Mr Chairman, My Lords, distinguished guests, members of the Commonwealth
Press Union, Ladies and Gentlemen .
It is an enormous pleasure for me to join you today. I only wish I could
have attended all of your sessions, for your program touches on many
subjects which are of great interest to me - and your speakers have included
an impressive array of distinguished personalities .
In fact, as I looked at the long list of those who have already come to this
podium, I wondered whether you would have any capacity left to absorb
whatever I might say!
It was a great comfort, therefore, to see that, as the first speaker on the
morning after a day of R & R, I could attack you while you were still fresh!
As I prepared for this talk I also wondered whether you would have the
foggiest notion of why I was invited to this conference .
Who is the Aga Khan after all - and what is he doing here?
Some of you may have known that my title - which I have held since 1957 -
means that I am the Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. But I suspect that
this phrase only makes my appearance here seem even more incongruous .
Others may have seen my name connected with the breeding and racing of
thoroughbreds - but this connection will also seem incongruous for many of
you and won't help much at all in explaining my place on this program .
Still others of you may have heard me described as a "Paper Tiger", in a
recent book by that name which portrayed a long list of international
publishing figures - thus the pun on the term "Paper Tiger." We were all
people whom the author took to be "media moguls" .
I am not sure whether it is better to be called a "media mogul" or a "paper
tiger". Personally, I would prefer to have been called a mogul tiger!
Perhaps all of these incongruities will seen less puzzling if I point out
that, in the Islamic tradition, there is no sharp separation of the
spiritual and material worlds - which is so pronounced in some faiths. For
all Muslims, the concepts of Din and Dunya, Faith and World, are
inextricably linked. So it is not such a surprising or incongruous thing for
a Muslim leader also to be involved in the world of business, the world of
sport, the world of science - or the world of publishing .
Nor does it seem incongruous for me to be speaking to an audience which
represents large populations in the developing world - where my family has
worked for generations and I have concentrated so much of my work over the
past four decades. My presence here today, in fact, grows directly out of my
interest in the developing world and the forces that shape it, including the
critical influence of the press .
The intertwining of these two interests - the developing world and the
newspaper world - began for me in Kenya nearly forty years ago - when the
British government was moving away from its colonial role. It became clear
to me that this weaning process, in the political realm, could never wholly
succeed unless it was matched by a similar process in the realm of public
education and journalism .
At that time, East African journalism largely meant colonial journalism -
and it was to help change that picture and with the encouragement of young
African pre-independence politicians that I entered the newspaper field .
Our objective as we began our venture was to create a different sort of
newspaper company, one that would truly speak for the new Kenyan nation. Our
first step was to purchase a Swahili publication in Nairobi called Taifa -
and we made it our base. A new English language paper - the Nation - came a
bit later. And through both newspapers we have since pursued a single
mission: to report and reflect on those matters which are of direct and
proper concern to the indigenous majority of Kenyans .
I tell this story because so many of you share my interest in journalism as
a force of development. And I suspect, as a result, that you have been
asking many of the same questions I have been asking .
One of these questions looms particularly large as we approach a new
century. It is a question which arises in every part of the world where
people of diverse cultures are building new relationships. And the question
is simply this: how can the rapid acceleration of contact among these
cultures be turned into co-operation rather than conflict?
Or to put it another way: How can the growing demand for cultural integrity
be reconciled with the dazzling rise of "the global village"?
The Commonwealth experience is itself a tremendous resource as we explore
this question. And so is the profound experience of the country in which we
are meeting this week. Indeed, the recent progress of South Africa in
bridging historical gulfs while honouring historical identities is one of
the most inspiring stories of the twentieth century .
Such inspiring stories will be increasingly important for us as time moves
on. For the challenge I am describing will grow more difficult as contact
among cultures escalates in intensity .
The notion that our planet is shrinking is a commonplace one - but it has
recently taken a radical new turn. It is no longer a simple matter of
geography, with cultures bumping up against one another - and struggling
over borders and territories. Thanks to new methods of communication,
cultures now increasingly intermingle - mixing with growing familiarity .
Some say that the fall of communism has brought us to "The End of History" .
But an even more profound development has been "The End of Geography". The
connection between community and geography has been broken. A single
community can thrive across immense distances, while a tiny dot of land can
be home to many communities .
Not only can we transport ourselves in a few hours to any spot on the
planet, we can also transport our words and our values, our songs and our
dreams, our newspapers and our films, our money and our credit, our books
and even our libraries to any part of the world - in a fraction of a second .
And we can do so at a rapidly shrinking cost - and a rapidly accelerating pace .
