MD 2023/4 Editorial
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MD 2023/4 Editorial

Media coverage of migration and migrants has been subjected to intense scrutiny by human rights activists, who see that news reporting has ranged from fair and balanced to biased and prejudiced, inciting a gamut of responses locally and nationally.

Blatantly negative reporting has increased anxiety and hostility among nationalist and populist politicians as well as among ordinary people who are led to believe that migrants are offered benefits and privileges they do not “deserve”. In the worst cases, populist political forces have scapegoated migrants for their own countries’ problems. Policies promising to curb migration are increasingly popular in places such as the United States, Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Brazil.

Much media coverage is good and well-intentioned. Many independent news outlets offer balanced opinions and points of view and try to include the voices of migrants themselves. At the same time, the ability of migrants and refugees to make themselves heard in their host societies and to contribute meaningfully to the discourse on migration is hampered by linguistic, cultural, economic, and political factors, which impoverish public debate.

In most cases, migrants have next to no means to contribute to the conversation on migration, despite being at the centre of it. And yet, as one expert has pointed out:

“Media and mediated environments define the terms, conditions and context in which migration is experienced, lived and contested. The dense entanglements between media cultures and global migration play a pivotal role in scripting the material experiences and politics of mobility. The term ‘mediation’ opens up an analytic space to understand and track these shifting intersections and assemblages of institutions and actors.”1

Despite having the best of intentions, speaking on behalf of migrants has the effect of sidelining and silencing them. In 2017, a study from the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement (RCIS)2 found that Canadian media had engaged in a process of “othering” Syrian refugees who were resettled in Canada in the period 2015-17:

“In all of the media sources we analyzed, Canadian citizens, politicians, and other public actors speak on behalf of refugees and exemplify a ‘saviour complex’ that marginalizes Syrian refugees while offering a narrative of humanitarian and generous Canadians.”

The study analyzed 456 stories from major Canadian news organizations over nine months, and concluded that while the media portrayed the “openness and generosity” of Canadians, they depicted refugees “along an inaccurate and misleading continuum between being needy and lacking agency, and as a possible threat.”

This example underlines several challenges for advocates of human rights and especially of communication rights. On what terms and in what ways can traditional media be engaged to give a stronger voice to refugees and migrants? How can refugees and migrants be enabled to challenge public perceptions? How can media and communication become vehicles to help migrants exercise their rights?

Taking a rights-based approach to migration issues would mean:

  • Promoting migrants’ right to access to information,
  • Advocating migrants’ right to freedom of expression,
  • Meeting migrants’ broader communication needs, such as the need to be listened to, to be able to tell their stories, and to participate in dialogue that provides them with physical, social and psychosocial support
  • Partnering with migrant groups to help develop their capacity to engage in advocacy, build relationships with media houses, and produce evidence to help them raise public awareness about the issues they face.

Many organisations and groups worldwide (see, for example, the article by Rey Asis in this issue of Media Development) have spent years creating help centres and networks for migrants and refugees who would otherwise lack basic information and resources to survive. A key realisation was that genuine empowerment also lies in enabling them to communicate both among themselves and with local communities using affordable and appropriate media.

Digital technologies have, of course, rendered this much easier as other contributions to this issue demonstrate and as José Luis Soto of the Dominican Republic underlines in his article (quotation translated from Spanish):

“In this sense, people’s main task consists in using all the media within their reach, among them journalism, every kind of technology, and the devices and tools of today’s information society, to safeguard ‘recognition of the intrinsic dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of the members of the human family’, in particular the right to the safe and orderly migration that States are under an obligation to guarantee, offering security and providing a human welcome as well as opportunities.”

Communication with, from, and by migrants and refugees is fundamental to their wellbeing and to strengthening the sense of self-worth and dignity that will enable them to survive and flourish during an exceedingly difficult time in their lives.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated (Twitter, on 8 January 2023): “Migrant rights are human rights. Migrants must be respected without discrimination – and irrespective of whether their movement is forced, voluntary, or formally authorized.”

Notes

1. Hegde, Radha S. (2019, p.4). Mediation. The Sage Handbook of Media and Migration.

2. The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Canadian Media. Written by Vappu Tyyskä, Jenna Blower, Samantha DeBoer, Shunya Kawai, Ashley Walcott. RCIS Working Paper No. 2017/3.

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