Journalism in the era of the war against terror

Reporters Without Borders has published a significant report which documents how the freedom to dissent has become the first casualty of the War Against Terror. The report says that the tone of US coverage of the events of September 11 and their aftermath changed as soon as President Bush announced his War on Terrorism.

The norm became patriotic and propagandistic. This was confirmed by Richard Hetu of Canadian daily La Presse,who remarked that broadcasts became all beating the drum and flags flying in the wind. It was no longer news.

In the propaganda war [between America and countries subjected to American aggression] America enjoys all the advantages that befit its status as the world¹s only remaining superpower. However, the inherent danger in this unequal state of affairs is when independent journalists and commentators suspend their commitment to fairness and balance in favour of state-peddled propaganda. This misplaced sense of patriotism, where misguided policies are sanctioned in the national interest, is well understood by many in South Africa, for such shameful conditions existed during the apartheid era.

Just as it was not countenanced then, so must US policies be vigorously interrogated now.

In this regard, organisations such as the South African National Editors Forum [SANEF] and the SABC as a national broadcaster have a responsibility. For a start we need to know why the vibrant Channel Africa is denied to ordinary South Africans except those who own satellite dishes.

This unhealthy state of affairs ignores the basic minimum requirements sought by the 1994 Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Press, the 1996 Comtask Report, and the October 2000 Cape Town Declaration of Principles on Information, Power and Democracy.

The reprehensible attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, followed by the unjustifiable American and British military onslaught on Afghanistan and Iraq have galvanised the West to, yet again, malign and vilify Muslims. The deliberate distortion and misrepresentation of Islam has been made the basis of US foreign policy. And the media has been turned into a battleground against Islam and Muslims.

This campaign, termed Islamophobia, has its roots in an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims. Its key features include the inaccurate portrayal of Muslim cultures as monolithic, intolerant of pluralism, patriarchal, misogynist, fundamentalist and potentially threatening to other cultures. Its purpose is to dehumanise citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, so that it then becomes easy to smash these "non-people" to smithereens with the minimum outcry from the international community.

Understanding the dynamics of the South African media since 1994 ­- caught between rising expectations and a profit-driven market -­ is essential for recognising the validity of concerns being expressed by communities, including Muslims, who ask: are we getting the media we want? Are media narrations accurate? Are the images projected by the media free from prejudice? Is the media doing enough to change preconceptions and assumptions or is it reinforcing stereotypes?

These are some of the compelling concerns that drove us to attempt to navigate uncharted waters. Some of our early experiences were very instructive, indicating that media bias stems not only from prejudice, but also from plain ignorance. However, prejudice combined with hostility and unexamined presuppositions, against innocence born from ignorance, makes an extremely dangerous mix that could have disastrous consequences.

So, we hear the US correspondent of a leading South African radio news channel attacking American Muslims as "ungrateful and unpatriotic." We read sensational ­ and unsourced ­ media revelations that "people who had evil intentions " and who were called "al-Qaeda" planned to disrupt the South African elections in April 2004. We read that Pakistani intelligence has arrested two South African tourists and discovered that they "planned to bomb tourist sites in South Africa" ­ with no attempt to contextualise Pakistani statements and actions in relation to that country¹s broader US-aligned foreign policy stance, and no mention that the men were being held incommunicado and very possibly under duress.

Along with the right to free expression comes the responsibility to fair and accurate reporting. Our interactions with the industry has resulted in the acknowledgment that the representation of Islam in the media has become increasingly contentious due to frequently distorted images which media coverage, in the context of the War against Terror, has conveyed.

We need to remember Noam Chomsky’s observation that the media, like an educational system, is highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience: "If you dont do that, you are a troublemaker."