Of media, politics, and striking the right balance
By Cheranka Mendis
The actual conflict between journalism and politics lies in a tug-o-war between presenting a narration of reality as it was while dodging attempts of other parties to frame stories for personal agendas.
Speaking at a breakfast meeting, Al Jazeera Network Former Director General Wadah Khanfar on ‘Media, Ethics and Good Governance’ noted that the constant competition between states and journalism is the fight between the true essence of journalism and the essence of politics. The reason, he said, was power regardless of the origin and its roots have a natural hunger towards monopolising and maximising power.
Having started his career as a correspondent in Africa covering news and feature stories, Khanfar was sent to India and then Afghanistan following the 9/11 attack, after which he worked in Iraq during the height of war. Having gained his experiences battling to not only produce accurate news but to stay alive during the testing times, he acknowledged that in politics, the state is present to maximise power.
“I have seen this,” he said. “Once you show the state a bit of power, which is in this case the power of reporting and the influence over the audience, you are immediately spotted as a threat. The state would then attempt to buy your voice, use your pen, utilise your camera or silence you. Either with us or against us; there is no in between.”
Khanfar stressed that this is the true battle between journalism and semblance of power. “Unfortunately I have seen this in every Arab state and in many parts of the world including the UK and USA who participated in the war against Iraq.”
Rule 1: Understand collective minds
Claiming that the clash between the US and Iraq was at later stages also based on the former not understanding that the population of the latter felt insulted as they believed they too are part of a great civilisation, Khanfar noted as journalists one must also understand the essence of a collective mind of a nation.
“Without understanding the quality of mind of every nation you cannot report, interpret or understand the countries. I found that every nation has collective minds, different from one another although they share similar values.”
To be a great reporter, one should not be judgmental in assessing the rights and wrong of a country. Often it is not an issue of wrong or right but an issue whether one can really understand where the nation has come from and what it believes in.
“This is when you achieve a sound professional foundation,” he said. “Believe in diversity and utilising knowledge about it in order to decide on a paradigm of analysis for events.”
Without this knowledge, failure is apparent on all fronts, whether it be journalists, politicians or military. “Americans failed military, politically and culturally. They could not understand the collective minds of the Iraqis or the Afghans and therefore failed dismally. They came from a superior background thinking that this background is universal. They were shocked that there were nations who believed that they have their own civilisation and culture and they did not really need the American civilisation.”
Rule 2: Divulge, not hide
If a state is hiding or blocking information, it invariably means that the state is most likely engaging in a wrong deed. “I do not believe that a state that has many secrets is a state with good governance.”
“Why did states hide what was happening? Why did they go crazy when Al Jazeera published certain news items such as the secret memos of negotiations between Palestine and the Israel beginning 2010?” he questioned. “Because something was wrong and they did not want the people to know about.”
It is a simple logic, he observed. If the negotiations are for a good cause, why hide the truth? “In my opinion this is bad governance; bad politics. This is a conspiracy against the people; against the truth.”
Stressing the importance of transference, Khanfar added, “I wish the states could realise to what extent they could help the societies by allowing transparency; by allowing people to know the real truth. I wish politicians could appreciate how they could become national heroes if they are serving the public and had fewer secrets. I also wish that politics changes from pragmatism or gaining some kind of immediate interests for the sake of the party, person or group by withholding information.”
No shortcuts to wealth and fame
The role of the journalist is to showcase the truth as it is, without frills and ribbons. “We are here to act as agents for our people and for truth. That truth could in a moment of time mean that we are endangering our actual presence, existence or profession or relationships.”
For or those who are looking at journalism as a shortcut to wealth and fame, he or she is in the wrong place. It is this sort of journalists who will put the essence of the profession in question. “The great journalists we remember are those who have dedicated their time and effort to the people; not power or commercial interest,” he said.
Khanfar noted that working at Al Jazeera, where discovering and presenting the truth were the key objectives, the network faced attacks from various political parties, have had correspondents put to jail and had its offices shut down by almost every Arab government at some point of time. However, the network kept going by holding on to sound policies and rules that always put the public first.
Learn to play the game right
“It is a game,” he said. “The most important thing is to not lose the fight against the presence of power, not to forget the fact that you are entrusted with the truth and that you can never betray the public, regardless of what consequences you will have to face.”
The worst form of journalism is the form of journalism that deceives the public – journalism that is there to cover up, frame a story or use technology for empowering the centres of power. “We are representing the public not the centres of power. That is necessary to keep in mind.”
He admitted that the correct path is no easy track to follow. Difficulties and complications will arise at every stage; what should not be forgotten in these instances is that there are millions of people out there who will celebrate, commemorate, love you, and appreciate journalists who divulge nothing but the truth.
“You will sleep at night when your house is full of peace and contentment because you have not deceived everyone. That is a major feat.”
Attempt to convince states
Good governance is still something lacking in society, Khanfar noted. As journalists one must try to convince authorities that for at least their sake as a politician, ruling party and government to inform the public and be transparent.
“Otherwise you are training the public to think about conspiracy theories or to get information through rumours. This is very dangerous as it could turn to be a fatal mistake they could commit against a nation. And this nation might become in its desire to change political reality virulent and not easy to manage.” Transparency and good governance therefore go hand in hand in long-term health of a nation.
Deceive the public? Think again
Former President of Egypt Hosni Mubarak had his own media. Every newspaper and media station was trying their best to cover him up. Similar situation existed in Libya. Contrary to their beliefs, media was unable to deceive the public. “The public is more intelligent to be deceived by false journalists.”
In today’s world the public is well informed and is capable of making intelligent decisions based on facts and figures rather than pictures painted by mass media. “The public has a good sense of judgement and this is what we need to depend on in the next phase of journalism,” Khanfar asserted. “Journalism is changing but not in essence. The essence should be maintained along with ethics of journalism. Otherwise it will not do well to the public or the media.”
New journalism for a new Arab
This has driven the industry to embrace a new wave of journalism, which is alleged to lead to a futuristic integral media defending the rights of the public.
The challenge now is to rehabilitate the journalists who have up until now sung praise of governments and centres of power. However this does not mean going against the government on all fronts; rather it is the need to strike a balance between the two and embrace an unprejudiced and independent stance.
“We are here to be the custodians of narratives; narrating stories as they are. We are not for or against.” Once a journalist becomes politically involved he or she is not trustworthy, and is in a sense an activist rather than a journalist. I am not here to challenge governments or to sing the praise of a government. I am here to monitor, narrate and put things in context. Prioritise and present it in a professional way- this is the major challenge journalists are going through today.”
At the wake of a transformational process on to a positive sense, there is currently a debate in Egypt on who is going to monitor what is professional or not. Khanfar maintained that an institutional framework that allows journalists to act within legal and professional boundaries must be ser.
“Professionals within the industry should sit together and define guidelines for the profession. We need it like everyone else. We need to have rules to abide by. You should be considered a journalist as long as you abide by the professional standards of journalism which should be universally accepted and not whatever nation should have for its own.”
What the profession must also do is to retrieve confidence from the public which has diminished over the years. “Once we retrieve it we should build it on sound conditions and proceed forward hand in hand with the proper information to help the well informed, well educated societies which in turn could monitor centres of power and restrain them from becoming another dictatorship or another oppressive regime.”
– Pix by Lasantha Kumara