The blame for the recent assault on the US Capitol and President Donald Trump’s broader dismantling of democratic institutions and norms can be laid at least partly on misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Those who spread misinformation, like Trump himself, are exploiting people’s lack of media literacy — it’s easy to spread lies to people who are prone to believe what they read online without questioning it.
We are living in a dangerous age where the internet makes it possible to spread misinformation far and wide and most people lack the basic fact-checking abilities to discern fact from fiction — or, worse, the desire to develop a healthy skepticism at all.
Journalists are trained in this sort of thing — that is, the responsible ones who are trying to counter misinformation with truth.
Here are five fundamental lessons from Journalism 101 that all citizens can learn to improve their media literacy and fact-checking skills:
1. Distinguishing verified facts from myths, rumours and opinions
Cold, hard facts are the building blocks for considered and reasonable opinions in politics, media and law.
And there are no such things as “alternative facts” — facts are facts. Just because a falsity has been repeated many times by important people and their affiliates does not make it true.
We cannot expect the average citizen to have the skills of an academic researcher, journalist or judge in determining the veracity of an asserted statement. However, we can teach people some basic strategies before they mistake mere assertions for actual facts.
Does a basic internet search show these assertions have been confirmed by usually reliable sources – such as non-partisan mainstream news organisations, government websites and expert academics?
Students are taught to look to the URL of more authoritative sites — such as .gov or .edu — as a good hint at the factual basis of an assertion.
Searches and hashtags in social media are much less reliable as verification tools because you could be fishing within the “bubble” (or “echo chamber”) of those who share common interests, fears and prejudices – and are more likely to be perpetuating myths and rumours.
2. Mixing up your media and social media diet
We need to be break out of our own “echo chambers” and our tendencies to access only the news and views of those who agree with us, on the topics that interest us and where we feel most comfortable.
For example, over much of the past five years, I have deliberately switched between various conservative and liberal media outlets when something important has happened in the US.
By looking at the coverage of the left- and right-wing media, I can hope to find a common set of facts both sides agree on — beyond the partisan rhetoric and spin. And if only one side is reporting something, I know to question this assertion and not just take it at face value.
3. Being skeptical and assessing the factual premise of an opinion
Journalism students learn to approach the claims of their sources with a “healthy skepticism”. For instance, if you are interviewing someone and they make what seems to be a bold or questionable claim, it’s good practice to pause and ask what facts the claim is based on.
Students are taught in media law this is the key to the fair comment defence to a defamation action. This permits us to publish defamatory opinions on matters of public interest as long as they are reasonably based on provable facts put forth by the publication.
The ABC’s Media Watch used this defence successfully (at trial and on appeal) when it criticised a Sydney Sun-Herald journalist’s reporting that claimed toxic materials had been found near a children’s playground.
This assessment of the factual basis of an opinion is not reserved for defamation lawyers – it is an exercise we can all undertake as we decide whether someone’s opinion deserves our serious attention and republication.
4. Exploring the background and motives of media and sources
A key skill in media literacy is the ability to look behind the veil of those who want our attention — media outlets, social media influencers and bloggers — to investigate their allegiances, sponsorships and business models.
For instance, these are some key questions to ask:
who is behind that think tank whose views you are retweeting?
who owns the online newspaper you read and what other commercial interests do they hold?
is your media diet dominated by news produced from the same corporate entity?
why does someone need to be so loud or insulting in their commentary; is this indicative of their neglect of important facts that might counter their view?
what might an individual or company have to gain or lose by taking a position on an issue, and how might that influence their opinion?
Just because someone has an agenda does not mean their facts are wrong — but it is a good reason to be even more skeptical in your verification processes.
The coronavirus might make Easter celebrations a little subdued this year, but that doesn’t mean going without chocolate eggs. In fact, South Australia’s chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier reportedly said people should partake in the Easter treats “to cheer ourselves up … I’ve certainly got a good supply of chocolate eggs already”.
But before you fill your shopping trolley (online or virtual) with chocolate, we urge you to think twice about whether it’s ethically produced.
The US Department of Labor has estimated that 2 million children carry out hazardous work on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
Our research has examined Nestlé, which claims its chocolate produced for specific markets is sustainably sourced and produced. A number of its chocolate products are certified through the UTZ and Fairtrade schemes.
