Members of the public need to hold media accountable for coverage about migrants and refugees, and advocate for balanced, representative reporting, WACC Program Manager Sarah Macharia said at the annual conference of ACAT-France (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture) on 28–29 January.
Macharia, global coordinator of WACC’s Global Media Monitoring Project (GMMP), spoke at a workshop that explored how Christian values such as discernment could help in finding points of orientation for advocacy around migration and the right to asylum in an age of information overload.
Media monitoring could provide such a point of orientation, Macharia said. “Representation of refugees and migrants in the media plays an essential role in the tone of public debate and, in the end, in the welcome and integration of refugee and migrants in their new countries.”
Migrants’ voices absent from Congolese media
Adeline Nsimire, coordinator of WACC partner SAMWAKI (Woman’s Voice in the Village), presented the organization’s research of media coverage about internally displaced people (IDPs), migrants, and refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The research was part of a broader study by WACC Africa in 2017–2018 that also covered Kenya and Nigeria, coordinated by the All Africa Conference of Churches and Journalists for Christ, respectively.
Monitoring of ten Congolese media outlets during a two-month period found little in-depth reporting about the living conditions and well-being of IDPs and refugees, and a lack of perspectives from those who were experiencing displacement, Nsimire noted. “Monitored media didn’t give a voice to IDPs and refugees.”
The WACC Africa monitoring project provided human rights advocates in the DRC with concrete recommendations, according to Nsimire. These included calling for interviews with IDPs to better understand their needs; focusing on driving improvements in living conditions; and creating a multilateral platform for action with IDPs and refugees, government and humanitarian agencies staff, journalists, and ecumenical partners.
Model of invisibility in European news
Stepping in due to technical difficulties, Macharia reported on monitoring of media representation of refugees and migrants in seven countries in Europe conducted in 2017 by WACC Europe and Churches Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME).
She said their research found that only one in five stories about asylum and migration mentioned people on the move. More than three-fourths of these stories neither identified an individual refugee or migrant nor quoted them or their specific experience of migration. Refugee and migrant women were even less represented.
“This reveals a model of invisibility that creates a clear separation between measures debated at a political level and the effects of these policies on the people concerned,” Macharia stressed.
Such indirect representation and labeling of people on the move denies them space to express themselves and can make it more difficult for receiving communities to understand and accept newcomers, she added.
Call to hold media accountable
Macharia pointed to the movie The Swimmers, which shows the challenges and triumphs of two sisters on their migration journey from Syria to Germany, as a best practice example for news media. If journalistic coverage would give such an in-depth and multidimensional portrayal of the lives of people on the move, she said, “the world would be a more welcoming and hospitable place for the newcomers amongst us.”
Media have a long road to travel to get to that point, but members of the public can drive change, Macharia concluded. “As readers, as the general public, we have a mandate to hold the media responsible to the principles governing their profession.”
Photo: Four-year old Mashad prepares to kick the ball to his 7-year-old sister, Farah, in a city park in Belgrade, Serbia, where their family was living temporarily with other refugees who fled the war in Syria. Paul Jeffrey/Life on Earth