Wednesday, May 4, 2011

‘It's just good or sloppy journalism’?

In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate; blessings and peace be upon Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.

"Do not spy on one another,
nor let any of you backbite others..." (Hujurat 49:12)

THE third of May is World Press Freedom Day. In conjunction with this day, I would like to highlight my dream of seeing the establishment of an Islamic Journalism School comparable to Islamic Banking Studies which was unheard of some 30 or 40 years ago. I have this dream after being in the field of journalism for a quarter of a century now.

In searching about this subject, I came across a very relevant article written by Dr Eric Loo, my Journalism lecturer in UiTM in the 1980s. Currently, Eric is a senior lecturer in journalism at the School of Creative Writing and Journalism, Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong.

Eric has his own column in the online news portal Malaysiakini. His posting entitled ‘Not Islamic or Western – just good or sloppy journalism’ not long ago, caught my attention.

His writing was based on a Bernama article which was picked up by a newspaper in the Middle East entitled ‘Malaysia proposes International Islamic Journalism Centre’. The Bernama article quoted the then Information Minister, Zainuddin Maidin claiming Western media had their agenda to belittle Islam and Muslim.

Hence, he said Malaysia suggested setting up an International Islamic Journalism centre to confront the uneasiness feeling on Islam and Muslims (Islamophobia) and to expose and train non Muslim journalist on Islam and Muslim.

Below is an extract of the article written by Dr Eric Loo entitled ‘Not Islamic or Western - just good or sloppy journalism’

“Islamic journalism? Theoretically interesting. And, practicable too, if journalists of the faith know how they can offer an alternative narrative to the conflict-driven skeptical views of the world common to the secular media.

What news will 'Islamic journalism' cover that the secular media are not already offering? How will it portray worldly issues and popular culture considered to be ‘haraam’ (unlawful or sinful) and ‘halal’ (permissible)? How will an Islamic media set itself apart from the world of infidels and mega-corporate advertisers? How will it frame the concerns of citizens in a multi-religious society like ours?

These questions came to mind when I received an emailed article 'Malaysia proposes ‘International Islamic Journalism Centre' published in The Middle East Times and The Journal of Turkish Weekly (May 3, 2006), which I circulated to my graduate journalism class.

The intro read: Muslim heavyweight Malaysia has proposed setting up an international Islamic journalism centre to counter mounting Islamophobia and coach non-Muslim journalists about Islam and Muslims;reported the official Bernama news agency.

The article quoted Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin as saying that Western media had an "agenda to belittle Islam and Muslims". He called on the Malaysian media to "expound our views and opinions about our culture, our society ... our religion so that others may know what Islam is really all about". This, he said, would correct what he implied was the Western media's ideological misrepresentation of the Muslim world.

Zainuddin's view, derived from a casual reading of the Western media framing of Islam with terrorism post-9/11, misses the fundamentals that drive the media - cash, contents, advertisers and audience.

Media ownership, demographic spread of the media and its audience, communications technology, literacy levels, audiences' purchasing power. These determine the basic format of the media, its contents, profitability and thus its sustainability. Islamic or Christian, Western or non-Western media - all have to deal with roughly similar fundamentals. No cash, no contents, no audience, no advertisers = no media. Let's look at the 'Islamic News Sites and Magazines' ( to see these fundamentals at play.

Alternative interpretation

Most of the Islamic newspapers share a common calling - from providing an alternative Islamic interpretation of the world to propagating Islam to unite all Muslims and ultimately re-establish a caliphate based on Islamic law.

The Hizb ut-Tahrir Islamic Party media Al-Khilafah unapologetically lays claim to this calling. A sample of its headlines read: (Accessed 05/05/07)

* Clarifying the meaning of Dar al-kufr and Dar al-Islam;

* Darfur's crisis requires a solution from Islam;

* An introduction to the Islamic Economic System;

* An introduction to the Islamic Social System

A cursory look at Al Jazeera came up with a non- (rather than an anti-) Western view of issues in the Arab world. Here's a sample of its headlines: (Accessed 03/05/07)

* Distorting Palestinian's history

* Nasrallah 'respects' Israel for damning war report

* Maliki seeks international help in Egypt

* Car bombing kills 9 US troops in Iraq

* Israel continues violations of Lebanon's airspace

Arab journalism? Maybe. Journalism specific to realities in the Arab world? Certainly, going by the story topics.

The journalism of Al-Khilafah, despite its Islamic slant, and Al Jazeera are as conventional as journalism in Africa or America as far as its package of stories and narratives on Middle-East politics go. Both are as selective in its contents and ideology as the Christian Science Monitor, Christianity Today, and other outlets from the English-speaking countries, which Zainuddin loosely lumped as 'Western'.

Islam and Christianity both defer to doing good, to serve the causes of justice and to abide by the 'Word' of truth. Just as the interfaith media outlet - among the most prominent being the Jewish publication Tikkun - which aims to "heal, repair and transform the world", can we assume that an 'Islamic' journalism will do the same? Or, in the Malaysian context to uncover corruption in the public sector, to address social injustices and institutionalized discrimination, 'to heal and repair' race relations?

Passive journalists

An 'International Islamic Journalism Centre', despite its constructive goal to educate journalists about Islam, will make no difference to a system where passive journalists are complacent with equally passive social reporting, cued by editors who are chronically beholden to the government. Passive journalists pose the severest form of threat to Malaysian media as a public trust.

Behind the fate of introducing an Islamic Journalism Center lies the critical but seldom asked question of what Malaysian journalists and their editors should consciously do to lift their act and improve their public credibility via their journalistic output and identity.

