From Syria to Tasmania: ABC presenter’s incredible journey

NEMBC and Africa Media Australia recently held a conference with a clear message to media bosses: Hire more migrants in an effort to combat ‘thinly-veiled racism and misrepresentation”.

radioinfo spoke with Firas Massouh, a Hobart-based writer, teacher and researcher, and a presenter for ABC radio.
We asked Firas if he agreed with that sentiment or is it not as simple as that?
I see this as a good move that breathes new life into what many have criticised as a stale, whitewashed industry. The emphasis on culturally diverse up-and-coming journalists is, of course, a welcome step as long as this not simply a tokenistic gesture.
I think that rather than focus on new talent from “migrant” backgrounds, the focus should be on the generational aspect of people working in media; in other words, young Australians who are interacting in new media contexts, engaging more critically with their communities, and eagerly presenting more transparent news stories in an ever changing socio-political landscape.
Ultimately, it is the combined efforts of Australians from different cultural backgrounds (“white”, as well as “indigenous” and “migrant” backgrounds) that can truly combat “thinly-veiled racism” in the media.
Your ABC bio states “…as a newcomer I found working and presenting for ABC Radio to be the best way to engage with my new home, Tasmania”, can you elaborate on this?
I have been in the academic field for the last 15 years, both as a student and as a casual academic. The casualisation of the workforce meant that, like many others, I’ve always struggled to secure work. Nevertheless, the work, when it was available, was always enriching, and engagement with students and fellow academics often helped soften the blow of university bureaucracy.
I have always toyed with the idea of complimenting my academic interests (sociology, anthropology, history) with journalism, and eventually found this opportunity here in Tasmania. I found Hobart manageable in the sense that it has a small population, an intimate social culture that immediately struck me as friendly, open, and hospitable. People are very easy to talk to here. There is palpably less urban alienation here than in Melbourne, where I had lived for many years. It’s less cliquey here so one can go to the pub and make a dozen new friends by the end of the night.
Tasmania is also significantly less multicultural than other major cities, which can give someone the impression that it may be more hostile to outsiders, but I found the opposite to be true. Tasmanians are generally always excited to meet a newcomer, and are generous when it comes to sharing stories with them. This makes sociological work much easier, and needless to say, in radio this kind of openly chatty climate is tremendously helpful. It has made my work very exciting, allowing me to learn a great deal about people’s different vocations, desires, aspirations and ways of living in the world.

You came to Australia as an 18-year-old and your bio says you loved listening to the radio since you were a little boy, what was radio in Syria like compared to Australia?

From memory, there was only one official government radio station in Syria when I lived there in the 1980s/early 1990s, but no one in my family listened to it since it predictably spouted official propaganda. Instead, family members always had their radios switched on to Radio Monte-Carlo, an Arabic-speaking French public radio station known for its news and variety shows. It presented hard-hitting journalism and was secular and progressive in its ethos, which allowed listeners to think outside the box. Listening to Radio Monte-Carlo at breakfast time or dinnertime seemed a natural part of my socialisation.   

Self censorship is a big thing in media in conflict torn countries. It’s often essential to stay safe, but often means the truth can’t be told. What is your knowledge of that in Syria currently compared with here in Australia?

Self-censorship exists everywhere, I think. Even in democratic societies one has to carefully communicate their ideas in order to make them accessible to more people. In more oppressive societies, like Syria, individuals learn how to articulate non-conformist ideas in a much subtler way. People there know how to be critical in a roundabout way and are much better, I think, at reading between the lines. They are more courageous than us here because they face graver dangers.

Do you have any friends working in media in the middle east and what do you hear of their experiences?
I have many friends working in media in the Middle East. Their experiences vary greatly, depending on where they live, and of course their personal politics. But one thing is true: journalism in the Middle East has changed radically since the Arab Spring. The 2010-2011 uprisings in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and other countries in the region were not simply “bread” revolutions. To be sure, people wanted better economies, healthcare, education, less unemployment, less corruption, less social and political oppression. But ultimately, they wanted to regain a sense of dignity. They wanted to more openly be able to air their grievances at their governments.
With social media at people’s disposal, journalism became a viable mechanism through which they can express themselves. In a sense, every person stuck in a conflict situation today becomes a journalist when they tweet an observation, a personal anecdote, or political viewpoint. This encouraged people to take it upon themselves to document events around them, but not without risk. I have friends who were very active “citizen journalists” in Syria. One was killed when he was filming the Assad regime’s mortar shelling of a neighbourhood in Homs in February 2012. Another was arrested by Syrian government agents at the Lebanese-Syrian border in August 2012, and is still in indefinite detention to this day. It goes without saying that these people’s experiences are dramatically different to ours here.   
You have mentioned in your bio you’d like to use radio as a medium to tell your stories, how important is that to modern Australia.
I think you are less likely to be prejudiced against someone if you learn their story. This begins with learning and getting used to their strange-sounding name, for example. As a radio presenter, I try to share personal stories, as well as the stories of others, which may not fit comfortably in the dominant White Australian narrative. I like to challenge my listeners in the same way I like to challenge my students. This is not to say that I don’t learn as well in the process – I learn a great deal from my listeners and my students.

For the most part, people respond positively to my approach. However, on occasion, my efforts are met with what can truly be described as “thinly-veiled racism”. I once had a conversation on air with a young Pakistani man who had just been granted his Australian citizenship. A listener sent a text message to the show and patronisingly asked “What is this, the Eastern migrant show?” A curious response, I thought, especially since what my guest and I were doing was celebrating Australian citizenship and multiculturalism. But the fact that neither my experience, nor that of my guest, spoke to the experience of that listener only makes me want to do a better job in telling stories. I don’t want to alienate listeners. I want to be inclusive. Equally, I get angry when I am reminded of the level of racism in Australia, which takes on different forms. We have a long, hard road ahead. 
Do you think Australia needs to move past migrants predominantly being employed by SBS and ABC with more going into commercial radio, like a HIT Stream or NOVA both as presenters and newsreaders?
I think that we should aspire to have a media sector that no longer simply pigeonholes people according to their cultural identity. As I have already said, people should be employed based on their skills. I look forward to a day when, even on commercial media outlets, we have presenters from all walks of life who have intelligent things to say and who are heard and engaged by the public irrespective of whether they are white, black, man, woman, straight, gay, young or old.

 In your opinion, should media actively campaign for outcomes such as peace and stability, or should it remain steadfastly neutral even in war torn countries?
Journalists have a responsibility to be truthful and objective. But let’s face it; this can be an empty platitude. Neutrality is a myth. Human beings are political animals, and journalists are no exception. We all have biases and are invested in different outcomes. Nevertheless, an organisation’s editorial policy offers helpful parameters for journalists. Working at ABC, I am mindful of its editorial policies, which encourages us to open up the conversation and invite others to participate in it.

Kim Napier

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