“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent.” – Malcom X. Journalist and documentarian Nagieb Khaja’s life and work have been deeply impacted by this profoundly accurate quote, stirring in him an inescapable drive for justice from an early age. The son of Afghan immigrants to Denmark, Nagieb finds himself in between two worlds, distinguished along sharp lines of identity, belonging, and community. His mission is to build bridges between “the two different kinds of Denmark;” bridges over prejudice, bias, and subtle cultural aggressions that permeate inherited structures of meaning.
Indignant at Western media representations of minorities and immigrants, Nagieb dedicates his work to illuminating the other side of the fence and giving a voice to the silent many, the voiceless whose lives get often lost in media scripts and leads.
Elena Stanciu: You are a trained journalist with an impressive career – was this always the dream?
Nagieb Khaja: Not really – when I was very young, I hoped to become a doctor. But I’ve always been fascinated by journalism and always thought it would be great to be a correspondent or an investigative journalist. So, during my youth, I thought about it once in a while, but my biggest drive towards this career has been to make a positive change.
ES: You earned your journalism degree from the University of Southern Denmark – what was this experience like, relative to your expectations of it? Are there any shortcomings to the way journalism is approached in an academic setting?
NK: When I was a student, we lacked a thorough understanding of the responsibility of being a journalist. Being a watch dog, and the concept of the fourth estate were emphasised a lot. What was not emphasised enough was that the way we portray the world is the way the public will view it. In this sense, we did have some gaps in our education, and ended up in echo chambers when representing the world. Many young journalists come from different classes in society, and they are not always in touch with the segment they investigate. This is a challenge we’ve been facing – helping journalists see that there is prejudice in reporting.
ES: Did you ever feel that the program failed to teach essential things, that you later had to self-train in?
NK: I’ve been trying to change this in my work, and I’ve made a small press organisation called Responsible Press, where we try to educate journalists and the media in spotting and avoiding stereotyping, especially of particular elements of society and minority groups. We noticed that the Danish mainstream media was using stereotyping in reporting about these groups and giving the public the wrong understanding of, for example, Muslim or Arab environments.
ES: Your personal story of how you became a journalist and specifically interested in covering conflict in the Middle East is well known – as you describe it, it has to do with a sense of indignation you felt at how western media portray or cover these conflicts. Indignation is closely connected with witnessing injustice and a desire to see justice being done. Can you speak of this desire to produce work that does justice – to people, stories, truth? Have you ever doubted your own definition of justice?
NK: This is something that impacted me at an early age, when I became aware of the role of media in the world. Watching the news, I noticed a clash of what was being said with what I knew from my father, for instance, and from the environment I grew up in. There were very stereotypical accounts of this environment and it provoked me a lot.
Justice is a very general term and it can be interpreted contextually. My own understanding of justice is connected to what is universally valid. For example, the consequences of war on civilians – there is a universal understanding that you don’t harm civilians in a war, not purposefully. This is something I have followed a lot, in Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza, a little bit in Yemen.
I’ve also followed terrorism cases in Denmark and there the concept of justice is judicially defined. This is also something I refer too when discussing justice: that people are treated equally, according to the law; we don’t change principles just because there suddenly is a problem defined as alien to the society. I try to use a universal scale all the time, but often the social norms of a place can be colliding with universal understandings of justice, so it becomes challenging to address; for instance, women’s rights in the Taliban territory – they don’t recognise these as universal, and the culture clash limits the possibility of dialogue on the topic.
ES: For a documentarian and journalist, another important, perhaps related, concept is ’truth.’ How do you engage with this notion in your work? Especially in the context of fake news and even blatant non-truths often handled by mainstream media?
NK: Telling the truth sounds easy, but it’s very complicated. When you cover war, everything depends on circumstances; things can be multifaceted. I always inform the audience about these circumstances and how they may impact the reportage. Being clear about these complicating factors and disclosing how they can affect the picture or the interview comes as close as possible to the truth of the situation. It’s wrong to claim that whatever there’s shown is the truth, without exception; even if there is a person on camera talking seemingly with honesty, that may not be the case. When I interview civilians in front of the camera in a Taliban-controlled territory, and ask them their opinions about the Taliban, I can’t be sure of their true opinions, when there are Taliban walking around us. Public opinion depends on which area I report from. Research around the topic I cover and anonymity on camera often help get more nuanced reports.
