By Ahsan Raza & Prince Charles Dickson
Good journalism is difficult work at the best of times. There is never enough information and not enough time. Reporters rely on their training and standards to overcome these difficulties and deliver news which is accurate and impartial. That is the traditional role of journalism — to enable the public to make well-informed decisions.
But every passing year, decade, and period brings new challenges and difficulties, with evolving areas of coverage/reportage [bringing] creating new dangers — in this case, reporting religion.
[We try to examine] Consider these examples from Nigeria and Pakistan.
To Salman Khan, a journalist working with Pakistan’s largest circulated newspaper, Dawn, covering religion [in journalism] is a taboo and entails complications and, in some cases, life threats.
“In my view, religion should be left to the public as a private affair of their lives and journalists had better focus on socio-economic conditions of the public. Even cricket is a good area which attracts the attention of a large section of readers,” he says in response to my query about hazards of reporting religion in Pakistan.
Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947, [in the name of] based on religion in the eastern and northwestern regions of British India, where there was a Muslim majority.
Since its inception, religion has been an important part of people’s lives. In the modern Pakistan, one can seen mosques with four tall minarets, churches and walls full of religious graffiti. Politicians love to talk [about] Islam and vow to make Pakistan a castle of Islam where other religious minorities will live in peace and religious freedom.
But religion has been the most conflicting issue and a cause of bloodshed in the country in recent years and still journalists are not ready to cover it as a beat. “Every religion is controversial to others and newspapers cannot afford controversies,” says Maqbool Ahmed, another journalist.
But talk to Mehdi Haider, also a journalist, who says the news media should have covered the facts regarding religious controversies.
He cited the example of the massacre of a Shiite sect at the hand of religious extremists belonging to hardcore Deobandi-Salfi sect of Islam, which has the backing [of the official sect] of Saudi Arabia and other Middle East states.
No newspaper tried to raise the issue of funding to militants from the Arab countries.
“If we publish the names of backers of militants, we will face serious threats,” said Mehdi.
Javed Ahmed Ghamdi is an Islamic scholar who has been living in Dubai for the past five years. He was forced to leave the country after he preached a moderate Islam in his TV shows. Militants [threatened] ordered the TV channel to close the program or face the consequence.
Pakistan, which has been under violent attacks from religious extremists of the [Pakistan] Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has seen 68 journalists murdered since 1994. Since 2001, 28 journalists have been killed by TTP militants for not following their orders in coverage.
Besides this, every political party uses religion as their slogan to attract voters. Journalists cover it as a routine matter.
On March 23, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan addressing a mammoth rally in Lahore said: “I take inspiration from the life of the Holy Prophet and so I urge the youth of Pakistan to take inspiration from me.” He cited a Quranic verse and said that it was his manifesto.
The next day newspapers did not mention the overuse of Islam by Mr Khan to exploit religious sentiments of the public.
“Should I vote for Mr Khan?’ asked Ijaz Masih, a Christian, who works for a charity. The media again willingly ignored the view of people from other religions.
“The issue is journalists are not trained to cover religion as a beat and that is why they don’t know the importance of religion in journalism,” said Fakhar Durrani, a journalist educator based in Islamabad. He said beside lack of training, journalists also ignored religion for safety reasons.
“It’s time we should use religion reporting to lessen controversies and promote harmony among religions for a tolerant society,” he said.
The situation for journalists and journalism is not any different in Nigeria from Pakistan; it may only have its own dynamics. Officially the Federal Republic of Nigeria, it is a federal constitutional republic comprising 36 states and its Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
The country is located in West Africa and shares land borders with the Republic of Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and Niger in the north. Its coast in the south lies on the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic Ocean. The three largest and most influential ethnic groups in Nigeria are the Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba.
The Hausas are largely Muslims, the Igbos majorly Christians and Yorubas a very strong balance of both in addition to a handful of traditionalists and pagans.
By and large Nigeria is roughly divided in half between Muslims, concentrated mostly in the north, and Christians, who mostly live in the South. A very small minority practice traditional religions, although the rate of syncretism is high.
Since 2002 there have been a spate of clashes, particularly in the north of the country, between government forces and the Islamist group Boko Haram, militant jihadists who seek to establish sharia law. Reporting this brings with it several risks. Many reports are divided on the casualties: Are they just Christian targets or are some Muslims? In recent times, the question is why Muslims have been attacked.
“Reporting this religious-colored conflict has brought so many challenges,” says Katdaba Gobum, chairman of the Union of Journalists Plateau State. He adds that “very few are trained and have the knowledge to report this conflict.”
On April 26th, 2012 there were coordinated bomb attacks on ThisDay Newspaper Offices in Kaduna & Abuja. Abuja is the federal capital and Kaduna, the foremost northern city.
