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The furore over Al Islam


(Pic by Mateusz Stachowski / sxc.hu)
NOW and then, journalists should engage in a little navel-gazing. Caught in the tide of chasing news deadlines, we forget to take time to question the methods we employ in news gathering, writing and presentation.

What is at stake when we don’t question our own practices is our public credibility, because readers are not necessarily limited just to the market segment our publications cater specifically to.

This is what Al Islam magazine has probably discovered after its article Tinjauan Al Islam Dalam Gereja: Mencari Kesahihan Remaja Murtad caused an uproar among Catholics.

It may have thought that the article, which appeared in the magazine’s May 2009 issue, would only be read by Bahasa Malaysia-speaking Muslims. It is informative of the vacuum some vernacular publications believe they exist in.

Precisely because nothing takes place in a vacuum, the episode is a timely reminder of the need for sound journalism ethics so that reporting is inclusive rather than exclusive.

No need to hide

The article raises two controversial points:

the writer’s participation in the holy communion ritual as a non-Catholic, and

going undercover in church to gather information for the article.

Point one is a matter of basic respect for another’s religion. The danger is that arguing over this can degenerate into a Muslim versus Christian or “us versus them” debate. Judging from certain comments to The Nut Graph‘s news reports on Al Islam, and from reactions on Facebook where the reports have been circulated, some people already have a sense of being under attack.

Let’s try to move away from that. Giving the Al Islam reporter the benefit of the doubt, he may have been plain ignorant about the do’s and don’ts involved when visiting the house of worship of another faith. He may have thought it necessary to imitate what everyone else in the church was doing so as not to have his cover blown.

Which brings us to the second point about going undercover to get a story. Was there really a need to do so?

Houses of worship are places that are open to all. And there is no compulsion to participate in the rituals if one does not believe in them. That is in keeping with the spirit of religion. As such, the Al Islam reporter could have sat through the Catholic mass and made his observations without the need to be undercover, and without the need to participate in the holy communion. He could then use his observations to support part of his story on the alleged conversion of Muslims in churches.

The problem is, the entire story was based on that undercover visit with no attempt to source information or comments from other credible and invested stakeholders. As it turned out, there was no evidence of Muslims converting to Christianity in the church the writer went to.


Gayathry
Centre for Independent Journalism executive director V Gayathry notes that Al Islam should have taken its questions on the alleged conversion of Muslims to the church authorities. It also should have stated the basis of such claims in the article.

It is important to stress that what the journalist set out to do — investigate the claims of conversions — is a legitimate story angle. What is under dispute is the ethics of how he went about attempting to get the story.

Driving a wedge

The ethics of undercover journalism have long been debated. The tactic has certainly attained some degree of glamour in the light of exposés that have toppled the powers that be. Tehelka.com is famous for exposing corruption in India’s defence ministry, and its undercover stories ultimately led the defence minister to resign.

Gayathry notes that most cases of justifiable undercover journalism involved public-interest stories where a paper trail on corruption and abuse of power was difficult to obtain. The end goal was always to hold those in power accountable and to expose misdeeds. Clearly, the Al Islam story does not fall into this category.

A story on purported conversions that Al Islam was chasing is valid as the subject is of interest to the Muslim community. But given the topic’s sensitivity, and considering that it involved another religion, the magazine is all the more beholden to practise honesty in presenting evidence of its claims.

“If journalists don’t adhere to ethical practices, then they are effectively contributing to more misunderstanding and suspicion,” notes Gayathry.

How to react?

A police report has been lodged against the magazine by two Catholics, who have urged others to also lodge reports.

Police now say that the Al Islam reporters involved will be investigated under the Penal Code for causing disharmony or for prejudicing the maintenance of harmony on the grounds of religion.

Slapping the magazine with criminal charges, however, will not resolve the problem of falling standards in ethical journalism. Neither is it a conclusive recourse for aggrieved Catholics, for whom the matter involving the holy communion is a spiritual one.

And yet, if not for lodging a police report, how else is anything sensitive of this nature to be highlighted without taking to the streets? The complainants said they have resolved not to react in anger, but they rightfully feel aggrieved enough to need some recourse for what has happened.

Image of stained glass window depicting the sacraments
                               (Pic by Bill Davenport / sxc.hu)
If the Al Islam writer had genuinely been ignorant about the sacredness of the holy communion, it would simply be best to apologise to Catholics. After all, there are also Muslims who are equally outraged by the magazine’s actions.