ES: From an ethical point of view, would you say there are circumstances when it is permissible for a journalist or documentarian to avoid covering the (whole) truth?
NK: I don’t think so. You can prioritise some topics, before others. Sometimes, I take this priority from the places I go, and see what’s important to the people there, what they need the world to hear. There are no topics I wouldn’t tell about, but they may just not be the most important angle for a story at the time.
ES: You’ve been often described as an “idealist” – do you recognize this description about yourself?
NK: Ideals and principles are important. Not only in my work, but in my life as well, I rarely bend my principles. This is what gets me in trouble sometimes, and one of the reasons why I am a freelancer – I stick to my guns in how I treat my sources, how I angle my stories; this has brought some clashes with editors in the past. I don’t rule out commissions and contracts, of course, but a freelance set-up is much easier, when you want to keep a certain work ethics.
ES: Have you ever experienced censorship/silencing of your ideas? Were you ever in a situation where you kept silent under some sort of external pressure?
NK: I wouldn’t call it censorship, but I did have some barriers. Before becoming a freelancer, I did have some editors who wouldn’t think my stories were as important as I thought they were, and this was a hindrance to me. The publication had different priorities, which sometimes meant that I wouldn’t be able to cover some of the stories I thought crucial. It wasn’t pressure or censorship; it was a matter of priorities. As a freelancer, the difficulties were similar – I had trouble selling my stories, because the various Danish media would not regard them as important or wouldn’t believe them. I was also a young reporter, and it took time for media channels to build trust in my work.
ES: How did you start making documentaries? I can see how being a journalist and a documentarian go easily together, but have there been situations in your career when the two have been at odds or clashing?
NK: My work as a documentarian has been overlapping that as a journalist, in terms of approach and interests; there has been no clash so far. I’ve been part of some debates in Denmark and had very clear opinions on topics such as the conflict in Afghanistan, the so-called refugee crisis; sometimes this brought some criticism and people questioned my bias or considered I do activism. But I am always very clear in everything I do, that what I say is my opinion; when I do journalism, it’s clearly journalism; when I write essays or make films, they respect the form of the genre. When I operate in a journalistic documentary genre, I try to act as neutral as possible. Documentary films can sometimes very clearly weigh towards a particular opinion, and with my films I let the viewers know what the angle it. Newspapers act the same – they take a stand on a particular problem and report from that angle. As a freelancer, I have more freedom to research and develop my own angle.
ES: Documentary films as a genre are or should be instruments of truth-telling and ideally they should provoke activism and change, when needed. Is there a risk to the genre falling too much into the entertainment category, especially in the context of film festivals, where documentaries are unpacked as stand-alone, aesthetic products, rather than as conversation-starters?
NK: I think we have very good documentarians in Denmark, but on the other hand, we have too much journalism that is very close to entertainment, even when it addresses severe topics. As a journalist, I want people to watch something, and then act on it; it can be political, environmental, social, or personal action. The most important documentaries are those that thoroughly describe a problem and hopefully give people an idea for a solution.
ES: I like that you speak of your work as an effort of “building bridges” – this is so important, especially in a world increasingly polarised. Has there been an evolution in how audiences or the public in Denmark receives these “bridges,” since you first started working? Especially as we see the rise of populist discourse that sadly manages to divide society.
NK: I don’t think there’s an immediate reaction to my work; opinions change over time. If people with a very strong bias watch one of my films, I really hope that it can turn their opinions upside-down, and that they address that bias in their lives, even if not instantly. There is a cumulative effect, and I believe my films will expose people to an alternative way of seeing, which eventually will produce change. It’s a slow process, and this can be a challenge for journalists and documentarians who want to make a change – that there are no immediate, measurable results, we just have to believe it will happen in the long run.
ES: You’ve often referred to your cultural heritage and being the son of immigrants in Denmark – you mention this has been placing you in two worlds at the same time, both in Denmark and in Afghanistan. While you managed to turn this into a benefit and a source of cultural empathy, many people in a similar situation experience it as a barrier in feeling fully accepted or belonging. Has this idea of ‘belonging’ been something you’ve been exploring or planned to explore?
