Afrah Nasser: “Objectivity” is a journalistic obstacle
Free press is relatively hard to find these days and hard-hitting journalism is generally challenged by censorship. However, there is a concealed obstacle ahead of free press that is self-censorship caused by, one of the professional norms for journalists, “objectivity”.
This says Afrah Nasser, blogger and journalist in exile from Jemen. At the moment she is an intern at the arabic section of Swedish Radio International. This is the story about her meeting with swedish public service and the journalistic rules about objectivity and impartiality.
I remember when I was a child hearing that Media is the fourth branch of government; referring to its influence over the three branches of governance -legislative, judicial and executive, and that was one of the reasons that made me want to become a journalist. Little did I know, “objectivity” would later strain my journalistic work.
I’m one of the, so-called, Arab Spring’s refugees in Sweden. I used to be a journalist and blogger when I was in Yemen; my homeland. Since Yemen ranks at the 171th position out of the 179 countries presented on Press Freedom Index 2011-2012 done by Reporters Without Borders, one can tell that working in the press in Yemen is a hazardous career. Since the political unrest erupted last year in Yemen, three journalists and one photojournalist has been killed while covering the protests. Additionally, there have been a stream of attacks against journalists including physical assaults, detentions, harassments, and attacks on news outlets.
Before 2011, I was only reporting about “Soft topics”. With the start of protests in Tunisia, I felt fearless to speak out and I couldn’t find a free media outlet to write freely about the situation except my blog. It was my political sanctuary. I blogged actively about the anti-government protests occurring around Yemen. Consequently, I repeatedly received death threats.
That didn’t stop me. In paralle, my blog was featured in cnn.com list for the 10 must-read blogs from the middle east on March 2011.
In May 2011, I came to Sweden for a leadership program by the Swedish Institute. During that time a fierceful war erupted in Yemen. I had no option but to apply for asylum and, luckily, I received a permanent residence permit, few months later. Months passed, I had the chance to have an internship work at SR International and work as a reporter for the Arabic section. It’s been around three month since I joined the radio and my journey with Swedish Radio’s protocol of objectivity began!
On my first day, I asked the administration if I can continue blogging and participating in seminars on political matters related to the MENA region? I was warned by a Swedish friend that I must be very cautious around the Swedish media because it`s pretty known in Sweden that journalists never show their political stance on current global and political affairs. In simple words, journalists in Sweden are generally “objective”. Most importantly, SR is a public service and I should understand very well its protocols. Hence, I had to verify all of that.
Then, I heard the shocking news. I was told that my political opinions must remain private. Therefore, I must remain objective and neutral in my writings and speakings inside and outside the Radio; meaning, I must not blog or speak with a bias tone, even if I’m being bias to the truth! Then, my mind was spinning around like never before. I was torn between choosing to stay as an intern and stop blogging or leave! I realized that censorship comes in so many unexpected forms and just because I escaped my community and Saleh's censorship, it doesn't mean the fight is over.
I gave it a deep thought. I had an open discussion about SR’s protocol “objectivity” with several prominent journalists in Stockholm and I even tweeted about it. The reaction I got was divided between two. First reaction was mocking my poor understanding of what it means to be working with a media public service! Second reaction was that there should be a way to solve this and I was advised to speak to the Legal Affairs Consultant of SR. And I did. After a long interesting discussion, we agreed on a compromise. “You can blog and speak with your own political stance freely as long as you would never tackle those issues in your reporting work for SR. In simple words, you must not report for SR about any of the topics you blog or speak about.”
I was advised from the legal point of view. I had a sigh of relief and I resumed blogging and working relatively freely.
My take on all of this experience is that partial press is really killing free press. By partial press I mean covering events while the journalist is governed by fear of being not objective or governed by the state of his necessity to be neutral. As one of the revolutionaries from the so-called Arab Spring, I lament the unsatisfactory media coverage of the international media; including Sweden for all the events that took place in the MENA region. I believe they only covered half of the truth and now I know why that has happened. It’s because they had to be “objective”.
Intern at Swedish Radio International until May 30th