Religious Freedom and the Media

In 1998, Congress created the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Its mandate was to “monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad.”

Part of this monitoring involves visits to the countries where violations of religious freedom are alleged to have occurred.

That’s why the Commission planned to visit India in response to reports about the killing of Christians in the Indian state of Orissa. The killings were part of a larger campaign of violence and intimidation that has left 100 people dead and thousands of Christians homeless.

As the word “planned” suggests, the Commission never traveled to India. The Indian government never issued the required visas and hasn’t explained why. This gives India the dubious distinction of being the only democracy to have refused a visit by the Commission.

While there has been no official explanation, the reasons for the refusal are well known, at least in India. Hindu nationalists had demanded that the Commission not be allowed to visit India. One leader called the Commission an “intrusive mechanism . . . interfering with the internal affairs of India.”

One government official told the Times of India that the visit “would have raised hackles in India.”

Fear of raised hackles is unworthy of a country that takes pride in being the world’s largest democracy. Respecting human rights, after all, requires raising the hackles of those violating those rights.

The most shameful performance, however, wasn’t the Indian government’s but, instead, the American media’s. Terry Mattingly of the Washington Journalism Center noted that “all of the coverage” of what he calls this “amazing, even stunning news” is “on the other side of the world.”

As if to emphasize this point, the details quoted in this commentary and Mattingly’s blog post are from Baptist Press. If Christians were not following the story, few if any Americans would know that their government was snubbed on a matter of religious freedom and human rights by an ally.

It is difficult to imagine a clearer example of what Mattingly calls the “blind spot” of the media when it comes to religion. In the recent book of the same name, Mattingly and other writers show how this “blind spot” causes the media to get important stories wrong or, in cases like this one, miss the story altogether.

In a profession where “diversity” borders on an obsession, religion is the exception. People who “identify with the lives of believers” and “treat religion with respect” and, when warranted, skepticism, are rare in our newsrooms. In the absence of such people, religion is often viewed through the lens of politics, which does a disservice to both the subject of the stories and to the readers.

That’s why stories about “human-rights issues linked to religion” are ignored by the media—and why they wind up in what Mattingly calls that strange nowhere land called “conservative news.”

And whether the media’s ignorance of religion is willful or not, it remains ignorance. And that should raise all our hackles, as should India’s intransigence.

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  • Warren Jewell

    To be a bit Niemoellerian on a tangent:
    They came for the unborn, flaunting judicial positivist (unconstitutional) activism. But, well, I had been born, and I said and did nothing that would rock the boat.
    They came for admittedly strange outsiders – think Waco – but settled for violence over due process – but, hey, they aren’t my sect or affiliation, so I looked ‘over that way’.
    They put Israel under guns and rockets not to mention suicide bombers; but I am not Israeli, so why would I let that bother me?
    They placed mortgage financiers under political pressures, and were instrumental in economic collapse. I frankly was unaware just how bad it all was. I’ll guess that I’ll still ‘play dumb’.
    They came for the professional and career scalps of men who employ others, and they did so by using subterfuge and fear, and that economic collapse crisis (they helped cause) that aids political opportunism. But, I don’t CEO nuttin’ – so I just watch.
    They have undermined not so much capitalism as entrepreneurism and proprietorship. But, I only consume – not my fight.
    They will tax our descendants and ‘cap’ (read: tax) their prosperity and ‘trade’ (read: tax) them into common misery of penury. I’ll be dead – don’t have much gravitas with me.
    They will pass National Health, and we’ll all find out why I’ll be dead – too old, too sick, too costly, too expendable, like unborn babies. But, there will be no one to help me, as they struggle to recover just the basic American prosperity for themselves and their children.

    May God have mercy on every one of us.