NK: I think that just by dedicating what I do to the good of society, without necessarily speaking for a certain minority, makes a difference. Some people look at immigrants or minorities and see victims, others see perpetrators, which is very sad. So just by living and doing our job I think we can change people’s minds, reduce this binary and eliminate the question of belonging – turn it into an undeniable fact. For me, it’s a plus that I have this platform; I have access to many people, and I can launch debates and start conversations that help.
ES: Speaking of empathy – should there be limits to empathy (in journalism vs documentary work)? Can empathy actually blur the sober, detached reportage you call for?
NK: Some people will disagree with me, but I don’t think empathy rules out journalism or sober reportage. Many journalists, for instance, would rather film children starving and not intervene, for the sake of the picture. I would sacrifice my good story and intervene, and maybe make the interview afterwards. I’m a human being first, and a journalist second. My purpose is to give the voiceless a voice, cover areas that people would normally not hear about, try to counter mainstream representation – all these are driven by empathy.
ES: Can you elaborate on emotional involvement when approaching the subjects of your films? Ideas of justice and indignation are closely related to the affective, I think. How do you balance affective response with the sober, detached lens of the journalist?
NK: If I report from a place of conflict, for instance Gaza during the siege, and people can’t see that I’m affected, they will not understand the situation. I need to add an emotional dimension so that viewers get an accurate understanding of the situation, and one way to do that is by exploring my own emotions. People feel fear in war, this should come across in a coverage; emotion and accuracy of coverage don’t go against each other.
ES: Do you feel that your work so far has made a difference in what you set out to do – namely change the tone-deaf and half-hearted way of mainstream media coverage?
NK: Sometimes I do wonder whether I’ve wasted my life and my career, when I see how the world just gets worse and worse, and not much has changed. But there are things that made a difference. The reason why civilians were evacuated from Eastern Aleppo back in 2016 was because of journalists and activists. Of course, there were other factors at play too, but journalistic coverage can impact how certain events unfold. In other cases, I get involved with raising awareness, I attend events and speak to audiences, support fundraising campaigns, which is a very direct way of making a change, aside from the more abstract efforts, that will maybe take years to accumulate and produce change.
ES: The idea of victims vs. perpetrators is very interesting and you engage with this, especially as a lot of your work actually aims to “un-demonise” marginal subjects and seeks to show their humanity first. I think this conversation is important now, when the IS ‘caliphate’ has fallen, and many of their fighters surrendered and families living under IS are seeking refuge. The public is polarised in showing empathy towards them. In your opinion, should journalists attempt to “un-demonise” these individuals?
NK: We talked about justice earlier, and this applies here – we need to ask what justice is in these situations. There have to be consequences for those who’ve committed war crimes, both out of respect from victims and hopefully to prevent the same from happening again. The conversation around the return of Western citizens who joined IS is very complex – they can’t be stripped of their only citizenship, the Kurdish authorities don’t have the capacity to prosecute them there; but there’s a clear answer in the laws we have, and there also precedents in how to treat war criminals – people who voluntarily joined the Nazi party were brought to justice. We do have a special situation with children who were born under IS, but they are children of European citizens. The attempt at dehumanising them is wrong; we have laws that should protect these children from their parents, when the parents are war criminals or other perpetrators.
ES: You often hold lectures on your work and experience as a conflict correspondent. What are people in the public curious about?
NK: It’s very different; there are people who attend out of curiosity, but also because they want to make a difference. When I talk about humanitarian catastrophes, there’s a lot of worry for the future, for what will happen to these people who are at risk and affected. Many people ask what can be done and how can they help, which is a good sign.
Stills from Enemy Country, 2019.
ES: Are there any upcoming projects we should keep an eye out for?
NK: My latest documentary is available on DR TV, titled Enemy Country; I travel back to Afghanistan with a Danish soldier who was formerly deployed there, and I show him the other side of the fence, the lives of civilians and the afghan security forces. He also ends up meeting a Taliban, a former opponent and they have a talk about why they were fighting. I’m currently working on an international version of it.
Words: Elena Stanciu