Southern Med Migration/Refugee Media Coverage Waned Due to Pandemic, Other Woes: Study
Arab media rightly went full throttle in covering the calamitous Ukraine war resulting in a 4 million-plus refugee crisis, with many Southern Mediterranean journalists having tasted conflicts at home and knowing only too well the agony of population displacement.
But reporting on refugee and migration crises in the Middle East and North Africa region took a dip in 2019 and 2020 due to the coronavirus outbreak as well as other pressing economic and political issues like the conflict in Syria, flare-ups in Israel/Palestine that spill over into neighboring Jordan, Lebanon’s financial meltdown, and, the strife in Libya and Algeria.
I conducted a just-released European Union-funded study implemented by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development that focused on this decline to develop a better understanding of traditional and other media’s constraints and how certain elements affected their capacity to tell the “migration story.”
As I wrote in the introduction, the pandemic added a layer of misery for media in the reviewed countries already suffering from budget and personnel cutbacks, drops in circulation, vanishing advertising revenue, and competition from non-traditional platforms, with print outlets particularly hard hit and countless journalists having to work from home.
But the issue occasionally made the news when migrants, refugees and domestic workers were portrayed as potential coronavirus spreaders, or when questions arose if, and how, to inoculate them against the pandemic. An angle that received little to no attention was what to do with refugees and migrants who contracted the virus and needed hospitalization but could not afford treatment, and could not compete with the country’s natives for hospital space to be treated, and could not afford to pay for dwindling supplies of oxygen tanks.
I based my information on a questionnaire sent to journalists, academics and NGO officials in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan although the last one does not border the Mediterranean but has a high concentration of refugees and migrants who arrived in waves over the decades, notably Palestinians, Iraqis and Syrians.
I also drew on research from news articles, and reports from various migration-related organizations.
The common thread among those countries was the relative hiatus in migration media coverage and the discovery that journalists were often ill-informed about the situation in their own back yards, much less in other countries.
These were the conclusions I drew from the research:
1. Polarization in media reports has always been present but it appears that the gap between positive and empathetic on one side and negative and aggressive on the other is expanding.
2. Migration fatigue has been at its highest peak in the last several years, resulting in media’s ad-hoc and reactive reporting.
3. Lack of coordination of international organizations addressing migration-related issues and their affiliates and local/foreign NGOs also hinders the media’s effort to handle such matters.
4. Use of migration for local political and economic goals is on the rise. Traditional media influenced by local politics and backed by alternative media lack detailed reporting on the context and complexities of migration, or reflection on wider social and political issues affecting both sides of the Mediterranean.
5. The significance and influence of social media and “alternative news” become increasingly important in shaping public opinion.
6. Lack of regulations or control over dis- and mis-information adds to the problem of complexity of media’s migration coverage.
7. In many countries surveyed in this study, experts detected a growing trend of using social media as a tool against migrants, spreading xenophobia and picturing migrants as a potential threat, especially in the transition and host countries.
8. Social media and other online sources’ dissemination of rumor, speculation and alarmist information only contributes to the fear and ignorance among the public at large.
9. The Covid-19 pandemic grabbed the media’s attention throughout the Mediterranean and the rest of the world while pushing back migration from a list of important topics to cover, becoming the main reason for the decline of interest in addressing this complex issue.
10. The pandemic not only affected the number of stories, but, to a great extent, the nature and tone of those that appeared.
11. The spread of Covid-19 was used as an anti-migrant tool in some cases in several countries.
12. There is no local or global strategy on how to tackle this complex task. Fueled by the lack (or scarcity) of official information, statistics and general access to data, migration coverage seems to be at its lowest and weakest point.
13. There is an urgent need for new strategies and initiatives, including new forms of public funding and support, to help traditional and alternative media better explain the process of migration, its role in human history and its contribution to national and regional development.
That’s why I firmly believe journalists need training in how best to cover the matters of migrants, refugees and human trafficking and have written a manual to help them untangle these issues. It’s available for download in English, French and Arabic.
It’s noteworthy that during an apostolic visit to the Mediterranean island of Malta this weekend, Pope Francis had this to say about migration, refugees and human trafficking in the Euro-Mediterranean zone while also pointing to the gut-wrenching tragedy in Ukraine:
Continuing to follow the rose of winds, we now look to the south, from where so many of our brothers and sisters have come in search of hope. I would like to thank the civil authorities and the people of Malta for the welcome they have given them in the name of the Gospel, our common humanity and of their native sense of hospitality. According to its Phoenician etymology, Malta means “safe harbor”. Nonetheless, given the growing influx of recent years, fear and insecurity have nurtured a certain discouragement and frustration. If the complexity of the migration issue is to be properly addressed, it needs to be situated within a broader context of time and space. Time, in the sense that migration phenomenon is not a temporary situation, but a sign of our times. It brings with it the burden of past injustice, exploitation, climatic changes and tragic conflicts, whose effects are now making themselves felt. From the poor and densely populated south, great numbers of people are moving to the wealthy north: this is a fact, and it cannot be ignored by adopting an anachronistic isolationism, which will not produce prosperity and integration. From the standpoint of space, the growing migration emergency — here we can think of the refugees from war-torn Ukraine — calls for a broad-based and shared response. Some countries cannot respond to the entire problem, while others remain indifferent onlookers! Civilized countries cannot approve for their own interest sordid agreements with criminals who enslave other human beings. Unfortunately this happens. The Mediterranean needs co-responsibility on the part of Europe, in order to become a new theatre of solidarity and not the harbinger of a tragic shipwreck of civilization. The mare nostrum should not become the biggest cemetery of Europe.