In the end, those in the best position to demand ethical practices of the media are consumers themselves. Because, sometimes, editors and journalists forget in our race to beat the competition. Or we think that the market segment we write for wouldn’t mind a little sensationalism.

On that note, I cannot in good conscience end this article without referring to my own failings as a journalist, too, lest I be accused of being the pot that called the kettle black.

If you have read Zaid slams Najib’s administration on this website, you might have noticed the lively debate in the comments section as to the report’s accuracy. I won’t repeat the facts, as lengthy explanations have already been given by my editor. Suffice to say that the mistake lay in not stating that the published news report was a reproduction of Datuk Zaid Ibrahim’s prepared speech for an event.

It was a lesson that could only have been taught by readers. In the final analysis, ethical journalism can only be sustained if readers want it.


Deborah Loh appreciates readers who criticise constructively and politely.

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24 Responses to “The furore over Al Islam

  1. Main says:

    The act of Muslims to downgrade other religions or beliefs is considered as the act of non-believers. Never in Islam are followers asked to mock others. In this case, if the Church feels that is has the right to sue, then act.

  2. Kamal says:

    I absolutely agree with Deborah Loh that readers are crucial in demanding for ethical journalism but we cannot depend entirely on market forces to drive professional ethics and practice.

    Who else can regulate professional ethics? I suppose one would be a body representing the profession. For medical ethics you have the medical association. There are numerous such professional bodies that do come up with guidelines and regulations as well as means to penalize peers who breech their own code of conduct. And related government bodies often do work closely with these professional associations because they are a credible interest group.

    Without clear professional standards the only recourse often are what is in the law and we do have to ask ourselves whether that is what the profession wants; that the only way to guarantee journalistic ethics is to go to the authorities? Do we want journalistic ethics to mean only what the Home Ministry determines? As professionals, don’t journalists want to have a say in what they do and the ethics of how they do what they do?

    While modern journalism was born in the West and we have numerous references of professional ethics from Western case studies, should we not also start to adapt these to our own situation and demands? And this is where readers views, local sensitivities and cultural appropriateness are important inputs. There probably are universal ethics for journalism but they also need to be grounded in local experiences.

    Public scrutiny is great and the approach taken by web-based newspapers such as The Nut Graph is wonderful in providing space for (almost) immediate responses, but in the end, public scrutiny alone cannot replace professionally determined and evaluated guidelines for journalistic engagement and practice.

  3. Naoko says:

    I’m glad to see that there are people within the news industry who still value integrity and honesty. Thank you for restoring my faith, The Nut Graph.

  4. James says:

    I am appalled by the violation of the Catholics’ sacred rituals and practices at their own place of worship. One wonders how insecure can one get to deride another faith different from one’s own? Quite apart from the bigotry that is amply displayed in the offending article, the author would be disappointed to learn that churches and temples are open to all who are willing to enter, and there really is no need to infiltrate the church for intelligence. His “sacrifices” for participating in the rituals, are quite clearly, misconceived too as he was not forced to participate.

  5. Nicholas Aw says:

    A well-thought out article. In short the damage has already been done. Quoting from the Bible: Luke 24:34 “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The beauty of Christianity is the calmness of its followers in not resorting to violence but instead in their ability to forgive.

    It is the least that the Al-Islam editor and reporter should do. Tender a sincere apology and assure not only Christians but followers of all faiths that this mistake would not be repeated.

  6. Billy says:

    As a Catholic, I am agonised by the fact that the Holy Sacrament of Communion has been violated. The two reporters cannot claim ignorance about their participation in the Holy Communion because all Catholic churches will display a notice on a big screen next to the altar that only practising Catholics are allowed to receive the hosts. The host represents the body of Christ and the wine, the blood of Christ. To see the host spit out on the ground and to be photographed is what I would term agonising. If they were to plead ignorance, what would happen if they have participated in a baptism ceremony? Now they would be Christians. Is that the fault of the Church then? Of course, such things will never happen as one has to undergo a one and a half year RCIA course before one can get baptised, but you will never know.

  7. William D says:

    Remember the saying of Confucius? “Do not do unto others if you do not want others to do unto you”. What if it had been the other way round? Buddhists, Hindus or Christians spying on Muslims at their mosques, and then doing something unbecoming? I bet you in the next breath, you will find Muslims in the country shouting blue murder and burning temples or churches. Didn’t these two think twice before they acted?

    Just a quote from the Bible. In 1Corinthians 11:27, it is said, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.”