Some suggest that the developing world, and Africa in particular may be left
behind by this revolution in communications technology - or worse still, be
drowned by a burgeoning flood of information and influence. But I would
argue that societies which have invested less in old technologies have the
potential to leapfrog more quickly into new technologies. The
telecommunications revolution - including the Internet and World Wide Web -
is providing us with ever greater power at ever lower prices. And this fact
could help enormously in redressing earlier imbalances in information flows .
Already we see hints of what new developments in tele-medicine or in
tele-education can mean to rural communities - as they suddenly participate
in advances which once were distant dreams. The "end of geography", after
all, can also mean the end of isolation - and the end of isolation can mean
an end to ignorance and impoverishment .
But if new technology can break down walls which have isolated whole
communities from progress and enlightenment, that same technology can also
remove the barriers to less welcome change. The communications revolution is
a two-edged sword, opening exciting doors to the future, yes, but also
threatening venerable cultures and traditional values .
On every hand we can see the rise of the global economy - and with it the
global career and multinational family life, international fads and
intercontinental life styles. Some find this process exhilarating, but many
other find it frightening. And some even fear that this new intermingling of
cultures will someday lead to cultural homogenisation .
Yet even as the waves of globalization unfurl so powerfully across our
planet, so does a deep and vigorous countertide. In every corner of the
world one can also sense these days a renewal of cultural particularism, a
new emphasis on ethnic and religious and national identity. What some have
called a "new tribalism" is shaping the world as profoundly on one level as
the "new globalism" is shaping it on another .
Sometimes this new tribalism can be a liberating thrust, as was the case
when national movements overthrew the communist empire. Sometimes it can
express itself in terribly destructive ways, as in the former Yugoslavia, or
in Rwanda or Burundi. Sometimes it means a radical casting off of foreign
influences, as happened in Iran. Or it can take on a separationist
personality, as has been the case from Quebec to Kurdistan, from Scotland to
Sri Lanka, from northern Italy to East Timor. From the most developed to the
least developed countries, we also see a resurgence of protectionism, a
wariness about foreign immigration, a fascination with ancient languages, a
rise in religious fundamentalism .
It is not surprising, of course, that the global and the tribal impulse
should surge side by side. The desire to protect what is familiar
intensifies in direct proportion to the challenge of what is different .
Wherever we look, we find people seeking refuge from the disorienting waves
of change in the tranquil ponds of older and narrower loyalties, in the
warmth of familiar memories, in the comfort of ancient rituals .
This recovery of cultural identity can be a nourishing and creative force,
to be sure. But it can also mean a world where we define ourselves by what
makes us different from others - and thus a world of chronic conflict .
Surely, one of the great questions of our time is whether we can learn to
live creatively with both the global and the tribal impulse, embracing the
adventure of a broader internationalism even as we drink more deeply from
the wellsprings of a particular heritage .
The communications revolution means either a growing "homogenisation" that
we know breeds its own hostile reactions, or we can search for a better
course. We can hope that the spirit of the 21st century will be a spirit of
Creative Encounter .
And this brings me back to the topic of publishing. For the spirit of
Creative Encounter will never become a dominant force in our world without
the strong and effective leadership of the information media .
How can the press best contribute to a spirit of Creative Encounter - here
in Africa and around the world? One simple requirement towers above all
others: the ability to respect that which is truly different, to understand
that which we do not embrace .
It is not as easy as it sounds. For it means much more than tolerance and
forbearance. The word sensitivity is one of the most overused words of our
time - and one of the least honoured. Why? Because sensitivity is too often
seen as an emotion which can simply be willed into existence by a generous
In truth, cultural sensitivity is something far more rigorous, something
that requires a deep intellectual commitment. It requires a readiness to
study and to learn across cultural barriers, an ability to see others as
they see themselves. Cultural sensitivity is hard work .
We live in a time when the quantity of information has exploded in
incalculable ways. Data flows in greater volumes, at higher speeds, over
greater distances to larger audiences than ever before. And yet the result
has not been greater understanding or enlightenment. In fact, it has often
been just the reverse .
One is reminded of T. S. Eliot's haunting question: "Where is the wisdom we
have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
Only as we reach beyond mere information and superficial knowledge can the
spirit of Creative Encounter flourish .
Again, it is the press which should lead the way - not just newspapers and
broadcasting outlets, but also the news service and press agencies which
serve them and the organisations which support them. For centuries, the
press has cast itself as the champion of understanding and enlightenment .
And yet, even as the press has become more international, it has often left
a trail of misunderstanding in its wake .
