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December 7, 2019
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Analysis: Czech media spread Islamophobic disinformation about court-ordered removal of Virgin Mary statue in France

16.12.2016 20:41
The locally controversial statue of the Virgin Mary in the French municipality of Publier, located at the intersection of the Italian and Swiss borders. (PHOTO:  Twitter.com)
The locally controversial statue of the Virgin Mary in the French municipality of Publier, located at the intersection of the Italian and Swiss borders. (PHOTO: Twitter.com)

During the weekend of 4 December, the Czech News Agency published a news item saying that the French municipality of Publier, located on the intersection of the border with both Italy and Switzerland, must remove a statue of the Virgin Mary from public land on the basis of a decision by an administrative court tribunal in Grenoble. What is the reason for this decision?

The Czech News Agency reported that it was France's "statewide ban on displaying religious symbols on public property. BBC News has reported the story and quoted the local mayor."

The Czech news item ends with the statement that "France has strict laws separating church and state. In 2010, France became the first European country to ban the wearing of Muslim facial veils in public."

In the Czech Republic, more than one interpretation was given to this news in headlines and pieces based on the wire service article (the originals of those pieces are available on news server Louc.cz). News server iDNES.cz more or less quoted the wire service report neutrally, the daily Lidové noviny ignored it, and the daily Právo abbreviated it under the headline "In France they have to take down a statute of the Virgin Mary".

The relatively new online server info.cz spun the meaning of the news item with this headline: "Banned religious symbol. Statue of Virgin Mary must be removed in France", as if the Virgin Mary per se has now become a banned religious symbol.

Of course, news server Novinky.cz and its authors, who just list their byline as "Novinky", went even further. That website rewrote the beginning of the piece as follows: "The removal of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the town of Publier is just the latest consequence of France's ban on the display of religious symbols in public."

Misleading information was then added to the Novinky.cz piece, which used a quote from a screenshot of a tweet protesting the decision as a "new tyranny" that had accompanied the original BBC reporting, and attributing the content of that tweet to the mayor of Publier, even though he never said any such thing in the original story. By adding the phrase "just the latest consequence of France's ban" at the beginning of the news item, the reader gets the impression that this ban is some new measure reciprocally adopted after the ban on Muslim burqas and hijabs in France.

Editors of other Czech media outlets also succumbed to this impression, as is demonstrated by the online news reporting of TV Nova, which added the following opening sentence to the news item:  "A fresh case from France shows that the laws banning religious symbols are double-edged. Residents of the town of Publier now have ascertained with apprehension that laws originally aimed rather against foreign religious influence are impacting their own Christian faith and practice."

This is absolutely nonsense, as the law according to which the court in Grenoble made its decision was not "originally aimed rather against foreign religious influence", but is more than 100 years old (Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat, available in English here). The Czech tabloid daily Blesk interpreted the news item as follows: "Too religious: Statue of the Virgin Mary must leave park, French court decides."

Even the editors of the "Free Forum" (Svobodné fórum), though, did not comprehend the situation, writing in the opening of their reporting that "In the French town of Publier a statue of the Virgin Mary must be removed because of political correctness". This is just more nonsense, as this was not about political correctness - the entire incident developed out of a dispute between some dissatisfied citizens and the leadership of Publier, and the dispute made it to the courts and had to do with an entirely different level in which political correctness was not at all the issue.

What actually happened?

If we do the work of seeking out the primary source information for this story, we discover that the following course of events took place:  In 2011, the municipality of Publier decided to erect a statue of the Virgin Mary called "Notre dame du Léman" in a park by a well on the top of a hill with a beautiful view of Lake Geneva (the news was proudly announced on a local poster in September 2011). The installation of the statute, however, was immediately criticized by neighbors of the park who are also dogmatic advocates of the secular character of the French state and members of the free-thinking “Fédération nationale de la libre pensée" because they were bothered by the fact that a) they had to see the monument; b) the municipality spent money on it, which contravenes the 1905 law; and c) the decision on where to install the statue had not been discussed by the local council.

No Muslims, no political correctness, just an old (but valid) law and a local dispute that is practically just between neighbors. In order to protest the monument, the critics used Article 28 of the 1905 law, which bans the "erecting or installation of religious signs or symbols on a public monument or any public place with the exception of buildings designed for religious services, cemetery grounds, cemetery monuments, exhibitions and museums."

In January 2014 the court declared their lawsuit admissible and decided that the monument should be removed from the public space. Because, however, the mayor did not take action, there was another hearing in the matter which delivered a harsher judgment on 24 November this year, ordering the mayor to remove the monument within three months or pay a fine, which the free-thinkers immediately commented on in a special press release on their website.

Of course, these facts did not prevent the Czech news server Bleskově.cz from attracting readers with these words:  "The French have gone crazy, and this time it's definitive! A statue of the Virgin Mary has to be removed! First they were unable to sufficiently protect their country from terrorists and now they are inventing one fatuity after another..."

