Opinionista Khadija Patel 5 July 2013

Two years of being a journalist: Fearlessness and self-loathing

Last weekend, US President Barack Obama described me as “a fearless journalist”. And since he uttered those words I’ve been trying to reconcile my own sense of self, political leanings and values with such a lofty commendation on so public a platform. While I can still not attest to being fearless, I am slowly learning the value of courage.

In private Twitter conversation, cryptically worded emails and barefaced text messages, I was asked what I really thought about the Daily Maverick’s now retracted story, “Al-Qaeda is alive and well in South Africa”. I pointed most of these people to my editor, the writer of the story and other members of management. In my mind I argued that I did not own the Daily Maverick. I am a salaried member of the staff but I can’t be held accountable for the editorial decisions taken by those above me. It ought to have been a sound argument, particularly as I had used internal processes to raise my own opinions of the weaknesses of the story.

And yet, I still felt deeply conflicted.

At various times over the week following the publication of the story, I considered tendering my resignation. My world was suddenly chaotic. My parents were constantly forced to answer questions about the story. They were quizzed about my knowledge of it. They were forced to defend me, my job and the work I do to the prying eyes of a whole community.

It was particularly disturbing to me to learn that my father had been snubbed by members of the family impugned in the story during the wedding of a mutual family friend. The logic behind that snubbing, I was told, lay in the belief that I had actually been the real culprit behind the story. At the same time, I was concerned about how exactly our higher authorities at the Daily Maverick were going to follow up on that first story. It was only later that I realised that I had lost trust in my bosses and some of my colleagues.

I began to hate my job.

I just wanted to fast forward to a time where the entire debacle was over, where truth and justice had prevailed and I could go back to happily wrestling with myself in front of my computer each night. I’ve not often felt the urge to run and hide, but it was during those days that I realised there may actually be some merit to being an ostrich – at least if my head was buried in the sand I would not have to be witness to all the noise.

At the height of the outpouring of moral indignation against that story within the South African Muslim community, I met with a friend working at a community media organisation to discuss the possibility of running a fundraising campaign for the tuition fees of a young Palestinian journalism student. During the course of our discussions, which were frank and open, as discussions between friends are, my friend revealed to me that he had grown particularly incredulous of the Daily Maverick. He revealed to me a theory he had developed of the Daily Maverick actually being a platform to further a far right-wing, conservative world outlook which, funded by the more devilish of foreign governments, and in which I served as the perfect foil. “They let you write some stuff with a different point of view sometimes to detract from their bigger agenda,” he said.

I remember feeling a tinge of hurt as he explained his theory. So, by his estimation, I didn’t even merit my job?

It has now been some time since the Daily Maverick retracted the story that spurred that discussion. The necessary apologies have been issued and internally we have undertaken a review of editorial processes to ensure we never again see a repeat of that debacle.

I write about terrorism, the Muslim community, Islamophobia, conflict and al-Qaeda cells. But it has always been far removed from my reality. Because hey, this is South Africa and we all get along just fine (most of the time).

This time, however, it hit home, and it hit home hard.

I did not write the story. But some part of my identity is irrevocably linked to the Daily Maverick. It is a part of who I am. And then, I’m also part of the community that, quite rightly, felt outraged by that story. That, too, is part of who I am.

It has all been a very steep learning curve in the need to balance a sense of self with the demands of work, the rights of family and the value of community.

In the coming weeks, I will celebrate two full years as a journalist at the Daily Maverick. When he hired me, Branko Brkic, the brain and brawn co-ordinating the stories, analyses and opinions you read here every day, told me, “I’m offering you this job not because you’re black or because you’re a woman. I’m offering you this job because you’re good at what you do.” Those words stayed with me for a long time. Those words armed me with a confidence at times when I really did not know what I was doing. They stayed with me when I had to learn from the mistakes I made.