Confident that more information is a good thing in and of itself, the press
has often focused too much on the quantity of what it can deliver, and too
little on the quality of what it presents .
But if the media have sometimes been part of the problem - amplifying the
threatening aspects of globalization - then the media can also be part of
the solution. If a careless or superficial press can exacerbate the clash of
cultures, then a more sensitive and studious press can accomplish the
opposite: the same media which serves to distort or discredit old cultures,
can also be used to revalidate them, and to help explain them to others .
In some cases, this will mean a greater effort to adapt to the world's ways
- to write or speak in the English language, for example, as we tell old
stories to new audiences. If the mysteries of ancient Samarkand or Turfan or
Kashgar are relayed predominantly in Uzbek or in Uygur, then the sharing
will be incomplete - and inconsequential. Global technologies imply the use
of a global language - not to obliterate old traditions, but to rescue and
revivify them .
There was a time when a variety of authentic cultures could thrive because
of their separation from one another. But that day is past. The only answer
now is that we come to understand and appreciate one another. And in that
endeavour the media must play a central role .
I thought I would use the remainder of my time this morning to discuss three
specific challenges which I believe the media must meet or obstacles it must
overcome if it is to foster a spirit of Creative Encounter .
1. The first is the imperative need for expanded expertise, for a
higher level of professional knowledge .
It is no longer enough that a journalist be a curious layman, who writes
clearly and asks good questions. Good journalists in our time must be well
educated journalists. They must include in their number linguists able to
understand the expressions of other cultures, anthropologists who can
consider their deeper meanings, in addition to experts trained in their laws
and histories, in their economics and sociology, and in a wide variety of
other disciplines. Our publications must have access to a wide array of
professional insights - not only through their own journalists, but also
through the better use of press agencies and news services and outside guest
The Commonwealth Press Union has done a great deal over the years to improve
the level of journalistic education - in many parts of the world. In the
years ahead, such work will be more important than ever .
As an example of the need for greater expertise, I hope you won't mind if I
share an example which is particularly close to my heart. I refer to the
superficial and misleading way in which much of the world's media treats the
world of Islam. Muslims now constitute nearly a quarter of the world's
people. They comprise a majority of the population in some 44 countries and
no less than 435 million live in the Commonwealth. And yet, this vast and
varied group is often viewed by the rest of the world as a standardised,
homogenous mass .
If asked to characterise Islam, many non-Muslims would have little to say,
except perhaps that the world of Islam seems to them a distant and different
world, a strange and mysterious place, a world which makes them a bit
uncomfortable, and perhaps even a bit afraid .
The cultural contexts in which over one billion Muslims have been reared and
shaped are simply not understood in much of the world. Even the most basic
elements of 1400 years of Islamic civilization are absent from the curricula
in most of the world's schools. The subject is just not on the world's
educational radar screen. And the result is an enormous vacuum. When
developments in Islamic societies break into the headlines, few journalists,
and even fewer of their readers can bring the slightest sense of context to
such news .
These failures are compounded by our pernicious dependence on what I call
"crisis reporting" - the inclination to define news primarily as that which
is abnormal and disruptive. As one journalist puts it: "It is the
exceptional cat, the one who climbs up in a tree and can't get down, that
dominates our headlines, and not the millions of cats who are sleeping
happily at home" .
Most of the public, however, has no context in which to place the story of
the exceptional cat that climbs a tree. And without the context, the casual
reader or viewer, never hearing about the cats that stay home, comes to
think of all cats as tree-climbing pests who are forever imposing on the
fire departments of the world to bring out their ladders and haul them down
to safety .
Unfortunately, much of what the world thinks about Islam nowadays has been
the result of crisis reporting. When terms like Shia and Sunni first entered
the world's vocabulary, for example, it was in the emotional context of
revolutionary Iran. Similarly, recent press references to the Shari'a, the
traditional Islamic system of jurisprudence, are illustrated by its
manifestations in Afghanistan .
Journalists learn to use these words - but how many of them know what they
really mean? How many of them understand, for example, that the Shari'a is
seen by most Muslims as a changing body of law, subject to what we call the
fiqh, the capacity for evolving interpretation. How many of them are aware
of the selective and moderate application of the Shari'a in the legal
systems of those Islamic countries which do allow its application? How many
of them know that Arabic translators of the Old Testament used the word
Shari'a to designate the Torah, underlining a shared perception of the
Divine Law that governs the spiritual relationship between God and His
believers? How many are knowledgeable enough to appreciate the Shari'a's
illuminating qualities in civil law?
