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Extremists Are Censoring the Story of Religion

By Jean-Paul Marthoz

Twenty years ago, on May 22, 1993, Algerian journalist Tahar Djaout, the founder of the independent weekly Ruptures, left his home, walked to his car, and sat at the wheel. A few seconds later, he was hit by two bullets shot through the window. A gifted and rebellious writer, Djaout had forcefully denounced the Islamist groups fighting the Algerian military regime. His murder inaugurated a killing spree, mostly attributed to armed Islamic groups, which eventually cost the lives of 60 Algerian journalists.

Police guard the offices of Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten after the outlet was threatened for publishing a picture of Prophet Muhammad. (AFP/Brian Rasmussen)

In the following two decades, hundreds of local and international reporters have been targeted by violence in the name of religious faith. The attacks have had a chilling effect on the coverage of religion and the many issues and conflicts that surround it. Many editors think twice before sending reporters to regions where religious extremists could abduct or kill them. In countries riven by religious sectarianism, some journalists do not dig too deeply. Even in more peaceful countries, the mainstream media are wary of the potential for violence, offense, or the trespassing of blasphemy laws. Columnists choose their words carefully or avoid inflammatory topics. Cartoonists blunt their pencils.

"You risk your life on the front lines or you are taken out of the story because of the red lines--the fear of inflaming a minority or of creating a backlash for you and your media," John Owen, former CBC chief news editor and professor of international journalism at London City University, told CPJ.

The religion story, however, has to be told because religion pervades local and international news. Its coverage determines the capacity of societies to address freely and thoroughly issues that are central to the rooting of democracy and the respect of human rights. And it is all the more crucial since religion has become a global issue. Globalization, if it is to be a new intersection of freedom, requires a journalism that is uninhibited and robust.

"Journalists should be free to cover religion without intimidation," Aidan White, director of the Ethical Journalism Network at the Global Editors Network, told CPJ. "Their decisions should not be determined by their fear of violence or prosecution but by their professional and ethical judgment."

"Every major religious tradition has served as a resource for violent actors," Mark Juergensmeyer wrote in his seminal book Terror in the Mind of God. In the 1980s, the Ulster conflict pitted Catholics against Protestants, and in the 1990s, the Balkan wars raged among Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians. Although other faiths are involved in violence against journalists, the focus of recent international news is mostly Islamic extremism--a political current that targets non-Muslim journalists as well as Muslim moderates, modernizers, and reformers.


In 1966, when Time magazine published a cover story headlined "Is God Dead?" many pundits predicted an inexorable trend toward increased secularization in the wake of modernization and globalization. The reverse has been true. "We now live in a world where religion is a robust global force. It is increasingly vibrant, assertive, and politicized the world over," wrote Timothy Samuel Shah and Monica Duffy Toft in Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion. According to the 2012 Pew Research Center's Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, 59 percent of the world population calls itself religious. Although Western Europe is generally an exception and atheism is slightly on the rise in the United States, other regions with booming demographics have experienced a sustained religious surge, especially through the rise of Islam, Pentecostalism, and Evangelical Protestantism.

This trend is reinforced by globalization, which gives greater influence to religious diasporas, according to Scott Thomas, an expert at the U.K.'s University of Bath. The rise of global media and the emergence of transnational social media add a particular volatile mix to religious controversies. As illustrated by the row over Danish cartoons that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad in 2005-06 and the film "The Innocence of Muslims" in 2012, which provoked angry protests in Egypt and other Muslim countries, a local religious story can nearly instantly become viral and global.

Religious extremism does not usually stand out as such in press freedom groups' statistics; it is blurred with other causes of violence (politics, corruption, terrorism) or other categories of perpetrators (nonstate actors, political groups). In fact, in many conflicts it is often difficult to disentangle religious extremism from causes such as nationalism, ethnicity, or politics.

But religious extremism appears to be in a class by itself as a source of violence. And as with all types of attacks on the press, a majority are committed against local, not international, journalists.

Among the attacks in 2012 was a killing in March in Somalia's semi-autonomous region of Puntland, where Al-Shabaab insurgents claimed responsibility for shooting to death Ali Ahmed Abdi, a journalist with Radio Galkayo. In April, a Frankfurt-based Salafist group released a video directly naming and threatening German journalists who had criticized its campaign to hand out free copies of the Quran to every household in Germany. In May, Canadian journalist and Muslim reformist Irshad Manji suffered minor injuries when a mob attacked her at a book launch in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Similarly, Bosnian journalist Stefica Galic was beaten by a group of men and women in July, two days after the screening of her documentary film "Nedjo of Ljubuski," dedicated to her late husband, Nedjeljko Nedjo Galic, a Croat who had helped Muslim citizens avoid ethnic cleansing. In August, gunmen from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a Salafist militant group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, stormed the studios of Radio Adar Khoïma in the northeast town of Gao in Mali and attacked Malick Aliou Maïga, a local stringer for Voice of America, beating him unconscious. In Tunis in September, local and foreign reporters were attacked by Salafists while they were covering protests against "The Innocence of Muslims" near the U.S. Embassy.

