Religious sensitivities in Singapore and proper editorial judgement

Chan Jia Hui

Muslims praying peacefully

Muslims praying peacefully

A furore was recently kicked up when Mr Donaldson Tan was approached to assist in an investigation over a reposted Facebook picture that was considered highly provocative. Tan reposted a picture of a pig superimposed on Kaaba, a sacred cuboid building in Mecca. Pigs are considered unclean to muslims which explains the provocative nature of the picture.

Reports have highlighted Tan’s role as an editor of the New Asia Republic, my current colleague, after his departure from The Online Citizen.

The reason behind Tan’s actions, as he explains, was to act as a whistle-blower to warn the community of the existence of that controversial picture. This was why he placed a disclaimer on the picture, “This is a flame bait. YOU ARE WARNED”. When told to take down the posting, Tan did not do so, but what was not reported by the media both mainstream and alternative was that he actually gave a tip to the others on how the picture could be taken down via Facebook. The picture together with its postings was subsequently removed by Facebook administrators.

The situation was exacerbated when Tan expressed his view that “Islam is not sacrosanct”. Thus, was Tan guilty of religious provocation?

It is plausible that Tan had the intentions to whistle blow because firstly, he warned that the picture was a flame bait and secondly, he also gave a tip on how the picture can be taken down. However, what Tan could have done better is to better communicate his intent to whistle-blow, and avoid posting his personal views of Islam not being sacrosanct. He is entitled to his personal views, but from a PR perspective, it might not have been the most appropriate thing to say at that instant.

Proper communication is important especially when discussing sensitive religious issues and in this case, blowing the whistle on a religiously provocative picture. One would have thought the episode had reached its conclusion when Facebook took down the picture, but that was not the case.

Amran Junid, who was clearly aggrieved by the incident subsequently not only made a police report, but went to a media outlet, The Online Citizen, and told the world at large about it. This begs the question about Amran’s agenda about blowing up a matter which has long being resolved by the Facebook administrators.

Granted that he may be well within his rights to make a police report, questions will be asked of his going to the media with the report. Checks on Amran’s background have shown that he is closely linked with an opposition party, the National Solidarity Party, which contested our General Elections.

Therefore, the following questions could be asked of Amran with regards to his making the police report and subsequently approaching a media outlet for widespread publication of the case:

1)What does he intend to achieve with this widespread publicity?
2)Was political gain in question, e.g. scoring points for the National Solidarity Party with the muslim community for being a vigilante or exposing someone whom he believed has harmed its interest?
3)Why go to a media outlet before police investigations have concluded?

The Online Citizen’s publication of the matter by Miss Jewel Philemon (the daughter of Interim Chief Editor, Mr Ravi Philemon) also raises some questions as well, firstly, because a police report is usually of a private nature. The fact that someone wants to make public something of a private nature raises some degree of suspicion of a potential agenda.

Police reports have proven to be a sticky issue in the past. The late Mr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam announced to a rally crowd about two police reports made against the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and his people. Jeyaretnam was subsequently sued by Mr Goh and others. A police report has already claimed a victim in Jeyaretnam.

Usually, when someone like Amran makes a police report and the matter is under investigation, proper editorial judgement will tell us that Amran should be advised to wait for the conclusion of the investigation by the police before publicising the matter. This is what an editor worth his weight in gold should do. A police report may or may not be a serious matter, non-serious ones are domestic disputes, while serious ones are real crimes.

However, of course, a sensational tabloid would have just blown up the matter, when someone like Amran approached them with a police report like such regardless of whether investigations have concluded.

Thus, proper editorial judgement involves selecting which topics are necessary to highlight to the public. Worthy causes, for example, like helping a family in need, helping to create public awareness of a health hazard and all those along these lines should be highlighted to the public. However, when a potentially inflammatory religious matter, which is pending investigation, is blown up and sensationalised, it could have a counter-productive impact on the society or individuals and groups implicated like for example, generating mutual feelings of dislike.

Thus, what separates good editors from the bad ones is the ability to judge which stories deserve the light of the day, and which to turn away or keep in view.

Secondly, the report by The Online Citizen failed to include another angle, that from Tan himself. The angle only came from Amran himself who approached with the police report, but proper objectivity requires granting an interview with Tan too.

Therefore, in essence, there are no saints in this episode. Tan, for example, could have communicated better his whistle-blowing intent. Questions could be asked of Amran for approaching a media outlet before police investigations even concluded. Last of all, The Online Citizen’s interim chief Mr Philemon and his daughter, Jewel, should also take responsibility for any counter-productive impact generated from this publication because proper editorial judgement would involve waiting for investigations to conclude and generating another angle from Tan. In this case, it is poor editorial judgement.

Photo courtesy of Irumge, Flickr Commons