The News Protocol - Towards an Islamic Framework

What is the purpose of writing and publishing?

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 4 Rabi-ul-Awwal 1422, 27 May 2001

"We mortals hear only the news and know nothing at all" - Homer, The Iliad.

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 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!

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 the Britannica.

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 Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. "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 Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam 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 Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam used to pray for him; if he had been in town the Prophet Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam used to go and visit him; if the person had been sick the Prophet Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam asked about his health."

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 changed.

Fundamental rule

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.

Other Guidelines

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.