ECPMF debate: How reporting on refugees influences media freedom

by Michelle Trimborn
How is the refugee issue covered by media all over Europe? Which problems do journalists face when trying to report on the refugee movement? And which role do the European media play for the refugees themselves? Those and other questions were discussed on 9 June at the Press Club Brussels, where the ECPMF and its partners were inviting journalists and politicians to take part in a public debate on “The truth about refugees – crisis, cover-up and the impact on media freedom”. Jane Whyatt (right) explaining the situation for journalists in Eastern Germany at the Press Club Brussels (Photo: EFJ)

Balázs Nagy Navarro, award-winning journalists from Hungary and Chair of the ECPMF Supervisory Board presented challenges the refugee issue poses to journalists along the “Balkan route”: In September 2015, several foreign reporters were violently attacked and detained by Hungarian security forces when peacefully trying to cover the refugee movement at the Hungarian-Serbian border. The ECPMF appealed several times to the Hungarian government, for example with a Europe-wide letter-action, to investigate this case of a media freedom violation – with little success:

The Hungarian government vehemently rejects our findings, stating that the police did not hit anybody and just lawfully used coercive force against a crowd which was attacking the Hungarian border and the border of Europe. According to the Minister of Interior, Sándor Pintér, ECPMF should not worry about press freedom in Hungary as it is guaranteed and protected by the Hungarian Constitutiton,”

Nagy Navarro explained.

Challenges to journalists on “Balkan route”

Also Chiara Sighele, Project Manager at Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso (OBC), a think-tank and online media focusing on South-East Europe, had a look at media and the “Balkan route”, which was the key route for people on march towards Europe in 2015. She explained how media coverage influences the citizen’s view of the refugees coming to their countries. Infamous examples like the Bulgarian “Dinko, the refugee hunter” show how media reporting strongly contributes to the creation of an atmosphere for or against refugees.

Also Dr. George Pleios, professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, witnessed the strong role of media coverage, especially in countries which are much affected by the refugee issue – like Greece. Pleios pointed out three different stages of reporting on refugees – always related to the current European refugees ant its impact on the situation in Greek: “From summer 2015 a more positive coverage could be witnessed, which was connected to the Middle East refugees travelling to other EU countries. But another stage began with the closure of the Greek-FYROM border and the sudden perspective that the refugees were about to stay in Greece for a longer time.”

Refugees losing faith in media as change agents

Ola Aljari, a Syrian journalist who had to flee to Germany and now works with the ECPMF, added another important perspective to the discussion, as she both gave an insight on how journalists cover the refugee issue, but also how refugees themselves perceive media reporting about them. Also after her arrival to Germany, Aljari visited Greece several times to get an idea of the current situation. She explained that both journalists and refugees are facing challenges concerning media coverage: Journalists can hardly sell their stories on the desperate situation in Greek refugees camps anymore. And the refugees often refuse to talk to the media – as they are losing trust: “Many of them do not believe any more in the ability of the media to change things to a better”, Aljari told.

But also the public is losing its trust in media, ECPMF’s Jane Whyatt told the audience. Biased reporting on the refugee issue – both against and in favour of refugees – has led to distrust and an increase in violent attacks against journalists. This is especially visible in Eastern Germany, where right-wing populist accuse the media of lying after it became obvious that journalists with questionable intentions were either overemphasizing or hiding negative news about refugees.

Whyatt also explained how the issue of EU migration is being hotly disputed in her native country Great Britain, as the UK prepares to vote on 23rd June on whether to remain a member state of the European Union or to leave the EU. She said the media coverage is so tendentious that it is hard to discover true facts and figures, A study at Oxford University has shown that that most British national newspapers are strongly publishing articles in favour of a “Brexit”.

The whole debate in Brussels demonstrated that the refugee issue is not only a political or humanitarian question – but that it influences democracy, press freedom and the trust in media and journalists.

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