By Jose Kavi
New Delhi: Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of Faridabad has asked social media not to indulge in manipulations and urged the fourth estate to maintain conventional moral standards.
“When such ethical criteria are not respected, the credibility of the writers is shaken and journalism becomes like gossip and soap opera,” the archbishop told Matters India on March 24 commenting on some recent developments in the Vatican as well as in his Indian diocese.
Underscoring media as the “fourth estate” for being society’s conscience, the archbishop bemoaned that many “conscienceless individuals” have assumed the role of “agents of fake news.”
The prelate’s name had appeared in some recent controversies in the Syro-Malabar Church.
The archbishop, a former Vatican diplomat, cited the case of Monsignor Edoardo Viganò, Prefect of the Vatican Secretariat for Communication, who resigned after being caught in a scandal about a letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI.
The monsignor was accused of mischaracterizing the letter in public and then digitally manipulating a photograph sent to the media. He also read aloud part of a private letter from retired Pope Benedict XVI at a book launch for a Vatican-published, 11-volume set of books about Francis’ theology.
Archbishop Bharanikulangara said international media came up with sharp criticism against the photo editing and pointed out that this type of blurring of a document is not allowed according to the ethical standards of digital journalism.
Pope Francis on March 21 accepted the resignation of Monsignor Viganò, whom he had chosen to spearhead the Vatican media reform.
Earlier, on the occasion of the 52nd Day of Social Communication, the Pope had called on journalists to be “protectors of the news,” rediscovering the dignity of their profession and the responsibility they have to communicate the truth.
Toeing the same line, Archbishop Bharanikulangara, a trained journalist, too criticized social media for spreading “fake news” and “disinformation.”
The prelate was particularly concerned social media reports that linked his diocese to a scam involving a housing society that collected money from Catholics to build a residential complex in the national capital.
Malayalam websites such as sathyamonline.com and pravasisabdam.com alleged that priests associated with Faridabad diocese had collected some 240 million rupees from Catholics to build the residential complex exclusively for Christians. A society was formed with people who registered as members and entrusted a trust to buy 5.2 acres of land at Najafgarh, a northwestern suburb of Delhi, to build 700 apartments.
However, Pravasisabdam noted that little progress was made in the housing project and alleged the funds were diverted for other purposes in the diocese.
Archbishop Bharanikulangara dismissed such reports as “fake news” and pointed to a statement from the housing society that accused the websites of deliberately publishing “the impugned article” without verifying the records. It was done to malign the archbishop and the diocese, said the statement.
Meanwhile diocesan chancellor Father Robi Kunthaniyil prepared a circular that categorically stated that the housing society that has no relation with the diocese and the reports in the websites are “concocted, false and baseless fake news.” The circular would be read in all parishes of the diocese on March 25.
The archbishop said it was “immoral to spread rumors and tarnish the good of persons and institutions under the pretext of the freedom of expression. The Church does not encourage such gossips or promote fake news through social media.”
He urged his people to restrain from untruthful social media discussions that propagate fraudulences and rumors against Church authorities. He also asked parish priests and diocesan officials to take special care to counter social media manipulations.
The archbishop regretted that people often forwarded without verification “distorted data” and “disinformation” they received online. Many, he added, do not know the ethical standards of public writing. “In the past, journalists needed a training, but today everyone who has social media access turns out to be a journalist,” he lamented.
He recalled Pope Francis recent lamentation against spreading fake news or “false information that is based on non-existent or distorted data, and that is meant to deceive and manipulate the reader.”
Archbishop Bharanikulangara stressed media literacy as “very important” and urged the Church to teach responsible use of social media especially through its catechism classes.