At the Taliban’s first press conference on 17 August 2021, spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid startled the world by calling for “balanced and fair reporting.”
“If they are fair they can criticize us,” he said. "You in the media should pay attention to [our] shortcomings so we can serve the nation."
"Nothing should be against Islamic values when it comes to the activities of the media," he added. “If they work according to our Islamic rules, to Sharia, they will be free, they can work, and they can broadcast freely.”
Almost immediately, Twitter exploded with condemnation, ridicule, and references to Fox News’ claim to be “fair and balanced.”
Although there are plenty of reasons to distrust the promises of the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid’s pledge that "private media can continue to be free and independent” if journalists work according to Islamic rules bears more careful analysis. Both the words he used and the principles he invoked are likely to resonate with Muslim journalists throughout the world.
Independent Media and Sharia
What is the appropriate relationship between journalists and the state? In Western societies journalism is generally understood to be a secular occupation, rooted in the ideas of the Enlightenment, and is seen as defending the rights of the people against the arbitrary power of the state. In comparison, in Islamic political thought, both legal and moral values are determined by divine revelation.
As Afghan Islamic scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali explained, the Sharia is inspired by the unity of God and man. “Islamic law does not proceed from a position of conflict between the respective rights or interests of the individual and state,” he wrote. “Thus the duality of interest which is often envisaged in modern constitutions does not present the same picture in the Islamic theory of government.” As a result, many occupations that would be considered social or political in the West, are understood in Islamic societies to have a religious element, even if it is subconscious.
Kamali has likewise argued that there is significant justification for press freedom in Islam, contending that the principles of commanding good and forbidding evil, sincere advice, consultation, independent reasoning, and the right to criticize government leaders are all premised on the recognition of freedom of expression that is basic to Sharia, or the divine law of Islam.
There is nothing in the Sharia that prevents independent media; in fact, the role of the media as an independent monitor of power is fundamental to Islam.
There is nothing in the Sharia that prevents independent media; in fact, the role of the media as an independent monitor of power is fundamental to Islam. My research into the relationship between journalism and Islam in the Muslim Southeast Asia demonstrates that there are ways of supporting independent media other than the liberal one with which we in the West are familiar—including which I have described as an “Islamic idiom.”
Is There an “Islamic” Form of Journalism?
My twenty years of ethnographic research at five very different news organizations in Indonesia and Malaysia have revealed similarities how Muslim journalists think about the meaning of their work. Although it was never my intent to measure the “correctness” of these journalists’ interpretation of Islam, what I learned from my fieldwork was generally supported by what I learned from visits to Islamic universities and institutes that teach journalism courses.
From the journalists at three news organizations in Indonesia and two in Malaysia, I learned that what are arguably universal principles of journalism such as truth, balance, verification, and independence from power can each be explained and validated in Islamic terms. There were recurring patterns in what Indonesian and Malaysian Muslim journalists said about their work, even at publications that do not claim to be “Islamic.”
When in 1997 the American Committee of Concerned Journalists set out their statement of principles, they wrote, “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” My research suggests that this obligation is likewise fundamental to Islam. For example, when asked about the relationship between his faith and his work, former (Indonesian) Jawa Pos editor Dhimam Abror began with the Qur’anic obligation to tell others the truth. “We believe that the Prophet Muhammad says if you get from me only one verse from the Qur’an, you have an obligation to tell that verse to other people,” he said. Or, as Australian-educated Malaysiakini editor Aidila Razak put it, “I feel this massive obligation to the truth.”
The Taliban spokesperson’s reference to “balanced” reporting likewise has deep roots in Islam. In Malay, the word keadilan or justice comes from adl, the Arabic term for “just”. In the same way that the Western figure of Justice is often depicted as a woman holding a balanced scale, there are connections between justice and balance in Islam. The struggle for economic justice and protection of the weak are not only fundamental to Islam, they are also enduring values in the practice of journalism. During the authoritarian Suharto years, the Indonesian newsweekly Tempo magazine managed to depict the struggles of the weak in a way that was obvious to its readers yet also escaped government censorship. As Goenawan Mohamad, the founding editor of Tempo once said, "It is very difficult in Indonesia if you don't speak about justice. Indonesian history is the history of searching for justice, more than searching for freedom."
Like balance, verification was often described by Muslim journalists in Islamic terms. In fact, during the five years I spent studying the relationship between Islam and journalism, the Qur’anic verse that I heard cited most frequently was this one: “O believers, if an evildoer comes to you with some news, verify it (investigate to ascertain the truth), lest you should harm others unwittingly and then regret what you have done.”
In practice, this injunction means “check and recheck,” or, as Herry Nurdi, the former editor of the scripturalist Indonesian bimonthly Sabili explained, “In Islam, it’s like this, when there is a report, it is ordered in the Qur’an to verify. I have said to our friends, as Muslims, you are going to be responsible to God later, if you don’t do the process of verification.”
Although scholars have long debated whether there is a uniquely “Islamic” form of communication, for journalism faculty at Indonesia’s state Islamic universities and institutes, as well as for their counterparts at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, there is no question that for Muslims, Islamic journalism has to be different from – and better than – ordinary journalism.