Nestlé has adopted the Fair Labor Association (FLA) code of conduct that forbids child or forced child labour, and requires certain health and safety standards, reasonable hours of work and fair pay. Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan also outlines the company’s commitment to sustainability in its Ivory Coast cocoa supply chain.
But a 2016 FLA report said 80% of Nestlé’s cocoa procurement took place outside this plan. Of this part of the supply chain, just 30% was monitored by certification systems.
For the 70% of Nestlé cocoa farms outside certification programs, there was no evidence of training on labour standards or monitoring of working conditions. Assessors also found issues such as child labour, and health and safety issues.
More recently, Nestlé has stated its cocoa plan now covers 44% of its global cocoa supply, and the company is committed to sourcing 100% of cocoa under the plan by 2025.
On the issue of child labour, Nestlé last year reported it was “not proud” to have found more than 18,000 children doing hazardous work since a monitoring and remediation system began in 2012.
However the company would continue trying to eradicate the practice, including “helping children to stop doing unacceptable activities and, where needed, helping them to access quality education.”
Sweet sorrow: an industry problem
Other big chocolate players, such as Mars, Cadbury (owned by Mondelēz International), Hershey and Ferrero are also exposed to problems facing cocoa farming.
Many are taking action. Mars recently supported Ghana and the Ivory Coast in setting a floor price for cocoa, to increase the money paid to farmers.
Others have made moves towards better certification, including Hershey, which says it pays certification premiums to farmer groups who meet labour standards.
But despite years of pledges, progress across the sector is slow. The Washington Post last year reported major chocolate companies had missed deadlines to remove child labour from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008 and 2010. It said brands such as Hershey, Mars and Nestlé could still not guarantee their chocolates were produced without child labour.
Bad for the planet
Cocoa farming is a major driver of deforestation as farmers cut down trees to clear farmland. For example in 2017, the Guardian reported cocoa traders selling to Mars, Nestlé, Mondelez and other big brands had sourced beans grown illegally inside protected rainforest areas in the Ivory Coast.
A 2018 study found the chocolate industry in the UK produces the equivalent of more than 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. It took into account chocolate’s ingredients, manufacturing, packaging and waste.
And research last year by the CSIRO showed it takes 21 litres of water to produce a small chocolate bar.
In response to the problem, Mars and Nestlé have pledged to make their cocoa supply chain sustainable by 2025. Ferrero has committed to source 100% sustainable cocoa beans by 2020, and Mondelēz intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10% by 2025, based on 2018 levels.
But pledges do not necessarily transform into action. At a United Nations climate change conference in November 2017, big chocolate producers and the governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast committed to stopping deforestation for cocoa production. A year later, satellite mapping reportedly revealed thousands more hectares of rainforest in West Africa had been razed.
Instead, choose chocolate independently certified by the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade. This increases the chance that the cocoa was produced with minimal environmental damage, and workers are treated well.
In a recent ruling the Australian Press Council has given a signal to gossip magazines it is OK to make up and publish rubbish about people, so long as the stories aren’t “blatantly incorrect”.
This is despite the council’s own guidelines stating all member publications must strive for accuracy and avoid being misleading.
The council, which adjudicates complaints against the print media, has also suggested it’s OK to have less rigorous standards when reporting on royalty and celebrities.
And all this happened in a ruling against a magazine for publishing falsehoods.
A confused adjudication
The council has upheld a complaint about an article published in Woman’s Day on May 27 2019. The cover declared: “Palace confirms the marriage is over! Why Harry was left with no choice but to end it.”
The inside story was titled “This is the final straw” and claimed: “Prince Harry has been left enraged and humiliated by a series of shock revelations about his wife’s past” and he “has finally reached breaking point”.
In upholding the complaint, the Press Council said the headline was “blatantly incorrect” and not supported by the article’s contents. It also ruled the headline “was more than just an exaggeration […] it was misleading”.“
But the council has sent a strong signal it will be lenient with publications that exaggerate.
It said: ”[A]n entertainment publication can be expected to use some exaggeration” and “celebrity and gossip magazines are purchased for light entertainment, with readers not necessarily assuming that everything presented is factual”.
