Friday, May 12, 2006

The Media Imperative

Muslims cop a raw deal in the media. At the same time, Muslims do have an opportunity to respond. Editors and journalists are always ready to hear and consider (and often, to print) a fresh perspective on local and world events.

However, there are only a small number of Muslims who work in the field of media and who have some understanding of how media operates. Generally these people don't have access to the ample funds and resources of Muslim peak bodies. Most are women, young people and converts.

In Australia, Muslim peak bodies pay little more than lip service to Muslim women, youth and converts. They continue to be dominated by middle-aged migrant men with poor English-language skills.

There are young Muslims with expertise in media and public policy. However, most of these people have bills to pay and mouths to feed. They would love to engage more in media but cannot find the time. Much of their time is spent working in jobs or businesses or attending to their family duties.

Muslim peak bodies have steadfastly refused to engage in proper and professional media work. Since the London bombing, governments have been begging Muslim leaders to reassure ordinary Australians of Muslims’ peaceful intentions in Australia. It isn’t for governments to educate people about the peaceful reality Islam and Muslims. It is for Muslims to do this.

Some years back, the Federal Government provided the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) with a grant of over $200,000 to set up a media unit. That unit was set up and a number of editions of the Australian Muslim News were published. Since then, the media unit has been all but disbanded.

The former media unit director for AFIC, Seyfi Seyit, now runs his own unit called the “Forum of Australia’s Islamic Relations”. FAIR seems to be suffering from a near-chronic identity crisis, unsure as to whether it is a thinktank or a media response unit. Its performance in both roles needs substantial improvement.

FAIR’s newspaper resembles “Green Left” more than any mainstream or even community newspaper. FAIR’s press releases in recent times have been written in childish language, reflecting a lack of experience in print media. A recent FAIR release entitled “Not Happy George” (making reference to the recent speech of Cardinal Pell on the Qur’an) was a source of embarrassment for Muslims trying to engage maturely with mainstream media.

FAIR officers need to consult more with their executive before sending out press releases off the cuff. They need to understand their limitations and not presume that their position allows them to embarrass the communities they claim to speak for.

The Islamic Council of NSW still hasn’t set up a properly functioning media committee. It has access to a radio station, yet the bulk of its programs are still in Arabic, a language that most Australians (Muslim or otherwise) cannot understand. As for the Muslim Council of NSW, its media work has been limited to frequent phone calls between Na’il Kaddoumi and Richard Kerbaj from The Australian.

Media work is a full-time job. There are people who have the skills and expertise to perform such a role. Yet these people have no incentive to perform the role as they know it will mean sacrificing income.

If Muslim organisations are serious about the image of Islam, they should put their money where their mouths are. Each Muslim congregation across the country should donate $50 a week from their Friday collections to media work. This means an annual payment of $2,600 per annum. With at least 60 Muslim congregations in Sydney alone, this would mean $156,000 per annum.

But who would run and manage the money? I somehow don’t think FAIR would be capable. Unless, of course, FAIR agreed to implement proper procedures for consultation and delegation of tasks.

Perhaps some kind of media trust could be set up. Either way, the work has to get done. There are a handful of people struggling to perform effective media work in Australia and New Zealand. They are being hampered by lack of time and resources.

This issue should be top priority for all Muslim organisations. Sadly, it will probably remain at the bottom of the pile of priorities. Muslim organisations are more interested in spending money fighting internal battles on halal meat certification and similar issues.

At least, that is the experience to date. I hope Muslim institutions can prove me wrong.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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1 comment:

dawood said...

I am interested in seeing how all this pans out in the longer term.