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Religions and the media

Media and religions in Switzerland

Even in a secularised Swiss society where the religious institutions have been kept out of political decision-making, religion is nonetheless present in political and media debates. In a direct democracy such as the Swiss Confederation, though, political decisions and media communication are closely intertwined, as the latter largely forms public opinion on subjects put up to the people’s vote. The presence of religious matters in the Swiss media is therefore of particular importance and has shifted significantly since the last century.

Shifts in the religion-media relationship

Up until the 1960s, the media were anchored in the partisan and confessional. The confessional press would proceed selectively, offering its interpretation of political and social events according to its religious perceptions. The subject of religion itself in the media was addressed from an ideological perspective.
From the seventies on, however, the media broke away from its original foundations (associations, parties, churches) to establish themselves as service providers. They adopted new commercial rationale in order to meet the new needs of entertainment consumers. Consequently, “in a media system freed from its partisan ties and subject to economic logic, this type of interpretation (religious and ideological) is no longer sought” but “it is the scandalous, conflictual, celebrity-related or emotional nature of the information that determines whether religious themes will be addressed” (Patrik Ettinger, Kurt Imhof. “Religions, médias et espace public”. In La nouvelle Suisse religieuse. Risques et chances de sa diversité. Geneva: Labor and Fides. 2009, p. 302-305).
As a result, religions lost direct access to public opinion. To remedy this situation, the religious institutions instituted public relations strategies, professionalised their communication services and stepped up their contact with the media. However, public radio stations, which had public service status, were not free from the influence of the churches; for example, Radio and Télévision Suisse Romande worked together with the Protestant Media Office and the Catholic Radio and TV Centre, which have editorial responsibility for religious broadcasts. This collaboration would be limited in 2016 following the announcement in November 2015 of budget restrictions for these issues (see section Current debate).

Migration and religion in the Swiss media

A recent study has shown that religious affiliation has been made a theme in the media discourse since the 2000s, and particularly within the context of immigration (Lindemann Anaïd, Stolz Jörg. "Use of Islam in the definition of foreign otherness in Switzerland: A comparative analysis of media discourses". In Islamophobia Studies Journal, 2014, vol. 2, n° 1). While in the 1960s-70s, the arrival of Italian and Spanish migrant workers had the far-right worried about “the mass arrival of Catholics who would dominate and impose themselves on a Protestant minority” (Assessment of the campaign, Lausanne Tribune, 2 June 1970), these questions of religious identity were not relayed in the media. Conversely, an analysis of the written press of 2004 shows that the religious affiliation of immigrants was extensively explored in the media. Islam is by far the most treated religion, indicating “Islamisation of media discourse on immigration” (Behloul, Samuel Martin. “Discours total ! Le débat sur l’islam en Suisse et le positionnement de l’islam comme religion publique” In Schneuwly Purdie Mallory, Gianni Matteo, Jenny Magali (dir.), Musulmans d’aujourd’hui: Identités plurielles en Suisse. Geneva: Labor and Fides2009).

Impact of media discourse

The focus on Muslim religion in media discourse about immigration has significant implications for readers and listeners’ perception of reality. The study by Lindemann et al. (2014) indicates that the French-language Swiss press depicts the religions of the foreign population in proportions far removed from the data collected by the Federal Statistical Office (Wohnbevölkerung nach Religion, Geschlecht und Nationalität, 1970-2000). There is a very marked over-representation of Muslim foreigners, against an equally clear under-representation of Christian foreigners and religions other than the latter. This necessarily leads to a distortion of the perception of demographic reality.
Moreover, Behloul (2009) believes that the Islamisation of public discourse might have led to the rejection of the 2004 initiative for facilitated naturalisation. In his view, in the run-up to the 2004 federal vote, the discourse in this respect has turned into a debate about Islam and Muslims. The argument of the right-wing UDC (Central Democratic Union) against this initiative to facilitate the naturalisation of the second and third generations of immigrants in Switzerland was rooted in the fear that Muslims would become the majority in the country.

D 4 December 2015    AAnaïd Lindemann

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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