And somehow, I emerged about two years later, entering the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto Campus to participate in the town hall event with US President Barack Obama. I went there with the intention to engage Obama, the man who had promised hope to Americans and the rest of the world, as well as Obama, the US president who shrugs off the death of children in drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan. I had studiously prepared a question for him. “Mr Obama, are some lives more equal than others?” And if by some chance I could fit in another, I also wanted to know how many of his personal values he has had to sacrifice to fit into the White House.

Yes, I really did think that a good many of us would get a chance to quiz Obama. I had already written about Obama’s predilection towards drone warfare, the CIA’s renditions programme and the story of Talha Ahsan, who was extradited to the US without British authorities seeing proof to back up the allegations of terror activity. So I entered the venue knowing well Obama’s chequered reputation as a leader, but also his degeneration as a force for goodness in the world.

I felt, however, that there was value in engaging him. I still feel there is value in engaging him within these spaces, however contrived they are, to force him to explain the errors of his leadership.

It was, however, there at the entrance of the Soweto Campus that I learned that I would be “mentioned” at the event that afternoon. I was not sure exactly what that mention would entail, in what form it would come and how it would be delivered.

When he did speak of me, Obama said: “Khadija is a fearless journalist here in South Africa. She has reported on Sudan, Mali and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has exposed the roots of conflict; she’s challenged leaders as a voice for peace and justice. We are very proud of the work that you do, thank you, Khadija.”

As I listened to him, with great embarrassment, I still was not sure he was talking about me. My mind raced as I tried to listen to what he was saying. “He does know that I haven’t actually reported from Sudan, Mali and the DRC, right?” I thought with growing alarm.

I know that Obama singling out a journalist in his speech is no co-incidence – it forms part of US policy to promote freedom of the press as a tenet of good governance and democracy in Africa.

Still, I did stand in acknowledgement of his commendation.

I was immediately called a sell-out by some. Others, who I regarded as friends, wrote publicly of their disappointment in me. Still others wrote in even more public settings, with enough padding to avoid a direct association to me, that I did not merit the commendation at all. Others, with more delicacy and much more tact, have told me that I should have withdrawn from the event once I’d learned that I would be acknowledged publicly by Obama. And yet, most people I know have just been pleased to know someone who was mentioned by someone as famous as Obama.

I write about conflict, extrajudicial executions, the war on terror, human rights and the challenges of a whole continent to assert itself against imperialism. But it has always been somewhat removed from my reality. Because hey, I am just a bumbling journalist out here in Africa. Obama’s comments, however, placed me at loggerheads with perceptions of him. I think this will all some day make for an intriguing study in our relationship with power.

And if the fallout from the al-Qaeda story hit me hard, this experience has simply knocked me out and left me for dead – or so I’ve felt for much of this week.

I have tried not to acknowledge the tweets and Facebook posts that, for example, claimed that I was now complicit in war crimes or that I had brought disgrace to my religion. I have tried to avoid responding to these comments because I believed further publicising them may actually be wrongly conflated with the views of the protest movement against Obama last week.

Those protests have actually served a vital function. While they have been characterised as a kind of madness, an elaborate publicity stunt by fringe groups with a virulent anti-American agenda, they have reminded us that Obama is not above censure.

Some 500 metres away from the main entrance of University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus, though, stands a more enduring protest against the kind of political power wielded by Obama and our own President Zuma. The vacant shell of what was once a branch of KFC, its walls blackened by fire and completely closed off by a mesh fence, so close to the scene of the Obama event ought to remind us that protests against political power – Zuma’s government or the products of the policies Obama was here to champion – happen even when Obama is not here.

The KFC was set alight during a service delivery protest in April. And protests like that take place every day across the country, demonstrating the yawning gap between those who wield political power and those who must be brought to heel through it.

The president of the United States of America is often termed the “most powerful man in the world”. And Obama radiates power. His power, however, must be challenged. His words must be weighed, analysed and compared to the actual implementation of his policies in the US and the rest of the world. I sincerely hope that I can aspire to be worthy of his commendation – ultimately to challenge his leadership as a voice for peace and justice in the world. DM



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