World Press Freedom Day falls on 3rd May. Through a series of interviews and articles with journalists and activists, our Artistic Director Euchar Gravina is exploring press freedom as a fundamental component of any healthy democracy and transforming communities. First chat is with Shanon Shah.
I usually meet Shanon Shah once or twice a week at St John’s. 2020 hasn’t much worked like that so far. After a long absence over winter, I was away on his return to London and soon we all had to abide by the social distancing rules. Catching up with him over a Skype call last week (scheduled, I must say - who said we’ll be less busy under lockdown?) to chat about his work in journalism and writing was a real treat.
I have known Shanon for almost four years now. I was introduced to him at St John’s in September 2016 when I took over the choir and he was singing tenor (and bass, depending on numbers) and directing the choir in the absence of a Music Director. I soon learnt he was a native of Malaysia and arrived in London in 2010 for his postgraduate studies in Religion and Contemporary Society at King’s College. “I was staying at the halls of residence on Stamford Street. I wanted to explore an inclusive church on my first Sunday in town and the chaplain suggested I should visit the church next door. I said OK!”. He went to St John’s, thinking it would be a nice one-off visit. He’s been back nearly every Sunday since and is now a full-time resident of Waterloo and in a civil partnership with Canon Giles.
When I first came up with the idea of featuring a set of articles about press freedom as part of this year’s special online edition of Waterloo Festival, I immediately thought of Shanon. His work crosses the boundaries of academia, activism, journalism and - more so in London - community building. His areas of interest are religion, gender and sexulity and his PhD thesis documents the experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Muslims. After completing his doctorate, he branched out, heading a climate change network, carrying out research for a charity that focuses on minority religion as well as lecturing in Religious Studies at the University of Kent and King’s College London.
Indeed, I caught him last Thursday after a three-hour webinar on writing for King’s College. He had been worried about technology going wrong or the WiFi cutting off halfway through the workshop, which happened to us just ten minutes into our conversation.
By then, Shanon had already told me that growing up, he wanted to be a songwriter. He spent his teens listening to lots of Leonard Cohen, Sinead O’Connor and Motown whilst writing songs. Yet when it came to university, he had to bow to family pressure and get enrolled into a “respectable degree”. His elder sister and later older brother are both doctors, “and that’s the kind of pressure that was on me as the youngest”. Shanon acquired a scholarship by Petronas, Malaysia’s state oil and gas company, to study in Australia which, apparently, “was kind of within the acceptable range of fields I could study” for his family. His love for music would not die out though - he used to play gigs in pubs in the Land Down Under and would go on to compete in singing competitions on national TV in his home country.
Shanon graduated in chemical engineering in 2000 but he did not want to pursue a career in this field. Indeed, his first job was as a reporter for Radiq Radio, a web radio project of the excellent Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Malaysia. This lasted for four months before he was summoned to work for Petronas as part of his scholarship agreement. His interest in the world of journalism was given life just two years earlier, following the Asian financial crisis of 1997 which hit the growing South East Asian economies of South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia. Whilst away in Australia, the financial crisis grew into a political one as Anwar Ibrahim, then Deputy PM of Malaysia, was sacked on charges of corruption and sodomy. Shanon recalls the huge demonstrations in the street and the contrast in reporting of events in his home country by the Australian media and that of Malaysia. “The media in Malaysia was heavily controlled by the state and was regularly used to demonise any dissenters of the regime.” Nonetheless, he also points out that a lot of media coverage in Australia was underpinned by an agenda bent on demonstrating Malaysia as a less developed nation, “the unruly neighbours who don’t know the meaning of democracy”.
“That’s when I realised independent, verifiable and analytical journalism was so important to cut through the rubbish of something like the 1998 crisis”. It was at this time that two important websites emerged in Malaysia. The first was called Malaysiakini. Still running to this day as the most prominent non-government controlled news site in Malaysia, it served as a beacon of independent journalism. The other one, now defunct, was called Saksi.com - “witness” in Malay. This media site ran more analytical commentaries and features which were attuned to pop culture and literature. Shanon was much more attracted to the latter genre of reporting and got his first job as a reporter with the same group of people who founded Saksi.
“These new websites gave me a real sense of thinking about the crisis independently, they offered me a way of criticising what was going on without buying into the clash of civilisations polemic, the way the Australian media were doing (...) and knowing that Malaysians were doing it - independent journalism on Malaysia by Malaysians, living and working through the conditions they were directly reporting on - that was very powerful for me. It convinced me that you don’t need to be in exile to report, you can do this from home… I can’t stress enough that it’s very difficult, it’s risky, but possible. They allowed me to believe that”.
