In today’s world, we are bombarded with news and information at the speed of electrons. Some of the news nowadays, if not most, are known as “fake news” – a term popularised by President Donald Trumps during his presidential campaign which refers to news that are false – while others are news that need further verification on its authenticity and truth. During those days prior to the invention of the internet technology and emergence of cyber space or the virtual world, news and information were thoroughly checked and verified by media practitioners since it is part of media ethics to release only verified and checked news to the general public. Some media, that are stringent on accuracy, would prefer not to be the first to release any so-called “breaking news” for fear the news was unfounded, and would rather wait to verify it until it was confirmed before releasing it to the masses. The media were cautious for fear if the news was not a fact but a slander against someone or an organisation, which might land them in trouble with a civil suit by the affected or victimised parties. Their credibility would also be disputed. However, gone are the days when news are only sourced by the main stream media.
Presently, we have the social media and anyone can post anything he or she wishes, and can create virtually his or her own news or stories and, hence becomes a “news writer or producer” himself, and at the same time, he or she can also source news and share or forward it to other people stories from unknown and unreliable sources. Ethics on publishing news is compromised if not ignored in most cases and neglected by many. Indeed, slandering others via the social media has become the norm.
For a secular and irreligious man who neither has the slightest thought nor consideration of any form of rewards and punishment in the Afterlife for whatever deeds performed in this world, then the issue of “sins” committed during this worldly life would not arise. Besides, there may be a strong urge to fully utilise the so-called “freedom” to slander his or her enemies at all costs via the virtual world. Such an attitude, however, should not be the case for a pious man who is farsighted and often reflects on his fate in the Afterlife for whatever actions he committed in this world because numerous reminders from God and His Prophets (may peace be upon them) on the issue of spreading false news and slandering others. Islam has laid down all the principles in leading a peaceful and harmonious life in this world, even in spreading news or “media ethics”, even though the internet was not the thing of the day more than 1,000 years ago during the time of the Prophet. Yet, the principles and ethics were already in place.
The Almighty God has clearly mentioned in the Holy Qur’an, Chapter 49 of Surah al-Hujurat verse 6: “O you who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest you harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done”. Without going into the details on the background and reason behind the revelation of the mentioned verse, suffice to say here that the incident happened was a pure and plain misunderstanding from the part of a Prophet’s companion by the name of al-Walid ibn Uqbah on the reaction of the head of the Mustalaq clan, Al-Harith ibn Abi Darar whom the former had mistakenly thought would want to kill him.
Hence, this verse eventually became the principle and ethics of spreading news laid by God to prevent misjudgements which could bring harm to others. Sorrow and regret thereafter no matter how great it may be cannot wipe out the hurt caused by false accusations though it might have been unintentional. Thus, great caution must always be taken when dealing with information.
In another Prophetic tradition narrated by Abu Hurayrah, the Prophet said “it suffices for one to be labelled a “liar” if he transmits everything he hears”. This indicates that verification on news that one hears is paramount and crucial without compromise unless one is a liar or willing to be called as such. Any news one receives should not be taken as truth at face value until it is confirmed and verified through other reputable channels. Hence, it must only be taken as a piece of raw and yet-to-be-verified information.
So, from the perspective of the news recipient, he or she must first verify the news to ascertain its truth in what the Muslim scholars term as “tabayyun” (verification), otherwise he or she is liable to be categorised as a “liar”. While from the perspective of the “news creator,” he must first ensure the news has he produced is a truth and not a slander, otherwise he is considered a “slanderer” and punishment to those who slander others are severe, and he further would bear the burden of sins of those who believe in the false accusations he had created. The worst case iswhen the slander is in the form of accusation that would tarnish the good reputation and dignity of someone, especially an honourable woman, the crime which is known in Islamic Law as Qazf (Slandering). God says in the Holy Qur’an in chapter 24 verse number 4: “Those who accuse honourable women and bring not four witnesses as evidence [for their accusation], inflict 80 stripes upon them, and never accept their testimony in future. They indeed are transgressors.” The punishment for such a crime is 80 lashes and their testimony will never be accepted ever in the future.
Therefore, let us change our ways in dealing with news we receive every now and then, be it from the main stream media or social media, to first verify its truth before believing in them or forwarding them to others; and secondly, to not produce news based merely on gossips and hearsays without solid evidence to support or back them up, for fear of the punishment of Hellfire in the Hereafter is unimaginably severe, though one may escape from the relevant authority in this world.
[This article was published in Letters, New Straits Times, 13th. December 2019]