Without a proper sense of context, it is little wonder that those
exceptional instances of Muslims theocratising Islamic politics are mistaken
for the norm, and that the humanistic temper of Islamic ethics is
overlooked. Among some observers, there is even a tendency to see political
violence as a function of the faith itself - when in fact nothing could be
further from the truth .
You may agree that all of this is regrettable. But I wonder how many of our
news divisions, our reporting teams, our agency staffs, or even our
journalism schools, include people who can recognise such distortions, much
less set them right. When the educational background is so barren and when
the rhythm of our learning - as reporters and as readers - is so often that
of crisis, crisis, crisis, then deep misunderstanding will be the inevitable
I am not suggesting that every journalist must become an expert on Islam .
But it would help greatly if more journalists at least were aware of when,
and where they need to turn to find out more .
It should not be forgotten that journalists also have a broader educational
role - a responsibility to provide readers and viewers with a context in
which to understand individual events properly .
My concern about Islam is just one of countless examples which could be
cited to make this point. I could also present a long list of examples
growing out of my experience with media reporting on Africa .
The central point is simply this: no matter what group or what subculture we
are covering, we must insist that our journalism is not only about what is
perceived as unusual and bizarre .
If the spirit of the 21st century is to be a spirit of Creative Encounter
among cultures, then journalists must relay to us the deeper truths about
our neighbours, giving us a better sense of how they typically feel and
think. They must dedicate themselves not merely to being "up-to-the-minute",
but also to seeing each passing minute within the larger sweep of history .
But there is no way this can happen - in an ever more complex world -
without a substantially higher level of journalistic education and
expertise. And that is the first of the three challenges I would present to
you this morning .
2. The second challenge is equally demanding. It has to do with the
goals we set for ourselves, and the need - as we set those goals - to rise
above a domineering profit motive .
That sounds like a cliche. But cliches often identify important problems .
And no media problem is more evident to me than the terrible distortions
which occur when the highest priority, from influential world media groups
to Third World pamphleteering, is merely to "maximise profitability" .
Invariably, what the pursuit of short term media profit means is the near
term pursuit of the largest possible audience - the highest ratings, the
best demographics, the most impressive circulation and advertising numbers .
Inevitably, it seems designing products with instant mass or sectarian
appeal - focusing on what is divisive or dramatic or diverting or
sensational - at the expense of what is in the interests of society or truly
Our experience with the Nation newspapers in Kenya has demonstrated that
journalistic improvement goes hand in hand with financial health. Both the
content of our publications and the methods for producing them have grown
more complex in recent years - and the only way to keep pace was by making
new investments out of increasing earnings. The Nation was in the 1960s
among the very first newspapers outside North America to embrace
computerised typesetting. More recently, we have moved into the new
multi-media technologies - our major publications are now globally available
"on-line". And before the end of this current year we will open, just
outside Nairobi, one of the most advanced new printing plants anywhere in
the developing world .
There has been much discussion of late about how to improve the quality of
journalism in places where the traditions of good journalism are still thin .
But this endeavour will not only depend on the quality of editors and
reporters. It will also depend on the skills and energies of capable
commercial managers. Fostering business skills among media executives is a
critical ingredient in the development equation; it too is part of creating
an enabling publishing environment .
In its proper context, the profit motice will contribute to the success of
all our publications. But only if we can avoid too much focus on short-term
financial gain. And that, in sum, is the second of the three challenges .
3. The third of the media challenges I would discuss today is the need
to balance concerns about press freedom with a greater emphasis on press
responsibility. In my view, we are sometimes too preoccupied with the rights
of the press as an independent social critic - and we pay too little
attention to the obligation of the press as an influential social leader .
Too often, the press seems to be caught up with that obsessive individualism
which seems so rampant in our world, an expextation that we must make our
way in life through a sort of meritocratic free-for-all, ignoring those who
are hurt in the process and those who are left behind .
Too often, we join in the celebration of success for its own sake,
regardless of the means by which it was achieved or its impact on society .
Too often the media spotlight overlooks the corrupt or manipulative
methodology and dramatises the triumphant result. Too often, the right of an
individual or the right of a publication to unfettered self-expression is
enshrined as the most sacred of all values - independent of its impact on
social or moral standards .
One of the most familiar of western political values is expressed in the
phrase: "Freedom of the Press". I believe that Press Freedom, properly
understood, is a universal human right. But we must be careful about how we
define it and that it does not isolate the press from the rest of the social
order. What is originally meant - and properly still means for me - is that
the press should be free from the control or constraint of governments, and
strong enough to resist all forms of intimidation .
