The Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) fined in an August 29, 2013 judgment a South African radio broadcaster for making an “unjustifiable connection with Islam” during news reports.
This punitive second-guessing of journalistic conduct with respect to referencing background material such as a religion entails the most negative of consequences for a crucially important unhindered discussion of Islam.
BCCSA fined the public broadcaster SAfm R10,000 each for two violations of South Africa’s Broadcasting Code on May 24, 2013. The complainant, SAMNET (South African Muslim Network), charged in the first instance that a SAfm noon bulletin discussed “immigrants protesting in Switzerland about employment and other issues.” The clip stated that the “protesters were not linked to any religion even though some Muslims were present.” “By inference…members of other religious groups” unnamed were present. This “blatant prejudicial reporting…casts Muslims in a negative light.”
The second SAMNET accusation involved an afternoon news report of two men arrested for endangering a Pakistan-United Kingdom flight. Various news reports described “British nationals” involved in a “criminal offense” with no “terrorism angle.” Yet SAfm linked the flight with the May 22 London murder of British soldier Lee Rigby described by SAfm’s announcer as “perpetrated by two Islamic extremists.” SAMNET objected that no information tied the episode to terrorism or Islam, and thereby “adding to the already anger [sic] against Muslims…after the Boston and Woolwich incidents, SAFM news is perpetuating misconceptions and prejudice.”
SAfm responded to the first charge that the Switzerland clip came from the BBC already referencing Muslim protesters. Although SAfm has a policy “of not identifying anyone by race or religion unless it is critical to the story,” here this was “unfortunately…beyond our control.” SAfm, though, will “henceforth be carefully vetting any inputs from foreign news sources.”
With respect to the plane story also sourced from the BBC, SAfm observed that this “big scare…came shortly after” Rigby’s murder. SAfm cited “widespread reports on the two British nationals involved” in the killing referring “to their Muslim faith,” along with official British views of the “incident as an act of terrorism.” Yet SAfm conceded that a reference to “Islamic terrorists…might have been an unfair inference” and was an “unfortunate deviation” from a “policy of not making such references unless authoritatively confirmed.”
“It is of the utmost importance,” BCCSA concluded, “that the identification of a person on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion or gender, to name but four prominent instances, should not take place unless absolutely necessary.” SAfm allegedly violated this journalistic policy as there was “no evidence that religion had anything to do with the news items.”
People “have the Constitutional right to be informed truthfully” and not to “be discriminated against unfairly.” The assumption that “members of the Islamic faith are more readily identifiable with crime or, at least certain crimes, is, clearly, blatantly unfair.” BCCSA, though, refrained from condemning SAfm for “Islamophobia,” a form of “persistent fear…not justified” on the basis of these two incidents.
The BCCSA sanction with respect to the Switzerland story is puzzling. A journalist might have noted the presence of Muslim demonstrators merely to dispel erroneous associations with Islam. Identifiable Muslims, for example, might have formed the majority of demonstrators protesting for reasons unrelated to faith.
More troubling is BCCSA’s assessment of the plane report. This “big scare” involved a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Lahore-Manchester flight intercepted by Royal Air Force fighters and diverted to Stansted after reports of threats including a possible bomb from two men trying to enter the cockpit. While “early indications were that the plane was not the target of a terrorist attack,” media reports noted that “Britain is on high alert” after the Rigby murder, something the “government are treating as a terrorist incident” apparently unbeknownst to SAMNET.
Indeed, the two “British nationals” responsible for what one headline described as Rigby’s “Muslim murder” to the cries of “Allahu akbar” were the “Muslim converts” Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale. After publicly justifying their crime with reference to the British military fighting Muslims in Afghanistan, Adebolajo appeared “in court documents as Mujaahid Abu Hamza,” and Adebowale “wants to be known as Ismail Ibn Abdullah.” Such behavior calls into question the value of “British” nationality in the face of Islam, either in London or perhaps among the unidentified suspects onboard the PIA flight.
Thus South African journalists mentioning in the future Islam and Muslims will have to consider not just professional censure, but also penalties if they indicate that Islamic belief is “more readily identifiable” with any harm. Journalistic reliance on issues being “authoritatively confirmed” is also no guarantee of accuracy, as the “Allah Akbar”-screaming Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan, just as much a jihadist as his London brethren, faced charges of “workplace violence.” Speaking to a South African Muslim media outlet, SAMENET’s Faisal Suliman intended not to “let even the slightest transgression go.” Chilling effect indeed.
This article was commissioned by The Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.