Is Europe facing a refugee crisis? The issue is debatable. The notion of crisis provides a-broken-dam scenario of the EU overwhelmed by huge numbers of refugees that began arriving at its shores since 2015. But critics have disputed that claim. They point out that the EU could have invoked the Temporary Protection Directive it had developed in 2001 as a framework for managing an unexpected mass influx of individuals. That instrument was not triggered and none of it was heard in the media.
Caught at the centre of the refugee crisis are the media that have come under various criticisms. The media have been accused for failing to provide an early warning signal to the world about the plight of the refugees until a small Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, was washed up dead on a Turkey beach. Journalists have also been accused of quickly whipping up hysteria against migrants.
And when the media did finally tune in, the task of bringing the full stories of these refugees to the rest of the world has been a tremendous challenge; much like navigating a minefield. How to handle hate speech coming from vocal anti-migrant groups? Where to find reliable sources? How to include migrants’ voices? What kind of narratives to pursue? How to give voices to the migrants?
In some instances, the media tended to view migrants as faceless statistics and more as a problem; coverage has usually been characterised by strident xenophobia marked by scary and derogatory headlines and using words like “swarms” and “cockroaches” to describe migrants. There have however, been several instances where the media have provided excellent reports about the refugee situation, full of humanity and calling for show of solidarity.
It is against this backdrop that 25 journalists from 12 different countries met in the Croatian capital Zagreb, in May to discuss how the media could rise up to some of the challenges thrown up by the refugee crisis. “Reporting Refugees, Migrants, and Ethnicity” was the theme of the meeting and was co-organised by the European of Journalists Federation (EFJ) and the Croatian Journalists Association (CJA).
The eruption of the migrant and refugee crisis in 2015 has had a little over one million people who are seeking asylum in European countries – a great majority of have been allowed into Germany and Sweden. Fleeing from desperate conditions of war and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, these migrants have often resorted to equally desperate and breath-taking daring attempts to reach Europe.
Several hundreds have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while others have perished in the scorching of heat of the Sahara desert. Several thousands of those who have made it into Europe are still stuck in uncertain limbo in refugee centres in appalling conditions – some behind barbed wire fences in countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland that have obstinately denied them entry.
In the light of these circumstances, Aidan White, Executive Director of the Ethical Journalism Network, reminded journalists reporting on migrants to stick to the core framework of values that guide them in their work.
White was referring to the core ethical codes – crystallized into five main principles adopted by journalists around the world – namely accuracy and fact-based communication, independence, accountability and transparency, impartiality and humanity.
“Journalists”, he said, “have the responsibility not to tell malicious lies, incite violence and promote discrimination”.
But while these ethical codes do provide a pathway to provide an informed view of migrants, they are not cast in metal, in White’s opinion, rather journalists have a leeway to make the final ethical choice. Thus, some of the world’s media have focused on a strident anti-immigrant, even racist narrative when reporting on migrants and refugees – typical example being the tabloid press in the UK. While others, such as Nordic public broadcasters have generally taken a more sober and well-balanced approach to reporting about refugees.
But on top of making difficult ethical choices news houses around the world face several other constraints. Newsrooms lack the capacity and specialists with expert knowledge of the migrants often fleeing from complex political and cultural backgrounds. Largely this is due to plummeting advertising revenue, most of it eaten away by competing new media.
To address the issue, journalists have called more training, especially for freelance journalists to plug the human resource hole left after scaling down regular reporters due to media’s weakening economy.
The refugee problem does not appear to be going away anytime soon. For one thing, several thousand migrants and refugees are still stranded in Greece and parts of Eastern Europe in appalling conditions over the past two years as the EU has slammed its borders against them. And latest news report of “unprecedented” arrival of migrants in Italy from North Africa.
All of these indicate there is a need for more qualitative response from the media, possibly devising new methods to convey their messages more effectively to the public.
Some of the participants at the Croatia meeting for instance, showcased some best practices in the field that others elsewhere might find useful as the situation continues to unfold. Two refugees in Croatia demonstrated a practical way to give voices to migrants with a publication called Staze Magazine written by refugees and migrants.
The German public broadcaster also runs a programme WDRforyou in multiple languages for refugees, providing useful practical advice such as acquiring driver’s license and how to surmount the cultural barriers with basic inter-cultural communication skills – all needed when refugees begin to go through a process of integrating in the host societies.