We share an important contribution by Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers, published in Bitter Winter on the issue of how the media demonise religious minorities. Already in the past, Fautré had denounced the Belgian media's campaigns against the Christian congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses, giving misleading when not outright false information, which was punctually refused in court. But so be it, the damage was done and the aim achieved.
How Media Demonize Religious Minorities
Media have a responsibility in fueling hostility, hate speech, and even hate crimes against groups they label as “cults.”
by Willy Fautré — On 30 November, Maxette Pirbakas, a French member of the European Parliament, hosted an event about the situation of religious and spiritual minorities in the EU, in which representatives from various faiths participated as panelists. On that occasion, I spoke about the role and the responsibility of the media in fueling suspicion, hostility, hate speech and even hate crimes against some groups in society.
Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects the individual right to freedom of religion or belief, to practice it either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest one’s religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
The wording is very similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and so are other international instruments protecting freedom of religion or belief.
Willy Fautré, speaking at the European Parliament about how media often persecutes minority faiths. Photo credit: www.bxl-media.com.
The terminology issue
The United Nations, the European Court of Human Rights, the EU Court of Justice, and other international mechanisms use neutral terminologies to name any religious or belief community in their declarations, reports or court decisions.
The media, other information and communication actors in Europe, do not usually follow that practice towards a number of religious or belief movements that they identify as “cults” in English or variants of the word “sectes” in Latin, Germanic, Scandinavian or Slavic languages with a negative connotation. In the last decades, this negatively connotated category of “cults” or “sects” has been artificially constructed to try to exclude some religious or belief groups from the protection of Article 9 of the ECHR. The main drivers behind this movement of hostility were and are former disgruntled members.
The United Nations and European Court of Human Rights, whose jurisdiction extends to 46 European states, do not endorse such a discriminatory and derogatory distinction and categorization.
On 12 December 2022, the European Court insisted once more in the case “Tonchev and Others v. Bulgaria,” opposing three Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches to Bulgaria that a government cannot call a minority religion a “cult” in its official documents.
Similar decisions had already been taken by the ECHR in several other cases.
In 2021, in the case “Centre of Societies for Krishna Consciousness In Russia and Frolov v. Russia,” the ECHR ruled against a Russian brochure that had called the ISKCON, popularly known as the Hare Krishna movement, a “totalitarian cult” and a “destructive cult,” and concluded that “by using derogatory language and unsubstantiated allegations for describing the applicant centre’s religious beliefs” the Russian government had violated ISKCON’s freedom of religion.
The mechanism generating stigmatization, hostility, and intolerance
The categorization of some religious, spiritual or belief groups as “cults,” additionally qualified as dangerous, harmful, or totalitarian is first of all the work of the “anti-cultists.” These are either individuals, apostate ex-members, or anti-cult associations.
The misuse of these derogatory labels, used without restraint by anti-cultists, has caused a lot of damage to these religious minorities and their members in their personal and professional lives.
However, media outlets also have their share of responsibility in the stigmatization, hostility, intolerance, and damage caused to individuals when out of sensationalism they publish, without investigating and checking, biased and false accusations of the anti-cultists, and spread their fake news and sometimes quite gross lies. They thus create a climate of suspicion and hostility leading sometimes to hate crimes and deadly acts of violence, even in Europe.
Two recent court cases of gross lies
In 2020, FECRIS, the French-based umbrella organization of European anti-cult movements, lost a landmark case at the District Court of Hamburg, in Germany, where it was found guilty of 18 counts of untrue factual allegations against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In a press release, FECRIS falsely claimed that it had won the case it had in fact lost. Since the Jehovah’s Witnesses had claimed that 32 FECRIS statements were defamatory, and the court found 17 of them defamatory, one partially defamatory, and 14 non-defamatory, FECRIS claimed that it had successfully defended its case in Hamburg. What FECRIS failed to say is that it had to pay financial compensation to the German Jehovah’s Witnesses for being guilty of 18 counts of defamation.