Pressure on journalists comes not just from religious actors but also from state authorities who conflate the coverage of radical groups with complicity with religious extremism. For example, in June 2011, Urinboy Usmonov, a reporter for the BBC World's Uzbek service, was arrested in Tajikistan and convicted of "extremism" after meeting with members of the banned Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Although he was released on bail in July and later granted amnesty, his conviction sent a chilling message to reporters covering sensitive religious stories.

In March 2012, Ahmad Salkida, an independent Nigerian journalist who had been reporting for years on the activities of the Islamist sect Boko Haram, received death threats that he suspected came from government security agents accusing him of being a member of the extremist group. And in Ethiopia, the authorities arrested Yusuf Getachew, editor of the Ye Muslimoch Guday (Muslim Affairs), and suspended three Muslim news outlets in August after they covered protests opposing policies that Muslims said were interfering with their religious institutions.


In some countries, the resurgence of religious extremism has coincided with a countercurrent: the rise of a new generation of independent journalists, bloggers, and social media activists. Often hailed as heroes of international press freedom, they work according to values and standards that by definition question dogma, break taboos, and investigate all social actors, including religious groups.

"In Northern Africa, many of these journalists tend to be more secular, more liberal, and Westernized, especially in the Francophone media," independent Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet told CPJ. They are also often denounced as traitors, agents of the West, or apostates by extremists, and even by old-style journalists.

In countries with strong religious identities, many in the media have traditionally conformed to the prevalent religious norms or aligned themselves with a particular religious group. "In an average Indonesian newsroom, most media workers identify closely with an Islamic and nationalist identity," says Human Rights Watch consultant Andreas Harsono. In Nigeria, "many of what we have as national newspapers--both private and state-owned--are in fact religious," writes Leo Igwe, research fellow at the University of Bayreuth in Germany. "They are extensions of their churches and mosques."

Sometimes the most radical journalists even call openly for violence against those they see as infidels or apostates. "In Pakistan there are big sectarian divisions in the media," said White of the Ethical Journalism Network. "When Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, a vocal opponent of blasphemy laws, was murdered by his bodyguard in January 2011, there was support on TV for his killing."

In this environment, the supposed religious affiliation of journalists affects their ability to report safely. From northern Mali to Afghanistan, large swaths of land are considered off-limits; editors are concerned not only by the obvious physical risk involved in being on the ground, but they also fear publishing stories or opinions that might antagonize radical religious groups and expose their reporters in the field to reprisal.

Western journalists, even if they insist they are neutral, are particularly at risk. "In areas afflicted by religious conflicts, the alleged faith of the reporters matters," said Morocco's Lmrabet. "Contrary to his/her Western colleagues, a Moroccan journalist will not have any problem covering Hamas in Gaza. Al-Jazeera reporters, who are often seen as close to the Muslim Brotherhood, are allowed in by Islamic armed groups who deeply mistrust the Western media."

Some reporters are even targeted in retaliation for their government's policies. In 2004, Iraqi Islamic militants forced their French hostages, Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro, to call on the French government to repeal a law banning the Muslim headscarf in public schools.


Threats and physical violence are not the only form of attack; the gavel of the magistrates can be very effective in muzzling the media. In many autocracies, from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, blasphemy laws sternly restrict freedom of expression. "Blasphemy laws provide a context in which governments can prevent the peaceful expression of political or religious news, including those on the role of religion in law, society, and the state," Human Rights First wrote in a March 2012 survey. "By restricting these essential freedoms in the name of protecting religion from defamation, governments are able to stifle the healthy debate and discussion of ideas and essentially determine which ideas are acceptable and which are not."

Blasphemy laws can be harsh. In early 2012, a Saudi journalist, Hamza Kashgari, who had posted Twitter messages that were judged blasphemous, was detained in Malaysia while trying to flee to New Zealand and handed back to Saudi Arabia, where he may face the death penalty. Accusations of religious defamation often provide a ready-made justification for mob violence. On Facebook, thousands of people called for Kashgari's execution.

In Europe, where there is no constitutional freedom of speech tradition, blasphemy laws are still on the books in many countries, and even if they are dormant they offer a legal opportunity for those who seek to curb what they consider offensive speech. Increasingly, however, laws against hate speech or racism are used as instruments in the fight against alleged defamation of religion. "These laws in some countries go beyond protection from effective harm and prohibit any statements which are perceived as offensive," White said.