The phrase “not necessarily” suggests some people might believe what’s presented is factual. But, that aside, why is the Press Council making rulings at odds with its own general principles?
The first principle says publications should “ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion”.
How does it reconcile these two contradictory ideas? It’s a question Marcus Strom, the president of the journalists’ union, MEAA Media, has been considering. He told The Conversation:
The Press Council guidelines are clear that all member publications must strive to be factual and not misleading. I’m surprised that falsehoods – where not “everything presented is factual” – are allowed within that definition.
If you’ve walked past a rack of magazines in the supermarket and wondered just how many times the same celebrity can become pregnant, you may have asked yourself why these publications can print falsehoods on an almost industrial scale. You might have concluded they’re just gossip magazines and no one takes them seriously.
That same thinking seems to be driving the Press Council’s comments. But is that good enough?
The idea these publications have a special exemption from journalistic standards is a concept with almost no foundation in law. There is no special provision under Australia’s defamation laws for this class of magazines.
There is no “celebrity” defence that allows the media to make up lies about people. Even the defamation law’s defence of “triviality” offers very little protection. The Rebel Wilson case made that perfectly clear.
Lawyer Dougal Hurley, of Minter Ellison, tells The Conversation gossip magazines trade on light entertainment, and readers “can and do expect a level of hyperbole that they would not in news media”.
However, he concludes:
This does not mean that the defence of triviality will succeed if these magazines are sued for defamation. Indeed, the rejection of triviality defences by the jury [in the case of] Wilson is evidence of this. Gossip magazines that have not already changed their editorial practices risk being liable for significant defamation payouts.
The other controversial suggestion in the ruling is that the media can apply less rigorous standards when reporting on the royal family and celebrities.
The Council also acknowledges that the reasonable steps required to be accurate and not misleading in an article concerning royalty and celebrities can, depending on the circumstances, be different to those required in respect of other persons, particularly those who are not usually in the public eye.
The council offers little reasoning for this, but is no doubt assuming that, as public figures, they should expect incursions on their privacy and sensationalised coverage. Again, the council’s thinking is looking out of step with the increased use of the courts to combat inaccurate reporting and false gossip.
Hurley says: “Although in many respects gossip magazines are as they ever were, it is also true that they are bearing more risk in circumstances where they purport to report news and publish to a global audience instantaneously.”
While international celebrities may appear to be easy targets for gossip magazines, our notoriously plaintiff-friendly defamation laws mean that these celebrities can and will sue in Australia. Only a major overhaul of Australia’s defamation laws will prevent the libel tourism that has contributed to Australia becoming the defamation capital of the world.
Perhaps in these circumstances, the Press Council might do its members – and the public – a greater service by insisting proper standards apply to all reporting, and that accuracy and fact checking be the norm, even for the magazines at the supermarket checkout.
In October 2005 Stephen Colbert was just starting his eponymous show. It is somewhat chilling to realise that this was when he came up with the word truthiness: it seems so now.
It has taken a while to reach maturity and morphed into the even more menacing trumpiness. Truthiness captures the slippery world inhabited by those unencumbered by books, or facts, context or complexity – for those who just know with their heart rather than their heads – where things can just feel truthful.
Who would have thought that a little more than a decade later, the White House would be occupied by a man who makes the Colbert character seem almost reasonable. Quaintly charming. Trumpiness captures something even more sinister, statements that don’t even have to feel truthful, apparently ignorant rough-hewn words, weaponised for effect. Whatever comes out – alarmingly frequently words that sound as though they emanated from the crib sheet of a propaganda handbook.
In defining these words, Colbert provided a helpful predictor for a president who according to the Washington Post last week, had made 6,420 false or misleading comments in 649 days. That is industrial scale deception – small lies told over and over, medium sized lies that have become a new global lingua franca and big lies that take even his most ardent supporters by surprise and sometimes force a sort of retraction or denial – sort of, but only after they have already infiltrated the virtual world and got a life of their own.
This is not normal. It is not the way we have come to expect even a tainted public sphere, distorted by the commercialisation of public attention, to operate. The president’s mantra of fake news is, as he has admitted, a deliberate and determined effort to undermine confidence in what remains of a rigorous public sphere and professional journalism that takes itself seriously. In the unregulated, “more insidious” domain of the internet this is particularly dangerous.