I noticed that Shanon hadn’t yet mentioned much about the printed press but mostly talked about media which is easier and faster to distribute, particularly radio and the internet. I asked him why the arrival of the internet as a new medium was so consuming from the start. He recalled that Mahathir Mohamad, then Prime Minister of Malaysia, had promised not to censor the internet, which is why websites like Malaysiakini and Saksi.com could be established and allowed to floursh.
“This was also the time when to make sense of being gay and Muslim you went online to discussion forums like Queer Jihad or websites like Al-Fatiha, both based in the US. That’s where we could gather safely, right? Of course, you still had trolls coming in and disrupting what was going on but at least we knew that this space existed. All these new avenues were emerging and it felt like this was the way the resistance can happen. We now had a new way of how to organise and disseminate information.”
Having observed Daphne Caruana Galizia’s output through stories and daily commentary as an avid reader of her blog, as well as other actively online journalists like Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer, I enquired how, as a journalist, you both be an activist and an unbiased reporter. Was one a means to the other? How do relationships with other activists work whilst being a journalist?
“If there was a Venn Diagram, you could talk about different spheres of activism. Being an activist - in my opinion - means taking action on a cause and for me that cause is social justice. Even when I was a journalist, I was an activist for media freedom and independence and of ethical journalism… because it’s one thing to be independent but are you ethical as well? How do you treat your sources, the information you gather? How do you make sure the information is verifiable? How do you correct things when you get them wrong? And what’s your responsibility to sources and readers when you get it wrong? What’s your responsibility to sources when they are vulnerable? The responsibility of holding different organisations to account, even other human rights NGOs?” The last one was when I stopped him with a question of mine - what would you do in such a scenario? A quick response came forward, “Would I write something critical about another human rights organisation? Absolutely. If we found that there was something that they needed to be held accountable for, we go for it.” When meeting sources or interviewing people as well as working in the newsroom - where there were many lines of accountability - Shanon and his colleagues would always declare their other connections to other social justice NGOs they had connections with. “I was very much involved in Sisters in Islam, an Islamic feminist NGO. I could write commentaries and analysis about Islamic feminism but I would always declare my interest in this NGO in my byline.”
Between 2008 and 2014, between Malaysia and London, Shanon worked for an online news website called The Nut Graph (TNG). Of his time with this organisation, he recalled developing relationships with interviewees based more on trust, even with those who might have been hostile or controversial in the rest of the media. He believes this was down especially to double-checking all quotes against their sources.
And if they don’t reply? “You have, of course, no choice but to publish but giving people that courtesy was very helpful and we would do it with everyone. You give out realistic timelines for replies: by the end of the day for urgent news stories and longer for a feature”
And if they contest your quotes, even if you knew that’s what was said at the time? “It’s incredible how rarely that happened during my time at TNG. In such instances, that would be something to first run by the editor. You can’t always get it right but you have to be ready to go far as much as possible to be diligent about your story.”
And if you actually publish something by mistake? “Always publish corrections and make sure that they are prominent on the website. It’s important to acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake, explain how it happened and what you’ve done to rectify it… don’t bury a correction somewhere down on the website, or on page 23 of the newspaper”.
This brought our conversation to the question of verifiability, which Shanon had mentioned over and over again. “Always triangulate. Never publish a story based on one source, two sources but have at least three sources. We had a policy that we wouldn’t run the story if the sources wouldn’t want to be named unless it was due to an immediate threat on their life. Once I ran an interview with a transgender activist in Malaysia. We decided not to give out her name because she was genuinely under threat but these instances were very rare”.
With Shanon’s main areas of academic and journalistic interest not considered as mainstream issues in Malaysia, we chatted about how challenging it was to bring such material to his readers. But writing in general provided a variety of challenges. First, if you wanted to reach people, you had to be employed by respectable organisations and “established organisations were largely controlled by political parties or corporate interests. That way, you get very restricted. Working for the more independent, and usually struggling, organisations meant you do not reach a lot of people.” Second, there was a problematic divide along the use of language. “Most of my writing was in English which meant it reached middle class English-speaking Malaysians rather than those who spoke primarily in Malay, Chinese or Tamil.” Third, the political challenges were extensive from ownership to restrictive laws and politically-linked organisations. I was quite struck by what he said next. “The stereotype is that all the news of such groups is bad. That’s not true! There were several responsible journalists working with government controlled outfits and they had to work hard to find ways of getting their stories published.”
