By RUTH EGLASH and HANI HAZAIMEH
It’s an issue that affects the lives of people everywhere, yet the barriers to writing or reporting on religion for journalists resonate throughout the world.
While in some places it could be as simple as inaccessibility or general bias and ignorance, in other, more extreme examples, attempts to provide accurate or fair coverage of religion and religious minorities can even be life threatening.
Syrian journalist Mohamed Hamdan can testify to the latter example. The threats against those who write about his country’s religious minorities are increasing daily as the country descends into the chaos of a civil war, he says.
In one case, the Damascus-based writer recalls being threatened with arrest by an intelligence officer if he did not allow officials to read and edit his story before it was published. The incident caused him to stop writing at all for many months.
“I refuse to have my stories edited by a security official,” states Hamdan, adding that other journalists have faced similar threats or even been killed attempting to report on the country’s numerous religious sects and minority groups. Even though religion did not spark the current conflict, he says that religious and sectarian differences are increasingly being thrust into the forefront.
Creating a global association
Hamdan was one of 25 religion journalists that met up in Bellagio, Italy earlier this year to lay the cornerstone of an association that not only aims to provide mutual support and information for the genre but also hopes to boost the importance of reporting on perhaps the most contentious of issues: religion.
Peggy Fletcher Stack, senior religion writer at The Salt Lake Tribune in the U.S., was among those involved in helping to establish the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ). She says that although experienced differently, “religion is a topic of vital importance in all countries of the world.”
“It touches every aspect of society — politics, ethics, education, laws, and social
interactions, yet it is rarely supported as a beat in most media outlets,” says Stack. “Those who do cover religion can benefit by associating with others with a similar assignment and an organization that brings them together is an invaluable resource for those reporting on this crucial subject.”
“Religion is a very complex and potentially explosive issue to report and journalists need to handle it with care,” says another of the IARJ’s founding members Endy Bayuni, senior editor at The Jakarta Post in Indonesia. “Journalists can make a real difference and should work on stories that can change people’s opinions and attitudes.”
Noting the obvious cultural, national and religious differences of those who had gathered in Bellagio to form the IARJ, Bayuni admits, “It was not easy hammering out a shared vision and a mission for the organization. However, we overcame our differences and came out with a realistic set of goals.”
Bayuni, who was among eight international journalists elected to the first IARJ Steering Committee, said the organization will help to set standards in the profession and improve overall coverage of religion, as well as provide information and connect religion journalists all over the globe.
Laying the foundations
While the practical foundations of the IARJ were laid at the Bellagio conference, the idea to create such an association was broached more than ten years ago by David Briggs, a U.S. journalist nominated seven times for the Pulitzer Prize by The Associated Press and metropolitan newspapers in 25 years of national and international religion reporting.
“I have devoted most of my professional life to religion journalism and what has concerned me is how so often issues in religion have been ignored or misrepresented in the media,” says Briggs.
He claims that the lack of fair, accurate and nuanced reporting is particularly troubling when it comes to understanding global issues in religion and, all too often, the media reflects and reinforces national and cultural biases, contributing to conflict and prejudice.
Briggs , who had been involved in a similar association in the U.S., felt it was time to think on a global scale and with support from the International Center for Journalists, gathered information from hundreds of editors and reporters throughout the world about how best to serve international journalists covering religion.
Bringing some of those media professionals together in Bellagio, Briggs says he was he was most impressed by the commitment to global diversity and mutual respect shared among the IARJ’s founding members.
“What sets this organization apart is its commitment to being an international body that can transcend national and regional biases to be a compelling voice, a trusted source of support and an indispensable resource for journalists for fair and accurate worldwide reporting on religion,” says Briggs, who was elected as the IARJ’s first Executive Director.
Aiming for professionalism
“Like any profession, journalism requires structures that offer support and direction to enhance the work of its practitioners,” concedes Steering Committee member Yazeed Kamaldien, a South African-based freelance journalist and photographer.
In his country, Kamaldien says that not much thought is given to how religion is reported or portrayed and that, “religion is not seen as newsworthy unless it involves a scandal or some form of cultural expression.”
“The reporting neglects so much of the story about religion in a country that has various faiths,” he continues. “Having institutional support from an international organization will help to put religion reporting on the agenda at various local events as well as approaching media professionals and their institutions directly. We hope that the IARJ will enhance the importance of reporting on religion and give direction to all journalists who want to report on religion.”
Since being formally launched in March, the Steering Committee – which includes journalists from the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australia – has been busy creating an accompanying website in English and Arabic, as well as promoting the name and goals of the association.
In the meantime, Syrian journalist Hamdan has not only been busy writing about the growing religious tensions in his country, but has also been working on strengthening his ties in international religion reporting community by marrying Italian journalist and fellow IARJ founding member Elisa De Benedetto. The two, inspired by their mutual passion for the profession, tied the knot just a few months after meeting for the first time in Bellagio.
IARJ Founding members:
Indeewari Amuwatte, Editor/anchor, ART Television Broadcasting, Sri Lanka
Salman Andary, journalist, Lebanon
Endy Bayuni, Senior Editor, The Jakarta Post, Indonesia
Subel Bhandari, journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nepal
Elisa Di Benedetto, journlist, Italy
Pedro Brieger, journalist, Argentina
David Briggs, Executive Director, IARJ
Ruth Eglash, Deputy Managing Editor, The Jerusalem Post, Israel
Yen Feng, correspondent, The Straits Times, Singapore
Waqar Gillani, reporter, Pakistan
Mohamed Hamdan, journalist, Syria
Hani Al Hazimeh, reporter, The Jordan Times, Jordan
Erick Kabendera, News Editor, The Guardian, Tanzania
Yazeed Kamaldien, freelance journalist and photographer, South Africa
Rachael Kohn, producer and presenter, ABC Radio National, Australia
María-Paz López, senior religion writer, La Vanguardia, Spain
Jonah Mandel, correspondent for Agence France-Presse, Israel
Larbi Megari, journalist
Sasa Milosevic, freelance journalist and blogger, Serbia
Baris Soydan, Managing Editor Sabah, Turkey
Bhavya Srivastava, television journalist, India
Peggy Fletcher Stack, Senior Religion Writer, The Salt Lake Tribune, US
Isabel Templo, freelance journalist, Philippines
Douglas Todd, The Vancouver Sun, Canada
J.D. Vital, journalist, Brazil
Partners also participating in the meeting:
Christopher Bader, Associate Director, Association of Religion Data Archives, US
Patrick Butler, VP Programs, ICFJ, US
Lisa Ellis, Project Director, ICFJ’s Global Religion program, US