Such industrial scale deception is at odds with the norms that characterise any flourishing civilisation. If truth is irrelevant to discourse, trust is not merely dented it is destroyed. Other norms of acceptable behaviour cannot be far away. What is happening now, goes well beyond spin or hollow speech. The New York Times correspondent Roger Cohen describes it as “corrosive, corrupting and contagious”.
In the shrunken global village this has dangerous implications everywhere, for public and personal behaviour. If the so called, “leader of the free world” can talk the way he does, without regard to fact or feeling, the level of civilisation is turned down everywhere he is heard.
What we are witnessing is behaviour contrary to the long-established moral core of a civilised society, arguably giving succour to evil, and deliberately destroying trust.
Democracy in retreat
So how did it come to this?
It is easy to feel that the world is going to hell in a handbasket – the news of catastrophe and disaster, the inflammatory US president, the distortion of social media, the global instability of superpower realignment, the palpable threat of climate change, the rise of authoritarian leaders – and that is for starters.
Freedom House, the Washington-based NGO, has been monitoring global freedom since 1941, when a very different US President articulated an expansive ethic that has since prevailed in “kin countries” and beyond. With the second world war in full, murderous, destructive fury, President Roosevelt declared that as human beings, all people were entitled to freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship their god in their own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. At the time it was ambitious rhetoric, demonstrably at odds with the wartime experience. But it provided guiding principles for a different future.
Last month in a very different context, Freedom House reported that around the world, political and civil rights sunk to their lowest level for a decade.
For the twelfth year in a row, democratic setbacks outnumbered gains. Democracy is in crisis. Values are under assault and in retreat in country after country. Young people are losing faith in politics. Trust has been eroded by commerce and the calcification of institutions. Millions of people are living without the rights we take for granted as a measure of civil, liberal, democratic society. Even nations that like to pride themselves on a deep democratic history are slipping on the scale, as trust in institutions is eroded and checks and balances slip out of equilibrium and technology remakes the way things are done.
Taking a wider view of the state of the globe provides a slightly more reassuring message, that that arc may still be bending the right way. But the tension between individual rights and popular will is fertile territory for authoritarian leaders and their shadow puppets.
Survival is deep in our make up, means we dwell on the negative, alert to threats and dangers, ready to respond to fear. But as Stephen Pinker and Kishore Mahbubani loudly proclaim, the bigger picture is not as bad as we might be inclined to think with one ear cocked to the latest news bulletin and an eye on the real Donald Trump’s twitter feed.
The Human Development Index shows that as a species we are living longer and better. Life expectancy at birth worldwide is now 71 years, and 80 in the developed world; for most of human existence most people died around 30. Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6% of the world’s population; still limiting the lives of too many, but 200 years ago, 90% lived in extreme poverty. In just the last 30 years, the proportion of the global population living with such deprivation has declined by 75%. Equally unappreciated is the fact that 90% of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write, including girls. For most of the history of Europe, no more than 15% of the people could read and write, mostly men.
So despite the truthiness feeling that things are going wrong, a lot is going right, for a lot of people, in a lot of countries. But this is a moment at risk of being squandered.
‘Reason sweeteened by values’
Which invites the question of what is at stake, how might the level of civilisation here be turned up, by whom, and to what end?
This was a question addressed by Robert Menzies when in 1959, as Prime Minister, he approved the formation of the Humanities Council, the precursor of the Australian Academy of Humanities. At the time, with the Cold War in full swing, and the memory of the hot war still smoking, Menzies declared the Humanities Council would provide,
Wisdom, a sense of proportion, sanity of judgement, a faith in the capacity of man to rise to higher mental and spiritual levels. We live dangerously in the world of ideas, just as we do in the world of international conflict. If we are to escape this modern barbarism, humane studies must come back into their own, not as the enemies of science, but as its guides and philosophic friends.
Now we are more often likely to hear prominent politicians pillorying the humanities as esoteric and truth-defying, and humanities scholars as ideologues in cahoots with self-aggrandizing scientists who are addressing the existential crisis of climate change for personal gain.
To attack the university system at precisely the moment when it reaches more people, when its impact on the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of the nation has never been higher, seems perverse. Based on medium-sized lies, madness even, from the zone of truthiness.