This conversation also started to lead us close to our current home, the UK. “What I find difficult to adjust to in the UK is that the press is politically free yet it is controlled by corporate interests. I don’t know if it’s entirely ethical or independent, and it provides a set of different issues and concerns from those in Malaysia”.
Just after he started his PhD, Shanon attended the launch of Critical Muslim, the flagship publication of the Muslim Institute (MI). Bringing up his contributions towards this publication was partially triggered by a copy of its edition on ‘Music’ which Giles had lent me over the Christmas break and which, although read, was still sitting at the side of my dark laptop screen. We had decided a while earlier to switch off the video and rely only on audio as the internet was quite faulty.
Established in London, in 1974, and relaunched in 2009 as an independent educational charity (following links to the Iranian Government in the 1980s), the MI’s raison d’être has been forward, critical thinking about Islam and its reformation. After the event, full of enthusiasm, he introduced himself and his work to the editors and they commissioned him to write an article about Islam and homosexuality. “First thought: are they going to censor my articles? I was sure I was going to be quite hard-hitting. But they left it intact. The only changes they did were editorial and I have been writing for them since!”
Over the last few years during which I was involved with the Festival, I frequently invited Shanon to advise the team on the programme and its coherent message. I remember vividly the lengthy chats we had as a group around the possible variants of this year’s theme: transforming “community”, focusing on the unifying factors that bring people together, or transforming “communities”, focusing on the diversity of our neighbourhood? In the end, we chose the latter and made a commitment to work with and talk about those communities that are least represented and need their stories to be told.
Indeed, on this subject, Shanon strongly believes that “a reliable and trustworthy source of news and information is integral to the functioning of healthy communities”. Interestingly, he brings up the model of a number of American newspapers, “Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, the New York Times - they gained trust and respectability first and foremost from their local communities, in the broader sense, trusting the information they were publishing. These city/region-based papers also had to ensure that they catered to as broad a section of the city as possible. They had to be inclusive and fair in relation to ethnicity, gender, political affiliation and so on. They didn’t always get it right, and there have been unconscious biases in their reporting, but at least they established principles of fairness and inclusion that allow them to be challenged on their own terms when they get things wrong. With the help of such reporting communities could weed out corruption, deal with problems, celebrate their success and joys because of reliable journalists who captured those stories and shared them with the community.”
As for role models, he talks fondly of Said Zahari*, former editor-in-chief of Utusan Melayu, and who in the 1960s was put in jail for his independent journalism and resistance to the political takeover of the newspaper by the country’s major political party. “This was the final blow of death to independent journalism in Malay. But I was impressed by how Zahari drew several communities with him through his writing. After he got out of jail and retired, he would welcome young people like me - he was old enough to be my grandfather! - and tell us stories of how communities need journalists to give them a sense of who they are and what they are. The links between healthy communities and independent, reliable press are intrinsic!”
To close off our lengthy chat, I asked him a rather cheesy but important question. How can ‘passive’ citizens play their part in sustaining an independent and healthy press? “Firstly, interacting with journalists is important. Also, while it’s important to hold them to account and to the standards which we all hold dear, we shouldn’t always assume there’s bad intent especially with regards to reporters working for problematic publications. More importantly, if you care about independent sources of information, fairness, accountability and justice - the hallmarks of good journalism - then that’s a big start. I frequently consider myself a coward. I come from a family of timid civil servants, always scared of speaking out. When I started off I wasn’t courageous and to this day, I’m still timid at times. Yet I care enough to do it!”
*From Shanon, in writing after our chat: “When I started as a junior reporter at Radiq, my editor made us all read [Zahari’s] political memoir Meniti Lautan Gelora (Dark Clouds at Dawn). It's a book that changed my life because it gave me a sense of history, connection and identity as a Malaysian journalist who believed in media freedom and ethics. I read the Malay version, which was great, because it really gave a sense of earthiness and identity to the struggle - media ethics and freedoms have to translate across borders, but they are also born of very local struggles.”
“My Ten Commandments as a journalist were basically the elements of journalism developed by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. Theirs was another book that defined my journalism and you can find a summary of the elements they distilled here.”