The attack left six people dead and several others injured. The first attack was at the newspaper’s office in Abuja while the second occurred at a complex that houses a ThisDay Newspaper office along Kontagora road by Ahmadu Bello way in Kaduna.
ThisDay’s editorial board chairman Olusegun Adeniyi said. “The suicide bomber came in a jeep and security guards opened the gate for him. The guy drove in through the gate and rammed into the building and exploded. Two of our security men died, and obviously the suicide bomber died too.”
Five support staff were wounded. “Fortunately, the newsroom is a bit far from the back of the building, so all the people in the newsroom escaped unhurt.”
ThisDay is based in southern Nigeria and is broadly supportive of President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, the main target for the Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram.
ThisDay, a newspaper owned by the politically connected media mogul Nduka Obaigbena. The Islamic sect, Boko Haram, has in the past not made any deliberate attacks on media houses until that particular attack but now made it clear that they would attack media houses and journalists who “misreported” them.
This threat has affected in no small measure the way and manner the conflict is reported. Before now, the notion of reporting religion has been a page or two in most national dailies on Friday for Muslims and Sundays for Christians.
In Nigeria there are few journalists that venture into religious reporting or even write on religion and politics.
This writer believes though whether in my native Nigeria or Pakistan, professional news reporters, whether being aware of it or not, are specialists in conflict. For reporters, change is news. And when there is change, there often is disagreement or conflict.
There is conflict among those who like the change and those who do not, or those who want more change and those who oppose change. So journalists deal with conflict very often in their work.
But many journalists know little about the idea of conflict. They do not know the root causes of conflict, or how conflicts end. They do not know the different kinds of conflict or the inter-marriage of religion and politics in fostering these conflicts.
“Journalists do not set out to reduce conflict on religion by reporting. They should seek to present accurate and impartial news.” This is the argument of Steve Aluko of the Civil Liberties Group.
But it is often through good reporting that conflict is reduced.
The news media is often the most important channel of communication that exists between sides in a conflict. Sometimes the media is used by one side to broadcast intimidating messages. But other times, the parties speak to each other through the media or through specific journalists.
Journalism which explores each side’s particular difficulties, such as its politics or powerful interests, can help educate the other side to avoid demands for simplistic and immediate solutions.
The above can be noted in the call for dialogue between Boko Haram in Nigeria and government and the issue of amnesty.
Good journalism is what this writer and a few preach, believing we can also present news that shows resolution is possible by giving examples from other places and by explaining local efforts at reconciliation.
There is need to run from the regular reportage that all news is all bad, it is violent news and does not seek other sides or points of view. It declares the worst: “peace talks…lay in ruins.”
It uses emotional and unnecessary words: massacre, mutilated, atrocity. It emphasizes the violence with words such as “mutilated bodies.”
These reportage takes sides: it describes the event from the point of view of the army spokesman. He says the patrol was attacked.
The news is full of blame and accusations with no proof. It takes the government side. It says the attackers were Boko Haram terrorists.
How does he know? It uses emotional language: massacre, terrorists, assassination squad. It reports a claim by the police captain without proof. It reports unnamed government sources who say other unnamed people say they saw the BH leader and blame him. There is no proof of this.
These are the problems encountered by regular/traditional reportage which even puts the journalists in trouble.
The Nigerian Guild of Editors proposes this guide: “Report should go further than violence and report people who condemn the violence. News should be balanced quickly: BH denies it attacked the JTF, but admits there was a battle.
The other side is given the name it calls itself: The use of ‘unknown gunmen’ when most know there is nothing like ‘unknown’. Violence is not hidden or ignored. But it is stated as a claim and not as a fact.”
These tips can help and do help in nations with shared historical perspectives in religion like both Nigeria and Pakistan does.
Journalists should report only what is known. The bomb is a mystery; words should be carefully chosen. In religion and politics both sides’ explanation and comment is necessary. It is the believe of these writers that Journalism can and should play a great role in bridging the gap and bringing about mutual understanding and resolving some of these conflicts.
About The Authors
Ahsan Raza is a sub editor with Dawn Newspapers based in Lahore, Pakistan
Prince Charles Dickson is a freelance Journalist, blogger, and media practitioner of over a decade standing. One time correspondent chapel vice president with expertise in religion and conflict reportage, Investigative writing and developmental journalism.
He Has continually covered ethno-religious conflicts in Nigeria’s volatile north. He is a columnist in several mainstream and online news outlets. Writing on good governance, religion, social justice and peace and anti-corruption.
He is a member of, Nigerian Union of Journalists, Guild Of Editors and Global Editors Network, the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism and The International Association of Religion Journalists/Writers