The News Protocol - Towards an Islamic Framework
What is the purpose of writing and publishing?
Posted: 4 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1422, 27 May 2001
"We mortals hear only the news and know nothing at all" - Homer,
Several years ago an Indian reporter for Time magazine approached Maulana
Waheeduddin Khan, 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. When Maulana Waheeduddin wondered about the purpose for this exercise, the reporter
boasted: "Because we cannot afford to be wrong."
The Maulana 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
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!
There is something very peculiar, very interesting about all this. Time is one
of the most successful magazines in the world today. Although it routinely engages in
anti-Islamic propaganda, it is considered reliable even in Muslim countries. Muslims may
have a quarrel with a paragraph here, an article there, but they still consider the
magazine as the model for what journalism is all about. What is going on?
"The News of the Day"
"With a series of stunts and campaigns,
Pulitzer revitalized the established formulas of sensationalism and idealism," says
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. The first event took place in
Germany, the other in the US. As Neil Postman describes in "Amusing Ourselves to
Death" (1985), it was the American development (1844), which made it possible to
publish the large circulation daily newspaper by moving decontextualized 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."
There is a strong technological argument here about the telegraph, which generated an
"abundance of irrelevant information." What Postman ignores is the fact that the
telegraph was developed and was first put to use in a society that did not put a premium
on information-action ratio and did not have any built-in restraints against gossip, vain
talk, scandals, and backbiting. Rather there was a huge market for these commodities
waiting to be exploited. Telegraph simply facilitated what the society wanted to do any
way. This market was exploited by the pioneers. One of them was Joseph Pulitzer. 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 revitalized 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. Technology has a new
way of forcing its social and cultural agenda. Just like the air-hostesses that came with
the aircraft and were allowed in the Muslim world without any question or resistance, the
newspaper was also greeted by blind and willing followers.
Paisa Akhbar and Beyond
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 realize 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? Etc. etc.
More than fifty years ago, Mufti Muhammad Shah, grand Mufti of Pakistan, wrote an
article titled Adab-ul-Akhbar (The News Protocol). This was a rare effort to
develop an Islamic framework for journalism. Commenting on the sensationalism in the
Muslim press of his time he noted that there are those who "consider it haram
(forbidden) to worry about halal and haram"
in this profession.
The Islamic Basis
For those who do worry about these things, his article did provide some guidelines and
a basis on which to build an Islamic framework for this powerful profession. Mufti
Muhammad Shafi quoted two ahadith that form the basis for journalism in Islam. The
first one, an excerpt from a long hadith in Tirmidhi collection describes the daily
routine of Prophet Muhammad . "I asked what was
the prophet's behavior like when he came outside the house. Hind bin Hala answered that it
was his practice to keep quiet unless he had something useful and necessary to say ... And
he used to inquire about the well being of his companions, and used to ask about the
common occurrences among the people. Then he used to comment on these reports telling what
was good and what was bad."
In Islam the "news" is sought for,
in fact derives its meaning from, the possibilities of action.
The second hadith was reported by Anas, Radi-Allahu anhu, who said: "When
the Prophet did not see a companion for three days, he used to inquire
about him. Then if the companion had been on a journey, the Prophet
used to pray for him; if he had been in town the Prophet used to go and visit him;
if the person had been sick the Prophet asked about his
It follows, says Mufti Shafi, that being constantly aware of the condition of the Ummah
is a Sunnah. These days the press is the means for performing it. In addition the press
can be used for communicating the grievances of the common people to the government,
demanding the rights of Muslims, and for spreading the message of Islam. The most
important thing to realize here is that the "news" here was sought for, in fact
derived its meaning from, the possibilities of action. The objective was to be able to
bring justice to a victim; help the weak and the needy; visit the sick. If nothing else
was possible, at least one could pray for those who were in some difficulty. But there was
an information-action ratio - close to one. Modern journalism changed that. It changed it
under the dazzle of new technologies, so nobody even paid attention to what was being
Mufti Shafi also described a fundamental Islamic rule that should govern all discussion
regarding journalism: The written word is subject to the same laws that govern the spoken
word. If something is a pious act, so is writing and publishing it. If it is haram
in one case, it is so in the other as well. In fact the written word has a longer life
and broader reach and so it stands to produce greater good or greater evil, and so bring
proportionately greater reward or punishment.
The right to privacy is a sacred human right
that nobody (including the journalist) can violate.
Anyhow, in Islamic Shariah there are few exemptions for a journalist from the normal
rules of conduct that apply to everybody else. For example, it is not that backbiting is
prohibited for a common man, but is somehow permissible for a journalist. It is to be
remembered that Shariah describes in detail the rules that should govern all discourse by
a Muslim. The Qur'an, for example, forbids making fun of other people. "O ye who
believe! Let not some men among you laugh at others: It maybe that the latter are better
than the former. Nor let some women laugh at other: it may be that the latter are better
than the former. Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other. Nor call each other by
offensive nicknames." [Al-Hujarat 49:11.] This is a general requirement and it is not
lifted just because the person doing it is a columnist and can display his skills in front
of a much larger audience and with more polish.
Furthermore the right to privacy is a sacred human right that nobody (including the
journalist) can violate. The laws of God apply to everybody whether be she a princess or a
pauper, for the Qur'an tells us, "O ye who believe! Enter not the homes other than
your own, until Ye have asked permission and saluted those in them: that is best for you,
in order that ye may heed." [Al-Nur, 24:27] Similarly making a false allegation is a
sin for a common man as well as for the writer. The requirement to cover up the sins of
others applies as strongly to the reporter as to any other Muslim. This is generally
ignored today although it has been greatly emphasized in the Shariah. One hadith says,
"If a person covers up the sin of his brother Allah will cover up his sins on the Day
of Judgment. If a person goes after the sins of his brother and exposes them, Allah will
expose his sins, even if he hides in his own home." This one hadith destroys the
basis for the entire tabloid press.
There are other guidelines in Adab-uI-Akhbar. It is not allowed to unjustly
accuse anyone - Muslim or non-Muslim, period. A victim, however, has the right to
publicize his grievance and accuse the aggressor. This is explicitly allowed by the
Qur'an. It says: "Allah loves not the shouting of evil words in public speech, except
by one who has been wronged, for Allah is He who hears and knows all things."
[An-Nisa, 4:148] Thus airing grievances is permissible and if it can help the victim, it
is an important job for the newspaper. A report, even if correct, should not be published
if it is found that publishing it would hurt the interests of the society. No
advertisement of any product or service should be published if the item in question is
forbidden by the Shariah.
Regarding crime reports, which form the juiciest part of today's newspapers, Mufti
Shafi declares elsewhere that such reports are simply not permissible. The details of
crime promote an interest in crimes. A crime report should be published with the explicit
purpose of discouraging crimes. One way to do that, says Mufti Shafi, is to publish news
of crime along with the news of punishment; it will send a totally different message to
the society and the net result will be that would-be criminals will be discouraged.
An Islamic Center for Journalism
The love-hate relationship of Muslims to Time or 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 center for Islamic
Journalism established by the 'ulama 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.