Canadian journalist Douglas Todd greets other participants during a visit to an Indonesian boarding school at the IARJ conference in October 2017
IARJ Chair Douglas Todd greets other participants in a visit to an Indonesian boarding school during the 2017 conference for journalists from 15 Asian nations. A total of 120 professionals took part in the global gathering.

Our Indonesian conference beautifully accomplished one of the key goals of our organization, which is to work with global peers to raise awareness of the crucial importance of balanced, accurate and fair writing about matters of faith.

More than 120 journalists, scholars, students, religious leaders and public figures, including Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, gathered for three days in Jakarta to share ideas, experiences and personal insights into the best ways to report on cultural diversity and often-thorny religious issues.

We were reminded of the importance of the IARJ’s mission in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, which has been a democracy for only 20 years. Many Indonesian delegates explained how the nation of 260 million people is at a crossroads, with religious extremists threatening the country’s moderate leadership.

The IARJ’s sixth conference was our most comprehensive. It involved the collaboration of a university, a foreign embassy and an established pro-diversity organization. Participants heard from influential leaders from minority and majority religious groups, including the head of a Muslim organization with 8 million members. Our events were covered by major secular Indonesian media outlets, as well as by journalists from beyond the South-East Asian country. Note: Here is one example of TV news coverage of the conference, which describes our interactions in the Jakarta area as “breaking news.”

The October gathering fulfilled the IARJ’s aim of offering direct support and encouragement to journalists who write about religion. More than 30 journalists from Indonesia and other parts of Asia, including Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea, were able to take part in workshops, lectures, tours and social events.

The Asian journalists, scholars and community leaders who attended were able to strengthen their knowledge, friendships and peer networks, including with journalists from outside Asia. We shared insights on the enjoyment and challenge of covering the subject of religion, which in some cases can prove a particularly explosive subject.

Many Indonesian journalists who write about religion talked about being harassed, threatened, ostracized and having to deal with religion-led boycotts. Journalists from other Muslim-majority countries, like Pakistan and Malaysia, described backlashes when they tried to write stories about their countries’ laws, which forbid criticizing Islam and treat sodomy as a crime.

If this conference made one thing clear, it is that the stakes are high throughout the world, especially South Asia, when it comes to writing about religious diversity.

We trust this multi-faceted IARJ event has made a difference in the world, and will do so in the future—supporting all those who take on the challenging subject of writing about religious diversity in a realistic and ethical way.

Douglas Todd, IARJ chairperson, is religion, diversity and migration writer for The Vancouver Sun newspaper and Postmedia Network.

Care to read more?

We invite anyone interested in the IARJ to continue watching our website and our Twitter feed for more reflections on this global conference over the next few weeks. If you are a journalist with a focus on covering religious and cultural diversity, then please consider joining our organization.