Journalists often described the process of isnad, or substantiating the chain of transmission of the words and deeds of the Prophet as being similar to the journalistic principle of verification. Indonesian Islamic University lecturer Faris Khairul Anam explicitly connected isnad with the process of journalistic verification in the book Fikih Jurnalistik (Journalistic Jurisprudence), noting that when a journalist hears a story, he or she must ask, “Who said that? From where did you hear about this?”
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid’s claim that “if [the media] are fair, they can criticize us” echoes what I heard from many Muslim journalists in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia; it echoes the words of the first two caliphs, who said that the people should correct them if they deviate from the truth.
In fact, the Prophet Mohammed’s statement that “the best form of jihad is to tell a word of truth to an oppressive ruler” is something I heard repeatedly from Indonesian journalists, many of whom had been involved in the pro-democracy movement that led to the 1998 resignation of President Suharto. Perhaps not surprisingly, I also heard it from Muslim journalists who work at Malaysia’s alternative media, including Harakah and Malaysiakini.
One of the clearest statements of the necessity for independence from power came from former Tempo magazine editor Toriq Hadad, who said, “In Islam, ulama have the most difficult of all duties because they cannot associate with people who are close to power. Ulama are people who must control power. And Tempo is a magazine that would often point out if [ulama] were playing with power.” It is the goal of journalism, he added, “to speak for justice without siding with power.”
“Power needs limits,” he said. “Power must be reined in.”
Teaching Journalism in an Islamic Context
Although scholars have long debated whether there is a uniquely “Islamic” form of communication in journalism faculties at Indonesia’s state Islamic universities and institutes, as well as for their counterparts at the International Islamic University of Malaysia, there is no question that for Muslims, Islamic journalism has to be different from – and better than – ordinary journalism. Discussions with faculty at these universities suggested that for Muslim journalists, journalism should be inspirational, or even “prophetic” – in the sense of being “journalism of the Prophet.” Many of these lecturers have written short books for use in class that make explicit the connection between journalism and Islam.
According to these instructors, Islamic journalism must be interesting, honest, and true. The facts must be credible, and consistent with the mission of amar ma’ruf nahi munkar, or inviting good and forbidding evil. For these authors, the mission of journalism could not be clearer: Islamic journalism should have the characteristics of Islamic teaching.
Conclusion: A Charm Offensive? Or Something Else?
Nearly every principle of journalism can be explained in Islamic terms. Although many have dismissed the Taliban spokesperson’s comments about independence, balance, and willingness to accept criticism as a charm offensive pandering to Western sensibilities, it is nevertheless important to take seriously what Zabihullah Mujahid actually said.
When the Taliban spokesperson referred to balanced and fair reporting, his frame of reference was not Fox News, but rather powerful Islamic concepts that are likely to resonate with Muslim listeners throughout the world.
Serving as an independent monitor of power is a fundamental element of journalism, regardless of the path we take to get there, and the context and culture of Islam is one of many roads.
Thus at the very least, the Western policy makers need both to understand the words of Zabihullah Mujahid within the context of Islam, and to search for common ground in holding the Taliban accountable for what it has pledged.
 Toby Luckhurst, “Taliban 'carrying out door-to-door manhunt,'” BBC News, 15 August 2021 https://www.bbc.com/news/live/world-asia-58219963/page/12
 For instance, https://twitter.com/Blanchmonster/status/1427653440587517960 [accessed 1 November 2021].
 Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Freedom of Expression in Islam (Kuala Lumpur: Ilmiah Publishers, 1998), 18.
 Janet Steele, Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia (University of Washington Press, 2018).
 The five principles I discuss are loosely based on those articulated in the Project for Excellent in Journalism’s “Principles of Journalism,” which can be found at https://journalistsresource.org/home/principles-of-journalism/ [accessed 1 November 2021].
 In Indonesia, these were the Islamist magazine Sabili; the newspaper Republika, which was founded to serve the Muslim community; and Tempo, a mainstream, non-confessional magazine. In Malaysia, the news organizations were Harakah and HarakahDaily.net, the publications of the Islamist party PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or the Malaysian Islamic Party); and Malaysiakini, an on-line news portal that is widely considered to be secular in orientation. Although only two of these publications (Sabili and Harakah) described themselves as “Islamic,” at four of them the journalists were majority-Muslim, and the fifth had a sizeable Muslim minority.
 Interview, 6 June 2009.
 Interview, 17 August 2010.
 Quoted in Janet Steele, Wars Within: the story of Tempo, an independent magazine in Soeharto’s Indonesia (Jakarta, Equinox, 2005), 23.
 Qur’an, “Al-Hujuraat,” 49:6 [Malik translation].
 Interview, 31 August 2009.
 Faris Khairul Anam, Fikih Jurnalistik: Etika and Kebebasan Pers Menurut Islam [Journalistic jurisprudence: Ethics and press freedom according to Islam] (Jakarta: Pustaka Al-Kautsar, 2009), 57.
 See Cherian George, Contentious Journalism and the Internet: Towards Democratic Discourse in Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2006).
 Interview, 5 June 2009.
 Daulay, Hamdan, Rifa’I, Akhmad, and Musthofa, Jurnalistik (Yogyakarta, Indonesia: UIN Sunan Kalijaga, 2006), 64.