Saturday, July 10, 2010

When freedom of expression becomes subversive activity

THE NEWS that CNN has fired its Middle-East editor reflects the hypocrisy of the world's most powerful media.

Senior editor for Mideast Affairs, Octavia Nasr, agreed to leave after she wrote a condolence message for Lebanese cleric Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah on Twitter. The network thought her credibility was compromised, and therefore decided to let her go.

The journalist has lost her job for expressing condolences for a person she knew and had interviewed.

"Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah � One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot," Nasr wrote on Twitter upon hearing about his death.

She only said that much, but it was enough to be mistrusted by her employer of 20 years. From the network's viewpoint, Nasr was no longer fit for CNN. Reaction erupted on the social network as many Jewish people expressed their frustration and anger. Well, the protest by Jewish people is another thing, but the fact that CNN cannot accept diverse opinions is another. Is it that you have to always think in the same way as your employer?

The network issued a statement, calling Nasr's tweet an error in judgement. With 20 years of experience at the world's leading network, she could not be so misled, but her tweet was just not "politically correct".

Coming from a liberal American network that worships free speech, this is very surprising. To me, it is like having the Singapore government campaign for freedom of the press.

CNN's perception of the late Labanese cleric is the same as the Unites States' government - a man linked with the Hezbollah militant movement. But as Nasr explained in her blog later, she was "sad" and "sorry" because Fadlallah had promoted women's rights in Islam.

"To me as a Middle Eastern woman, Fadlallah took a contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on women's rights. He called for the abolition of the tribal system of "honour killing". He called the practice primitive and non-productive. He warned Muslim men that abuse of women was against Islam."

Makes me wonder if Nasr had celebrated his death and written something like: "May you go to hell." Would she have got a promotion? Maybe a statement would say that such a tweet ("which CNN approves") is her own opinion and not related to the company.

Even though we can't really boast being champions of freedom of expression, journalists here are free to send tweets in condolence for people who have died. They need not fear if they want to send a tweet like "RIP and personally you are a good guy" to Seh Daeng", who was branded a "terrorist" in the recent anti-government rallies. As we all know, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Even more, many journalists speak critically or openly criticise their own media outlets freely, and don't lose their jobs.

Maybe looking from the other side of the fence, CNN has its own set of rules, and freedom of speech is not an absolute right. The network chose to exercise its right of association. It ended its association with a veteran journalist who viewed a situation differently.

Following the incident, Nasr regretted sending the 140-character tweet on a sensitive issue. "The reaction to my tweet was immediate, overwhelming and provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East."

There are now new angles of discussion on whether a media personality should be objective when writing tweets and refrain from voicing any opinion such as a condolence or congratulations message. Secondly, will journalists have to trade their freedom of expression when signing up with certain news companies. If so, should every journalist have two Twitter accounts.

That is the future discussion, but to me the firing was just ridiculous. Reading that controversial tweet again, everyone can see that it clearly is not a journalistic report. It is purely an expression of someone who has been in touch with a person and who has respect for a good deed done for the world, even though it is considered a small thing in another part of the world.

CNN's overreaction shows that it will honour freedom of expression only when it suits it.
From The Nation, Bangkok By Veena Thoopkrajae

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