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Media scrutiny and Malala Yousafzai

By: Jessica Farber

JHR McGill


Malala Yousafzai, a child activist from the war-torn Swat Valley, Pakistan, was shot in the head and neck and nearly killed by Taliban soldiers on her way home from school in October 2011. Although Malala, then 14, had led an active campaign championing girls’ rights to education worldwide  and had her experiences featured in a two-part New York Times documentary, the Western world gave little thought to her safety in the months leading up to the shooting.

Malala’s activism began in 2008 when her father, who ran a school for girls in Swat and was already an outspoken advocate for girls’ education, took her to speak at a local press club. In December of that year, the Taliban issued a ban on education for girls in the Swat Valley, effective the following month. At around the same time, Malala, only 11, began to blog under a pseudonym about her life under Taliban rule for the BBC’s Urdu service. The Yousafzais’ story – and name – gained international recognition when Adam Ellick, a video journalist for The New York Times, began to document their experiences.

In an interview with CBC Radio on Oct. 17, Ellick expressed fear that the platform he gave Malala’s message inadvertently made her vulnerable. “I was pretty paralyzed for a long time, and [have] spent the past year reflecting on what role my documentary played in not only her prominence and her rise but also in the attempted assassination,” said Ellick.

The assassination attempt almost killed Malala and left her with a fractured skull.  However, following her miraculous recovery, Malala’s face continues to appear in the news and resentment of her in her hometown is on the rise.

“The media has projected Malala as a heroine of the West. But what has she done for Swat?” asked Muhammad Ayaz, a local trader, to The New York Times.

Girls from Malala’s former school have refused to identify with her and some people even wonder whether the attempt on her life was a Western ploy.

The situation prompts reporters to reconsider their roles in the tragedy in order to protect Malala and others like her in the future. Are Western press coverage and media exposure to blame for Malala’s shooting? Did the documentaries and interviews trigger the Taliban’s death threats and subsequent attack? Ellick said that he had no clear-cut answer, but that given a second chance, he would  pursue the story again.

“This is the type of thing that, sadly, journalists and especially foreign correspondents wrestle with all the time,” he said. However, “When Malala and her father thanked me after her recovery for giving them a voice in dark days, it meant a lot.”

In an interview with the The Daily Show on Oct. 11, Malala also expressed her lack of fear in the situation. “I was not worried about myself that much,” she said. “I was worried about my father, because we thought that the Taliban were not that much cruel that they would kill a child.”

Now, two years after her ordeal, Malala has released a memoir, had tea with the Queen and was the favourite to win the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize. When it was awarded instead to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, many were disheartened. Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian minister of foreign affairs, told The Globe and Mail that the decision was a “lost opportunity.”  Others, Stockholm International Peace Institute director Tilman Bruck, have said that the prize, while a great honour, might have created a significant burden for a child and could have put her in more danger.

Though Malala is unlikely to return home in the near future due to continued death threats, it remains her goal to become the prime minister of Pakistan. Today, Malala continues to speak out against the Taliban and remains a passionate advocate of education for girls, impressing many around the world with her relentless spirit.

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Speak is an online magazine that publishes and discusses rights media pieces. Rights Media is the process of writing, collecting, editing, producing and distributing media that creates societal dialogue on human rights issues. Speak magazine mainstreams human rights issues through, progressive, balanced and objective reporting into everyday news stories.

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