Why is this precept so important? Because the health of any government
should depend on public evaluation of its work. Not even the most
enlightened government can do this for itself. And only if a pluralistic
press is allowed to report freely about any government, will the public be
able to hold their governments accountable .
The problem comes, of course, when Freedom of the Press is stretched beyond
this meaning and used to shield the press - not just from government
interference, but from any sense of social accountability. And that is when
press liberty turns into press license .
Just as press freedom is a means for holding governments accountable, so
must the press itself be held accountable for the way it does its work .
Accountable to whom? To the politcal leaders of the moment? Never. To the
larger community and the cultures that comprise it? Always - provided we see
the community not as a mere majority of the moment, but as an organic,
pluralistic entity .
A most remarkable thing in our experience is that the larger community has
invariably demanded better forms of journalism. Despite their relative lack
of formal education, the first readers of the Nation sought something well
beyond what the colonial press had given them .
Through the years, answering to the wider community has posed a changing
array of challenges. When the demand for self rule dominated everything, our
tasks were fairly straightforward. The rise of tribal divisions which were
then reflected in political parties complicated that picture, and so did the
interplay of cold war rivalries. As the years passed, we also found that our
work would sometimes be more in favour and sometimes less in favour with
particular governments .
In recent years, the need for regional integration has become a central
concern for the peoples of East Africa. Cross-border co-operation is
essential if the patchwork quilt of small African nations is to cope
effectively in a globalized economy. The Nation Group's commitment to
regionalism was reflected in the founding, two years ago, of a successful
regional newspaper, the weekly EastAfrican .
But perhaps the most dramatic way in which the Nation Group has expressed
its ties to the larger community was through the broadening of its public
shareholdings. We are particularly proud that a majority of the Nation's
shares are owned by more than 9,000 indigenous Kenyan shareholders. This
policy has widened the Group's financial base - making it a more stable and
resourceful business. This policy has also broadened our social and cultural
base - making our publications more responsive and responsible .
Our journalistic code - a set of explicit written standards about editorial
goals and practices - was submitted to our shareholders for their
deliberation and approval because we want our shareholders to feel involved
and responsible, not just for the Nation's financial success but also for
its moral success. They are, after all, the ultimate stewards, not only of
the Nation's corporate body, but also of its journalistic soul .
In short, we have pursued a concept of Press Freedom which not only means
Freedom "from" but also Freedom "to" - not just Freedom from imporper
governmental constraints but also Freedom to advance the common purposes
which give meaning to our lives .
Such a sense of social accountability is not an easy thing to achieve. It
must begin with those into whose care the institutions of the press have
been entrusted, our editors and proprietors. Those who are in charge must
really be in charge .
Freedom of the Press does not mean the right of any journalist to write and
to publish anything he or she wants to say. It is not acceptable for a
reporter to cry "censorship" when an editor or a publisher questions his
accuracy or his judgement. Nor is it acceptable for editors, managers and
proprietors to slip their solemn responsibilites by invoking the same line
of defence .
They may sometimes say they don't want to "meddle" with the contents of
their publications. This is a weak and dangerous excuse. And too often that
comment really disguises an abdication of moral responsibility .
This abdication is particularly troubling when it is used by proprietors or
editors to mask their personal quest for financial gain or political
influence - or to sustain divisive sectarian agendas. For in the final
analysis, the press and those who manage it must also be held accountable to
the collective judgements of the community .
Responsible journalists and managers will not want to shield themselves from
such judgements. To the contrary, they will eagerly seek them out. They will
want to know what thoughtful readers are saying and how responsible
advertisers are thinking. They will talk constantly with scholars and
religious leaders, with artists and business leaders, with scientists and
labour leaders, with educators and community leaders - and yes, with
politicians and diplomats and governmental leaders as well. And through such
continuing interaction they will develop and refine their sense of how the
larger community can best be served .
Let me conclude by citing once again what I consider to be the enormous
opportunity for the media to foster that new spirit of Creative Encounter
which I described at the outset of this speech. And let me express my hope
that as we in the press embrace that opportunity, we will respond creatively
to the three challenges I have been discussing .
I hope, first, that we will contribute to a more expert and educated press -
whose achievements can be measured in the depth of its journalistic insights
as well as the speed of its crisis reporting .
I hope, secondly, that while recognising the importance of the financial
viability of the media, we press leaders will put the profit motive in
proper context. This means resisting the temptation to define everything in
terms of profit, and giving audiences due credit by producing socially
responsible publications, rather than catering to quirks and sectarianism .
And, finally, I hope that we will recognise and foster press responsibility
as vigorously as we defend press freedom .
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