Board members of FECRIS in 2021:
Luigi Corvaglia, Branka Dujmić, and Alexander Dvorkin
In October 2023, the Spanish Association of the Victims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (AEVTJ) was found guilty of having violated the Jehovah’s Witnesses right to honor by a court decision and was ordered to pay 5000 EUR in damages.
Surprisingly, the Spanish anti-cult association and their lawyer claimed on social media that they had won the case. In cases of defamation, it is clear that the party that wins receives an indemnification and the party that loses pays for it. In this case, the Spanish anti-cult association was sentenced to pay 5,000 euros to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and was therefore the loser.
False accusations, for example of sexual abuse, by anti-cult actors which make the headlines in the media are not uncommon and may have very serious repercussions on the image of a religious group although they happen afterwards to be declared unfounded by courts.
The role and the responsibility of the media
Unfounded accusations amplified by the media not only influence public opinion and reinforce stereotypes. They also shape the ideas of political decision-makers, and they may be officially endorsed by some democratic states and their institutions.
Two concrete examples of “mediabolization.” The first one is about the media coverage of a recent Scientology event in the UK and the second one about the media coverage of a false news concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses and alleged sexual abuse.
Case one: In early November, the International Association of Scientologists (IAS) celebrated its 39th anniversary in Saint Hill, East Grinstead (West Sussex), about 20 km from Gatwick airport. Three days were devoted to this event which after four years of interruption due to the COVID was attended by about 7000 people coming from all continents.
One week before, a huge anti-Scientology demonstration to be held by a former disgruntled member was announced by The Guardian as “the biggest one since 2008 organized by members of the internet-based group Anonymous outside the church’s London HQ, which attracted more than 300 people.” It was then allegedly one of the ten most-read articles on that day, according to the anti-Scientology protestors who stressed that the newspaper’s website reached 110 million unique readers per month.
The organizers also announced that the road to Saint Hill would be closed from 2pm until 10pm for their demonstration on 3 November but this never happened.
On the same day, Newsweek and The Express joined and amplified the same anti-Scientology operation, also announcing the same “mass gathering” against the movement and/or their leaders. However, such a huge event never took place.
There was no such big gathering: “46 protestors marched from East Grinstead and gathered at Scientology’s headquarters, making this the largest anti-Scientology’s protest since the Anonymous movement, 15 years ago,” according to the organizers themselves. Only 46 against the alleged over 300 demonstrators in 2008, which is seven times less… and they announced it as the biggest one for 15 years.
No such demonstration was ever visible or audible on the road to Saint Hill or near the entrance during the three-day event as the police kept them at distance.
None of these media outlets has afterwards reported on the failed demonstration in which less than 50 protestors participated but, in the meantime, they accepted to be their resonance box before their action and decided to keep silent after their big flop.
Moreover, the message that public opinion received from biased and misleading media reporting was that there was a huge anti-Scientology demonstration, which was not true.
Case two: The second example concerns Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Belgian state “cult” observatory CIAOSN, and the media.
In October 2018, the CIAOSN published a report about alleged sexual abuse of minors committed within the Jehovah’s Witness community and asked the Belgian federal parliament to investigate the issue.
The CIAOSN said it had received various testimonies from people claiming to have been sexually abused, leading to a series of searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ churches and homes.
The Belga press agency published a breaking news which immediately inflamed all the media: “Sexual abuse of minors among Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Information Center on Cults requests an inquiry.” Very soon, as it could be expected, the question mark disappeared from the title in the media online:
Twenty-four minutes later, La Libre Belgique and La Dernière Heure titled “Sexual abuse of minors among Jehovah’s Witnesses: An inquiry is necessary.”
Later, Le Soir, another leading newspaper, made one more step, titling “How Jehovah’s Witnesses in Belgium silence sexual abuse of minors inside their community.”
On the same evening, the Belgian francophone TV channel RTBF announced in its TV News that the CIAOSN was asking the House of Representatives to establish an inquiry commission about possible sexual abuses “among” Jehovah’s Witnesses. In addition, the RTBF posted on its website an article titled “Sexual abuse of minors among Jehovah’s Witnesses? The Information Center on Cults demands an inquiry.”
