Refugees: ‘Tell the whole story’

Reporters discuss difficulties in making full and fair coverage of the crisis

Jane Whyatt

When journalists and media policy-makers get together, the stories behind the stories emerge. So it was at the 2015 South East Europe Media Policy Commission in Bucharest. They heard about the photographer who took ”that picture” – the close-up shots of three-year-old Aylan (or Alan) Kurdi lying dead on a Turkish beach. They listened to the ECPMF report its ongoing investigation of media freedom abuses in Hungary, and stories of people-smugglers, bribes, and the black market in fake Syrian passports.


Award winning reporter Balazs Nagy Navarro is leading the ECPMF investigation into an incident on the Serb-Hungarian border where a TV crew covering the crossing of refugees through the razor-wire fence was allegedly beaten by police and detained. ECPMF’s project manager Jane Whyatt reported the interim findings, and a response from the Hungarian authorities saying that it was not clear the TV were journalists and not refugees. The fact finding mission started in the anti-immigration climate that included an official memo to Hungarian state broadcaster workers telling them to „stop showing pictures of refugee children.“ The broadcaster’s management claimed it was to protect children’s right to privacy.


In the case of Aylan Kurdi, the boy who drowned as the family tried to claim asylum, the photograph of his body on the beach was distributed by the Turkish Dogun agency. Bülent Mumay from the agency explained: “The picture was taken by a young journalist, only 23, she’s very ambitious. We knew right away that this was a picture that would have a big impact, and we discussed whether or not to use it.”

Andy McSmith_ Aylan Kurdi Picture of Aylan Kurdi on the front page of the Independent newspaper, held by the paper's Political Correspondent Andy McSmith (photo: private)

This picture went around the world on social media while many editors were agonising over whether or not to print it. It is an image that’s credited with starting a wave of sympathy for refugees, and the Paris left-wing newspaper Libération later apologised to readers for NOT putting it on page 1.


But it has also provoked the opposite reaction, for example with British Member of Parliament Peter Bucklitsch publishing on social media the allegations that the little boy’s family were not genuine refugees but just “greedy for the good life in Europe” and that the father – the only survivor in the family – “wanted to get cosmetic dentistry.” A viewpoint which did not only receive negative feedback.


Hate speech like this is – and worse - is becoming more common in South East Europe, according to Zrinka Vrabec-Mojzes, a Croatian journalist and former Presidential Advisor, who reported that the popular newspapers in Croatia and Serbia were reverting to the nationalist and islamophobic language that they used in the 1990s at the start of the war.


Moldovan investigative journalist Alina Radu told the commission to be sceptical of asylum claims. She described how she and her colleagues lost their jobs because their editor did not back them up when defending a defamation case - although he knew the story had been proved to be true. Later he too lost his job – and then claimed political asylum on the grounds that in Moldova he could not work as a journalist because of repressive laws. He even asked Alina Radu for copies of the documents supporting her court case, to help his asylum claim. She refused to hand them over.


Radu told of another incident. She met an old school friend from her home village on a business trip to Paris. He too had claimed political asylum, and offered to obtain for her the necessary paperwork, saying “Why stay in Moldova? My kids will study at the Sorbonne.” Radu’s advice to the Policy Commission: with asylum cases we must judge each one on its own merits.


Romanian Martina Constaninou commented that refugees mostly did not choose to stay in her country although it is an EU member, and that there is a busy trade in old buses that are used to transport them elsewhere.


The Policy Commission convened by Ellen Mickiewicz, a Professor at Duke University in the USA and former Austrian Vice Chancellor Erhard Busek voted on recommendations urging journalists to cover the refugee crisis responsibly, including the positive contributions they make as well as the demands they make on countries of passage and destination, and to include reporting of the conditions they are fleeing - for example war or climate change – and of criminal elements such as people smugglers.


The recommendations will be forwarded to international bodies responsible for media policy.

Jane Whyatt is the Project Manager of ECPMF, responsible for creating and curating web content, organising conferences and co-ordinating the monthly reporting process for the EU.

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Source information: This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom –