The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Herald Sun on 12 November 2020 headed “Islam butchers slaughter women and kids” in print on page 19.
The article reported that “Heavily armed Islamic militants have killed dozens of unarmed villagers in a campaign to establish a caliphate in southern Africa… Up to 50 people, including women and children, were murdered, with some beheaded and dismembered in a three-day rampage in north Mozambique.”
In response to a complaint received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether its use of the words “Islam” in the headline and “Islamic” in the article complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice. These require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with fairness and balance (General Principle 3) and to take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6). The Council noted that the complaint raised concerns that the headline and article attributed the act of violence to the Islamic religion.
The publication said the references to Islam in the headline and Islamic in the article are entirely relevant to the reported events. The publication said the reference to Islam is specifically attributed to the Islamic militants who want to set up an Islamic caliphate in southern Africa and that it made this very clear by publishing the article on its World News pages. The publication said that no reasonable reader could draw the conclusion that the terror could be attributed to all Muslims around the world, let alone those in Australia. The publication said the terrorists who slaughtered innocent and unarmed villagers have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and wish to establish an Islamic caliphate in northern Mozambique. It said it is not possible to report the story without referring to Islam. The publication also said there is public interest in reporting mass killings and a push to establish an Islamic caliphate in traditionally non-Islamic countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania.
The Council notes that prominent references to religious or ethnic groups in headlines can imply that a group, as a whole, is responsible for the actions of a minority among that group. Accordingly, in reporting on instances of violence purportedly conducted in the name of religion, publications must take reasonable steps to identify the particular sources of violence as clearly as possible. In this instance, the Council considers the headline could have been clearer by referring specifically to ‘Islamic State militants’ for example, rather than ‘Islam’ which could be read more generally. However, the Council is satisfied that the attribution of the violence to ‘Islamic militants’ in the first paragraph of the article was sufficient to avoid the suggestion that their conduct was associated with all of those who adhere to the religion of Islam. The Council also accepts that the references to Islam were relevant in the context of reporting on attempts by Islamic militants to establish a caliphate in southern Africa. The Council considers that, in making it sufficiently clear that the violence was perpetrated by Islamic militants, the publication took reasonable steps comply with its Standards of Practice. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principles 3 and 6.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council. “Publications must take reasonable steps to:
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.”