The world is inundated with sad examples of persecuted religious, ethnic and racial minorities. Journalistically speaking, however, each case may be reduced to a “story,” each competing for press attention at a time when shrinking industry resources and an ominous uptick in American political chaos make grabbing international media coverage increasingly difficult.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses is one such religious minority. The Kremlin has come down on Russian members of the faith like a ton of bricks.
The situation, from time to time, gains some coverage from western media elites. That attention soon fades, however, which prompts the following question: Why do some persecuted minorities trigger persistent journalistic attention while others do not?
I’ll try to answer that question below. First, though, let’s get current on the plight of Russian Jehovah's Witnesses.
This Los Angeles Times piece about their seeking refuge in neighboring Finland is a good place to start. Here’s a snippet from it:
In the 16 months since Russia’s Supreme Court banned Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group on par with Islamic State, raids and arrests of the religion’s estimated 175,000 members in the country have increased rapidly. The ruling criminalized practicing the religion and ordered its 395 branches closed. Members face prosecution for doing missionary work, a fundamental part of the faith.
There are now an estimated 250 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking asylum in Finland. They wait out their asylum applications in several refugee centers across the country, including the Joutseno refugee center outside Lappeenranta in southeastern Finland.
How has this impacted individual Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses?
In Russia, more than 20 Jehovah’s Witnesses, many of them elderly, are currently in detention centers. At least 40 court cases are pending against Jehovah’s Witnesses charged with organizing or participating in an extremist organization. The charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
Russia has seized the church’s property, including its headquarters in St. Petersburg, where members had turned the dilapidated buildings at a former Soviet summer camp into a functional campus. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet watchdog, has blocked the religion’s website, JW.org.
What’s happening to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is “easily the worst attack on religious freedom in post-Soviet Russia,” said Geraldine Fagan, who spent more than a decade in Russia documenting religious affairs. She is the author of "Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism.”
This earlier New York Times story, published at the time of the July Trump-Putin Helsinki summit, noted Jehovah’s Witnesses’ hopes that the two men would discuss their plight, which they apparently did not.
But why expect they would? Moscow had previously told Washington to stay out of it, as Newsweek noted in June. Moreover, President Donald Trump hardly seems concerned about human or religious rights in Russia.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are clearly the victims of Russian persecution. So why does their case receive little international support and only sporadic global media attention -- certainly when compared to groups such as the Muslim Rohingya, Europe’s Jews or Tibetan Buddhists?
Mea culpa: You might want to include me on the long list of western journalists who have deemed Jehovah’s Witnesses only worthy of spotty coverage.
In April 2017, I wrote two posts about the Jehovah's Witnesses problems in Russia. The first, ironically, pointed out how scant the international coverage had been. The second, noted that the coverage picked up a bit once Moscow decided to use its legal system to fully crush the faith group within Russian territory.
But then I dropped the issue, despite the efforts of Jehovah's Witnesses’ public relations people to keep me focused on it. I figured, who else but Jehovah's Witnesses cared?
Which brings me back to why some groups get saturation coverage and others struggle for attention.
The short answer: Groups that are relatively small and politically insignificant or are oppressed by powerful governments -- Russia in the case of Jehovah's Witnesses -- get far less ongoing coverage than groups connected to globally significant constituencies. Think Christians in North Korea and China, for example.
Groups that also have charismatic and popular spokespeople -- I’m thinking the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists in China -- also gain considerable media attention.
If the oppressed group is Muslim that, too, is likely to mean increased media attention. Why?
Because interfaith conflicts involving Muslims are generally conflated these days with the global talk of a clash of civilizations between resurgent Islam and almost every other significant religion in Europe, Africa and Asia.
Such broad generalizations have exceptions, of course. Take China’s Uighur Muslims.
As my colleague Julia Duin noted here just last week, Uighurs seem to be the one Muslim group -- unlike the Rohingya, who gain newsworthiness by their oppressor being the almost universally disliked military government of Myanmar -- that the worldwide Muslim community has abandoned to its fate.
The reason why, I’d say, is because just like Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses, their persecutor is a powerful nation, China, that few wish to anger.
Nor does it help garner support for Jehovah’s Witnesses that many more conventional Christians dismiss the Witnesses claim to be Christian, since they reject belief in the Trinity, the mainstream Christian foundational doctrine; won’t fight in the military of whatever nation they live in, and that some people -- surely including journalists -- are annoyed by their door-to-door, persistent proselytizing.
Here’s a repeat of the Wikipedia link provided above if you want to know more about the group.
Then there are the Jews of Europe and increased anti-Semitism.
They get a get a lot of coverage because of both guilt and remorse over the Holocaust, because they’re the Abrahamic stock from which Christianity and Islam followed -- so much, or perhaps most, of the world has an interest, either positive or negative, in them (then there’s that Israel issue) -- and because Jewish communities in the United States and Europe are politically well-organized and media connected and savvy.
Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments section below.