Another question is where can we draw the line between the kind of stories that Zainuddin would consider fair to the Muslim world and those that he considers damaging. Given that media operations in the Muslim world, Malaysia for instance - compared to the 'Christian' West - are heavily circumscribed by draconian laws and regulations, what is considered to be biased and fair coverage is often lost in its translation to the political sphere. Reports are only as biased as they do not meet with the political interests and entrenched biases of the accusers. Zainuddin's vacuous criticism of BBC's interview with Anwar Ibrahim represents the ridiculous extreme of the media bias argument.

Imagine what Malaysian journalists would write about if the press laws were thrown out the window today? They'd be like birds flying free for the first time - exposing intellectually-challenged politicians undeserving of their public office.

Bad journalism happens when journalists lack the clout, resources or inclination to investigate into public interest issues. Where a newspaper will pull an opinion column by a senior journalist who strays from the sycophantic newsroom culture, and where critical commentaries on Malaysian affairs by Malaysian writers residing overseas are considered inappropriate for publication - indeed, that kills the newsroom morale. Where bad journalism festers, good journalism dies.

Local press organizations, university journalism courses and media studies center have failed to advocate for higher standards of reporting. We deserve the media we get. On a more positive note, the gap is fast being filled by online media sites and professional bloggers - many of whom are former journalists disillusioned with the mainstream media.

The National Alliance of Bloggers (NAB) could just be the proverbial thorn to probe the journalistic laggards to do better and aspire to greater heights. But before one can raise standards, one has to first establish them. Which makes it imperative that the NAB soon sets out its concrete code for ethical and responsible blogging - to make a difference.

Make it a NAB principle that no blogger shall claim privilege to anonymity. No name, no say. Raise the bloggers' awareness of the tenets of good journalism. Which is, information before they are disseminated in the public sphere must first be verified and corroborated for its contextual and factual accuracy.

After all, the issue is not whether one's journalism is "Islamic" or "Western". It's just good or sloppy journalism.”

Dr Eric Loo summed up his article by saying - "just good or sloppy journalism." Sloppy means does not carry one's job carefully and doing the overall tasks resulting in poor results. So Eric means there are only two circumstances – good and bad journalism and there is nothing to do with ‘Islamic Journalism’ or ‘Western Journalism’.

One interesting aspect discussed by Eric was regarding ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’. What is halal and what is 'haraam'? A Muslim journalist should master on ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’ matters (law of fiqih or religious law). ‘Halal’ and ‘haraam’ are not regarding on food matters that are understood by some Muslims but it covers all aspects of life.

Are our Muslim journalists and owners of publications know and adhere to ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’ in their daily operations? Of course it is ‘halal’ to report the truth but ‘haraam’ to create false news. But are our mass media adhere to this? Are spinning news for one's gain is ‘halal’?

Other than that, what is ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’ in the media industry? Of course publishing advertisements of halal products is encouraged but to advertise liquor is ‘haraam’. To publish praying times is halal and would be rewarded for it in the Hereafter but to publish results of gambling activities such as four digit or sports toto is of course ‘haraam’ and would be punished by Allah SWT.

To publish an article on the bad effect and sins of exposing one’s ‘aurah’ (parts of the body that should be covered up), would be rewarded but to publish lewd and sexy pictures of entertainers and models of course would be sinful and put oneself nearer to hell.

But this practice is common in our mass media including those headed and owned by Muslims. Almost all those in this field including journalists, writers, advertising and marketing executives know what is ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’ but why mix those ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’ things and activities?

Go and check for yourself the front cover and contents of magazines on the news stand; more than 50 percent of them portray sexy girls on their cover and many of them have sensational news items to attract readers. Malay weekend newspapers bank on sensuous news items and lewd pictures of artistes of capture readers.

Then in recent time, Malay newspapers have the guts to publish cuttings from pornographic video to fulfill their agenda and that of their masters. Its irony, these papers have easy access to school children.

If the media people who are Muslims do not care about ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’, why must the minister involved be fussy about the establishment of an International Islamic Journalism Centre and what more to train Western journalists? What are the things that ought to be ‘Islamized’ since our mass media too are not concerned about the teachings of Islam?

Why must we concerned about the Western ‘style’ (biased and so on about Islam) of reporting, talking about coaching Western journalist about Islam when own very own Muslim journalists do not care about ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’; the important thing now is to teach and train our own journalists; if they are Muslims, to adhere to the teachings of Islam 100 percent, so that they would know what is ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’ in the media industry.

As a conclusion I am for the setting of an Islamic Journalism School (and not of an International Islamic Journalism Centre as propose by Zainuddin Maidin) where Muslims who are interested in the field of journalism be trained to be pious professionals; whether as writers, editors, reporters, photographers and so on.

So let's raise in our very own Islamic Journalism School a group of local journalists who know what is ‘halal’ and ‘haraam’ and adhere to this religious law when they are carrying their tasks. Their numbers don’t matter; perhaps scores of them are enough because Sukarno once said: “Give me several determined and committed youth; they would shake the world!”

To my beloved and respected 'guru' Dr Eric Loo, you were right in pointing out about the sloppy and good journalism but your 'naughty' former student would like to add one more, nowadays we have produced too many Muslim journalists who are unIslamic in their thinking and actions.

Pardon me Sir fo acting as though I am cleverer than you. Once again pardon me Sir!

1 comment:

Eric G Loo said...

Dear Roslan:
Greetings from Wollongong. Yes, I remember our days in Tingkat 13, KSA in ITM Shah Alam. It's good to see the many books you've written, and your convictions in developing the Islamic perspective of journalism. I'm most interested in developments in this area of religion reporting. Shelton Gunaratne has also written much in the area of journalism from the Buddhist perspective. If you recall Ahmad Murad Merican (he's with Petronas Uni), he too has been calling for a center of islamic journalism. You can read his article published in Asia Pacific Media Educator, which i edit at:

Best wishes,
Eric Loo
University of Wollongong