Reporting religion faithfully

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Contrary to the myth peddled by the state, a free and responsible press is essential to the national project to help build a harmonious multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious society, observes Mustafa K Anuar.

In a multicultural and multi-religious society such as Malaysia’s, the fault lines that exist easily lend themselves to conflicts, in particular, those of a religious nature. In fact, religious tension and conflicts may well be exploited by unscrupulous politicians and other like-minded groups whose political survival depends on appealing to the primordial instincts of their respective constituencies.

And herein lies the important social role of journalists in reporting religious matters, especially on tensions and conflicts. They should not only report faithfully what they observe on the ground, but also write in a manner that helps people understand better the root causes of tensions and conflicts that will hopefully lead to some form of reconciliation and healing among the stakeholders.

At the very least, journalists ought to lay bare the hidden agenda of the perpetrators behind these religious conflicts to prevent further attempts at staging these disagreements for their own narrow ends that will eventually damage the fabric of our multi-religious society.

Besides, these people should be exposed for what they are — a minority that do not necessarily represent the faith and religious community they profess to stand for, judging from the kind of questionable actions they take, which harms the good name of their own religions.

Indeed, religion is an emotive issue for many, if not most, adherents and must thus be handled carefully by conscientious journalists who take pride in their profession.

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In the case of Malaysia, a religious controversy or conflict may become more complicated as it can degenerate into something ethnic as well, given the nature of our society where ethnicity is part of an ugly political game intertwined with religion, particularly when it comes to the Malay-Muslim community.

The recent report about the hidden agenda of the Christian community to allegedly replace Islam with Christianity as the official religion of Muslim-majority Malaysia and to eventually instal a Christian prime minister is a case in point. An allegation of this magnitude requires more than merely splashing it on the front page, as Utusan Malaysia did, especially when it was merely based on claims made by supposedly Umno-friendly bloggers.

Moreover, this kind of story could cause, and indeed did cause, unnecessary anxiety, suspicion and even tension among a faith’s believers.

Responsible journalism would have gone deeper than merely scratching the surface. The reporter should have, for instance, chased after the bloggers who made the allegations for clarification apart from getting the response of religious leaders and politicians.

In addition, the voices of moderation and bridge builders should have been given adequate space in these moments of tension and anxiety; in fact, they should have got more space to share their views than other stakeholders.

But more than that, ethical reporting on religion would have provided the social context in which this type of allegation arose. For example, could it be possible that these claims of a Christian agenda emerged in the context of a political game of wooing a certain ethno-religious community to a particular political party?

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Would a manufactured siege mentality benefit a certain group of politicians? Would demonising a religious community help salvage the political fortunes of certain political personalities?

Of similar concern is the dire warning issued by the MCA leadership about Pas’ syariah project which, according to the Chinese-based party’s leaders, purportedly allows, if not encourages, male Muslims to rape almost any moving non-Muslim woman! This alarm, raised no less by the party leadership, surely demands swift and lengthy investigation by responsible journalists.

Again, if unchecked, this so-called warning could lead to further demonisation of Islam, which would then trigger a wave of Islamophobic hysteria among certain sections of the non-Malay and non-Muslim communities.

While the intended target of the MCA leadership was, and is, Pas, wouldn’t such a scathing remark also have the effect of besmirching Islam? And wouldn’t it have the effect of pitting one religious and ethnic community against another?

Responsible journalism demands that the larger context of a religious tension or conflict be adequately explained to the public so that they can connect the crucial dots, and in the process, hopefully lower the political temperature and let common sense prevail. It goes without saying that irresponsible reporting on religious issues can whip up the sentiments of not only the bigots, but also unsuspecting believers, into doing what they would not normally do, especially when they are made to believe that their religious community is under siege. Unless checked, such frenzy could transform level-headed adherents into dreadful religious extremists.

Having said that, this type of investigative journalism can only thrive in an environment where the media are free and responsible.

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Probing questions are most likely to be asked by journalists working in a newspaper organisation that is not beholden to any political party or a media mogul closely aligned to a particular party, especially one that panders to the ethnic and religious sentiments of one’s constituency.

Contrary to the myth peddled by the state, a free and responsible press is essential to the national project to help build a harmonious multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious society.

At the same time, the credibility and professionalism of a free and responsible press, as a whole, is enhanced when it asks tough questions to get to the truth, particularly when it pertains to tensions and conflicts of a religious nature.

Indeed, to pursue truth religiously in the inherent desire for peace and social justice is not only a professional calling, but also a spiritual one.

Dr Mustafa K Anuar, the honorary secretary of Aliran, is a media analyst and Senior Fellow of the Nippon Foundation Fellowships for Asian Public Intellectuals.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of 5-11 Nov 2012.

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