By Larbi Megari
In Algeria you can write a strong and wonderful story about a topic related to religion and yet you will not find any media outlet willing to publish it or even have a look at it.
Decision-makers in Algerian media organizations mostly want stories unrelated to religion. In rare cases, they will run religious articles, but only if they promote particular religious meanings or certain Islamic issues.
Writing about matters relating to religion in an impartial manner in Algeria, and in the pan-Arab countries in general, is unwelcome.
Before describing how religion is covered in other countries in the Arab world, I will first offer examples from Algeria, a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. These examples illustrate larger media issues and trends throughout the Arab region.
For instance, in Algeria, the media will sometimes mention that religious issues relate to a larger conflict. But the media do not usually provide further background to the religious issues, which might help explain the roots of the conflict.
That is what recently took place between followers of Maliki and followers of the Ibadhi traditions in the city of Ghardaia in the south of Algeria, which is the only city with an overwhelming majority in the Ibadhi tradition.
Another example of religion reporting in Algeria, which has a total population of 37 million, relates to the topic of what is commonly called “unauthorized Christian missionary activity.”
According to Algerian law, if Christian activities are to occur, they need to be pre-authorized. And that can happen only after consultation between Algerian authorities and church officials.
In Algerian print media, news on Christian missionary activity are usually mentioned in newspapers’ sections concerned with courts’ cases which include various tribunals cases such as murders, robberies and issues belongings to civil or criminal law.
In some other cases, Algerian media might focus on Shia activities in a particular area of the country. These activities are usually in the context of speaking about people connected to Iran interestsor to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In addition, after the rise of the Arab Spring came to be tied to the Salafi movement of Islam, some Algerian print media outlets have recently begun to report on the Salafi trend in Algerian society and its activities within mosques.
From these examples one can easily notice that there is no religion coverage in Algeria that has nothing to do with politics or violence or proselytizing or Shia expansionism.
You do not find media stories in Algeria about how religious issues and events related to religion are simply important in peoples’ daily lives.
People here in Algeria are not used to impartial and neutral coverage of religion matters. This applies to media professionals, whether they are working in government-supported media or in the private media. They are not used to regular coverage of day-to-day matters within the context of religion or matters related to it.
Maybe this is the case because Algeria is not a country of religious diversity, in which ninety-nine per cent of people are Muslim, and the vast majority is Sunni.
That lack of diversity may make the coverage of religion not central to Algerian media outlets. But it remains an open question: Why are more issues of public interest not covered in regards to how they interact with religious teachings?
For instance, one large issue that could be addressed is the impact of religious edicts on public health. That would include looking at the donation of human organs to gravely sick patients and whether those organs can come from living people or corpses.
Another example is the impact of religious belief with respect to birth control, which has a profound impact on the demographic and economic growth of the country. As well, psychiatric issues and mental health in Algeria are being affected by what some religious people think are religious recommendations.
Is the situation of religion coverage in Algeria different from reporting in other countries in the Arab world?
Is it especially different from those Arab countries, in which, unlike Algeria, there is clear religious and sectarian pluralism?
In order to understanding the reality of religion reporting in the Arab media, I contacted a number of journalists from various Arab countries, including media professional colleagues who have an interest in coverage of religion. I have asked them specific questions regarding this topic.
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Even in a country as religiously diverse as Iraq, religion journalism is not an established branch of media coverage.
That is what we learn from Ahmed Hussein, our journalistic colleague from Iraq, which has a population of 31 million. According to Hussein, the Iraqi experience of religion journalism is non-existent. In response to my questions, Ahmed Hussein states:
“Although religious pluralism exists in Iraq, the country still lacks media specialists in religion.
“Certain religious or sectarian groups have audio-visual media. But this usually means usually these channels aim to promote their ideas and ideological background. There is no independent and neutral media outlets, which are specialized in religious affairs without missionary goals.
“That said, some TV channels allocate some space and programming to deal with religious and sectarian components in Iraq. But these programs are below expectations. They do not touch on the full reality, nor do they look at problems and differences among religious people in order to reach solutions.
