This is a Chapter of the Study “How does the media on both sides of the Mediterranean report on migration?” carried out and prepared by the Ethical Journalism Network and commissioned in the framework of EUROMED Migration IV – a project, financed by the European Union and implemented by International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD). © European Union, 2017.
Good and Bad, but a Lack of Accountability when Journalism Fails the Migration Test
The issue of migration began to dominate the Austrian media with the dramatic surge northwards of refugees entering the country along the Balkan route as they made their way to Germany. There was a record number1 of asylum requests in Austria in 2015, of around 90,000, an increase of 200% over the previous year, and a number, in a country of 8.5 million inhabitants, which was seized on especially by tabloid press as something of an existential threat.
It coincided with the discovery of dozens of dead migrants in a lorry on a motorway about 30 km from Vienna, in a news event that became a global story. The migration surge was mainly a consequence of the deterioration of the armed conflict in Syria.
The evident humanitarian crisis was met first with calm and objective media coverage, but was quickly used by certain political leaders to advance a rhetoric defined by stereotypes and xenophobia. The European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance denounced the inflammatory speeches of FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria, and other groups (Freedom House 2016).
Statements by political leaders, such as the Austrian foreign Minister, included a proposal to “keep refugees in island camps”, associated “high birth rates” in Africa with migration flows towards Europe, identified the need for increased border controls as an emergency issue, and ultimately justified the eventual restrictive emergency legislation passed by the Austrian Parliament and signed by the then President of the Republic.
Meanwhile, the government de facto closed the Balkan route, reinstating border controls with their EU neighbours. The change in policy to expedite refugee applications including through arrest and detention by police was criticised by international and Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International.