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Media as a Religious Freedom Resource PDF Print E-mail

Ira Rifkin
Religion News Service

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

Religion News Service is owned by the Newhouse Media Corporation, which means we are not affiliated with any particular religious group. Religion News Service was begun about 65 years ago by the National Conference. At the time it was the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It was owned for many years by United Methodist News Services, and then about four years ago Newhouse took it over. Since then we have been independent. We cover the world of religion, ethics, and spirituality much in the way that Bloomberg News Service covers the financial world. Our client base is about 300 publications and broadcast outlets. They include all the major secular newspapers, newsmagazines, broadcast outlets, and a host of religious publications, most of which are Christian, both liberal and conservative.

It should be obvious that media cut both ways in the struggle for religious freedom. Uninformed, biased media work to set back religious freedom, just as religiously literate, fair-minded media can work to extend religious freedom. I would like to discuss some recent examples of how this has worked from my reporting experience. As a Washington-based correspondent for Religion News Service, I have been involved in much of the service’s coverage of religious freedom issues. Some of the stories that I have covered of late have included the state of religious freedom in Cuba, centered around the January visit of Pope John Paul II; the passage in Russia of legislation that many view as establishing a hierarchy of religious organizations, with the Russian Orthodox Church being on top; and efforts in the U.S. Congress to pass legislation designed to protect the religious freedom of minority groups in foreign nations.

In the first two instances, media coverage varied from generally excellent to adequate. The papal visit, with its high drama of a face-off between the world’s best-known religious leader and one of the world’s last communist leaders, produced an avalanche of copy about freedom of religion in Cuba. I do not mean to undervalue the moral powers of the pope, but it is fair to say that without the media letting everyone know that John Paul has this moral power—that the Roman Catholic Church has influence—that power would be greatly diminished. So the pope went to Cuba, presented his demands for the release of “prisoners of conscience,” many of whom were political prisoners. As I am sure you know, many such individuals have been released since John Paul left Cuba. In the past week or two, another contingent of 13 individuals and their families were freed and went to Canada.

It is very clear that the pope’s going to Cuba was a milestone in terms of religious freedom in that country and political freedom in general. But because of the nature of the Cuban government and the nature of the situation, religious freedoms will be accelerated in Cuba at a much faster rate than political freedom will. It is safer for the Castro government. That is why, generally speaking, it will take place. The pope’s visit to Cuba was not just an opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church to agitate for greater religious freedom. All other religious groups in Cuba took the opportunity to try and use the media to advance their own religious freedom agendas.

Therefore, you had the Jewish community of Cuba holding back-to-back interviews with whoever would talk to them. You had various Afro-Cuban religious groups, such as Santeria, willingly putting on demonstrations for whoever else was willing to show up at their temples in Havana and elsewhere. The evangelical and mainline Protestants churches did the same, going so far as to come to Washington to hold press conferences in advance of the papal visit so journalists would know who they were and how to get in touch with them once they got to Havana. Even the Greek Orthodox Church, not normally associated with Cuba, showed up in Havana to press for the return of the church structure that had existed before the Castro revolution.

I was contacted in Havana by an archbishop who had come from Panama. He wanted to take me to a church building not very far from the international press center. I went with him and spent the afternoon touring the place and wrote a story about it. That’s why I was brought there. That was what the Greek Orthodox Church wanted. The last I heard, the church was still negotiating with the Castro government for the return of the structure, which is currently being used as a state theater. All of the icons have been blackened over with dark paint, but the church was hopeful that they would get their structure back in the near future.

Without modern mass communications, I doubt that there would even be such a thing as a papal visit to a state such as Cuba, which is essentially hostile to the pope’s message. It is the media glare, intrusive as it is at times, that guaranteed the positive results that the pope was able to achieve in Cuba. It very simply would not have happened without the hordes of media running around the island that week.

The case in Russia is also one where media scrutiny prompted some positive results. Again, I don’t mean to imply that it is the free media alone that produce the desired results. However, the media are a part of the Geschalt that moves the world forward. A bill came to President Boris Yeltsin’s desk that was considered by most religious groups other than the Russian Orthodox Church—both inside and outside Russia—to be very restrictive of religious freedom. What happened is that religious activists in this country, most of them conservative Christians but not all, started getting the word out to journalists. U.S. and other foreign correspondents based in Russia started writing about the issue as well.

This media attention raised the issue’s profile to the point where the White House could not ignore it, and it became a point of contention in U.S.-Russia relations. As a result, the bill was eventually vetoed by Yeltsin. A second bill, designed to at least appear less restrictive, particularly in its treatment of mainstream Christian churches other than the Russian Orthodox Church, was passed and signed into law by Yeltsin.

The second law was seemed to be more politically acceptable in the West and that’s why it became law. Again, it was a response to media scrutiny and the pressure that politicians in conjunction with media put on Moscow. How much better is this second law? That remains to be seen. Just recently an independent Baptist pastor from Salem, Oregon, became the first American church worker in Russia to be forced out of the country as a result of this new law. He is now back home. This occurred at the end of March. It is obviously far from a perfect situation in Russia. But it could have been worse, had it not been for the intervention of various media sources that came into the picture because religious activists let us know what is going on.

Unfortunately, a lot of the media dropped the story. Unless you have more instances such as that of Dan Pollard, the pastor from Oregon, that will be the case. Unless powerful congressional and other political figures in this country again talk up the issue, the media lose interest quickly. It is hard for me to admit, but sometimes the media are sort of like a large shark that has to keep swimming to stay alive. The media have to keep moving as well. They move from one story to the next to keep what it believes will interest its readers or its listeners. So they only come back to a story when there is some very dramatic activity connected with it or somebody extremely important says something about it.

