A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

The media’s role

By Quill

Last Spring, seniors and graduate students at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis studied the roles of news media in several different countries. Their work resulted in papers that examined each of these countries. We have condensed those papers into the following four “snapshots” that illustrate the state of the media in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Northern Ireland.


Amidst torture and terror: Reporting in Somalia

A Somali journalist’s work does not involve glitz or glamour. Often the struggle to perform the job becomes a fight for survival. The journalists are the unfortunate victims of curses, harassment, abductions, torture, and murder.

Despite the fear Somali journalists confront each day, they are unwilling to give in to the power that often plans to destroy them.

“I am called a foreign-manipulated reporter, an evil teller,” said Somali journalist Ali Musa Abdi on the 1996 program “BBC Focus on Africa.”

According to Abdi, many Somali citizens are armed with weapons, and they are not afraid to use them. “They try to censor the work of the journalists. Any writing that doesn’t coincide with their interests is considered offensive, and they are not slow in telling you so.” Abdi has received more than 175 threats and 22 death threats.

Despite the dangers of his work, Abdi is determined to get his stories out for the world to read. “I wear patience against the curse,” he said in a BBC interview. “As for the threats, I try to keep them from my mind.”

Unfortunately, Abdi is only one of hundreds of Somali journalists who have encountered such obstacles in performing their jobs. In January 2000, a newsman was brutally murdered while on assignment. Ahmed Kafi Awale, a commentator for Radio of the Somali People, was covering Mogadishu’s Bakara Market when thieves shot him to death.

Today, the future of the Somali press is unclear. Without the presence of a political infrastructure, civil fighting and distress continue to hinder development of a free press within the country.

“Journalism in the Third World is not fun at all,” said Abdi. “In countries where there is relative stability, journalists worry about being arrested if they offend a powerful politician. Here in Somalia we worry about how and when we will be killed.”


Gag order: Media in a closed society

Saudi Arabia remains tucked away, ruled by a government that is mainly interested in protecting itself. Much of this protection is through media and information censorship.

Government ownership of Saudi television and radio stations ensures that news items report only official views and refrain from reporting on political and religious issues. The media are also banned from reporting on subjects such as the royal family and the military.

The Saudi government also tightly controls coverage of women. Often, stories are spun to portray women as gaining in stature. But in February 2002, USA Today reported that with the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia now has the “dubious distinction of affording its women the worst treatment in the world.”

As’ad Abukhalil, a former Saudi journalist based in the United States, knows well the censorship that is enforced by the government – particularly its policy toward women.

When asked by his editor in Saudi Arabia to write an article on the country’s history, Abukhalil said he would accept the assignment only if he was allowed to include a story about the treatment of Saudi women.

“Suddenly the editor became very un-nice,” said Abukhalil. “He thanked me and hurried off the phone. I was fired a week later.”

The same laws affecting Saudi women apply to those women who join the journalism profession. Stringent clothing requirements are enforced when female journalists are in the company of their male counterparts or in public. The newsrooms are divided to keep female journalists separate from the male journalists. Face-to-face interviews with men are forbidden and telephone interviews are frowned upon, forcing many female journalists to use e-mail and fax to do their jobs. Covering government speeches is almost impossible. Female journalists must either sit in a side room or watch on a television monitor, and they are not permitted to ask questions.

But there may be signs of change in Saudi Arabia. Many Saudis have become consumers of international news because, according to Abukhalil, the news they receive at home is uninformative and useless. The government is quickly losing control as more outside information becomes available through satellite or Internet access.

For journalists who go against the authoritarian rule, government reprisal can extend far beyond simply being dismissed from a job. Human Rights Watch reports that journalists can be detained and face corporal or capital punishment, depending on the offense. A movement toward a free press now depends largely on the determination of the Saudi people to make a change.


To speak or not to speak: Life as an Iraqi journalist

For the rogue journalist, life in Iraq is a life on the run. Monetary fines, imprisonment, torture, and even death await journalists who report news and events that the government does not approve.

In July 1998, Iraqi government officials arrested Dawoud al-Farhan in Baghdad because of articles he had written about government corruption and embezzlement. A journalist at the Cairo-based Middle East News Agency, al-Farhan has not been seen since.

Last year, 89-year old journalist Muhammad Jamil Rozhbayni was found dead in his home. The author of several articles on the ethnic purification of the Kurdish regions, Rozhbayni was found mutilated, and his notes for his memoirs were missing.

According to the Iraq Press, 50 journalists have left the country because of restrictive limits on their reporting and editorial pressure. Recently, Iraq’s only investigative reporter Hashem Hassan escaped from prison, where he served two years for refusing to pen an apology letter to Saddam Hussein for writing articles that repeatedly criticized the Hussein regime.

The past 10 years have seen fewer journalists in the crosshairs of the Iraqi government, because journalists here have learned the dangers of criticizing the government. Hussein’s son, Uday, controls the Iraqi Journalist Syndicate. With its 50 radio stations and 13 television stations, broadcasts are used primarily for political reasons.

While there are newspapers not owned by the younger Hussein, they are still heavily censored, and many have been forced to lower print count because of financial difficulties.

“Because of the Iran-Iraq war and the Gulf War, the Iraqi media is totally controlled by the government,” said Kai Hafez, author of Mass Media, Politics, and Society in the Middle East. “All foreign publications are banned. The Iraq News Agency is virtually the only source of news for the media. Most of these services are mobilized for propaganda supporting the Iraqi political leadership.”

Charles Duelfer, visiting resident scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., understands Iraqi journalists’ apprehension about speaking out against the authoritarian nature of the press.

“They are not inclined to discuss such matters with strangers or in any way that could get back to Iraq,” said Duelfer. “One very good journalist I know left Iraq recently and is trying to make a living teaching English in Europe. He is very cautious because, like many others, he still has relatives in Iraq who could pay the price.”


Northern Ireland: The Extremists, Propaganda, and the Media

For journalists in Northern Ireland, the complexities of the country’s ongoing peace movement have produced dilemmas in the coverage of extremist groups.

“What the extremists do is patently obvious. If a journalist wants to talk to one of these groups, they have little difficulty as most of these groups are keen to have what [Margaret] Thatcher called ‘the oxygen of publicity’,” explained Jude Collins, columnist for The Irish News and education professor at the University of Ulster.

Journalists are put in the role of deciphering what is news and what is propaganda.

“Journalists in Northern Ireland have a pretty high professional reputation and have been accustomed over the years to sorting out what is news and what is spin,” said Conor O’Clery, a correspondent at the New York Bureau of the Irish Times. “There are fringe newspapers on both sides that could be called propaganda sheets, but mainstream newspapers separate news and opinion pretty well.”

But, according to Karlin Lillington, an Ireland-based journalist with the Irish Times, some journalists don’t distinguish between the two.

“Because the newspapers tend to speak from a community, they tend to editorialize sometimes in ways that fan the conflict,” she said. “One could argue that the parties in the North always place a certain spin on issues designed to enhance their position, and journalists, of course, report that stance. Often the stance is designed to rattle sabers and placate the more hard-line parts. Is that propaganda or news?”

As Northern Ireland’s local media grapple with objectivity, bias, and fairness, the international media struggle with the same issues.

“In the U.S., there’s too much focus on the religious angle, a convenient shorthand for a much more complex conflict,” said Lillington.

The role of the media in political communication continues to be important to Northern Ireland. In a society that holds many traditional divisions in education, housing, and employment, the media have been the tool for communications across those divisions.

These synopses were compiled by Lisa Floreancig, a graduate journalism student at Indiana University.