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8th Dec 2023

Bad journalism can aggravate racism, campaigners warn

  • "Minorities like Muslims or Roma are hardly ever asked to comment on stories that concern their own communities, they are hardly ever given a voice" (Photo: Luxembourg EU Presidency)

Journalists and politicians warned that Europe needs to steer a fine line between media freedom and dangerous sensationalism at the "Talking Our Way out of Trouble: How Media Debate Can Combat Intolerance" symposium, which took place in Brussels on Wednesday (5 November).

The event was organised by the European Commission in co-operation with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), who in their presentation stated that "Sensationalist reporting may help sell papers …but it has contributed to an increasingly fearful climate between communities."

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Bettina Peters, director of the Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD) told the audience about British newspaper The Daily Express, which at the entry of 10 new countries to the EU in 2004 initiated a week-long, inflammatory anti-Roma campaign.

One of the tabloid's headlines was "1.6 million gypsies set to flood in" and the paper also ran a telephone poll asking the question "Should we let gypsies invade Britain?"

In Italy, Ms Peters continued, an unholy alliance has arisen between politicians who wish to whip up anti-immigration sentiment and a blasé media which echoes uncritically the prejudices expressed by these politicians.

"But minorities like Muslims or Roma are hardly ever asked to comment on stories that concern their own communities, they are hardly ever given a voice," the German former journalist said.

Stay away from media freedom

The debate was the last of seven gatherings as part of the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue that have taken place in Brussels throughout 2008, dealing with topics such as arts, religion, education, integration and the media.

The commission's initiative to place "culture" at the heart of European politics came after a few tumultuous years of clashes between different ethnic and religious groups inside Europe and between Europe and the rest of the world, which put the spotlight on the media's role in inter-ethnic relations.

"After enlargement, and in times of globalisation, in times of growing migration, so-called 'multi-culti' realities are very visible," culture commissioner Jan Figel said ahead of the launch of the year.

"And in many cases we have seen difficult, problematic or even conflicting expressions of this," he continued, referring to the uproar in the Islamic world in late 2005 caused by a Danish daily newspaper's decision to publish caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.

Worldwide Muslim indignation over the drawings triggered calls for more media control, even from within the EU itself.

The EU justice commissioner at the time, Franco Frattini, suggested that media sign up to a voluntary code of conduct on how to report on religion.

Attacked by various media organisations who were outraged by the thought of Brussels trying to gag the media, the commissioner however later clarified that it would be up to the media itself to formulate and apply such code of conduct.

Bettina Peters from Global Forum for Media Development said she was relieved legislative proposals to limit journalists' rights to write freely about religion or other sensitive topics were not put forward, and instead promoted better media self-regulation.

"The journalists at The Daily Express themselves finally took those anti-Roma articles and the newspaper publishers to the press complaint authority in the UK, and in Italy, journalists took the initiative to create ethical rules on how to report better on minorities."

What is in a word?

A representative from the UN's refugee agency UNHCR said his organisation had in vain tried teach journalists and publishers to be aware of the legal and linguistic difference between the words "refugee" or "asylum seeker" and "migrant."

He aired suspicion that there could even be a threat to right of asylum, and that newcomers to the EU would be received according to the connotations of the word used by the media.

Several media repeatedly use terms like "illegal immigrants" when reporting on, for example, Africans arriving from overseas on EU soil, despite the fact only a court can decide whether those persons are entitled to asylum - and therefore "legal" or not.

Mr Forward Maisokwadzo from the Exiled Journalists' Network underlined that news media had to put bigger effort into presenting diverse content in their publications and bring migrants into the very newsrooms.

"People do not feel comfortable in a society that put forwards insane pictures of them, it does affect integration," Mr Maisokwadzo said, referring to an uncontested article about how Somalis in the UK organise donkey barbecues.

"We also need to challenge the public itself, encourage them to drop a letter to the publisher if they think an article is not correct," he concluded.

The reader must be smarter

Along the same lines, Austrian Socialist MEP Christa Prets from the European Parliament's committee for culture and education said readers have to be trained in how to decipher "what is important and what is rubbish" in today's flood of information.

Ms Prets has initiated a parliament report on "media literacy" which calls upon national governments to make media studies a core subject in every European school.

Brussels legislators do however not have the political mandate to act upon educational matters in the different members states, but can only make recommendations to EU governments.

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