Media put humanity in the picture as refugee crisis takes hold

By Magda Abu-Fadil

If there is one country where migration is a meaningful crisis story it is Lebanon which, according to Forbes-Statista/UNHCR, has the most refugees per 1,000 inhabitants – 257 in mid-2014. Lebanon’s population is estimated at 4.5 million. Syrian refugees are estimated at anywhere from 1.3 to 1.5 million, with unregistered numbers approaching 2 million, according to some studies.

But the very definition of a refugee, an asylum seeker or a migrant, takes on more than the usual connotations in a country burdened by a history of sectarianism, political and economic uncertainty, feudal patronage and more.

The Bloomberg View offers a perspective on who is a refugee, according to the 1951 UN convention and a 1967 protocol, as well as the principle that countries can’t send refugees away once they arrive, also known as nonrefoulement. However, Lebanon is not a signatory to the convention, so its situation is both murky and untenable – more so when media are covering a crisis well beyond the country’s capacity.

Dr. Guita Hourani, Director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center and Assistant Professor at Notre Dame University’s Faculty of Law and Political Science wrote in an email interview on August 5, 2015: “As told by the media in Lebanon, various pressures shape the ‘migration’ story, including highlighting the calamity of displacement and its humanitarian consequences, especially at the onset of the crisis.

“However, as settlement occurred and years passed without any prospect of return, resettlement in a third country and inflow of assistance to the host community and country, the story began to recount the impact of the crisis in economic, social, and demographic terms.

“The latter was also emphasised as the ‘takfiris’ (Islamic fundamentalists who denounce the ‘others’ as apostates) began to infiltrate vulnerable refugee communities. The story changed too to reflect the economic recession and increased inflation – due in part to the protracted Syrian crisis, the involvement of Hezbollah in the fighting in Syria, and the lack of consensus on electing a president for Lebanon, among other issues.”

She added that Lebanese and foreign media coverage had contributed to the stereotyping of both communities – refugee and host. A point highlighted in October 2014, when the daily Assafir said the wrong questions in headlines and online content were being asked, citing examples such as: “Do you support not selling to Syrians from our shops to tighten the noose on them? Lebanese, who protects your rights to jobs? What do you say about illegal competition? After security, how does Syrian migration affect the Lebanese economy? What’s the Labour Ministry doing?”

In June 2015, the same paper ran a telling headline: “The Patriation/Naturalisation Choice: Syrians or Palestinians?” in reference to the hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who have flooded in since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011 and the earlier creation of the state of Israel in 1948, leading to successive waves of people from neighbouring countries and what their presence has meant to the already-sensitive issue of “sectarian balance”.

An alarmist article entitled “Before Lebanon Becomes a Depot for War Refugees” in the daily Al Joumhouriya on July 12, 2015 shed light on the crisis, noting that no country has had to face refugee numbers that almost match its population.

It quoted Rock-Antoine Mehanna, Dean of the Business School at Beirut’s La Sagesse University, pointing to an internal economic cycle within the main Lebanese cycle, when Syrian merchants buy products in Syria then sell them to other Syrian merchants in Lebanon who, in turn, sell them to Syrian labourers in Lebanon, thereby creating an economic crisis.

In January 2015, the daily Annahar published a diatribe by Hussein Hazoury who said Hamra Street, Beirut’s one-time Champs Elysées, had changed colour from “Hamra” (red) to “sawda” (black) with the unregulated influx of (dark-skinned) Syrians. He complained that the street had lost its charm, that the Syrian presence had changed Hamra’s demography, and that restaurant owners were decrying the proliferation of cheap Syrian labour and competition from Syrian eateries. The comments caused such a backlash on social media, charging Annahar with racism, that its administration had to publish a clarification hours later saying the commentary didn’t reflect the paper’s editorial line or values and that the writer had just expressed his personal observations.

However, there are stories in print, broadcast and online media that show sympathy for refugees and displaced people and that focus on the humanitarian aspects of the crisis.

A case in point is the story of Fares Khodor, a friendly 11-year-old Syrian boy who in 2015 sold flowers on the streets of the Hamra district and who one day on his way back home was killed by the anti-regime coalition’s air campaign, according to news reports. His death triggered a social media frenzy of sympathy, but it also led to unsubstantiated reports and questionable pictures of a boy resembling Fares who reportedly was said to have carried out a suicide attack in Syria.

For Diana Moukalled, a television journalist, documentary producer, columnist and women’s advocate, Lebanese media contribute to hate-speech against refugees, displaced persons and asylum seekers in news stories, comments and columns. “Media usually deal with refugees as a block and not as individual stories,” she said. “There is some good coverage, but that does not represent the mainstream media.”

She added that during an assault by militants on the Lebanese army in the Ersal region near Syrian refugee encampments in the summer of 2014, media tended to label all refugees as terrorists.

Asked in an email interview August 5, 2015 whether the pressure of time, competition among Lebanese media and sources of information affected coverage, Moukalled replied: “The time factor is minimal. But there is a lack of professional and ethical will to cover these issues fairly. Again, there are really good reports sometimes but the main approach is negative and full of stereotyping and labeling.”

