prominent political leader. There was a lot happening and it wasn’t all good news. Yet, paradoxically, the days were what we in the news media have come to term ‘good news days’.

Before you start shooting at me for being another one of those insensitive journalists who cash in on people’s miseries, let me assure you we in no way consider the news to be good.

Covering and reporting such tragic events is no easy feat. We have to keep our personal feelings and emotions aside. We don’t have time to be shocked at the enormity of a disaster or show disbelief at who in the world would target worshippers at a mosque.

No sir, we have to be on our toes and get to work immediately. The reason – because, you, the readers and the viewers expect us to deliver all the information we have as soon as we can and in the best way we can. And it is you who anxiously seek the ‘bad news’.

So, days with a lot of bad news become days that people turn more to the media, and that gives us a chance to deliver – hopefullyresponsibly.

Hence by extension, ‘bad news’ equals a ‘good news day’ for the media. It’s when the flow of the news is fast enough to fill the airwaves, the news space and get more hits on the website.

It’s the day when you do not have to go hunting for new and exciting stories; when your boss isn’t angry at you for not keeping things moving and when you have the maximum number of visitors on the website.

It’s the day when the old maxim ‘bad news sells’ is proven true. But it’s also the day when despite the buzz and excitement of working on a big story, there is a nagging sensation inside, hoping that as you write those stories, you do not lose the human that was once sensitive to the pain and shock that accompany such news events.

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.

Published in South Asia magazine, June 2010.

Television in Afghanistan has taken a big leap forward and there are reasons to believe that it has a bright future ahead. It was viewed with suspicion before and it still is by some. Television in Afghanistan has managed to make its mark in a country that has been devastated by years of conflict and war, with an economy and infrastructure that place it among the poorest countries of the world.

Afghanistan depends on international aid for 90 per cent of its expenditure, with approximately 53 per cent of its population living below the poverty line. Yet, television has managed to touch the lives of many people.

A study of Afghanistan’s five urban provinces in 2007 found that about two-thirds of the population watched television every day or almost every day. From virtual scratch that broadcasters started in 2001 to the new array of channels and programs that the country boast of today, television in Afghanistan is no doubt a phenomenal development. Official figures in 2009 showed that there were 16 broadcast channels in the country, including one state-run and 15 private channels.

The television channels operating within the country provide a variety of programs for their audiences. Afghans have the opportunity to choose between cooking shows, reality shows, news, cartoons, crime shows, Turkish soap opera, Iranian drama and the popular Indian soaps that have managed to attract a great following even in this conservative Muslim society. Many foreign programs are dubbed in the local language.

The content of these channels comprises a mix of locally produced programs as well as foreign recorded ones. Indian music, films and soaps are the most popular. Viewers usually settle down after 7:30 pm to watch the stories of conniving female protagonists of Indian soaps in saris and clothes considered to be immodest in Afghan culture.

But here is where the restrictions step in. According to official censorship policies, Afghan television channels are not allowed to show immodestly clad females. But since Indian soaps are the top-rated programs, broadcasters have worked out a crude yet practical method to get around the government restrictions without taking these most watched shows entirely off air – they employ pixilators whose job is to add a blotchy strip of camouflage to obscure bare arms, midriffs and legs.

There remain, however, television channels that ignore government restrictions and have drawn the ire of the authorities as well as religious elements who view foreign as well as some locally produced shows as contravening religious, cultural and social norms. Media freedom bodies and many media organizations themselves complain that in Afghanistan media continues to be “under the government’s thumb.”

Nonetheless, the current state of the television industry in Afghanistan is indeed a big leap from the days of the Taliban when, according to reports in the Western media, even owning a television was a crime.

A particularly commendable initiative in Afghan television is the reality show “Fikar wa Talash” (Dream and Achieve) in which contestants pitch in business ideas before a panel of judges and get cash rewards to start their own business if they win. By encouraging Afghans to start their own businesses, the show contributes positively to country’s economy and society.

The mushrooming of television channels in Afghanistan, in addition to providing locals an escape outlet from the monotonous drudgeries of everyday life, has also contributed to this underdeveloped economy. Advertising revenue has started coming in and new job opportunities have sprung up. There is no doubt that international investors are also eyeing the opportunity to jump into this lucrative market.

Media owners in Afghanistan must focus on creating a lasting media in the country that serves a constructive role by contributing positively to the society and offering more than just frivolous content.


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