How the Shock of the New Became a Polarising, Fearful and Toxic Story
The current migration crisis is a new experience for the Hungarian public and the media. Before the summer of 2015, the Hungarian media neglected the issue; migration did not figure in people’s minds and it rarely took prominence on the news agenda. I became aware of this when attending a workshop on migration and the media in Paris some years ago, organised by the Ethical Journalism Network, the Global Editors Network and the International Organisation of Migration. I was left wondering how much of the discussion is relevant to Hungary.
I had the feeling that although we have never faced migration, the issues brought up at that meeting which were of concern to colleagues from countries used to dealing with migration, figured also in the way Hungarian media has reported on its own minority Roma community – everyday ethnic discrimination, unconscious mixing of poverty issues with matters of race, political partisanship, and a profound lack of a common language to address issues of “the other”, as well as an absence of reliable and widely accepted facts and narratives.
Thus, on the one hand the Hungarian media was inexperienced when it came to reporting migration, but on the other hand it had rich experience of the editorial challenges. Soon after this workshop the Editor’s Forum Hungary and the Center of Independent Journalism organised one of their regular conferences on migration, preparing special ethical guidelines for reporting. At the time, not many were interested.
When migration became the hottest topic on the news agenda just a few years later, Hungarian reporters and media were largely unprepared and it was too late for reporters to refer to any guidelines or conference papers. To judge the nature and quality of the Hungarian media’s efforts to report on migration is difficult as the circumstances were extreme: hundreds of thousands of people came rushing through the country in a month; there was a mix of extremes — signs of panic and at the same time empathy within society; and deepening partisanship fuelled by government rhetoric and propaganda.
Just a year before the crisis, a survey of Hungarians’ political priorities found that just 3% of those surveyed considered immigration a serious issue. Also in 2014, a study by the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, an NGO specialised in refugee issues, stated that “migration is hardly, if at all, reported by the media. Migrants are practically invisible for the public. Overloaded editors consider the subject unattractive.” The report added: “Migration only appears in the form of statistics, never as people. The only exceptions are crime stories…. editors are not aware of the terminology regarding migration…. The passivity of the media contributes to the negligence of the dangerously uninformed public’.
Clearly the media was unprepared. Migration had previously been a minority issue; the playground of some NGOs and despite a number of conferences, workshops, and the publishing of media guidelines, that was the baseline for journalism when the migration story exploded on the media scene a year later. At the heart of the public confusion since 2015 lies a new word, intentionally made up for propaganda purposes: “migráns”. This word has not existed before. In previous decades, Hungary’s limited experience with refugees related to ethnic Hungarians from Romania and Serbia at times of conflicts, wars and deprivation. During the different waves of wars in the Balkans, it meant Serbians, Bosnians, and then, Kosovars. But these waves of limited migration did not cause much in the way of social disruption. The media traditionally used the Hungarian equivalents of ‘refugee’, or ‘asylum seeker’, to describe the people coming to the country.
All that has dramatically changed. As a recent study states, ‘One of the clearest edicts concerned the word “refugees,” which has all but disappeared from coverage of the crisis. There are words in Hungarian for refugee (“menekult”) and asylum seeker (“menedekkero”), and previous refugee crisis were also discussed using the word “bevandorlo,” which translates roughly as “incomer.” Instead, a foreign-sounding imposition from Latin was deployed: “migráns.”’
This brand new, made-up word, was used by government officials and media under government direction or influence replacing every other term. Journalists at state media were reportedly told to use the word every time they address the issue. ‘Migráns’ sounds foreign and sounds ugly, while ‘menekült’ (refugee) has soft, empathetic connotations.
Also, the term ‘economic immigrant’ was coined to put an emphasis on the job security issue, rather than the humanitarian, asylum seeker approach that sees migrants as people escaping from war zones. From that point, the choice of words used made a clear distinction: those using ‘migráns’ clearly shared the governments’ anti-migrant rhetoric. This led to a situation where using any of the older terms became a political statement even if it wasn’t meant to.
As a result, unbiased reporting became almost impossible. No words were left untouched by this war of rhetoric. No matter which words a journalist picked to describe the people at the borders and in the popup camps, it surely meant something else, something more than intended. However, ‘migráns’ clearly took over subconsciously even in the everyday speak of the country.
“Migration only appears in the form of statistics, never as people. The only exceptions are crime stories….editors are not aware of the terminology regarding migration…. The passivity of the media contributes to the negligence of the dangerously uninformed public”
The total lack of a common approach, the chaos of terminology and the lack of experience created a situation, where within a year, the number of people who considered migration a serious potential threat, or a potential source of terrorism and job insecurity, increased from 3% to 76% and 82%.
It may appear that reporting on migration itself was the major media story of the past two years, but that is not entirely true. In fact, the story became more about the government’s policy and its anti-migrant rhetoric. The migration crisis itself lasted hardly a month, but the topic remained at the top of the news lists for more than a year. This focus on government policy started earlier, with the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015.
The prime minister put it at the top of his list after attending the free-speech-march on 11 January 2015 in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo attacks. On the day of the march he spoke out on public media about migration and terrorism, not protection of free speech. From that point on it became his number one issue. The state media and the ever-growing number of government-backed private media followed suit. Many argue that this was an intended scapegoating strategy. “Fidesz tried stirring a debate around the death penalty, and then experimented with a narrative about defending the ’little man,’ but neither stuck. Then they switched to migration and that started to resonate”, says Csaba Toth, analyst with Republikon Institute, a liberal think-thank, in a recent report.
Migration was certainly on top of the media agenda during the physical presence of hundreds of thousands of migrants at border control points with Serbia (and later on their main exit point, on the border with Austria) and in central Budapest, at Keleti railway station. These were the days of breaking news hysteria when sober, fact-based reporting was almost impossible because of the lack of facts – there was no data, no official reaction, and no spokespeople available on either the government or the police side, and nobody, of course, to speak on behalf of migrants.
Many media narratives were hysterical, with judgments of the crisis based on their general approval or disapproval of the government’s policies. Most coverage was emotional – on one side, fuelling public fears, where the general image of migrants was the one of aggressive, shouting, uncontrollable horde of young man, on the other side, there was a different viewpoint – flaying the government’s supposedly inhuman, cynical scapegoating, with images of small children playing in the miserable conditions of the pop-up refugee camps, crying mothers and handsome young men with flawless English, talking smoothly and with sophistication.