  8. Ida Bakar says:

    Do journalists in Malaysia have accreditation? Is there a governing body? There is the Malaysian Medical Council for doctors.

    As a Malay-Muslim Malaysian I feel I must apologise for the uncouth and rude behaviour of the two so-called journalists. I fear that they have demonstrated ignorance and arrogance in the extreme. Arrogant because they didn’t bother learning the significance of the rites and rituals of a group of people that they were investigating; ignorant because they took the host and spat it out without knowing how offensive the act was. (I wonder what they did with the wine).

    They are a disgrace to their profession and they should very well apologise – publicly and without reservation – to the Catholic congregation and the Christian community.
    At this point the Malay-Muslim leadership should raise their head above the parapet (or outside the proverbial tempurung) and speak out against these miscreants.

  9. Andrew says:

    Stay calm. These two men will themselves find the truth. Wait and see.

  10. faith04 says:

    What would happen if the special branch found out first that they were Muslims, and turned around to accuse the Catholic Church of converting Muslims by feeding the communion?

  11. Jarod says:

    Ida Bakar,

    You shouldn’t be apologizing on behalf of what the two journalists had done. I suppose they have not learnt the ethical way of respecting each other’s religion.

    Is time that Muslims in Malaysia unite and stand firm on what they believe is right before some parties make it worst.

    Their act would be judge by GOD and we are not to judge them.

  12. menj says:

    I wonder what the fuss is about, really? It’s a brave example of investigative journalism although the journalists’ motives may be suspect. It’s not like Christian missionaries have not done this to Muslims before, albeit with even more sinister motives. The journalists came to the church expecting Muslims to be apostatised and they came back reporting that this was not true.

    So again, what is the fuss about?

  13. Azizi Khan says:

    As a Malaysian Muslim, I have come to understand long ago that being a Muslim in Malaysia means being full of hypocrisy.

    Apparently looking at a pig and pork would be very insulting to me but walking down a pasar malam looking at cow carcasses is not insulting to my friend who is a Hindu nor would it be insulting to my other friend who is a vegetarian.

    It is offending for me to have a neighbour’s dog barking but it’s not offending to have loud (and competing) calls to prayers to my non-Muslim neighbour.

    It’s ok for me to block an entire street during Friday prayers, triple parking cars bringing traffic to a standstill but it’s not ok for my neighbour to put a tent to have a party in the evening.

    It’s ok for me to have parts of public allocated land for playgrounds mysteriously turn into a surau extension and a religious school. But the Hindus and Christians can’t build a temple and church in the land they own. Heck, hundred year old temples are destroyed.

    So is it a wonder that these journalists “don’t know” about other religions ? When all the information fed by the religious bodies are about how bad other religions are and how they are out to convert every Muslim in Malaysia ?

    Yes we need ethics but for all parties, especially Muslim Malaysians.

    AK

  14. azima says:

    Don’t waste time and expect any apology from the Muslim leaderships for I bet they never will. They are one sided, should they admit and apologize, the moon and sun would be upside down. Making a police report is the best solution. I bet it will also take the police ages to act. So just pray that God will show these two mercy for the rest of their lives.

  15. Shahrin says:

    Azizi Khan

    Well said, AK. If only most of our Muslim bros think and act like you, we would be called a mature nation. And that would take ages or decades too. Or never will be!

  16. Gayathry says:

    Ida Bakar – I agree with Jarod, you should not apologise for the two journalists. On your question about the Media Council, there is no such council now though there are moves to set one up. The problem is that there are actually too many laws that control and govern the media that a media council will be rendered pointless. For example in this case, someone who has issues with the reporting could lodge a complaint to the council, which will then investigate and adjudicate. If the council finds any breach in ethical practices, it can ask the newspaper or station to print an apology commensurate with the space given for the original story. But if this council exists in parallel with all the laws that are in place, the authorities can, despite the council ruling, take their own action. And remember, giving the authorities the right to take action in one case basically means giving them the powers to take action in ANY case they feel justified in responding to. And that’s the whole problem confronting the media and freedom of expression in Malaysia. I think the process of questioning the practices and professionalism of journalists is a much healthier way of improving the quality of reporting, rather than leaving it to the police or the Home Ministry.

    Menj – I disagree, the story is by no means a “brave example of investigative journalism”. Investigative journalism does not come about just because you present a difficult issue. The absence of facts and quotes reduces the story to an observation, but you can see how the journalists’ prejudices are inserted. It purports to explore why young Muslims would convert and who would convert them, but they describe the church and the proceedings and go on to conclude that no such conversion was taking place. They do end the story on the note that the church was deliberately disobeying government orders on the use of the word Allah in the Malay language sermon. But nothing really on what motivates the conversion except for vague suggestions that they are rewarded for it.