The Czech tabloid Parlamentní listy also put the report into the context of the issue of Muslim people:  "From France: First a ban on burqas, now a statue of the Virgin Mary has to go". Of course, this publication is the pinnacle of the Czec-language disinformation websites (whose motto is "Nobody dictates what we can write about"), and it also published a commentary on the statue by the retired leader of the ultra-right Republican Party, Miroslav Sládek, who lashed out saying that "all of the bans that have been adopted in recent years were forced upon us by the aggressive behavior of the vagabonds and were a response to what is currently Europe's biggest problem. Why should the state ban the display of Christian religious symbols in exchange for the ban on covering the face?"

How did this news reach the BBC?

How is it possible that a news item from a source that is considered serious, i.e., the BBC, can be exploited by the Czech media to provide such a broad opportunity for commentary and interpretation even though the facts reported by the BBC more or less materially "fit" the reality? Let's take a closer look at how the news item got the attention of the BBC and what it based its reporting on.

After the Grenoble court handed down its decision to remove the statue on 24 November, all was calm for several days. Everything was kicked off by a news item published in the prestigious French daily Le Monde on Saturday, 3 December.

Le Monde reported that its source was Agence France-Presse (AFP). That wire service apparently got its information from the local press, and the Le Monde piece links to that reporting.

Why did Le Monde choose to report this news? In my opinion, primarily because there was a whiff of curiosity about it, as the courts do not customarily order local authorities to take any kind of action.

The fact that the piece was published on the weekend may have played a role - it was published on a Saturday, i.e, a time when there is usually a news shortage, with the exception of sports news. Another reason could have been an attempt to communicate to the French public that the courts and the state are applying the laws to all equally (Christians and Muslims), i.e., that the law of 1905 really does apply to everybody.

Besides this, the affair with the Publier statute had been reported on previously by the statewide media in 2014. Publishing such news in France, therefore, made a certain amount of sense.

The context of the reporting was also not lost in the French coverage. The problem arose when the news was republished by the BBC.

Why did the BBC choose it and how did they find out about it? It is highly probable that they learned about it through a regional specialist following Le Monde or its twitter account, @lemondefr, where information about the article was tweeted.

The news item the BBC created from the French sources and published one day later may have been materially precise, but it was absolutely without context, stripped of detail, and moreover, illustrated using an indignant tweet from a French nationalist. To find out why this item was posted to the BBC's wesbite in such a form, we would have to break through the facade of the anonymous faces that we see bent over computer keyboards in their numerous newsrooms around the globe as they format our view of the world.

My own explanation is that it was a Sunday, that it was necessary to fill the website with the appropriate quantity of news items, that it was a curiosity that might spark interest, or that the BBC reporter mayhave seen informational value in communicating that "France has long had strict rules ordering the separation of church and state", which could also be appropriate for Britain. In this one BBC news item we can document that it is never enough to have the greatest possible precision of translation or accuracy and objectivity in each separate sentence of a news report: If connections and context are lacking, and if just one fact among many is emphasized, all is lost.

As can be seen in this example, the hunt for attractive news items to publish online in quantity, those that people will click on, is basically avoided by nobody today - not by the BBC's online news server and certainly not by the Czech News Agency, which for a long time now has not been the unique news source in Czech for numerous foreign news stories that it once was. Today the Czech News Agency must make do with reporters in Berlin, Bratislava and Brussels only, which is why it must carry so much news from foreign sources.

This cribbing from other wire services has the nature of the "Chinese telephone" children's game, in which each successive transmission of the news involves the danger of creating "noise", to say nothing of bad translations and, God forbid, intentional bias. In this I see one of the main problems of contemporary journalism, which so easily acquires information from all over the world but is incapable of assessing it and putting it into context.

The task of a journalist is not just to transmit facts, but also to discover the truth about them. However, because things are as they are, and because we cannot fully rely on journalists and the media, it is up to us to turn on our own critical judgment and verify the news reports that please our ears and our vision of the world, to figure out whether they are fake.

We must realize whether we are becoming an unthinking herd of people who believe anything online that suits them and who, without doing the work of verifying the information they receive, can be counted on to immediately respond with strong opinions that will usually have just one small flaw:  They are commenting on something that isn't even true. Here I am referring to most of the almost 900 people who discussed issues online beneath the article that was published on Novinky.cz, or the 600 people who posted beneath this article on iDNES.cz, although some bloggers also fall into this category, and what is worse, even our representatives in Parliament (such as Radim Fiala, once with the Civic Democratic Party, then with "Dawn", and now with the SPD).

P.S. The story from Publier will probably end up exactly as the mayor told the journalists:  He will raise private money, buy a nearby private plot of land, move the statue there, and this pseudo-scandal will be forgotten by the media.

Reprinted from the news server Louc.cz with the kind permission of the author.

Milan Šmíd, Louc.cz, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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France, Hoax, manipulace, Medializace



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