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How the media failed refugees

Elizabeth Schumacher
June 15, 2016

Despite the gravity of the story, journalists have failed to present an objective picture of the refugee crisis. Resolving this problem was in focus at the international media conference.

GMF 2016: Ammar Abo Bakr
Image: DW / M. Müller

With Germany at the forefront of Europe‘s unprecedented influx of refugees, it was imperative that the 2016 Global Media Forum take a critical look at the political, journalistic, and societal responsibilities in handling the crisis.

One common thread united all the discussions: How time and time again, the media had failed both their audiences and the refugees in how the situation was covered. With the public reaching a saturation point on the subject, it seemed that, over and over, fear-mongering and sensationalism were the order of the day, focusing on incidents of violence and big numbers rather than the human element of the story.

"Don't talk about refugees, talk to them…Go to them, live with them, be part of their life – don't just sit in an office, give them a voice," said Jaafar Abdul-Karim, contributor to Der Spiegel and host of DW's "Shababtalk."

DW-Moderator Jaafar Abdul-Karim im Libanon
Abdul-Karim has traveled to refugee homes both in Germany and abroad to show the true human stories behind migrationImage: DW

Journalist failings 'unforgiveable'

"We don't have many refugees, but we have a lot of hysteria," said Milan Nic, director of the GLOBSEC think tank, about central Europe – highlighting the drastic difference between public perception and reality in the panel "Migrants versus Natives."

It's not only misrepresenting the number of migrants as a threat, added journalist Caroline de Gruyter, but the language used by the media as well. "We don't have policy anymore, we have values," she said, referring to the change of rhetoric from political solutions to the fear-mongering of identity politics inherent in the repeated use of the phrase "European values."

Western media is far from the solitary offender, said Kadri Gürsel – a Turkish journalist whose determination to question the policies of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already cost him a job at the Milliyet newspaper.

Turkey has a special responsibility, Gürsel explained, being on the border with Syria and hosting so many refugees, yet "it's underreported, the Turkish media has not done its duty." It's not only the government censorship, the Al-Monitor columnist said, though the crackdown on the free press has made journalistic integrity difficult, but self-censorship on the part of media organizations as well.

GMF Kadri Gursel
"The interior ministry has banned even scientific research in the refugee camps," said Gürsel of the struggle to report in TurkeyImage: privat

"It's unforgivable," said Gürsel, that despite having more refugees in the past four years than in the past seven decades combined, the media's hesitance to stand up to Erdogan has left most people in Turkey completely unaware of how so many people inside their borders are living, that the southeastern part of their country is beginning to resemble Syria in terms of destruction and the number of displaced people.

Gürsel admitted, however, that on that front the media and the government were not the only ones to blame for the missing facts and information: "Lack of interest is another paradoxical problem."

Beyond the hype

"You've heard lots of rhetoric. Lots of hype," said Michael Myer, a writer and journalist who also served as a speechwriter for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Myer, who moderated the panel "Migration: A story of two worlds," seemed to sum up the importance at the Global Media Forum of hearing not only Western, analytic voices speaking from on high but also hearing about the refugee crisis from the point of view of those who risked their lives to come to Europe.

"I am not an economic migrant. My life was in danger," said Afghan journalist Suhrab Balkhi, who fled his home country after he was threatened not only by the Taliban, but by government agents after he spoke out about the influence jihadis have on administration in Kabul.

Throughout the talk, Balkhi was determined to challenge the dominant narrative surrounding refugees – that they come to Europe to take resources and give nothing back. Balkhi was desperate to work and integrate in his country of arrival, Austria, but he was not allowed to – despite offering proof that his life had been threatened in Afghanistan, he languished for four years with uncertain residency status, unable to work and barred from taking a German course.

GMF16 Speaker Sohrab Balkhi
Once the producer of a national news program, Balkhi had to be smuggled into Austria in a coffin following death threatsImage: privat

'There isn't anything special in Europe'

Asked if he would recommend Europe to other Aghans, Balkhi replied flatly: "No. I would say, don't leave your country, there isn't anything special in Europe."

Prince Wale Sonyiki, who fled Nigeria after his town was attacked by Boko Haram, spoke highly of European culture and society but echoed Balkhi's sentiments.

"I would tell Africans, if you are safe in your own country, don't come," he said, before detailing the mix of welcoming locals and racist abuse he has experience while seeking asylum in Croatia.

Sonyiki laughed at the thought of refugees being economic migrants: "Why then would I stay in a country that gives refugees ten euros a month? But the media wants to sell their papers," so stories of violence and attempts to game the system take precedence, he added.

Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, the first female Editor-in-Chief of Austria's daily Der Standard newspaper, offered a solution.

Austrians didn't know, for example, that refugees were not allowed to work – a problem of underreporting that promoted the vicious cycle of xenophobia.

"It's important to tell readers personal stories," and humanize migration, she said, "but we also have to report the negative aspects…we are journalists, not activists." The important thing, she said, was to remain balanced and objective alongside the human face of the refugee crisis, even in the face of negative backlash.

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