Conversations on press freedom #2: Shanon Shah

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.

Shanon Shah at the launch of Waterloo Festival 2019 (Photo: Eleanor Bentall)

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.

Petronas Towers dominate the skyline of Kuala Lumpur

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 - “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.

People gathering in the streets of Kuala Lumpur after the sentencing of Anwar Ibrahim (April 1999)

“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 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.”