As the debate triggered by the Ramsay proposal has shown there is a lot at stake. For all the noise in the press, the very fact that there are lots of different ways of approaching the study of civilisations, has not been addressed except by snide, often ill-informed or defensive comments about “relativism”.
I am not a scholar of civilisations or a philosopher, but I am aware of some of the complexity of these debates. The need to define civilisation, and to allow the notion of civilisations, has preoccupied fine minds, and lead to different conclusions. Are there six civilisations, as Samuel Huntington suggested remained when he wrote his most famous essay The Clash of Civilisations? Or the 26, not including the civilisation of the first Australians, which Arnold Toynbee had identified a few decades earlier in his monumental work A Study of History.
Some maintain that civilisations are shaped by religion, others by culture, cities, language, ideology, identity or as a response by human beings to nature.
Civilisations flower and die. Some leave artefacts, buildings and monuments that endure. Others leave stories, philosophies, language, knowledge and ways of being that echo and resonate long after. Some just disappear, some suicide. Others grow and respond to interaction, adapting and changing as they go. And we now know, many leave a measurable trail in the polar ice, as the recent discovery of the traces of lead from Ancient Rome from 1100 BCE revealed.
As Kenneth Clark reputedly said after devoting his life to popularising the study of civilisation, “I don’t know what it is, but I recognise it when I see it.”
I like to think of it as a shorthand for the way human beings coexist with each other, the world they have created and the natural environment which makes it possible. While recognising the contestability of values, I like the positive humanity of Clive Bell’s notion of “reason sweetened by values” and RG Collingwood’s, “mental process toward ideal social relationships of civility”.
For me, civilisation is pluralist, contestable, open, polite, robust; buttressed by law, culture and institutions and maintained by sustainable economic conditions across time and place.
The need for a bill of rights
The barbarism of the second world war galvanised the creation of civilising mechanisms and institutions. They varied from country to country, with different impacts , but the intention was generally to expand rights and enhance democracy.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which will turn 70 on the 10th of December, was the most singular global response: its 30 rights recognise and spell out “the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”. Its symbolic power exceeds its legal effect, as George Williams has written. It forms part of customary international law and is seen as binding on all nations. It been translated into 500 languages. Australia has ratified two of the most important subsequent conventions which grew under its umbrella to define political and civil; social, economic and cultural rights – so it is not without effect here.
The Universal Declaration may well have faults and limits. Some regard it as “human rights imperialism” used by the West to run the world in ways that will protect and promote its interests. But when expansively applied, rather than as an embodiment of Western hegemony, it remains the best organising principle for civility that humanity has yet been devised. Ask women in Asia, India and the Middle East, democrats in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, activists in China or journalists in Russia.
Australians played an important role in the creation of the Declaration, but we have been tardy about its application. Ours is the only democratic nation which does not have a bill of rights – the only one. This is something that demands pause for thought. It is something we need to address if we are to foster an ethic for a distinctive, hybrid Australian civilisation.
It is probably worth noting in passing that some of the most strident opponents of an Australian bill of rights are also amongst the most vociferous promoters of a narrowly defined agenda to study western civilisation. It is easy in this environment to forget that the demographics are with those of us who see the arc of history bending up. Surveys show most Australians would welcome a formalisation of rights.
Surely a clear statement of rights and responsibilities is central to any attempt to define a civilisation and the way we co-exist, respectfully, sustainably, creatively.
More than a pale shadow
“Person by person the world does change,” Tony Abbott wrote in his essay for Quadrant that marked the beginning of the end of the Ramsay program at ANU. In his final paragraph, the former prime minister suggested that the “hundred bright young Australians” who received the proposed scholarships “might change the world”, and begin “a much more invigorating long march through our institutions!”
That makes me a little nervous. It sounds a bit like a fifth column, though I doubt that the students would be willing fodder for such a scheme. I suspect that if they were to embark on such a long march, they, like me, would prefer an open, inclusive, contested, respectful, non-ideological journey, grounded in the unique nature of this place as home to the oldest living civilisations, a product of British colonialism, the creation of people from every continent and our own imagining.
