A charter for tolerant journalism: Media take centre stage in the Mediterranean drama

Yasha Maccanico

The first wave of global media coverage of the tragedy of migrants and refugees risking their lives to escape war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere was played out in Italy where in the year to August 2015, several shipwrecks led to more than 5,200 deaths.

During the year several Mediterranean island destinations well-known to European holidaymakers, particularly Lesbos in Greece and Lampedusa in Italy, took centre stage as media rushed to cover the tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis.

Italy has been at the heart of the story. The reality of covering migration in Italy’s mainstream media has seen a range of approaches reflecting a complex political context amidst a cascade of events and circumstances which has produced markedly different editorial biases in newspapers. As the crisis developed it became clear that while the government puts its focus on rescue efforts, for the media it was the human side of the story that attracted greater attention.

At the same time there was no lack of alarmist discourse about immigration, with the number of arrivals described as an “invasion” and the use of the language of war, typified by the front page of the Milan newspaper Il Giornale on 24 August, 2015:

“Immigration chaos. Invasion by land. The landings continue but the alarm is now mainly on the Macedonian front: thousands of refugees push to enter Europe. It is an endless emergency.”

But media were quick to respond to the developing story. This showed clearly in September 2015 following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement that Germany was willing to receive an unspecified number of Syrian refugees and asylum seekers. There was a sudden shift in newspapers reporting acts of kindness and solidarity, with Austrians and Germans welcoming them as they arrived from Hungary.

This contrasted with previous coverage where acts of solidarity with the migrants and refugees had been overshadowed by protests, and more space given to politicians whipping up tensions and the concerns of people fearing for their neighbourhoods due to the presence of migrants.

Some negative reporting can be understood – and criticised – when it is motivated by commercial considerations in newspapers, but uncritical reporting without context of racist speech by leading political figures is inexcusable.

The threat of hate-speech increases at election time, particularly when the centre-left is in power. And media coverage of Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord (the right-wing Northern League) who is supported by the extremist group Casa Pound has inflamed matters. Salvini has stood out for his frequent public appearances and the violence of his messages, which appear tailored to the sensationalism that ensures media exposure, even if it is to criticise him.

The daily Il Giornale regularly carries articles that undermine the position of migrants and call for tough policies. It targets Roma people, Muslims and the arriving migrants and refugees as threats. Such an approach mirrors that of politicians like Salvini, who insisted on calling migrants and asylum seekers “clandestines”, that is, “illegals”, and has called for Roma camps to be razed to the ground.

In its coverage Il Giornale has presented him as a victim, because of the hostility he has drawn from sections of the public, while providing an optimistic reading of his prospects. On 12 May, 2015 it proclaimed: “Eggs and teargas at Salvini’s public meetings. In the meantime, the Lega’s support grows.”

The Lega Nord’s MEP, Gianluca Buonanno, has also distinguished himself with some outrageous comments: on 29 August, 2015, he spoke of using electrified barbed wire “if and when illegals come around these parts” to stop them, “like you do with boars”.

Other media and politicians have been more tolerant. Figures such as Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella provided a contrast. As La Repubblica, reported on 10 June: “Migrants: Mattarella tells the EU, ‘more solidarity’”

A test for the Rome Charter

The migration and refugee story has proved to be a testing ground for Italian media and for the Carta di Roma, a code of conduct on reporting of asylum and immigration issues drafted by media owners and journalists, the Ordine dei Giornalisti (OdG) and the Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana (FNSI) in collaboration with the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR and which was adopted on 12 June, 2008 (see Annexe 1).

The charter was drawn up following a letter written by UNHCR to leading Italian editors in January 2008, in response to the media’s treatment of the gruesome murder of four people in the northern town of Erba a few weeks earlier. The murders were initially blamed on the victim’s Tunisian husband, Azouz Marzouk, whose two-year-old son also died in the attack. Mazouz was widely depicted by media as a monster, with press and television interviews featuring aggressive criticism of the Tunisian immigrant community. It was then revealed that he was in Tunisia at the time of the attack. Subsequently, two neighbours confessed to the murders and were prosecuted.

The charter seeks to discourage discrimination, and calls for “maximum care when dealing with information concerning asylum seekers, refugees, victims of trafficking and migrants”. It calls for appropriate legal terminology, for accurate verified information, and safeguards for those who speak to the media. It recommends media consult experts in order to provide information in context in their reporting.