The Maharat Foundation released an invaluable study in August 2015 on Lebanese media’s coverage of mostly Syrian and Palestinian refugees, migrants, and displaced persons.

The 58-page project, Monitoring Racism in Lebanese Media: Representations of “The Syrian” and “The Palestinian” in News Coverage, takes a critical look at how these two communities are portrayed. It analysed coverage in newspapers, television, radio and news websites.

The study said the presence of Syrian and Palestinian refugees had long been a factor of division and conflict among Lebanese. That has translated into the political and media discourse, which becomes fodder for scaremongering against strangers and hate-speech that plays on identity, demography, everyday life and national-security issues.

Monitoring organisations representing different political and sectarian leanings it aimed to demonstrate the existence – or lack of – racism and whether it is overt or covert in media that signed a code of ethics in 2013.

Conducted between February 5 and 25, 2015 the study focused on determining the subject/topic of the media discourse towards Syrians and Palestinians in Lebanon and quantifying media content, its position and the tone used. It analysed the types of racial discourse, determined the targeted parties or categories and examined the journalistic framework and various stereotypes of the media discourse.

Using a very methodical approach to define racism, the study examined outward and obvious manifestations as well as indirect, veiled and reserved types. It noted that for the past century the media had played a key role in promoting and reproducing racism by looking at the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant, the refugee, the displaced person and minorities as problems rather than inseparable parts of the host community.

Hard news stories tended to focus on crime, violence, drugs, disruption of security and terrorism, or on analyses that characterised the stranger as not only different but as an element of instability and a threat. In Lebanese print media Syria had most coverage, compared to the Palestinian issue. Only one newspaper had very little coverage of the topic.

The Syrian-related topics were:

  • The right of entrance and exit in Lebanon
  • Peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations
  • Integration
  • Civil, social, economic rights for refugees
  • Civil society and activities
  • Taking advantage (abuse) of women and children
  • Medical care, hospitalisation, health and public safety
  • Crimes against Syrians and Palestinians
  • Learning and education
  • Disasters and accidents
  • Competing with (Lebanese) manual labour, irregular work, travelling salesmen
  • Crimes committed by Syrians and Palestinians
  • Housing, social care, infrastructure, water and electricity
  • Government and administrative rulings
  • The burden of refuge and responsibility of different parties
  • Financial aid, food, clothing and supplies
  • Arrests and security measures

The Palestinian-related topics were similar but in a different order, with more focus on security, social and health matters and civil rights.

Palestinians in refugee camps and others outside the camps (not tent cities but more deprived urban areas) have had outbreaks of violence over the years – often involving their respective warring factions and in earlier times, against the Lebanese themselves. Stories on Syrians and Palestinians were mostly on the inside pages, never on the front.

A key element of the negative security and terrorism-related issues, based on raw reports from security sources, is the fear within host communities that Syrians seeking refuge from the war could be members of terrorist groups, or be easy prey for terrorist recruiters.

TV coverage was mostly hard news, with little time allocated to features and interviews. The Syrian issue had most coverage, given the fast-changing nature of events. The tone varied between negative and positive, depending on the topic in question.Radio reports were mostly hard news, with hardly any features and very few interviews. Security issues, which took on a negative tone, predominated whereas social matters were positive. News websites offered a mixed bag, but human interest and feature stories were mostly positive.

In its content analysis, the Maharat survey found that Lebanese media were somewhere in the middle on racism. The definition of Syrians as “displaced” or “refugees” was a bone of contention. The same questions could apply to Palestinians, except Palestinians are recognised more as refugees worldwide and have been for decades.

Figures and statistics also varied considerably from source to source and agency to agency, which affected coverage and how stories were skewed, it said. It used specific questions to determine whether news and media reports were racist, how to determine racism (in words and pictures), and subliminal messages.

Scaremongering was a key element, relying on superlatives, exaggeration and manipulation of facts on the adverse effects of ballooning numbers of refugees, as well as the economic/social/security burden and existential threats to the indigenous population.

According to Maharat, the mixture of facts and value judgments exacerbates matters, as do expressions of hate and the demonisation of “the other” in Lebanon where 18 religious sects are officially recognised and vie for economic and political power, pitting locals against refugees and migrants in an “us-versus-them” scenario. The vocabulary used was quite telling, with some expressions dating back to the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war.

It concluded that the media landscape was a reflection of Lebanon’s complex makeup that creates a media discourse built on fear. Political differences are sharp, refugees may easily pose security threats since, unlike in other countries, they are often armed, so the locals are in full mobilisation mode.

To compound the problem, Lebanon has taken in Palestinian refugees from camps in Syria, who like their counterparts in Lebanon, rely on subsistence handouts from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency that caters specifically to their needs. The agency is woefully under-funded and has cut back on assistance and personnel across the Middle East. It has been providing Palestinian refugees in Syria with $100 per family per month housing subsidies and it cut food subsidies from $30 to $27 per head in April 2015.