The third example is commonly referred to here in Washington as the Wolf-Specter bill, named after Rep. Frank Wolf from Virginia and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. This is the Freedom from Religious Persecution Act, which would slap economic sanctions on foreign nations deemed to engage in systematic and severe religious persecution. It is a very controversial bill involving complex issues, which include free trade concerns, diplomatic niceties, U.S. asylum regulations, national security, and more than a few suspected hidden agendas. Consequently, it may never become law. My point in bringing it up is to talk about how the media responded to the bill. I would say that by and large the response has been mixed at best.

Recently, there has been more attention. But I remember the early days of the bill when I would attend a news conference on the subject, and a Gary Bauer or Bill Bennett, or in the very early days, Ralph Reed, before he left the Christian Coalition, would spend half the news conference lamenting about how the media was ignoring the issue. Of course, there was regular coverage of the issue. We had already covered it regularly. But, for the most part the so-called secular mainstream media paid very little attention to it, and, when they did, it generally had to do with the issue of China and China alone. Everybody else was sort of forgotten.

I think Wolf-Specter has become an example of how the media have held back the progressive movement of religious freedom. The bill may be poorly written, it may not be worthy of passage. Certainly, there are a lot of people in Congress who believe that. But the larger issue of religious freedom abroad, except for the big question of China, is not receiving the comprehensive debate that it is due. This bill could have been a catalyst for such a discussion and may still be. So far, however, it has not been.

Just recently, I was at the House International Relations Committee markup on the bill. A markup is where a bill is amended or changed. It struck me that the markup was virtually uncovered by the secular mainstream media, particularly the larger outfits that set the agenda for so much of what the rest of the media report. One example of what came out of that was a story that appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger.

The Newark Star-Ledger happens to be one of the largest newspapers in the country. It is as large as the New York Times; it just does not get the same sort of respect that the Times gets, even though it is a much-improved paper. They ran a story on that hearing, but it was focused on something-called gum arabic, a substance that is produced in large quantities in Sudan and is used in pharmaceutical products, food products, and the printing process. It just so happens that many companies located in New Jersey use gum arabic a lot. Therefore, a House member from New Jersey introduced an amendment to get the importation of gum arabic exempted from sanctions in the bill. This is Sudan’s largest foreign exchange product.

Sudan is generally acknowledged as a prime example of a nation that persecutes minority religions. Yet that amendment passed, and the story in the Newark Star-Ledger was all about the economic necessity of gum arabic. It did not really discuss to any degree the issue of religious persecution in Sudan or elsewhere in connection with the bill. Despite that sort of story and despite the relative lack of attention that Wolf-Specter has received, the three cases that I have discussed are all relatively high profile.

Then what about cases involving smaller, less politically powerful religious groups or less well known groups, particularly those that might be termed new religions? I am speaking of those groups that are often dismissed as cults.

Most of the media, I believe, fully buy into the current dominant cultural belief that religion is by definition ancient. It is biblical. At the very least, it is something that began before my lifetime. That means if a religion is new, as in the case of Scientology, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness—which I may add is only new in the sense of its corporate name in the West but is hardly new in its homeland—or the Unification Church. The secular and even much of the mainstream religious media tend to dismiss such groups as odd, faddish, theologically suspect, or even dangerous.

I would like to make it clear that I believe that sometimes new groups are odd, faddish, theologically suspect, and maybe even dangerous. What happens is that the prejudices and biases tend to filter out any possibility that such groups may not be odd, faddish, theologically suspect, or dangerous or, very simply, that they have the right to be odd, faddish, theologically suspect, and even dangerous to themselves. These things just don’t enter the consciousness of most media people in this country. Again, I would like to emphasize that that goes equally for people who work for mainstream religious publications. I am talking about most of the Christian press, the Jewish media, and the emerging Muslim media in this country, in terms of how they deal with others beside themselves. That is a very important aspect that needs to be looked at further.

Everybody just gets lumped together under this heading of cults. What do you do about that? What I think is needed is a process of education for society in general and the media in particular about the variety of human beliefs and why humans are so capable of coming up with a seemingly infinite variety of religious explanations for understanding existence. It is not an easy thing to do. But let me quickly say that there are some media bright spots both here in the United States and abroad. The Washington Post Magazine, for example, just did an excellent piece on a mixed Muslim-Christian family in the context of controversy in Northern Virginia concerning the construction of a new Muslim school. It explored the issues. It humanized them. It was a wonderful piece.

Another piece that I saw just this week was an Associated Press story that talked about cults in general in the context of the Taiwanese Jen Tao movement that had come to Texas believing that God would appear on television at a certain time. When they were disappointed, they just shrugged their shoulders and went back to being who they are. The AP story talked about how Methodist, Quakers, and Mormons at one time were also thought about in the same way and now have mainstream acceptance. There is, however, a long way to go. That AP story, for example, took note of the fact that an Internet search turned up 8,254 responses for the word cult and just 214 responses for the term new religious movements. Clearly, a lot of education needs to take place.

Religious groups need to take more responsibility for giving this education. They may have good reason to be paranoid about the media, but they have to try and get beyond that and work with media people and educate them, because media people are only as good as the sources they have. If people don’t help to explain who they are, then the media will just fall back on their biases or rely solely on the people they can reach who will say something negative about that group. It is up to you people to get the word out. The last thing I would like to say is that fair coverage of a religious group does not necessarily equate with positive coverage of that religious group. The more the media get to know groups, the more the warts of any particular group in question will surface and will be understood and will be written about. But that is just part of the way it is.