    I appreciate the writers making a conclusion from their observation, but if they were seriously out to investigate the claims of conversion, they need facts, real stories, and quotes as well as the right to reply from those they are making allegations of.

    This case should make us ask questions about how the media in general treats its stories and how ethically they are presented. You will be able to find many in the news pages today that fail the ethical principles test on some of the most basic issues.

  17. Philip Selvaraj says:

    I don’t believe the Al Islam journalist desecrated Catholic rituals. He had accepted the sacramental Christ in the form of bread and wine. He cannot undo this act, no matter what he does, he is either going to an Islamic hell or a Catholic heaven. Pray for the salvation of his soul people of God, instead of going to the police. Where is your faith, Catholics?

  18. stk says:

    The two Al Islam reporters could turn around and bite back, accusing the Church of converting them.

    Another possibility is the reporters “murtad” for taking part in a Christian ceremony. Let’s see what happens next. By the way what happened to the dead-bodies snatcher Jais? Seems rather quiet.

  19. jarod says:

    AK,

    I am touched for there are people who see into other’s needs. Malaysia is truly fortunate to have you. May you continue to open the eyes of Muslims in Malaysia.

  20. L.low says:

    menj, you seem to be missing the point!

  21. John 3:16 says:

    As a Muslim, Quran is the reference of human sins or bad acts (and of course nilai-nilai murni). As a Christian, we refer to Bible.

    So a verse to share to Believers and Non-Believers, renung-renungkan lah.

    1 Korintus 11:26-30
    11:26 Sebab setiap kali kamu makan roti ini dan minum cawan ini, kamu memberitakan kematian Tuhan sampai Ia datang.
    11:27 Jadi barangsiapa dengan cara yang tidak layak makan roti atau minum cawan Tuhan, ia berdosa terhadap tubuh dan darah Tuhan.
    11:28 Karena itu hendaklah tiap-tiap orang menguji dirinya sendiri dan baru sesudah itu ia makan roti dan minum dari cawan itu.
    11:29 Karena barangsiapa makan dan minum tanpa mengakui tubuh Tuhan, ia mendatangkan hukuman atas dirinya.
    11:30 Sebab itu banyak di antara kamu yang lemah dan sakit, dan tidak sedikit yang meninggal.

  22. Kenny Loh says:

    [I don't mean this insultingly, but] sometimes I do feel that Muslims are so insecure about their own faith – all because of politicians.

    Because I get the feeling that they or their religion craves for attention and/or recognition from others. Malaysians in general, have never questioned Islam as the official religion and Malay as the national language.

    It’s an agenda for politicians who have no substance and shouldn’t have been elected in the first place. Politicians who play the race and religion card have no right to be where they are now.

    We should recognise the existence of G-d, and not the other way around. G-d judges us through our deeds and not how many we manage to convert or how many we manage to stop from converting.

  23. faith says:

    Philip Selvaraj:

    I do not think you understand what the Body and Blood of Christ that the journalist has partaken and thrown out are. For Catholics – to throw out the holy communion one has received is a great violation of God’s humanity. The journalist needs to know the knowledge of this act is an act of desecration of what others believe in, and thus with a good conscience avoids offending others’ faith and belief, as he also wants others to respect his own faith. This is the acid test of a good believer of any faith: respect differences.

  24. Ida Bakar says:

    To Jarod,

    I apologised for the two [journalists] because what they did was a grave offense in the eyes of Catholics all round. Someone from ‘my lot’ will have to make a stand. Since none was forthcoming (then) I had to. Thank you for your statement all the same.

    To Gayathry,
    Agree with you regarding a regulating body for journalism and the media in Malaysia. The problem lies in the fact that there is no press or media freedom in our country. Almost everything seems warped in Malay-Muslim primacy over actual intellectual exercise.

    In the UK there is the Press Complaints Comission (www.pcc.org.uk). The BBC have their own in house complaints procedure. Even so, the BBC which is funded by the taxpayers bowed to the paymaster i.e. the government on many matters. The recent skewed reporting on the Gaza massacre and the denial of air time to Disasters Emergency Appeal (www.dec.org.uk) illustrate the point.

    Therefore, to hope that there is an independent body to regulate the press and the media free from government interference is a bit of wishful thinking.


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