This country has a lot going for it, but we seem stuck in neutral. We need to regain ambition. To foster a remarkable country, one which learns from the mistakes of past and displaces complacent caution to imagine and create a robust, inclusive, generous, rights-based democratic order that will work well in the very different world of the 21st century.
It won’t come from politicians. It will, if history is a guide, be something that is worked up on the ground, in our universities, in our institutions, in our justice system, in business, community groups and on social media. As it takes shape, the politicians will follow and carry it forward.
There is a lot at stake. Person by person, we can help to turn the level of civilisation up in this place, so that it becomes much more than a pale shadow of the worst of the rest of the world.
This article is an excerpt of the 49th Academy Lecture delivered by Professor Julianne Schultz AM FAHA as part of the Australian Academy of the Humanities Symposium, ‘Clash of Civilisations: Where are we now?’ held at the State Library of NSW on 15 November 2018. The full lecture will be published in the 2019 edition of the Academy’s journal, Humanities Australia.
The article below concerns the sharing of pulpits between Muslims, Jews and Christians in a display of religious freedom. This is a disturbing practice that should not be followed by evangelical and reformed churches. The pulpit is a place for the proclaimation of the truth and is not to be polluted by every wind of doctrine. A more thorough treatment of this issue is certainly warranted but will not be given here at this time.
I am totally for religious freedom and believe that Muslims and Jews, as well as those of other faiths, have a right to worship according to their conscience. This does not mean that I believe their faiths to be right or acceptable before God, only that they must stand or fall before God and not I. However, as Christians we are obligated to remain steadfast in the truth and to not open any avenue in our churches for that which is not the truth.
Judge rules Christian did not ‘create chaos’ by distributing literature near Islamic event.
DHAKA, Bangladesh, March 31 (CDN) — A judge this week exonerated a Christian sentenced to one year in prison for selling and distributing Christian literature near a major Muslim gathering north of this capital city, his lawyer said.
After reviewing an appeal of the case of 25-year-old Biplob Marandi, the magistrate in Gazipur district court on Tuesday (March 29) cleared the tribal Christian of the charge against him and ordered him to be released, attorney Lensen Swapon Gomes told Compass. Marandi was selling Christian books and other literature when he was arrested near the massive Bishwa Ijtema (World Muslim Congregation) on the banks of the Turag River near Tongi town on Jan. 21.
On Feb. 28 he was sentenced for “creating chaos at a religious gathering” by selling and distributing the Christian literature.
“Some fundamentalist Muslims became very angry with him for selling the Christian books near a Muslim gathering,” Gomes said, “so they harassed him by handing over to the mobile court. His release proves that he was innocent and that he did not create any trouble at the Muslim gathering.”
The judge reviewing the appeal ruled that Marandi proved in court that he sells books, primarily Christian literature, for his livelihood.
“I am delirious with joy, and it is impossible to say how happy I am,” said his brother, the Rev. Sailence Marandi, a pastor at Church of Nazarene International in northern Bangladesh’s Thakurgaon district. “I also thank all those who have prayed for my brother to be released.”
After processing the paperwork for Marandi’s release from Gazipur district jail, authorities were expected to free him by the end of this week, according to his lawyer.
“My brother is an innocent man, and his unconditional release proved the victory of truth,” Pastor Marandi said. “I am even more delighted because my brother’s release proves that he was very innocent and polite.”
The pastor had said his brother did not get the opportunity to defend himself at his original trial.
Marandi’s attorney on appeal argued that his religious activities were protected by the religious freedom provisions of the country’s constitution. The Bangladeshi constitution provides the right for anyone to propagate their religion subject to law, but authorities and communities often objected to efforts to convert people from Islam, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom report.
Every year several million male Muslims – women are not allowed – attend the Bishwa Ijtema event to pray and listen to Islamic scholars from around the world. Some 9,000 foreigners from 108 countries reportedly attended the event, though most of the worshippers are rural Bangladeshis. About 15,000 security personnel were deployed to maintain order.
Bangladeshi Muslims equate the annual event with the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This year the Bangladesh event was held in two phases, Jan. 21-23 and Jan. 28-30.
At the same event in 2009, Muslim pilgrims beat and threatened to kill another Bible school student as he distributed Christian literature. A patrolling Rapid Action Battalion elite force rescued Rajen Murmo, then 20, a student at Believers’ Church Bible College, on Feb. 1, 2009.
