CIJ: Al Islam Breached Code Of Ethics

Al Islam magazine clearly violated journalistic ethics when it went undercover at a Catholic mass and partook of the holy communion, the Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) said today.

"I don't question the subject matter of the story, which was about finding out about alleged conversions of Muslims to Christianity. It is a valid subject as it is the concern of a particular community.

"But the magazine went the wrong way in reporting it by going undercover. It was a clear violation of journalistic ethics," CIJ executive director V Gayathry told The Nut Graph today.

"Undercover reporting cannot be the starting point and basis for journalism without trying other traditional methods. In this case, on such a story involving religion and faith, being sneaky by going undercover breeds further misconceptions and misunderstanding.

"If the magazine wanted to know if Muslims were being converted, it should have confronted the church with evidence of the claims, and obtained the church's reply," Gayathry said.

She was responding to the Al Islam magazine article in May 2009 which has outraged many Catholics and some Muslims because the magazine's journalist not only consumed the communion, but also spat it out to photograph it.

Catholics believe that the communion, once consecrated, is the body and blood of Jesus Christ and only baptised Catholics who have prepared to receive Christ can consume the host.

Right of reply

In the Al Islam article, Tinjauan Al Islam Dalam Gereja: Mencari Kesahihan Remaja Murtad, the writer set out to ascertain if claims that Muslims were being converted in churches were true. From his observations, he wrote that he did not see anything of the sort happening, although there were Malay-looking people attending the church services. These he identified as Malaysians from Sabah.

Gayathry added that for stories on controversial subjects such as religious conversions, there was "all the more the need for reporters to be factual".

"You can write in the interest of your community, but it must be done openly and honestly, and with a chance for the other party to respond. The magazine should state how it came to know of such rumours that Muslims were being converted, and what were the facts they have managed to establish," she said.

Ethical journalism would not employ undercover reporting, she added. In past cases where undercover reporting was practised and considered ethically acceptable, they were usually on stories where corruption and abuse of power were being exposed, and where there was no paper trail or hard evidence to furnish as proof.

Because reporting a story involves establishing the truth of a situation, Gayathry noted that journalists had to obtain more than one side to the story and go beyond stated claims.

"A journalist is not a judge, but one, who, based on tips or observations, feels there is something wrong and tries to expose it. In presenting a story, they must go after the person against whom allegations are made to give them the right of reply.

"In presenting the truth as best as one can, more sides of the story must be obtained," she said.

The Nut Graph last week contacted the Al Islam editorial desk but the magazine declined to comment.

Sacrilegious

Bishop Antony Selvanayagam of the Catholic Church's Penang diocese said "to take part in a ritual one is not supposed to, and to write about it" was considered "very sacrilegious as far as our religion is concerned".

"The story does not help us work towards living in harmony with one another. However, my advice to Catholics is not to [respond] tit for tat. That is not the way. But we cannot just keep quiet either.

"The legitimate course of action to protest is to make police reports, and I hope the Home Ministry will act as police reports have already been made," the bishop said in a phone interview today.

Selvanayagam confirmed that the police report lodged against Al Islam last week was done by two members of his diocese. He said he was not certain as to exactly which churches the Al Islam reporter went to since the article did not name any church.

"We are just responding to the fact that the incident happened," he said.

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