These core values provide the benchmarks by which journalism and its coverage of public life and the economic, cultural and political conditions of its audience need to be judged.
In that regard, this report pinpoints how journalism contributes (often inadvertently, but sometimes maliciously and deliberately) to anti-Muslim bias. It also looks at the political, commercial and professional environment in which journalists and media work and explains why ethical journalism remains of crucial importance to the social, cultural and political lives of all sections of society.
There are comments and views on particular aspects of the issue – from the journalist, of course, but also the policy maker and importantly from the perspective of women, who are particular targets and victims in the confusion and media misunderstanding over their identity and lives.
The news is not always bad. There are significant challenges and many media fail to uphold basic standards, but the report also highlights how journalists, applying the basics of their craft and working with local communities, are able to create better understanding between diverse people, cultures and faiths.
Not every question posed has a clear and incontestable answer, and there are no easy solutions to topics that require care, sensitivity and informed editorial judgement but the aim is to encourage self-reflection by journalists and editors as to how they can avoid contributing to ignorance, stigmatisation and division within communities of different faith and culture.
Stereotypes against Muslims are centuries old and have their roots in political disputes, social conflicts and wars fought on the southern and eastern borders of Europe over the past 500 years. Prejudice and bias has evolved in recent decades as a result of new threats emerging from the global economic crisis, the so-called “war on terror,” and a new migration crisis which has seen millions of people, many of them Muslim and displaced by war, famine and social dislocation seeking to enter Europe for refuge and to rebuild their lives.
These developments disturb the management of religious and cultural diversity and pose challenges for media and for journalism, which strive to report professionally in the midst of anti-Muslim rhetoric that associates Muslims with terrorism and extremism, or portrays the presence of Muslims in migrant communities as a threat to national identity.
This comes in particular from the frontline of European politics where conservative parties like Fidesz in Hungary trade successfully on populism and have enjoyed a revival in recent years.
Strong electoral performances by the more extreme far-right of politics in countries as diverse as Austria, Sweden, Poland, France, Germany, Italy and Greece has come on the back of shared values: a determination to protect national purity and ring-fence European civilisation from outside pollution, particularly through immigration.
Although they claim to represent ordinary people neglected and ignored by the established political order, these parties nurture base and strongly politically-incorrect opinions, giving them respectability, and they do so often with the backing of some populist and politically-aligned media.
They reflect the grumbling mood in cafes and bars, but their success is in exploiting people’s uncertainty and fears over corruption, crime, and economic austerity. For them, human beings are defined by race, religion and national origin and their search for scapegoats leads them to target migrant and Muslim communities as being responsible for the nation’s problems.
This simple political formula can win easy applause and often finds ground among underprivileged groups in society, but it succeeds often because of malicious lies, deceptive handling of the facts and a lack of humanity, all of which should be countered by media focused with a focus on accuracy, respect for the other and inclusive journalism.
Of course, within all religions there exists violently extremist patterns of behaviour, but the actions of a small minority of people who view themselves as Muslims and who claim to commit unspeakable acts of brutality “in the name of Islam” capture media and global attention, thanks to the instant transmission of images and propaganda through social networks and online media. Even though the vast majority of Muslims reject such forms of violence this has an impact on public opinion, particularly when reporting lacks depth and context and fails to tell the whole story.
Helping people to better understand the realities of conflict and the nature of change in modern society requires a complex and informed journalistic narrative that can help reduce ignorance, fear and uncertainty.
One telling fact not mentioned frequently enough in the media, for instance, is that Muslims are also prominent among the victims of terrorism. A 2011 report by the American National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), noted that: “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97% of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.”
Information helps to provide context to reporting as does a more general background about Islam and the realities of Muslim life. Most people know, for instance, that Islam is a world religion, but many are not aware that it is not a purely Arab faith. Although it began in the Middle East, and its holy sites are found there, around 80 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live elsewhere – mostly in Asia, in countries like Indonesia and Pakistan, for instance.
And the numbers that make up the Muslim community in Europe are also much less than most people think — although the exact number is not known, also according to estimates by the Pew Forum, the total number of Muslims in Europe (excluding Turkey) in 2010 was about 44 million, just six percent of the total population.
Filling the gaps in public knowledge is an essential task for journalism, particularly at a time when online disinformation, propaganda and abusive communications are part of the mix. At the heart of the matter is the cultural conflict which arises when Muslims are portrayed as a monolithic group, whose culture is incompatible with human rights and democracy.
This anxiety has brought cultural conflicts to the centre of the political stage. In 2012 Amnesty International issued a report on anti-Muslim bias and the threat it posed. The report highlighted moves in Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain to ban the full-face veils worn by some Muslim women, as well as a ban on minarets enacted in Switzerland in 2009.
The onset of the migration crisis in 2015 and the humanitarian catastrophe arising from wars in Syria and Iraq, which saw the displacement of more than three million people, heightened the sense of anxiety within many European communities while, at the same time, provoking an unprecedented wave of empathy and human solidarity in the face of thousands of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean and the creation of vast refugee camps in countries bordering Europe.
All of this — a historical legacy of rivalry and conflict, the rise of terrorism on a global and regional scale, flows of new migrants and refugees many from Muslim countries, social inequalities and economic dislocation and the accompanying rise in anti-Muslim bias — poses acute problems for media.
How media deal with this challenge is not made easier by the media’s own problems. Turbulence in the media market in recent years and a wholesale restructuring of the information industry has created newsrooms with less capacity. Journalists have less time to carry out their increasingly precarious work. At the same time, the explosion of other sources including online players and social networks has reduced the scope of access to reliable and trusted streams of information.
This has created a crisis of public trust in media and other sources of public information. Addressing that crisis is an urgent concern, not just for journalists and other media professionals, but also for sections of the audience, such as many in the Muslim community who feel neglected and ignored in the wider world of news and information.