Refugee crisis: A closer look at the media's role

By Ibrahim Altay

The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the century, and it is nowhere nearing an end, having become the source of other numerous problems we currently face, including racial discrimination, anti-Muslim tendencies and rising xenophobia. The refugee crisis is likely to be one with definitive problems for which there are major consequences, for better or worse. Despite the gloomy outlook, we have covered many aspects of the refugee crisis in the Reader's Corner repeatedly in the recent past.

Personally, I was one of the first journalists to enter several refugee camps near Turkey's Hatay province, after Angelina Jolie made her visit. Back then, the number of refugees in the camp stood at nearly 15,000. Now, the numbers are more sobering, having reached hundreds of thousands. Make no mistake, these camps are just the tip of the iceberg, as thousands of other refugees are scattered across many countries worldwide, as well.As the numbers have swelled over the years, the media's approach to coverage of the problem remains foreign, far-removed and problematic. I am not merely talking about the Western media's approach to this. The media in Turkey has shared in this universal failing, as well, with many media outlets in the country continually portraying the refugee crisis as a political issue rather than a humanitarian one.

In Turkey, various media organizations portray Syrian people who were forced to leave their homes, their countries and in many cases, their families, as posing a national security threat, manipulating their presence in the country as a tool to propagate a political agenda.

This approach serves numerous forms of malice such as ethnocentrism, racism, sexism and so forth.

We have seen it before. The lifeless bodies of Syrian children washed up on Turkish coasts, and innocent and helpless people getting lynched because of the color of their skin or the language they speak. The young woman raped and murdered along with her one-year old child.

Furthermore, press agencies report on this tragedy by choosing to write about the beauty of the woman, as if beauty could mitigate the atrocity.

We have once again seen that there are women who are persona grata and persona non grata in the eyes of numerous activists. When a woman of Syrian origin is murdered or raped, the majority of women's rights organizations and anti-violence activists turn a blind eye to femicide, with the exception of a few organizations, not including those whose agendas aim to exploit human rights. The media largely discarded the news right from the start, deeming it useless in achieving their political goals.

Media outlets have seemingly made a distinction between the preferred and the undesirable, based entirely on skewed perceptions. At most, the media has released some "token" statements and manipulative reports.

Fake newsHow did we reach this point? What role has social media played in this journey towards indifference? It is time to put our hats in front of us and start to give some serious thought to the current situation. Online watchdog Günün Yalanları (Today's Lies) aims to provide true, accurate statements in Turkey and has compiled a list of lies that are spread in Turkish media outlets for daily consumption about Syrian refugees:

"Syrians are collecting wages from the Organization of Post and Telegraph (PTT)."

"Syrians can attend universities without taking any exams or fulfilling any conditions."

"A Syrian attacked the Atatürk bust in Sakarya."

"In vitro fertilization costs of Syrian refugees are covered by the Social Security Institution (SGK)."

"Syrians are in the citizenship line in Gaziantep."

"Syrians enjoy tourist services for free."

"Syrians got into a fight in one of Ankara's neighborhoods."

This is just a small sample taken from dozens of rumors that pop up almost daily about Syrian refugees. These stories gain traction easily on social media and by word of mouth. When we take a closer look at the sources, however, we see that social media is not the sole source of these rumors either. Even mainstream media has a hand in this by reporting on unconfirmed rumors. Media organizations continuously draw attention to such misinformation by reporting on it over and over, perpetuating the problem even though they may not be the original source of the problem itself. With a bit of scrutiny, however, the validity of the story melts under the light of truth.

Sadly though, by the time accurate information is confirmed in the media, the damage has already been done. After all, we have reiterated this point many times before: A lie travels like wildfire around the globe, while the truth is still just a flickering flame. It is no different in this case. Rumors become truth in the minds of their recipients. Even if the viewer or reader hears or reads of a retraction of baseless claims, two more take its place at the same instant like a hydra. Also, people start to think that there's no smoke without fire, thus ushering in malice, defeatism and cruelty.

Threat perception

Let us not forget though: The belief that fake and false news are the sole source of the problem is a faulty one. After all, even in the news articles that appear truthful, the wording can incur the same damage that fake information can. It is even more insidious as false information laced with truth.

In case you're wondering, go and check İbrahim Efe's report, "Syrian Refugees in the Turkish Media," prepared for the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA). Its bullet points can be seen in an article dated Jan. 25, 2016, by İsmail Selim Eşsiz, "Demonizing the refugees," found in Daily Sabah's Reader's Corner, as well.

Certain media organizations shape their news articles as a brick that is used in the threat perception wall that is being built around the refugees. Every news article marginalizes them even more. Despite not being supported by statistics, the correlation between refugees and criminality is being hinted at in these pieces of information. Refugees are blamed for theft, larceny, murder and numerous other crimes with no evidence to substantiate the claims. They are being portrayed as the source of every problem in society as a sacrificial scapegoat. All the while, they are also being accused of cowardice, clashes and violence just as they are presented as the reason for all the uncertainty and chaos, and the turning wheel of the news becomes a factory for producing public fear and mass panic.

NamelessTake a look at news stories about refugees. One of the common things you find is that none of the refugees are referred to by name. They are not mentioned as individuals but rather as a single mass. Unless a very unusual story breaks out, names have no place in these articles; only numbers find their place. Just look at the news stories about refugees who lost their lives in the waters of the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas.

If a refugee manages to earn a name in a story, he or she is robbed of a voice. No one represents them just as they are not permitted to represent themselves. No one cares about what they go through, think or feel. There are no microphones for them to be interviewed.

Even if there is a microphone, an expert journalist who can understand their language and culture is very hard to come by. Thus, ignorance becomes the norm of the job as the media hides behind paltry excuses. In truth, refugees don't rate as "human beings" in their subconscious, not even regarded as much as an inanimate object. Respect for the Syrian's right to reply is nonexistent, and news articles are one-sided and riddled with the imbalance of injustice. These are harsh words but I am afraid that the grim situation does more than enough to warrant them. This is how the media is handling the refugee crisis.

Degrading statements are made about women and children, spreading racism and even hate speech that have no place in a free society where freedom of speech exists. Media organizations cannot publish statements of this nature carelessly, as if they are reporting the weather. If they do, that means they are accessories to crimes against humanity.

A politician once said, "Syrian adolescent men accost our young girls on beaches," while some newspapers jumped on the statement like vultures and made it a headline, as if this crime was invented by refugees.

A singer said: "We are sick and tired of theft, burglary and news of stabbings. Syrians must return to their homes," while some news websites went full-speed ahead with that sentiment by reproducing previous news articles that supported the statement; as if all refugees are thieves and murderers.Racism born out of the belief that coming to a place five, then or a hundred years ago entitles them to owning everything and everyone on that place can only be result of extreme arrogance. Such generalizations, racism and utter nonsense are devoid of reason and logic, but they are most certainly not truths but merely opinions.

Advertising this nonsense is not the job of the media. Reporting on fake news is only acceptable when it is being criticized or emphasized as what it is: A fallacy.