This letter was sent to the Forum (Editorial) section of Singapore's leading and most widely read newspaper - The Straits Times, on 3rd February 2000. The ST did not print it.
Since the ST refuses to acknowledge the following information, other ways must be utilised to spread awareness regarding the biased portrayal of Muslim "terrorists" versus Non-Muslim ones. This problem is not just a problem for Singaporeans because almost every newspaper in the world is guilty of biased coverage. The media is a major contributing factor to the marred reputation of Islam and Muslims, on top of a small minority of Muslim terrorists.
This article was published in The Ridge - the most widely distributed monthly newspaper of The National University of Singapore (NUS), of which the writer, Fareena Alam, was a student and Political Analysis Desk writer.
To The Editor
The Straits Times
3rd February 2000
I am writing on behalf of NUS Muslim Society to express my concern over the coverage of sensitive religious issues in the Straits Times. I will refer particularly to the coverage of the violence in the troubled Maluku Islands, Indonesia, the terrorist attack in Thailand and the bomb blast in a Karachi mosque.
A look at the coverage between January 5th and 31st Jan will show the following:
1. Attacks on Christians and churches are directly attributed to Muslims in numerous reports, a high percentage of which are given prominence, in bold, and on the front page.
2. In comparison, attacks on Muslims are never bold front-page reports. Instead, they are featured on or after page 26 and are described as incidences pending confirmation. However, reports like "Muslims call for Jihad!" in large bold letters are featured on the front page the following day - the reason for calling to 'jihad' - the massacre and burning of Muslims by Christians - gets little coverage.
This leaves readers who are unaware or ill-informed about the real situation in Maluku the impression that Muslims are bloodthirsty people who attack Christians and destroy churches for no reason, and by inference, that Islam condones such actions.
You may wish to look at the contrasting manner of your coverage for the month of January.
- Muslim cries of "Jihad” – 7th Jan, Front Page, 8th Jan, Page 2
- “Renewed violence….Muslims backed by soldiers attacked 3 Christian villages.” Page 3 24th Jan
- “Gus Dur warns Muslims against ‘Holy War”’ 12th Jan, Front Page
- “Gus Dur orders ‘;stern action’ as thousands flee riot-torn Lombok” with picture of victimised Christian family 21st Jan, Page 4
- “Massacre of 25 Christians and churches burnt” pg 30, 26th Jan
- “Lombok mobs rage on” with heavy accusations against Muslims, pg 32, 20th Jan
- “Muslims hold rallies and attack churches in protest over Malukus” Front page, 31st Jan
- “Holy War ‘is not call for violence’” pg 26, 12th Jan
- “Religious leaders call for end to violence.” Pg 27, 24th Jan
- - Slaughter of 200 Muslims by Christians - the reason for the call to jihad is entitled “Jakarta probes Muslim ‘massacre’ in Maluku” pg 26, 5th Jan, giving the impression that the report is unconfirmed whereas Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia Correspondent for the Independent, reported, "Aid workers say they have found the bodies of large numbers of Muslims massacred and burnt by Christians in the ongoing violence in the Indonesian Spice Islands. A doctor with the aid team said he had seen a mosque in the village of Popilo in which bodies lay five deep. More bodies, including those of young children, were bulldozed into the ground near by. 'I think it was about 200 bodies,' he was quoted as saying. 'I saw some dried blood in the mosque, so I assume .... that the victims were slaughtered inside the mosque.'"
- “10, 000 flee violence in Maluku” 6th Jan, printed on pg 29. ST makes no mention of what the Associated Press had written, "The Indonesian Observer daily quoted local residents as saying most of those fleeing were Muslim, and that Christian militias had gone on a killing spree throughout the island."
- Muslim scholars criticising violence, saying Muslims attacking Christians or seeking revenge is unIslamic and sinful reported on page 26, 13th Jan
A similar manner of reporting can be observed with regards to the following:
1. The bomb blast in a mosque in Karachi (which killed four people and was attributed to “a neighboring country”) is a small report on Pg 12 of 19th Jan
2. Terrorist attack in Thailand: It was then attributed to ‘God’s army’ which is led and run by Christians but despite three half-page reports on 25th January and one half-page report on 26th Jan, the word ‘Christian’ was mentioned just once, both issues put together. On the contrary, coverage during the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane depended heavily on the usage of phrases like “Muslim fundamentalists”, “Islamic terrorists”, “Islamic radicals”, etc. thus giving the impression that in the former case, a terrorist attack can be separated from religious affiliation while in the latter, it simply cannot.
To be fair, reports from different media sources actually point to one stark reality that both Christians and Muslims are to be blamed in the Maluku Islands. They are probably not religious men, but racial and extremist zealots who are out to create trouble, either to serve their own interests or were acting as proxies of other instigators. As Muslims, we must emphasise that Islam instructs all terrorist attacks regardless of who the perpetrators are, to be condemned.
It may not be intentional on your part but it is imperative that for the credibility of the Straits Times that extra care is taken to avoid being proven as biased in the coverage of such issues. Our research shows that the diction used and the strategic page location of various reports promote the interest of a particular group of people and thus, do not present an accurate picture.
It would hurt local Christians to see terrorist attacks or war crimes afflicted by God’s Army, the Serbs, the Nazis or the Russians as associated with Christianity. Similarly it hurts local Muslims to see the same being attributed conveniently and indiscriminately to Islam.
It is not the job of the media to take sides and it certainly betrays the ethics of professional journalism to present facts in such a way that readers are given a lop-sided picture of the state of affairs. It is also not in line with aspects of the Singapore constitution which address religious equality and harmony in Singapore.
This is a rapidly globalising world. Singaporeans are no longer totally dependant on the Straits Times for news. The Internet brings 5000 newspapers from around the world to the fingertips of any surfer. Singapore Cable Vision (SCV) provides access to BBC and CNN among other news stations. Local universities subscribe to dozens of daily newspapers and periodicals from around the world, making them easily accessible to all students. This has made the Singaporean more aware of world events as presented by a variety of news sources. This poses a challenge to the Straits Times to keep up with the race to bring readers reliable and unbiased coverage.
We hope that the Straits Times will continue to make a conscious effort to bring readers reliable and unbiased coverage, particularly on issues of some sensitivity to our multi-religious population.
Outreach Secretariat Assistant Head, Muslim Society, NUS and
President, United Nations Students’ Association of NUS