Bangladesh is the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority nation, with Muslims making up 89 percent of its population of 164.4 million, according to Operation World. Christians are less than 1 percent of the total, and Hindus 9 percent.
Christians in Muslim-dominated countries are facing increased persecution. Over the last month, churches in Indonesia have been attacked and forced to close. A mob of Pakistani Muslim extremists shot and beat dozens of Christians, including one cleared earlier of "blasphemy" charges.
These Christians, and many more worldwide, are not free to believe.
Open Doors USA is launching an advocacy campaign called "Free to Believe." The campaign will focus on helping persecuted Christians who currently do not have religious freedom like Christians do in the United States.
The campaign is a response to the United Nations Defamation of Religions Resolution which threatens the freedom of religion and expression for Christians and members of minority faiths worldwide.
This resolution seeks to criminalize words or actions perceived as attacks against a religion, with the focus being on protecting Islam. Passing this resolution would further result in the United Nations condoning state-sponsored persecution of Christians and members of other faiths.
Many of the countries supporting this resolution are the Islamic-majority countries of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) that persecute Christians and other religious minorities. Members of minority faiths such as Christians or Jews who make truth claims or even evangelize can be accused of "defamation," and those individuals can be punished under national blasphemy laws as frequently happens in countries like Pakistan. Tragically, the UN resolution provides legitimacy to these countries’ blasphemy laws.
While the Defamation of Religions Resolution has been introduced and passed by the UN in the past–in various forms and under various titles since 1999, support for the resolution has been eroding in recent years. The Open Doors advocacy team has been lobbying countries which have voted for the resolution or abstained from voting on the issue in the past. The resolution is up again this fall for re-authorization.
It is important to encourage key countries to change their vote on this resolution. These countries are not easily influenced by American citizens. But they are more receptive to pressure from our legislators. That’s why we’re asking you to send a message to your legislator, asking him or her to ask key countries to change their vote on the Defamation of Religions Resolution. A sample letter is provided for you to send which includes the necessary information for your elected officials to lobby the target UN country missions.
"It’s dangerous and alarming that a UN resolution provides legitimacy to national blasphemy laws that are used to persecuting Christians and other minority faith groups," says Open Doors USA Advocacy Director Lindsay Vessey. "The United Nations Defamation of Religions Resolution in effect amounts to the UN condoning state-sponsored persecution. We as Christians need to speak out against it and do all in our power to stop its passage. Everyone should be free to believe."
Christian’s sentence for ‘proselytism,’ burning poles called excessive.
ISTANBUL, September 17 (CDN) — Nearly five years into the prison sentence of the only Christian in Morocco serving time for his faith, Moroccan Christians and advocates question the harsh measures of the Muslim state toward a man who dared speak openly about Jesus.
By the end of December Jamaa Ait Bakrim, 46, will have been in prison for five years at Morocco’s largest prison, Prison Centrale, in Kenitra. An outspoken Christian convert, Bakrim was sentenced to 15 years prison for “proselytizing” and destroying “the goods of others” in 2005 after burning two defunct utility poles located in front of his private business in a small town in south Morocco.
Advocates and Moroccan Christians said, however, that the severity of his sentence in relation to his misdemeanor shows that authorities were determined to put him behind bars because he persistently spoke about his faith.
“He became a Christian and didn’t keep it to himself,” said a Moroccan Christian and host for Al Hayat Television who goes only by his first name, Rachid, for security reasons. “He shared it with people around him. In Morocco, and this happened to me personally, if you become a Christian you may be persecuted by your family. If you keep it to yourself, no one will bother you. If you share it with anyone else and start speaking about it, that’s another story.”
Rachid fled Morocco in 2005 due to mounting pressure on him and his family. He is a wanted man in his country, but he said it is time for people to start speaking up on behalf of Bakrim, whom he said has “zeal” for his faith and speaks openly about it even in prison.
“Our Moroccan brothers and sisters suffer, and we just assume things will be OK and will somehow change later by themselves,” said Rachid. “They will never change if we don’t bring it to international attention.”
Authorities in Agadir tried Bakrim for “destruction of the goods of others,” which is punishable with up to 20 years in prison, and for proselytism under Article 220, which is punishable with six months to three years in prison.
