March 11, 2019

As Europe tightens its borders, media’s role on migration coverage becomes crucial

Words matter. Especially when they come from the media. But how positive or negative is media coverage about migration and how does this coverage affect the perceptions in society?

According to World Migration report 2018, published by the International Organization for Migration, much of the research evidence shows that media associates migrants with negative news and often casts migration as a ‘law and order or security issue. At the same time, media coverage also separates migrants from the ‘host’ population by the use of dehumanizing language, using metaphors that refer to war and natural disasters (for example,  ‘invasions’ and ‘floods’) or portraying them as ‘victims of an unfair system’.

By Georgia Skandali

In 2018, the Media4Change team gathered together experts from around Europe to talk about the harsh measures introduced restrict migration in Hungary and the Netherlands and to examine the crucial role of media in tackling hate speech.

Eszter Várszegi, from UNITED for Intercultural Action, a partner organization of Media4Change, said that the word ‘migrant’ in the Hungarian language was a technical term used mainly by experts and academics.

“It had no negative connotations and it was not an expression that people would widely use in their everyday life,” she said. According to her,  everything changed in 2015 when in response to Europe’s refugee and migration ‘crisis’, the Hungarian government launched a big campaign against refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants, identifying all of them as migrants.

“Today, the word migrant (migráns) is someone illegal, dangerous, potentially a rapist, and most probably Arab or Muslim”, she emphasized. “This is currently the public perception of a migrant, which is a result of a consistent and frequent negative portrayal of them in media as a part of the government’s anti-migrant communication” E. Várszegi continued.

“The fake news factory of the government often presents news that feels completely surrealistic in an allegedly democratic country.”

But how did a technical term become a slur, a stigma and an insult now frequently used in public and private discussions?

In 2015 tens of thousands of migrants and refugees, coming mostly from the war torn Middle East and Afghanistan, were making their way through the Balkans to Hungary. From there, many planned to continue on to Germany and other countries in northern Europe. Hungary’s response, under Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government, was to close its border with Serbia. When refugees attempted to breach the fence, the government declared a national state of emergency and announced that all ‘illegal’ entrants would be jailed, justifying these measures as a “legitimate response to an invasion”.

It did not stop there. This situation did not stop there as on February 2016, Prime Minister Orbán announced a referendum to decide whether or not to accept the European Union’s proposed mandatory quotas for relocating migrants. As a result, in June 2018, an amendment of the constitution was passed limiting the number of ‘non-Hungarians’ who may settle in the country.

According to the International Organization for Migrationthese measures have reduced asylum applications and decreased the number of irregular border crossings since the 2015 peak of 441,515.

Hungarian police officers close the main border exit between Serbia and Hungary near Roszke. Photo credits: AP

This political situation was bound to have an effect upon the way media portrayed migrants. As someone living in Hungary and paying close attention to developments, Eszter Várszegi commented: “As nationalist voices are growing, the idea of a monocultural country has gained popularity, and protecting the country from migrants has become a priority in Hungary.  The fake news factory of the government often presents news that feels completely surrealistic in an allegedly democratic country; we discover a lot of distorted data, while at the same time we find that George Soros is portrayed as the reason behind everything that is happening in the country.”

Deliberately misleading narratives have become extremely popular, especially when they appeal to existing fears or prejudices. It would appear that any Hungarian media outlet is caught up in the government’s negative framing of immigrants and refugees, because even when attempting to report them in a positive light, simply using the term ‘migrant’ has such strong connotations that it changes the narrative.

People interested in the truth, refugees, and other minority rights need to understand how the government has transformed migrants into ‘enemies’, and work to try and change the discourse. This is what NGOs in Hungary, like Subjective Values Foundation, are trying to do, and it makes Eszter more positive about the future. She knows from personal experience that the media has the power to change what is in people’s heads, so through the media, it should be possible to instill more positive perceptions of migrants.

People protesting in Roszke, Hungary, 15 April 2017. The protests were aimed against the measures taken by the Hungarian government against migration. [Zoltan Gergely Kelemen/EPA]

People often underestimate the power of words, and it is important to understand that the way media use words can actually shape society’s view. Mike Jempson, director of the NGO MediaWise is trying to make this point when he tells his fellow journalists: “We have a responsibility not only to tackle hate speech but also to think about the language we are using.”

“It can be problematic for journalists to recognize our responsibilities when politicians and even editors try to exploit difficult situations by promoting prejudice in order to win votes or sell more newspapers. Our job is always to intervene and challenge, not just false facts but motives too.”

“There is no refugee crisis but rather a refugee policy crisis

Ralph du Long from Dialogue in Progress used the opportunity to say that even using the term refugee crisis is wrong as “there is no refugee crisis but rather a refugee policy crisis“.

As second generation Dutch-Indonesian migrant now living in the Netherlands, Ralph admitted that he faced a lot of discrimination as a child just because he was different. He continued “We see a lack of solidarity between EU countries and lack of willingness to implement policies regarding migrants.”

However, the situation now in the Netherlands seems to be getting worse, as anti-Islamic nationalists have gained popularity by targeting mainly Muslims. During the 2017 Dutch elections, no issue generated as much ‘noise’ and division as immigration. Even the Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned migrants to ‘be normal or be gone’.  At the same time, in media interviews across the country, far-right voters expressed strong nationalist and anti-immigrant views that were once considered extreme but which have now appear to have become normalized in public discourse.

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