The charter also led to the creation of an observatory to monitor media coverage and to provide analysis on these issues, as well as training programmes for journalists by the OdG and FNSI. The observatory has produced two in-depth reports on this issue in January and December 2014.

Significantly, the charter also produced a glossary to define “asylum seeker”, “refugee”, “beneficiary of humanitarian protection”, “trafficking victim”, “migrant/immigrant” and “irregular migrant”, to encourage their appropriate use.

The Observatory’s analysis and comment on the treatment of migration-related issues in the media, which includes fact-checking reports and highlighting cases of overt violation of the charter, is accompanied by regular engagement with news media over their coverage.

It has also faced down media critics. Il Giornale journalist Magdi Allam, for instance, challenged the charter’s “prohibition” on mentioning the nationality of perpetrators of crimes and use of the term “clandestino”.

Giovanni Maria Bellu, editor of Cagliari’s daily Sardegna 24 and national president of the Carta di Roma association, says that mention of nationality is not prohibited, but it should only be used if it is relevant to a news story and for better understanding of a news item. As for the negative term “clandestino,” he said there were cases in which it is clearly inappropriate, especially when a news item concerns refugees or potential refugees.

In May 2015, television programmes were invited to refrain from engaging with those political parties’ attempting to whip up xenophobia during the campaign for regional elections. In April, there was a call to investigate a television interview on Canale 5 in which a young Roma woman explained that crime paid better than work and exhibited disregard for victims before claiming, in another interview a fortnight later, that she had been paid to say what she said. In March, a letter was sent to Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper about the inaccurate use of “clandestini” in a headline.

“Some negative reporting can be understood – and criticised – when it is motivated by commercial considerations in newspapers, but uncritical reporting without context of racist speech by leading political figures is inexcusable.”

Hate-speech and violence

These incidents illustrate how journalists and media sometimes struggle to identify, isolate and eliminate information that is distorted and unreliable and this is a particular problem when it comes to hate-speech.

The situation of refugees, migrants and Roma people is often juxtaposed with the position of Italians. Too often media present the former as privileged or as undermining the latter’s living conditions and accepted standards of behaviour, for instance by washing in public fountains.

Italy’s Roma ethnic minority have suffered frequent attacks in the media and from disproportionate coverage of crimes committed by Roma.

On 3 September, 2015, Il Messaggero carried an article headed: “Millions of pilgrims expected, less than one hundred days to the Jubilee and this is what Termini station looks like. The metro’s ticket machines are controlled by Roma gangs.” The article goes on to note that this situation happens “every day, in the midst of absolute indifference”.

Earlier, on 21 August, Il Giornale published a catalogue of news items presenting Italians as victims, endangered by refugees and migrants.

The first article quoted a homeless Italian mother who said: “The refugees are spoiled, I’m in the street”, and ending, “Obviously, being Italian at present is unfortunate.” A second focused on a fight between migrants in Venice: “The residents: We are exasperated. We welcome them and they dare to do this.” The fourth item was alarmed by arranged marriages between poor Italians and refugees: “there is a danger of terrorism”. It went on: “Antiterrorist services investigate the arranged marriages racket, artfully organised to conceal foreign terrorists….” A final article on the same day simply records the “Muslim threats” against a young woman with Moroccan origins participating in the Miss Italy beauty pageant and insults she received on Facebook.

The past year was also marked by attacks on reception centres for migrants in Tor Sapienza on the outskirts of Rome in November 2014 by local residents alongside far right groups. The media (with exceptions) initially found it difficult to call things by their real name – racial prejudice. Il Messaggero showed no ambivalence in their message on 12 November: Hunt against migrants: “We’ll set them alight.” On 14 November, there was critical commentary on the attacks and aftermath, including a noteworthy heading by Il Fatto Quotidiano, which commented on the decision to move the refugees from Tor Sapienza and linked the disturbances to right-wing agitators: “The State surrenders to the fascists.” The right-leaning newspaper Libero welcomed the decision to move refugees from Tor Sapienza on 14 November, with an ironic use of inverted commas: Hurrah, Rome’s “racists” have won. The immigrants will be moved from Tor Sapienza.

