The Coverage of Communalism, Race, and Religion

The following transcript is from a panel discussion at the News World Asia conference, held May 9 to 11 in Singapore. Many thanks to Sue Phillips, managing director of News World, for granting TBS permission to print these proceedings.The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Moderator: Mike Wooldridge, BBC South Asia correspondent

Zaafar Abbas, BBC correspondent, Pakistan
Riza Primadi, director of news and current affairs, Trans-TV, Indonesia
Arnold Zeitlin, director of the Asian Center of the Freedom Forum
Prem Prakash, director of Asia News International, India
Mano Wikramanayake, Maharaja TV (MTV), Sri Lanka
Stephen Claypole, Chairman of DMA Media; former managing director of APTN, chief editor of Reuters TV, and senior BBC editorial executive

Mike Wooldridge:
Welcome to what I believe is a conference session that deals with the single most important issue that we deal with as correspondents, editors, news managers and consumers of news as well. Is the world heading towards real pluralism, societies where people really embrace the idea of respecting difference, different racial or ethnic backgrounds and different religions, or where we see more rather than less conflict over ethnicity and religion?

When I left southern Africa at the end of 1990 as one of the BBC's correspondents there and became a religious affairs correspondent, someone I was talking with in the corridor of the television center in London said, aren't you going to miss hard news? It seemed a strange question at the time, not least because so many of the conflicts around the world then appeared at least to have religion as an element in them. It seemed an even stranger question when four years later I went to Rwanda to a church where several thousand people had been massacred in the genocide that had just taken place there—genocide that you may remember was initially regarded by many in the international community and portrayed initially by many in the media too, with some very honorable exceptions, as tribal or ethnic conflict when there was increasingly compelling evidence of its true nature. They left the skeletons, the remains of many of the dead in that church as a way of saying never again. But there has been a great deal more violence since then, violence that touches on the issue of identity, first defined by ethnic group or religion or political allegiance.

There are of course other faces of religion, where conflict arouses controversy of a different kind. In the first sessions here this morning on Asian news perspectives we heard about the Maha Kumbha Mela, the world biggest religious gathering at Allahabad, northern India early this year and about the controversy that errupted over the images of naked sadhus processing to the river and bathing. I did an interview on the very last day of the Kumbha with one swami who said his problem with the coverage had much less to do with the filming of naked sadhus than with the media romanticizing the religiosity of the events, and his view was that if only all the fervor of the Kumbha could be translated into social action, then Indian's poor would be a lot better off. It's hard to win with the depiction of religion.

So to our panel, and first to Zaffar Abbas, who has twenty years in journalism, eleven of them with the BBC, highly respected if I may say so for his reporting from Pakistan. He has paid a price for his reporting, he was beaten up in Karachi in 1991 and he was with the BBC's Islamabad's bureau when it was attacked and set ablaze in 1995.

Zaffar Abbas: Thank you, Mike. On both the occasions when BBC was attacked in Pakistan, we analyzed and others analyzed and everyone agreed that BBC was not wrong in reporting what it was reporting at that time. There was not only international condemnation of the event, but at the same time the local journalists association and local political groups rallied around the BBC, there were marches on the streets, forcing the government to take action against those militant groups, and on both the occasions the militant groups apologized. But having said that, that is not always true on most of the coverage mainly about Islam and Islamic groups, which is the kind of in thing these days. I would like show you three video clips, and then we'll discuss how they are different from each other although they may not look different. [Video clips]

The first image is the aftermath of an attack on a Shi'a mosque and the immediate responses of people coming out on the street, shopkeepers bringing down their shutters, but there is no violence in reaction. The second image is about a practice of mourning by Shi'as which dates back more than a thousand years, and it has no relevance to what is going on in times of sectarian violence in Pakistan. And the third image, where you can see gunmen, you can see lot of mullahs, has nothing to do with the sectarian violence in Pakistan. Almost all of them are involved in the Kashmiri separatist movement. If one does not understand the differences between the three, it is there that the problem starts. And the difficulty in covering these stories is that people who are close to the story at times are scared to honestly analyze it. And for those who visit the country for one or two days to do the story, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between these, so they resort to stereotypes, which creates more problems. The kind of bashing that starts in the country against journalists coming from abroad and doing a story about Islam is immense and very difficult to defend. All I can say here is that while doing such a story one will have to understand that not every bearded Muslim is a fundamentalist, not every fundamentalist is an extremist, not every extremist is a fanatic, and not every fanatic is a terrorist. Unless you understand that, it would be very difficult to analyze a story about Islamic movements.

