Danish Muslims need a voice in media
These past few months mark the third anniversary of the escalation of the infamous cartoon crisis that caused so much debate and anguish among Danish Muslims. The crisis was an eye-opener because it highlighted one of the ongoing dilemmas of Muslim-minority issues in Denmark: the media and its coverage of Muslim citizens.
The cartoon crisis was instigated by the media and had a clear media purpose, namely to create public debate about Muslim behaviour and Muslim outlooks on society and political life.
But it was not real dialogue in the sense that Muslims barely played a part in the debate. Some Danish Muslims were frustrated by the lack of a local forum where they could participate equally in the media debate. Instead they had to rely on media in the Arab world to defend themselves abroad.
The situation escalated as Muslims and Danish media became polarised; news headlines described angry Muslims around the world crying out for violent “jihad” and being stereotyped as the “usual troublemakers”. Danish Muslims, on the other hand, felt ostracised by the media and became frustrated by the “bad boy” stereotyping and biased coverage they were receiving.
For the Danish public the cartoon crisis was about freedom of speech; for Denmark´s Muslims it was about cultural prejudice.
Looking back at the situation three years later, why not solve one issue with the other by using free speech to combat prejudice and stereotyping? Why not establish a Muslim-focused media, such as a national Muslim newspaper, weekly paper or a television station in Denmark, to use as a watchdog for prejudice in mainstream media? This type of outlet could cover political issues in a proactive way, rather than being used to defend allegations and stereotyping that have already appeared in print?
Muslims might complain about biased news coverage, write the casual op-ed or letter to the editor about lousy coverage of Muslim issues, or attend seminars or dialogue meetings to voice our frustrations. But we need to do more than that.
Muslims in Denmark need a media that will shift public opinion by reaching out to the think tanks, lawmakers, executives, decision makers and academics of this country. In this way, Muslims could work proactively to inform opinion-makers and decrease any prejudice or misconceptions they might hold.
Mainstream media cannot cover all the issues important to Muslims, and those it does cover often leave out critical Muslim perspectives. For example, although the Danish national Christian daily paper Kristeligt Dagblad often deals with issues of relevance and interest for Muslims, it is done primarily from a Christian point of view.
While other Westerns countries, such as the UK, Germany or Austria, have established Muslim media enterprises and there are few such outlets in Denmark.
At a recent public debate on the issue, I asked an editor from Danish mainstream media about the stereotyping and lack of objective coverage of Muslim affairs in Denmark. He responded, “We lack the knowledge and the Muslim network.”
A Muslim media institution would have the advantage both of possessing in-depth knowledge of Muslim issues and having a relevant network of contacts that could inform members of the media about the diversity among Muslims, and their opinions and beliefs.
In other Western countries like the United States or Germany, Muslim organisations cooperate with mainstream media to educate journalists, editors and producers about Islam and issues relevant to the Muslim community, sowing the seeds for a serious Muslim media enterprise.
By cooperating with the media, Muslims and journalists can help each other combat biased media coverage. Had they done so previously, they could have avoided the entire cartoon crisis.
The responsibility of media is not just to cover society in an objective and informative manner, but also to engage society in dialogue as a vehicle for free speech and debate from the perspective of minorities.
Some Danish media defend themselves, claiming to have Muslims on their staff already. But that is not the point. Bias and prejudice is not extinguished by staff members´ cultural or religious backgrounds, but by helping create genuine opportunities for such minorities to establish themselves in a media context.
Muslims in Denmark need an independent Muslim media to monitor bias in news stories, opinions and proactive media coverage. If the Danish media is serious about journalism, they need to engage Muslims. And if Muslims are serious about combating bias, they need to engage media. Safia Aoude is a Copenhagen-based lawyer and writer pursuing her MA in journalism at Southern University of Denmark and studying Islamic and Balkan studies at Copenhagen University. She has 15 years of experience in Muslim activism and organisational work in Denmark. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).