At the United Nations, the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, together with some authoritarian countries, has been trying for years to impose a global ban on the "defamation of religion," prescribing penalties for those who criticize, insult, or ridicule religion, particularly Islam. In September 2012, in the wake of the rage triggered by "The Innocence of Muslims," the OIC vigorously relaunched its campaign against what it called "the deliberate and systematic abuses of freedom of expression."

Fear of the law, however, is not the only factor. Many mainstream journalists are wary of being accused of inciting hatred, breaching ethics, or insulting religious feelings, especially in the context of a resurgence of far-right movements, which abusively present themselves as the heroes of free speech. "Some politicians, particularly on the left, are quick to accuse us of inciting hatred when we cover stories deemed to paint Islam or an ethnic minority in an unfavorable light," Béatrice Delvaux, chief editorialist of the liberal Brussels daily Le Soir, told CPJ. "Some journalists are reluctant to proactively cover issues like the rise of fundamentalism, crime, or women's sexual harassment in migrant neighborhoods, out of fear of playing into the hands of the far right."

In March 2012, Paul Berman referred in The New Republic to "a vogue all over the world for an entirely voluntary self-censorship--a custom of downplaying certain topics that are deemed sensitive, or declining even to utter certain controversial words."

Some extremists take punishment for perceived blasphemy into their own hands. Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who created the image of the Prophet Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban, was the target of several murder attempts. In November 2011, Charlie Hebdo's offices were firebombed after the French satirical weekly published a "Sharia Hebdo" issue with a cover adorned with a cartoon depiction of the Prophet Muhammad threatening "100 lashes if you don't die laughing."


The delicate equation between a commitment to practice responsible journalism and the fear of conceding too much space to religious groups divides the journalistic community. Already dramatized in the controversy over Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses in the late 1980s, this tension was exacerbated by the fury over the 2005-06 Danish cartoons. The publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten not only raised a global storm, but also sharply split the press. Some media stood squarely behind the Danish paper in the name of freedom of expression, even republishing some of the cartoons as a sign of solidarity. Most media, however, decided against running the cartoons. "That seems a reasonable choice for news organizations that usually refrain from gratuitous assaults on religious symbols, especially since the cartoons are so easy to describe in words," The New York Times wrote in an editorial on February 7, 2006. In a Washington Post op-ed, William Bennett and Alan Dershowitz strongly disagreed. "To put it simply," they wrote, "radical Islamists have won a war of intimidation."

When, in September 2012, in the middle of the uproar over "The Innocence of Muslims" the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons, some of them obscene, of the Prophet Muhammad, the issue again deeply fractured the profession. The Catholic daily La Croix lambasted the weekly's "antireligious obsession" and its "provocation," while the left-leaning Libération defended editorial freedom and underlined that the "road between self-censorship and capitulation is extraordinarily short and without return."

Amid these concerns and controversies, a number of journalists associations, media companies, and foundations have set up projects to address the coverage of religion. In 2012, for instance, the U.S.-based International Center for Journalists established an award for religion reporting in honor of Christiane Amanpour, the longtime international correspondent and a CPJ board member. The center also helped create an International Association of Religion Journalists. The London-based Media Diversity Institute, together with the European Federation of Journalists and the U.K.-based press freedom group Article 19, published a detailed handbook on the reporting of ethnicity and religion.

These initiatives support cross-cultural understanding, promote conflict-sensitive reporting, and offer guidelines on diversity reporting. "That is an important part of being a journalist, to be able to use your skills to tell the people that religion should be used as a harmonizing factor rather than a dividing factor," said Tanzanian journalist Erick Kabandera.

But some journalists stress that disengaging from the story out of fear to offend or to be hurt is not an option. "We are acutely aware of the particular sensitivity of the religion issue," Le Soir's Delvaux said, "and we take particular care to consult widely when we anticipate controversies, but these stories should be told."

The press is called upon to assert its autonomy and freedom in order to perform its most crucial role. "You cannot let Salafists or others set your own news agenda and you cannot outsource these kinds of stories" to freelancers, said Owen, the former CBC chief news editor. "The press has to take its responsibilities. It must adopt the measures that will allow it to cover these issues and controversies fairly and seriously, by painstakingly assessing the risks and preparing reporters for the front lines and the red lines."


CPJ Senior Adviser Jean-Paul Marthoz is a Belgian journalist and writer. He is a foreign affairs columnist for Le Soir and journalism professor at the Université de Louvain-la-Neuve (UCL).


Slideshow: Year in Photos

Slideshow: Year in Photos