Wooldridge: Thank you very much indeed. Next is Riza Primadi, now director of news and current affairs with Trans-TV in Indonesia, which will start broadcasting later this year. Before that he held the same position the private station as SCTV. One speaker from Indonesia said in an earlier session said we have to be extremely careful in reporting ethnic conflict; we have to show the effects of the problem rather than the violence itself.

Riza Primadi: To be honest, most of the journalists are confuses and don't know what to do, don't know how to cover the ethnic and religious conflict in Indonesia. But to make it easier I can divide it into three eras. During the Suharto era, basically the media just ignored [ethnic conflict], particularly if it's not big enough-fewer than ten people killed or maybe fewer than ten houses being burned is very small compared to what you see in the picture lately in the country. This happened because the government forbade us to report. There were unwritten regulations saying that the media cannot report anything to do with ethnic, religious, racial, or other inter-group conflict or tension. But if the incident was big enough, the media mentioned just the number of victims, the number of the houses, without any reference at all to the religious or ethnic aspect of the conflict. The second era is during President Habibi, when we were more free, but still afraid to report the truth. The notion that we cannot touch anything about race, religion and ethnicity is there in every journalist's mind.

But gradually we've had to come to terms that truth is truth, even though it's been painful to tell. The Moluccas incident in late 1998-early 1999 started as ethnic conflict between the indigenous Moluccas and the people coming from Sulawesi and then escalated to become a religious conflict. That time we were also surprised, we didn't know how to cover it, how to handle that kind of magnitude of conflict. Even under President Wahid, when we can say anything what we want, we can tell it all but we cannot show it all. In 1999 there was an ethnic conflict in which we got pictures of cannibalism. It was a question of decency, whether we show it all. If I didn't show it, people will accuse me of censoring. But if I show it, I cannot imagine what the reaction would be, particularly from the Madurese, the people who were the victims. So my decision was to ban the pictures, but to tell it our narration that there is such an act of cannibalism.

Eventually we came to know a little more about how to report these stories, without any fear of endangering our reporter, for example, and also to be more understanding of the problem. We send our local correspondents. In the case of the Moluccas we had to send two, one a Muslim reporter and the other a Christian reporter, to cover this area. But the problem with this is that the longer they stay there, they become passionate; they cannot be dispassionate reporters anymore because they see what's happening, and this is why they stay maybe for one week and then we have to pull them back to Jakarta and send another group. That's the problem that we face in Indonesia, because the atrocities committed by two communities is beyond our imagination. In the case of Aceh we have to send local reporters and cameramen to the area, otherwise the rebels cannot guarantee their safety. That's something that we have to deal with. And then, because we cannot send a crew there for a long time, the reporter's attitude becomes, come, see the picture, and go back—what do you expect from that kind of reporting? We show the church burning, the mosque burning, that's it. But the current problem is that they miss [the story] because they don't understand the problem, even as Indonesians. And the other main problem is boredom. We are bored, the journalist is bored, because the conflict has been going on and on for almost two years now and they keep killing in the Moluccas, so we have to be "creative" to report the incident, or otherwise you are just reporting statistics, ten people killed and ten mosques burned. We're still trying to work out the best way to report the ethnic and religious conflict in Indonesia.

Wooldridge: Thanks very much indeed. I think you told me earlier that you now regret that decision regarding the cannibalism, is that right?

Primadi: To be honest, yes, I think we somehow have to show it, but at the time we hadn't any idea how to present the story.

Wooldridge: Thank you very much indeed. Next we have Arnold Zeitlin, director of the Asian Center of the Freedom Forum. He's also been in the field with the Associated Press and among other places reported from Nigeria, Pakistan, and the Philippines. What has your experience taught you about the issues we are discussing here? continued

Next page: "Religion is infused in almost anything you do in South Asia"
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