“Jamaa is a manifestation of a very inconvenient truth for Moroccan authorities: there are Moroccan converts to Christianity,” said Logan Maurer, a regional director at U.S.-based advocacy group International Christian Concern (ICC). “The government wants to ignore this, suppress it, and when – as in Jamaa’s case – the problem won’t go away, they do whatever they can to silence it.”
Proselytism in Morocco is generally defined as using means of seduction or exploiting weakness to undermine the faith of Muslims or to convert them to another religion.
Recently Morocco has used the law to punish any proclamation of non-Muslim faith, contradicting its pledge to allow freedom to manifest one’s faith under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which it is a signatory. Article 18 of the covenant affirms the right to manifest one’s faith in worship, observance, practice or teaching.
The covenant also states, however, that “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
There are an estimated 1,000 Moroccan Christian converts in the country. They are not recognized by the government. About 99 percent of Morocco’s population of more than 33 million is Muslim.
Between March and June authorities expelled 128 foreign Christians in an effort to purge the country of any foreign Christian influences. In April nearly 7,000 Muslim religious leaders backed the deportations by signing a document describing the work of Christians within Morocco as “moral rape” and “religious terrorism.” The statement from the religious leaders came amid a nationwide mudslinging campaign geared to vilify Christians in Morocco for “proselytism” – widely perceived as bribing people to change their faith.
In the same time period, Moroccan authorities applied pressure on Moroccan converts to Christianity through interrogations, searches and arrests. Christians on the ground said that, although these have not continued, there is still a general sense that the government is increasingly intolerant of Christian activities.
“They are feeling very bad,” said Rachid. “I spoke to several of them, and they say things are getting worse…They don’t feel safe. They are under a lot of disappointment, and [they are] depressed because the government is putting all kinds of pressure on them.”
From Europe to Prison
Bakrim, a Berber from southern Morocco, studied political science and law in Rabat. After completing his studies he traveled to Europe, where he became a Christian. Realizing that it would be difficult to live out his new-found faith in Morocco, in 1993 he applied for political asylum in the Netherlands, but immigration authorities refused him and expelled him when his visa expired.
In 1995 Bakrim was prosecuted for “proselytizing,” and spent seven months in jail in the city of Goulemine. In April 1996 he was transferred to a mental hospital in Inezgane, where authorities ordered he undergo medical treatments. He was released in June. The psychiatric treatment caused side-effects in his behavior and made it difficult for him to control his hands and legs for a period of time, sources told Compass.
Two years later authorities put him in jail again for a year because he publicly displayed a cross, according to an article by Moroccan weekly Le Journal Hebdo published in January 2005.
“He has a zeal about his religion,” said Rachid. “He never denied his faith through all these things, and he even preached the gospel in prison and the psychiatric place where they held him … They tried to shut him [up], and they couldn’t.”
In 2001 Bakrim again attracted attention by painting crosses and writing Bible verses in public view at his place of business, which also served as his home, according to the French-language weekly. Between 2001 and 2005 he reportedly wrote to the municipality of Massa, asking officials to remove two wooden utility posts that were no longer in use, as they were blocking his business. When authorities didn’t respond, Bakrim burned them.
During his defense at the Agadir court in southern Morocco, Bakrim did not deny his Christian faith and refuted accusations that he had approached his neighbors in an attempt to “undermine their Muslim faith.”
The judge ruled that “the fact that Jamaa denies accusations of proselytism is inconsistent with his previous confession in his opening statement when he proclaimed he was the son of Christ, and that he wished that Moroccans would become Christians,” according to Le Journal Hebdo.
Bakrim did not appeal the court sentence. Though there have been other cases of Christians imprisoned for their faith, none of their sentences has been as long as Bakrim’s.
“They will just leave him in the prison so he dies spiritually and psychologically,” said Rachid. “Fifteen years is too much for anything they say he did, and Jamaa knows that. The authorities know he’s innocent. So probably they gave him this sentence so they can shut him [up] forever.”
Rachid asked that Christians around the world continue to lobby and pray that their Moroccan brothers and sisters stand firm and gain their freedoms.
“The biggest need is to stand with the Moroccan church and do whatever it takes to ask for their freedom of religion,” said Rachid.