Opinion

Shoe-thrower, a hero?

After a number of disconcerting facts regarding the downfall of media institutions which were affected by the global financial crisis, international journalism ended spectacularly this year by the shoe incident during a recent press conference in Iraq.

Iraqi TV journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi's action has ignited debate and controversy among media practitioners and consumers. Some people dubbed al-Zaidi "a patriotic hero", while others simply labeled him "unprofessional". Can we call him the "unprofessional hero" of our time?

Indeed, throwing shoes at your source, regardless of who he or she is and his or her position, is rude. But as a writer on a mailing list sarcastically commented: "Indeed, civilized people do not throw shoes. They drop bombs."

"Al-Zaidi's anger is widely accepted. Journalists are human beings. They have emotions, too," the writer penned.

There are other emotions that journalists have expressed this past year: Smiling and laughing at funny news while presenting news, crying at tragedy and disaster while reporting. So, what's the difference? If a journalist is allowed to look happy or to be sad, why can't he be angry?

But of course, there are other ways of expressing anger. Martin Bell of BBC had introduced the concept of Journalism of Attachment in the 2000s, opening the possibility for journalists to be subjective and attached to their coverage. But what he meant by Journalism of Attachment did not include committing violent acts.

As a BBC reporter, Martin Bell has many war experiences: From the Falkland to Bosnian wars and from the Gulf to Israel-Palestine wars. His experiences formed his concept of a new kind of journalism, the Journalism of Attachment. Its principle? It is okay to be attached. It is understandable that it is hard to be objective and detached when covering wars/conflicts.

His path is followed by many other journalists, one of them being Robert Fisk (the Independent), who later founded "Mouse Journalism". This is a way of covering conflicts in dangerous areas. You act like a mouse: Appear five minutes, take a few photos and disappear before you get caught by the army.

When I entered TV journalism in 1990 (in SCTV Surabaya), I learned that presenters and reporters should be cold and plain. No emotion. No subjectivity. This was broken in 2004 when Metro TV reporter (Najwa Shihab) reported on Aceh's tsunami, crying and sobbing all the way, stopping sometimes in the middle of live reporting.

In fact, who is not attached to what he/she covers? Do we really believe that the press is neutral? Every media institution, every journalist, has a perspective. The nature of their job is to select facts, sources, and quotes within their limitations of space and duration. The key question is: Which facts or sources do they choose? It is their independent and free choice. They take sides.

Muntazer Al-Zaidi might have his own perspective, based on his personal observations and experiences. He might have just expressed his opinion or feeling. Unfortunately, he did it violently and unprofessionally. The big question for future journalism is: What is the limit to your emotion when practicing journalism? What is the limit of attachment? What reasons can be tolerated? Is what Bush did in Iraq a good reason to tolerate al-Zaidi? If a journalist is a voice for the voiceless and supported by the community he represents, can he be detained and punished? Or, shall he be pardoned?

Since George W. Bush just gave him a mocking laugh, it would be hypocritical if he is detained and tortured behind Bush's back. The international media community is now wondering what is going to happen to the shoe thrower. I personally wish for his health and freedom.

The writer is a media watch activist, founder and director of LKM-Media Watch based in Surabaya.

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