Lebanese authorities fear the ramifications could lead to a social explosion, mostly in their own Palestinian refugee camps, where hundreds of thousands have resided since 1948. They also fear such a conflagration could spread to other areas.

Media, understandably, jump on headline-grabbing statements by officials calling for radical solutions. “Some political discourses call for repatriation of refugees,” said LBCI TV correspondent Yazbek Wehbe in an email interview August 5, 2015. “Media cover these statements and activities about refugees and sometimes disseminate pejorative terms used by those they report, but it’s unseemly.”

Wehbe explained that no intentional anti-refugee stance by the media existed, nor did any systematic editorial policy about such coverage. “Of course one can’t force a station to cover the topic one way or the other, but it’s important to avoid racism and patronising them and to focus on the humanitarian aspect, bearing in mind that no small number of Lebanese look down on Syrians because most menial labourers … are Syrians and because Lebanon was subjected to 30 years of Syrian political and military tutelage that half the population rejected.”

To help mitigate the problem, the Samir Kassir Foundation (SKEYES) conducted a workshop on coverage of the refugee crisis in February 2014. The aim was to highlight the role of NGOs in helping refugees and the definition of human-rights journalism that can move public opinion to action. Journalists were also briefed with facts and figures from international organisations on what assistance they’re providing – shelter, water, food, education and protection.

A bone of contention between the Lebanese government and international organisations is how many refugees are actually registered. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has repeatedly maintained international organisations are registering refugees and displaced people without referring back to the government – a claim denied by the organisations and other ministers in Lebanon’s fractious cabinet – and that such procedures were illegal, thereby contravening international conventions, since any registration must occur with the host country’s consent.

Participants at the SKEYES event discussed the media’s need to check numbers accurately and scientifically, notably the increase in thefts with rising numbers of refugees and charges leveled by refugees and others against NGOs that are allegedly scalping donor funds.

A panelist recommended upgrading coverage by following basic human-rights guidelines:

  • Participation and collection of eyewitness reports from the field as well as inclusion of all different views
  • Accountability and holding officials responsible for their duties
  • Use of unbiased and non-discriminatory and impartial language to reinforce media credibility
  • Empowerment by informing people of their rights and presentation of the issue to public opinion as well as presentation of solutions and efforts that can be implemented
  • Linking articles to international human rights standards and presentation of legal views on the issue as well as local laws

Participants also examined how media were ill- or under-informed about the work of NGOs and aid organisations, their funding, disbursement of assistance, tensions between refugees and host communities over resources, refugees’ lack of knowledge about their rights, as well as the media’s obligation to shed light on projects that help large numbers of displaced people.

In mid-June, 2015, Amnesty International launched its world report from Lebanon entitled The Global Refugee Crisis: A Conspiracy of Neglect. Amnesty also released a sister publication Lebanon: Pushed to the Edge: Syrian Refugees Face Increased Restrictions in Lebanon since the country is considered the epicentre of the Syrian refugee crisis.

A June 16, 2015 story in Assafir described how participants at the Press Syndicate launch of the Amnesty report had to walk through the building’s garage, where a Syrian refugee family had sought shelter, in order to feel the neglect and need and hear through the window of a room lacking light the shouts of children deprived of school.

Lebanese media have repeatedly decried the lack of burden-sharing by other countries in the face of an endless and growing crisis. Meanwhile, aid organisations and NGOs continue to pitch in with the humanitarian effort and with helping media tell the story.

Asked whether he saw pressures shaping the way the migration story is told from the perspective of resident communities in Lebanon, the Lebanese Red Cross director of public relations and communications Ayad El Mounzer said: “The Lebanese Red Cross is not interfering in any ‘migration’ issues; its only concern is to support the people’s needs.”

In their contribution to the book In Line with the Divine: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Lebanon published in 2015 by Abelian Academic in the US, authors Rouba El Helou and Maria Bou Zeid examine the absence of women in the refugee picture. In the chapter “Dissonance and Decorousness: Missing Images of Syrian Women Refugees in the Lebanese Media”, an introductory summary explains the missing media components:

“Thus far Lebanese media coverage has centred on the impact of the displacement of Syrian women refugees, especially their need for humanitarian aid, their experiences of rape and torture, or sexual harassment during settlement. This partial coverage has given a one-sided perception of Syrian women suffering from forced migration.

“Findings based on content analysis of media releases between 2011 and 2013 show that the media have neglected the resilience of Syrian female refugees, their coping tactics and mechanisms within their new environment and the challenges they face. Media reports have failed to highlight how these women have become active in handling the organisation and distribution of aid and how they are facilitating their families’ lives.

“They also have ignored the fact that Syrian women use their creativity to provide their families with basic needs through establishing and running small businesses or working for Lebanese employers.”

Main photo: “Refugees living in an abandoned factory, Lebanon” by Anthony Gale licensed under CC BY 2.0



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