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The pain of press prejudice

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By Mandy de Waal

(Source: City Press 25/02/2011)

Local media came under fire from the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) as the Press Council of South Africa’s road show travelled across the Cape for a series of public hearings this week.

Nabeweya Malick of the MJC spoke of the damaging effect that “US-centric propaganda” has on local Muslims and the fear created by prejudiced and thoughtless reporting that stereotypes Muslims as “terrorists” or dangerous.  Malick made her submission in Cape Town where the public hearings took place at Naspers headquarters in the city centre.

“This prejudice could have its genesis in statements made by the then President of the United States, Mr George Bush, who said: ‘You are either with us or you are against us,’ in reference to the Iraq war.” Malick says this created a platform where Muslim communities who didn’t agree with the US war in Iraq were perceived to be supporting “so-called terrorists”.

Malick says this was exacerbated in South Africa by the media’s failure to be more critical, independent and because of the press’ over reliance on wire copy from the US and the UK.

“During the war on Iraq and the invasion of Afghanistan our media failed to rigidly maintain its independence because it used journalists from the United States to report on the war. “Very seldom, if ever, did we get any journalists based in Iraq or Afghanistan with an alternative view which countered the statements or the accusations made by the Bush regime,” she said.

The local media’s dependence on wire services and news sources like CNN, Fox Television, Reuters and the BBC meant that South Africans rarely saw the suffering experienced by the people of Iraq or Afghanistan.

“In any conflict or any controversial issue you will always find two sides. The media unfortunately ran with one particular view and that was the Eurocentric, American position on what was happening.”

In its submission to the council, the MJC saidthat local Muslims are a peace-loving community who have actively contributed to the growth of South Africa over a period of 300 years. She said because of biased press reporting, the community had suffered from prejudice.

“It is a daily occurrence. The media affects people’s minds and what saddens me is that young people are influenced because we have had incidents at schools where children as young as ten will say of Muslim students: ‘Be careful of them because they are dangerous’.  This is a total opposite of what a Muslim is about and the respect that Muslims have for the life of another human being.”

Malick said the local Muslim community had never been engaged in any activity the state deemed “dangerous” and journalists needed to respect this. Malick said she hoped the increased prominence of Al Jazeera following the Middle East revolutions would realise more balanced reporting on the Middle East, Arabic countries and on Muslim issues.

Recent incidents of prejudiced reporting shared by Malick with the council included a Sunday Times’ report where motoring journalist AndreaNagel said a car was “as silent as a Muslim rodent in a synagogue”.

Malicksaid that the Muslim community had boycotted Independent Newspapers following extremely offensive articles in the Weekend Argus. Malick suggested that journalists who discriminate against Muslims should be required to go for sensitivity training to address their prejudice.

Earlierin Port Elizabeth, a contingent from Rhodes University cautioned the Press Council not to simply follow best global practice, but to intelligently borrow from global press bodies.

Rhodes University Professor, Guy Berger, called for stronger sanctions, for the council to remove lawyers from its process and to incorporate anadvocacy function to drive education and awareness.Berger said the council could play a more valuable role in diffusing tensions between the ANC and the press.

“There are shared interests in improving accuracy and ethics and we needto build on this to get people out of the corners they are painted in, and move towards a more nuanced discussion so we have a greater understanding of what the ANC means when they talk about a statutory media tribunal,” said Berger. “The press needs to understand the remit, funding, reason and intentions for this so conversation can take place at a concrete level rather than at a level of misunderstanding.”

Berger said the ANC and the press needed to move from a “dialogue of thedeaf to a place of engagement” where points of agreement could be found. As the ombudsman continued to travel around the country, a lack of public participation was glaringly evident. The ombudsman continued to cite apathy but a social media expert said the council had failed to use free and effective tools available online for driving community participation.

“South Africans are engaging with Facebook and there are three million local registered users and some five million people visit Facebook from within SA’s borders.  “At the very least, the council should have a Facebook profile to build database and insinuate itself into the lives of people who are interested in press issues,” said Dave Duarte, a lecturer on social networking at the Graduate School of Business at UCT.  Duarte said Facebook was a great free platform the council could use to drive desk top activism and enable people who support press freedom to contribute to the strengthening of the council.