Religious extremism is a threat to democracy’s oxygen

by Mitch Diamantopoulos

mediaThe beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto and the attack on Paris’s satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo are only the latest reminders of the menace posed to journalists by religious hatred’s rising global tide. Around the world, 61 journalists were killed in 2014.

The Committee to Protect Journalists tracks these attacks. So far, 71 journalists have been killed covering the Syrian conflict, a figure that includes the Islamic State’s gruesome beheadings of American reporters James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Another 80 journalists have been abducted in Syria.

In Iraq, Islamic State attacked the Salaheddin TV station in Tikrit in late 2013, taking five lives.

Also in 2013, Boko Haram threatened attacks on 14 local and international news outlets. It bombed three Nigerian newspapers in one day. Nine people were killed and over a dozen wounded.

A long dark shadow has thus been cast over the press’s freedom to report on fundamentalist Islam. As they cover the jihadists’ daily catalogue of atrocities, fear and self-censorship define the future for the world’s journalists. After all, reporters have families and co-workers to think of as well as their own lives.

Recent attacks in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu and on Parliament Hill provide further graphic evidence of the globalization of fundamentalist religious terror. Like the French or Japanese, Canadian journalists can no longer consider militant Islam a problem for others elsewhere.

Open Season On Journalists?

The objective of this holy war on the press is clear: to intimidate and silence those who dare question the jihadis’ mission.

Of course, journalism is always under attack by those who prefer the public ignorant, apathetic and acquiescent. The cast of villains changes but the contradiction is endemic. Someone will always have reasons to lie, interests to protect, secrets to conceal and corruption to cover-up.

By definition, journalists are a threat to authoritarians of all stripes, including the jihadist mullahs. Reporters spread cosmopolitan, democratic and secular ideas. They ask inconvenient questions. All this empowers the public but challenges the imams’ authority.

In the age of Enlightenment, stamp taxes, printing house searches and licensing were designed to smother the pauper press in its cradle. In the mid-20th century, Orwell warned against propaganda capsizing independent thought. Today, a new menace has rolled into our newsrooms: a fog of fear.

Democracy As Collateral Damage

Attacks on journalistic freedom are also an attack on the public’s right to know. If media are, as McLuhan argued, our extended nervous system, then narrowing the range of acceptable expression impairs our ability to see clearly and think coherently. Fear smothers the fullest and most wide-ranging and robust exchange of views. It cuts off democracy’s oxygen supply.

Without comprehensive freedom of expression, we deal in half-truths, truths that can’t be stated and untruths that can’t be challenged. In this shadow world of fear, chill and self-censorship, the public is rendered increasingly deaf, blind, dumb and mute.

When fear pervades our newsrooms, Canadians have no way of knowing how much is being left unsaid, how many punches are being pulled and which opinions parading as moderation are in fact sponsored by the calculus of self-preservation. Are publishers really being sensitive to faith communities when they decline to reprint cartoons of the prophet Muhammad or are they simply protecting the safety of their staff? The problem is that we have no way of knowing when journalists are calling it straight and when they’re putting water in their wine.

In this new cultural environment, the truth about religious totalitarianism is shriveled and softened by fear. The risk is not simply that certain parts of the planet are not safe for the prying eyes and ears of journalists. More pernicious is the self-censorship of the press corps, which equally plunges those issues into dark obscurity. The risk is a denatured journalism of convoluted language, obscure metaphor and evasive euphemism; a journalism on the run from the raw truth, carefully affected to avoid offense.

Without fearless investigation into this contentious new threat, reporters also risk falling into the habit of reflexive equivocation in the face of power.

Unfree to think independently, clearly and critically on this issue, humanity is thus set adrift—left to the mercies of ignorance and the demagogues who profit from it.

In this grave new world, the public risks losing its intellectual balance, our sense of proportion and our moral compass.


Mitch Diamantopoulos is the department head of the University of Regina School Of Journalism and a co-founder of Prairie Dog and Planet S.