Racism Persists in Ukraine War Media Coverage

A woman in New Zealand emailed me to say someone had sent her my blogpost on bigotry in coverage of the Ukraine-Russia war, how refugees of color were being mistreated by the media, and asked me to please keep the conversation going.

She sent a link to a video by Britain’s The Guardian saying she found it disappointing and wanted to bring it to my attention.

The Guardian report on evacuation of refugees from the Ukraine conflict

“The team did not ask the chap at the end of the video one question about refugees of colour and we didn’t see one family of colour in the video,” wrote the sender who’s British of Asian origin and runs a diversity consultancy in Auckland. “They apparently spent the day with him!”

She couldn’t believe those fleeing the Ukraine conflict weren’t diverse, adding that she’d reached out to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) seeking a better approach to help European refugees of color.

I downloaded the video and watched it several times. Sure enough, everyone in it was white.

“We’re in the 21st Century, we’re in a European city, and we have cruise missiles being fired as if we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, if you can imagine that,” said TV anchor Ulysse Gosset on France’s all-news BMF TV.

“We’re in the 21st Century, we’re in a European city” — Ulysse Gosset

It’s as if World Wars I and II didn’t occur on European soil, devastating cities from the UK to Russia.

As I wrote in my previous piece, several Western correspondents in the war zone or anchors in their newsrooms implied, or outright said, that Ukranians were more “civilized” than refugees hailing from Middle Eastern or African countries and that Ukrainians “look like us.”

Ever the underdog’s defender, Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff illustrated the double standards: the EU lamenting what Russia was doing in Ukraine and welcoming its refugees while barring the entry of African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers.

Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff illustrated the EU’s double standards

Jean-Louis Bourlanges, chairman of the French National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told Europe 1 radio that “this is going to be an immigration of great quality, intellectuals, from which we can benefit,” as if non-European immigrants were of no consequence.

I didn’t see or hear the interviewer question that assertion.

Jean-Louis Bourlanges, chairman of the French National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee

It probably conveniently slipped both their minds that Amin Maalouf — author and former journalist inducted into the prestigious (and snobbish) Académie Française — and Eid Hourany, a nuclear physicist, were noted French citizens from Lebanon. Or that countless other “intellectual” immigrants hailed from non-European countries.

Jumana Zabaneh, a UN Women Lebanon program specialist, posted a cartoon of a human-headed winged Assyrian lion, similar to statues at New York’s Metropolitan Museum that represent the cradle of civilization (i.e. modern-day Iraq), with a tiny figure shouting “uncivilized.”

Cartoon of Assyrian statue of a human-headed winged lion

An indignant cartoonist reacting to racist remarks in the media illustrated an EU border crossing with a raised barrier colored in shades of white and beige to welcome refugees. On the opposite side the closed barrier had different shades of brown and the words “unwelcome refugees.”

“Oh, what a lovely (Western) war!” headlined Mike Peterson in a scathing The Daily Cartoonist article with multiple examples of illustrations from international media lamenting the West’s double standards in treatment of refugees.

“There are plenty of people in the world who are much like ‘us,’ and who even live much like ‘us,’ depending on how you define the term,” he wrote. “How you define the term being a measure of your civilization, not theirs.”

He also hoped we’d all emerge from this European catastrophe with a clearer vision of what war means, wherever it happens.

Noted American media professor and author Dan Gillmor tweeted: “’They look like us’ is a terrible way to explain one’s sudden support for human rights…”

Laila Al-Arian, an Emmy award-winning executive producer at Al Jazeera English network and a teacher, tweeted: “Don’t be surprised that Ukraine is being described as ‘civilized’ as opposed to Iraq and Afghanistan. A reporter once told my class that she covered the Iraq war from the perspective of US soldiers because unlike Iraqis, they weren’t used to war and suffering.”

The mind boggles.

She also tweeted: “The dehumanization runs deep as the late (Palestinian-American scholar and author of “Orientalism”) Edward Said argued, it makes the region ‘vulnerable to military aggression.’”

Soon after the initial egregious media reports hit the airwaves and cyberspace, the New York-based Arab Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) called on all news organizations to be mindful of implicit and explicit bias in their coverage of war in Ukraine.

“AMEJA condemns and categorically rejects orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict,” it said. “This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected.”

To her credit, CNN correspondent Sara Sidner who reported from the Polish-Ukrainian border asked a European Union (EU) Commission on Crisis Management official last week about discrimination against people of color trying to escape the conflict, being barred from crossing Ukraine’s borders to neighboring countries, and being stopped or pushed from boarding trains out of harm’s way while Ukrainians and other whites were given safe passage.

CNN correspondent Sara Sidner grills European Union Commission on Crisis Management official

“There’s been a huge backup and that backup in Ukraine was mostly of black and brown people,” she reported, noting that she’d asked the official about this issue and whether that’s what he saw.

His reply: “Members of the European Parliament from Poland assured us these are fake news, that this is not true, and honestly we have not been able to corroborate that.”

Sidner shot back: “I have corroborated that. I have talked to Africans and Indians who both said they were being pushed off trains. They said that they were being left behind. These are women and children.”

When confronted with the charge, the official said any discrimination against people fleeing the conflict “on the basis of any personal characteristic including citizenship or skin color is completely unacceptable.”

Sidner later tweeted that EU, Ukrainian and Polish officials said they’d dealt with the issues, that the borders were clearer, and that she’d actually seen it.

“But, the EU had to admit discrimination was happening at the border,” she added.

On March 4, Human Rights Watch (HRW) posted a report on its website entitled “Ukraine: Unequal Treatment for Foreigners Attempting to Flee — Pattern of Blocking, Delaying Non-Ukrainians.”

HRW quizzed mostly foreign students who said they were blocked or delayed from boarding buses and trains to prioritize evacuating Ukranian women and children.

“Human Rights Watch interviewed foreign nationals from North African countries, sub-Saharan African countries and India at the Polish border, in Lviv, a Ukrainian city about 75 kilometers from the border, and by telephone about the difficulties they faced trying to get out of the country,” it said.

According to the BBC, quoting Ukranian government data from 2020, there were 76,000 foreign students in Ukraine, with a quarter from Africa (mostly Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt). Some 20,000 students hailed from India.

The students majored in medicine, engineering and business and became an important part of the economy.

“Ukraine has long appealed to foreign students, which can be traced back to the Soviet era, when there was a lot of investment in higher education and a deliberate attempt to attract students from newly independent African countries,” it said.

There are also large numbers of Lebanese students in Ukraine who were caught in the chaos and Lebanese entrepreneurs who married Ukrainians and who recounted harrowing stories of attempts to escape the war into neighboring countries.

I haven’t seen much reporting in most Western media on non-Ukranians facing hardships in trying to flee the combat. It’s like they didn’t exist or were unworthy.

British TV interviewee speaks about Russia’s use of a “stomach churning” vacuum bomb in Ukraine

The dehumanization jives with an insidiously bigoted British TV interviewee who referred to Russia’s reported use of a thermobaric munition in Ukraine — a weapon condemned by international organizations — that sucks oxygen from the surrounding air to create an explosion as “a sort of a vacuum bomb, which to be fair, the U.S. has used before in Afghanistan. But the idea of it being used in Europe is stomach churning.”

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Magda Abu-Fadil

Magda Abu-Fadil is a veteran foreign correspondent/editor of international news organizations, former academic, media trainer, consultant, speaker and blogger.