Positive developments – online and offline

But in spite of an often politicised and negative tone there have been positive developments involving journalists including, for instance, the “No Hate Speech Campaign” ( launched on 7 September, 2015 by the Associazione Carta di Roma, with support from the European Federation of Journalists, Articolo 21, the Federazione Nazionale della Stampa Italiana, the Ordine dei Giornalisti and the USIGRAI public broadcasting company trade union.

The campaign’s online petition calls on journalists not to be passive in cases of hate-speech, arguing that “Discrediting racist statements and clarifying why they are misleading constitutes a duty for journalists”. Readers are invited to isolate promoters of hate-speech and not to engage in dialogue with them, while media, publishers and social network administrators are invited to remove messages of hate and ban their authors.

An example the campaign had in mind was the report on 9 August, 2015, in Turin’s daily La Stampa which published a positive news article about Nicole, a young Roma girl who lived on a camp site in the United Kingdom and was found to have an extremely high IQ. Racist comments about the article posted on its Facebook page led the newspaper’s social media team to intervene, warning that such comments would no longer be tolerated and that whoever insisted in posting them would be banned, inviting fellow readers to isolate them and report them privately to the team.

Significantly, the issue of under-representation of migrant voices in the higher echelons of newsrooms was highlighted on 7 August, 2015. When Domenica Canchano successfully challenged article 3 of law no. 47 of 1948, which states that the editor in charge of a newspaper or periodical must be an Italian citizen. Following the judgement in her favour, the Peruvian journalist has become the first third-country national to become the editor of an Italian publication, Carta di Roma’s online newspaper.

The positive side of media coverage is reflected in the work of La Stampa and the weekly L’Espresso which were responsible for two positive examples of coverage of the migration story from perspectives which broke the media mould.

In the first case, as part of a cooperative effort involving The GuardianSüddeutsche ZeitungEl País and La Stampa and an investigative team, reports were produced which traced the journeys of several migrants along some important migration routes. They recounted the difficulties encountered, the prices they paid in different stages of the journey and moments of hope and despair, including shipwrecks and friends lost at sea.

They also contextualised the situation in terms of deaths, arrivals and the nationalities of those who arrived, showing that there were considerable numbers of likely refugees, particularly from Eritrea and Syria. Most of all, they provided valuable details which helped clearer understanding of the journey.

La Stampa’s editor, Mario Calabresi, had earlier broken with the herd mentality of Italian media reticent to cast a positive light on the Italian refugee crisis. In a comment piece four days before the European elections on 21 May, 2014, entitled “A bridge to be proud of” he spoke of the Italian Mare Nostrum operation involving the navy, reporting that it had rescued over 30,000 refugees attempting the Mediterranean crossing on makeshift boats, ending with the following: “I will attract a good dose of criticism, but I want to say that I am proud of belonging to a nation which sends its soldiers to save families rather than to shoot at them.”

This piece followed investigative work undertaken to track down the survivors of a shipwreck on 3 October, 2013, discovering that they were mainly refugees from Eritrea and that few had stayed in Italy. Further, the people rescued by the Italian navy were largely refugees escaping from civil wars and social conflicts in Syria, Libya and Mali.

A second example of positive journalism was a series of reports in L’Espresso magazine on the inhumane conditions in which female Romanian agricultural workers were made to work in Sicily. It uncovered a national shame because while exploitation of migrants is notorious, the fact that young women were being raped in the fields was shocking. The reports, during the late summer and early autumn of 2014, led to attempts to intervene by the authorities, although the victims’ reluctance to press charges meant the intervention was more important in symbolic terms than for any charges being brought.

These media and editors demonstrated that media in the frontline countries of the European migration and refugee crisis could produce stylish and professional journalism to be proud of in a country where media, slowly but demonstrably, are learning from their mistakes.

Sources: Ethical Journalism Network (EJN); Carta di Roma association’s website; Articolo 21, which promotes press freedom, and Cronache di ordinario razzismo, which monitors racist and/or discriminatory content in the Italian media.

Additional Research: Rebecca Braccialarghe.

Charter of Rome

Main image: The Italian Harbourmaster Corps (Coast Guard) in Rome rescues migrants bound to the coasts of Italy. © IOM/Francesco Malavolta 2014



Support the work of the Ethical Journalism Network

If you share our mission, please consider donating to the Ethical Journalism Network. Your financial contribution will help the EJN to support journalists around the world who are striving to uphold ethical practices in order to build public trust in good journalism.