In our Journalism Spotlight, the IARJ focuses global attention on the work of professionals who will interest our members around the world. This interview is presented in French, the language preferred by the researcher, and in English translation.

Atsoutse Tossou, Afrique et Religions

Atsoutse Tossou
Among Atsoutse Tossou’s focus areas are freedom of religion and secularism

Atsoutse Tossou is a researcher with a special interest in religion in today’s world. Originally from Togo in West Africa, Atsoutse Tossou is co-founder of the Africa and Religions project. Initiated by students from various African universities, the project aims to provide legal and sociological information on religion in Africa.

Q:

Togo, like other countries in the region, is comprised of various religious traditions. Would you tell us a bit about religion in the country? Is there a state religion? What is the status of religious minorities? What are the relationships between the different religious traditions?

A:

First, I would like to thank you for this interview. Togo’s constitution is very clear that this is a secular state. It is a state that wants to separate religion and government and foster a respectful freedom for everyone to profess the faith of their choice. The principle of freedom of religion is part of the constitution, which is the separation of state from religion on the one hand—and the commitment of the state to protect this principle of religious freedom. Nine out of 10 Togolese say they have a religious affiliation. Overall, there are three major religious groups: Christianity, Islam and Animism. Almost half of the population in Togo follows religious practices associated with Animism. There are many small religious minorities, including Buddhists and other faiths. Relationships between different beliefs usually are in a spirit of peace and mutual respect. I’m not aware of any major religious conflict that has jeopardized peace in Togo.

Q:

What information about religion is needed in Togo?

A:

We need information on diverse topics related to religion. We need more than general information on the major religious confessions. There are many topics we need to study and talk about. This information is needed both by academics and journalists.

Q:

What are some of the challenges faced by journalists when it comes to reporting on religion?

A:

Freedom of expression is a principle recognized by our constitution. No journalist can be prosecuted on charges related to his profession. Of course, journalists here face the same kinds of challenges that journalists face around the world. Not everyone shares this value of freedom of expression. So, journalists can face threats when they report on certain topics. But, generally, threats are rare and journalists seldom face any legal action for their reporting on religion. I think this situation may be true partly because religion is not the favorite subject of most journalists in Togo.

Q:

In your opinion how can we encourage news media to focus more on issues concerning religion?

A:

If the media so far have not shown a great deal of interest in religious questions, it is not because there is no news to report. Togolese journalists know that news is usually dominated by politics, so they focus first on political issues and may overlook the impact of religion. It is necessary to encourage more journalists to understand that religion often is related to many of the other topics on which they report. But, it takes a lot of initiatives in educating journalists on these issues. We are working to help equip journalists with a better understanding of religion.

Q:

You recently participated in an IARJ conference on religion and journalism, a gathering that was held in Accra, Ghana. The conference involved both academics and journalists. Do you think researchers and journalists can work together to develop a more accurate understanding of religion in the world?

A:

Obviously! Academics can provide important research tools and information to help working journalists report accurately—and journalists can bring greater awareness to the work of the researchers. We can work as an ensemble. Deciding to report reliable information requires journalists to understand accurate data about religion. That’s what academics can provide.

Q:

You are co-sponsoring a very interesting project. Can you tell us more about the Africa and Religion project?

A:

Our project aims to provide information on the legal and sociological status of religion in Africa. We encourage multi-disciplinary approaches to understand the scope and the impact of religion in this continent. We provide data drawn from official documents: constitutions, charters, activity reports and other publications of religious institutions themselves. Researchers try to ensure the timeliness and reliability of the information. The project is supported by a undergraduate and graduate students from different disciplines of study. A panel of experts (professors, researchers…) checks the data provided on each country.

By combining various skills, the project emphasizes the dynamism of the environmental and cultural setting of each religious group within the continent. We also want to highlight the importance of further research in this area. From this effort arises a greater sense of the importance of understanding religion as a part of reporting on news events.

Q:

How can the IARJ help in this effort?

A:

It’s very interesting that the IARJ is aware of the work of researchers and realizes that, through the IARJ, this work can become better known. That is very important. A great deal of quality research is carried out, but remains unknown because there is now way to echo this research to a larger audience. The IARJ can help by making this news more accessible to the public.

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