“There is one quarterly magazine called “Massarate,” which allocates some of its editions to religions and sects in Iraq. But the focus of this magazine is not religion. Except for “Massarate,” we cannot say there is a media outlet that particularly specializes in Iraqi religious affairs, and which deals with these issues with professionalism.
Saudi Arabia is not much different from Iraq. Despite the presence of religion journalism in this Arab country of 29 million people, the performance of the media is still not mature. Concerning the current state of religion reporting in his country of Saudi Arabia, our colleague, Hashim Jad’an, states:
“The religious media in Saudi Arabia lacks a lot in terms of social responsibility. It lacks the professionalism to deal with this special field of journalism in terms of reporting on religious events that are disputed by intellectually diverse and contrasting parties.
“In this country the population is made up of Sunni Salafi, Sufi and Shia. To these Muslim groups can be added people who would consider themselves secular leftists or of liberal thought.
“If journalists are not conscious of the details of these groups and sects, their coverage of the events related to religion will lead to tensions between intellectuals and religious leaders. What is happening now is a sign of lack of social responsibility in dealing with the journalistic coverage of religion.”
Yahya Ayash is our journalistic colleague from Palestine. Palestine represents the height of religious conflict. Even though Ayash says there is religion journalism in Palestine, it is clear through the examples he provides that it is not impartial religion journalism as it is often practiced in the West. When Ayash speaks of religion journalism, he is mainly describing reports on the Islamic religion. Ayach stated:
“There is religion media in Palestine, such as the magazine called “Awkaf dinia” (which means ‘religious endowments’ in English). There are no entire newspapers specialized in religion journalism. But there are a number of pages in the daily newspapers specializing in religious matters. The Palestine daily newspaper allocates a page to religion on a weekly basis, as do the Al-Ayyam and Al-Hayat newspapers. And some Palestinian media outlets allocate some space to religion on special occasions, such as the month of Ramadan.
“There are also some broadcast media outlets concerned with religion, such as the radio station called «Holy Quran.” Some other local radio stations devote limited hours to this kind of journalism, such as “Houria” (which means “freedom” in English) Radio, “Iman” (which means ‘faith’ in English) Radio and many others.
“Despite the spread of this kind of journalism in Palestine, it is not done at the professional level one would hope. We hope to develop this kind of journalism in Palestine and in all Arab countries.”
Perhaps the only Arab country in which there is professional coverage of religion is Lebanon. This country of four million people is known for its religious pluralism. It contains up to 19 religious sects and traditions, all living in a geographically small country. The strategic geo-political location of this country in the Middle East has complicated its task of maintaining co-existence between people from different sects. Lebanese journalist Salman Andari, who specializes in coverage of religions, states:
“In Lebanon there is quite a bit of media coverage of religion. In a complex country of more than 19 religious sects, Lebanon generally respects democracy and gives sects strong authority, even at the expense of politics.
“In Lebanon journalism often gives priority to covering conflicts, disputes and events on a sectarian basis. Even coverage of corruption and some political issues is often associated with this religion or that. This is not because the Lebanese or the journalist would deliberately choose this direction, but because these events can be linked to the religious diversity of Lebanon and the blending of religion and politics.
“Most political parties in Lebanon are connected to a religion or a certain sect. This is the case with the majority of social realities in Lebanon. In spite of all these difficulties, the media in Lebanon have been able to maintain its lead in the Arab world. When the security situation in the country is tense, various events are often covered from a religious angle. But often this coverage is negative.
“The positive role of religion gets a little bit of coverage by journalists in Lebanon, but there needs to be much more. Some media coverage has highlighted outstanding performances by religious people.
“There are many examples of religion reporting in Lebanon. For example, the Lebanese daily newspaper, Al-Nahar, developed a special page and put it under the title, “Religions and Civilizations.” In addition, various articles, reports and investigations focused on religion are regularly published in newspapers.”
With these examples from across the Arab world, we can conclude that there have been some small positive developments in religion coverage. But, in regard to the larger goal of professional, fair and balanced coverage of religion, the region is far behind that of much of the media in the West. Certainly there are reasons for this situation. And one of them is the restricted media freedom in general.