Journalism: Towards an Islamic framework

The Spirit Of Islam

Khalid Baig

SEVERAL years ago an Indian reporter for Time magazine approached a prominent scholar and author in India, and interviewed him regarding the status of women in Islam. She raised the commonly asked questions and recorded each answer. A few weeks later she returned with more “follow-up” questions, which were twists on the original questions and went over his previous answers. Then a third time and when he wondered about the purpose for this exercise, the reporter boasted: “Because we cannot afford to be wrong.” The scholar was so impressed by this answer that he narrated the story to Muslims as an example to be followed for seeking the truth and pursuing impeccable professional standards. Of course, when the article regarding women in Islam was finally published, it had all the usual accusations regarding Islam’s treatment of women; it did not contain any of the answers that Time reporter had painstakingly obtained from the Muslim scholar. Time magazine may have been simply following a rule of propaganda: First get all the facts, then you can distort them as much as you can!
For answers we may have to look deeper into the evolution of journalism in the Industrial society. Modern journalism began as a result of two technological developments: the printing press and the telegraph. Together they made it possible to move and publish bits of information over vast distances at incredible speed. It was the American development (1844), which made it possible to publish the large circulation daily newspaper by moving decontextualised information from all over the world and thereby created what is called “The News of the Day.” Postman argues “telegraph gave a form of legitimacy to the idea of context-free information; that is, to the idea that the value of information need not be tied to any function that it might serve in social and political decision-making and action, but may attach merely to its novelty, interest, and curiosity…most of our daily news is insert, consisting of information that gives us something to talk about but cannot lead to any meaningful action.” The Pulitzer Prize is the most prestigious prize for a journalist in the US today. Pulitzer raised the circulation of New York World from 15,000 to 250,000 in three years, the highest in the world at the time. How did he do it? “With a series of stunts and campaigns, Pulitzer revitalised the established formulas of sensationalism and idealism,” says the Britannica. William Hearst was another pioneer and a very successful one at that. According to Britannica, he was “interested in circulation-building sensation at any price, even if it meant dressing up complete fabrication as news.” The Penny Press and the tabloids used the same formulas to achieve unprecedented commercial success.
The Penny Press inspired the Paisa Akhbar in British India. Throughout the Muslim world, Muslims obtained not just the printing press and wire service, (and other electronic technologies as they developed), but also the names and outlooks for their newspapers from the West. What is more, they received their definition of “news” from the West. The West, it may be added, did not have much of a definition to offer beyond novelty (“man bites dog”) or curiosity (“what we know today that we did not yesterday”). To verify these assertions one needs to take just one look at the newspapers and news magazines in the Muslim world today. Of course we find some religious articles and some political commentary added to satisfy their Muslimness. But, one only needs to consider the deeper questions about purpose and philosophy to realise the near total absence of an Islamic framework. Like, what is the soul of this institution? What makes it tick? What is the goal? What place does it have in Islamic scheme of things! What is the purpose of writing and publishing? What determines what is news! What objective criteria decide what is fit to print? What are the rights and responsibilities of journalists in a Muslim society? What about freedom of press?
The love-hate relationship of Muslims to Western media may be explained by the simple fact that it is the best example of journalism as defined by the West. Muslims feel the pain when they are hurt, but they don’t have their own framework for journalism, their own definition of news, their own criteria on which to judge a news publication. They have borrowed all these from the West. They feel that something is wrong somewhere but cannot pinpoint it because all the borrowed criteria they use suggest otherwise. A crime report should be published with the explicit purpose of discouraging crimes. In this respect it is part of the larger problem of the contemporary Muslim society and we can learn something from other fields where progress is being made, for example Islamic economics. Something similar is needed in the area of journalism. A centre for Islamic Journalism established by the ‘Islamic scholars and journalists who are serious about Islam. That way a framework for Islamic journalism can evolve through positive interaction between the scholars and the practitioners. Till that happens Muslims will keep on publishing newspapers and magazines. But they won’t have an Islamic media. And the entire world will be the loser for that. — Courtesy: Albalagh.com

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