These accusations of sexual violence were strongly contested by the religious community. The Jehovah’s Witnesses felt that this was prejudicial to them and their reputation and took the case to court.
Four years later, in June 2022, the Court of First Instance in Brussels ruled in favor of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and condemned the CIAOSN.
The Brussels Court of First Instance also ordered the Belgian State to publish the judgement on the CIAOSN homepage for six months.
The court decision was welcomed by Jehovah’s Witnesses but very few media outlets published the court decision. Unfortunately, four years after the publicized unfounded charges, most Belgian citizens will go on believing that there were institutional cases of sexual abuse in Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations and that their hierarchy was covering up such criminal facts.
The reason why I took these two groups as examples is that they are the usual scapegoats of the anti-cultists and the media, but they can afford to go to court for defending their rights. Dozens of other small religious and spiritual groups do not have that financial capacity to fight in courts for years. Moreover, media outlets have the bad practice to systematically ignore requests for a right of reply of such groups.
From bad practices to good practices
This climate of hostility, intolerance and sometimes hate against marginal religious or belief groups in many European countries, which usually enjoys total impunity, was clearly denounced in the last report of the USCIRF (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom).
In the section devoted to anti-cultism, it stressed that “several governments in the EU have supported or facilitated the propagation of harmful information about certain religious groups”.
Just to name a few, it is certainly the case in Germany, Austria, France and Belgium, which created so-called cult observatories at the local or national levels. Such state institutions increasingly appear to be illegitimate in their modus operandi in the light of a number of decisions of the European Court which, among other things, clearly warn against the use of the term “cult” – or “sect” in other languages – because it fuels undue suspicion, stereotyping, and hostility towards some peaceful and law-abiding religious or belief groups.
To sum up USCIRF’s remarks:
- anti-cultists create from scratch “cults” that they describe as “dangerous or harmful to society,”
- the media, which thrive on sensationalism rather than facts, seize on the “cult” issue as a good topic because that boosts the sales or the audience,
- the States, misinformed by anti-cultists, feel obliged to protect their citizens from this scourge, and create exceptional laws and specialized repressive bodies, such as the Miviludes and the “cult police” in France.
Anti-cult associations, media outlets and anti-cult state institutions send a signal of distrust, threat and danger, and create a climate of suspicion, intolerance, hostility, and hatred in society.
Indeed, when groups are labeled dangerous to society by the media and state institutions, they send a signal to some unstable minds that getting rid, “in one way or another,” of these dangerous elements is a legitimate “civic” act.
Numerous reports highlight the dangerous impact that stigmatizing some religious or belief groups can have on them and their members:
- vandalism of places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ community buildings in Italy,
- anonymous bomb threats,
- death threats,
- armed individuals entering places of worship, as in the case of the Church of Scientology in France,
- the deadly shooting of seven Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany.
This phenomenon and intolerance towards religious and belief minorities wrongly labeled as “cults” does not exist in countries where there is no anti-cult organization.
Taiwan, where I was recently invited to participate in an international forum on religious freedom, is a good example of a good practice in this regard. There is no societal or state intolerance, no victim of distorted or false information, marginalization, discrimination, hate speech or hate crimes. Nothing as such is reported in the Taiwanese media, and consequently no unfounded government attitudes and policies toward groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientology.
In conclusion, European democracies are not entitled to teach lessons to others concerning religious intolerance and discrimination. They should sometimes be humble enough to follow the good practices of other countries.
To eradicate the spread of intolerance and hate crimes against religious minorities in Europe, their objective should be:
- to remind media outlets to abide by internationally recognized ethical standards when covering religious issues,
- to stimulate the organization of professional workshops for journalists and media people about how to cover issues related to religious minorities, without inciting illegitimate suspicion and hostility,
- to tell European states to refrain from stigmatizing specific religious or belief minorities and to follow the decisions of the European Court
Source: Bitter Winter