While Western media have reacted emotionally and with empathy to the plight of citizens of Ukraine, and identified with Ukrainian defenders, prominent media outlets have also expressed opinions that have shocked and sparked anger due to their bias and racist implications.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated or obscure comments, but rather quite surprisingly have appeared in analyses and reports by prominent media organizations like CBS News, The Telegraph, and Al Jazeera English, as well as in statements made by European politicians. The comments openly favored the white race, Christian religion, and economic status of the Ukrainian refugees, in contrast to people of Middle Eastern or North African descent.
For example, Charlie D’Agata, a CBS News correspondent, described Ukraine as a “relatively civilized” and “relatively European” country in comparison with Iraq and Afghanistan. And while Al Jazeera commentator Peter Dobbie noticed that Ukrainians do not “look like” refugees (because they dress and look rather like “middle class” people), NBC correspondent Kelly Cobiella went much further, drawing clear racial distinctions between Syrians and Ukrainians, saying that “they’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar to us.”
Talking about Ukrainians, Kelly Cobiella said, “they’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar to us.”
The Telegraph’s Daniel Hannan from the UK also “discovered” that Ukrainian refugees “seem so like us” and “that is what makes it so shocking.” He also “discovered” that “Ukraine is a European country” and “its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.”
This compilation of comments is so ridiculously stupid and insulting to common sense that any further debate should be unnecessary. And yet, the tragedy is that these comments have been made (and approved) by journalists and editors who graduated from some of the most prominent universities in the world.
While such comments reflect the deeply embedded stereotypes held by many Westerners, they also suggest that wars and armed conflicts are the normal state of affairs in third world countries, although totally unacceptable for “relatively European” states and people with “blond hair and blue eyes.”
Such writing also suggests that some refugees or countries deserve more empathy than others, and that some lives matter more than others.
How the public sees and understands the world that surrounds us, including wars and suffering, is shaped by journalists who deliver the news. And some of them, unfortunately, are not doing their jobs properly, but instead have become the tools of cheap propaganda.
How the public sees and understands the world is shaped by journalists who deliver the news.
If the Instagram account is one of the “civilizational” criteria, then the author of this article could be easily considered a complete savage, as he does not hold one, and imagine how shocked The Telegraphs’s Hannan would be if he were told that there were 13,633,000 Instagram users in Iraq in April 2021, which accounted for 31.3 percent of its entire population. There were also 1,411,500 Instagram users in the State of Palestine in August 2020, which accounted for 25.2 percent of its entire population. That is only 3 percent less than the number of Instagram users in the “highly civilized” and “very European” state of Austria, where 28.3 percent of its population use this social media platform.
These comments are insulting to Ukrainians as well, as they are only seen as “relatively” civilized and “relatively” European. In other words, it means that they are actually not completely “civilized and European” as people from Western Europe are. While such distinctions between civilized and uncivilized belong to the colonial past and the writing style of Western authors from the 1800s and early 1900s, it seems that this narrative is very alive. To a large extent, it reflects the West’s perception of the rest of the world.
Dr. Colin Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Political Communications within the School of Arts and Humanities at UK-based Nottingham Trent University who spoke to Inside Arabia, opined that “this notion of the ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ world is an unfortunate hangover from the age of European colonialism, where areas of the world had to be ‘saved’ from their own barbarity. Saved, ironically, by being massacred or placed into colonial servitude.” He pointed out that there is a “vast amount of literature on this subject within charity studies [which involve the critical examination of both the work of charities and the motives and circumstances under which people give their time or money to “good” causes, and the broader ideology and ideological circumstances that develop the role of charity in a given society] –– particularly when it comes to charity work in the global south –– with most conclusions pointing to race as an important filter through which a given hardship is considered.”
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) issued a statement condemning and rejecting the “orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict.” The statement added that “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.”
Indeed, the issue of race was more than evident when comparing the treatment of refugees from Ukraine to those from other parts of the world. While EU countries immediately rushed to help Ukrainian refugees, declaring their readiness to host tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees, Europeans have often been reluctant to show the same compassion and empathy toward refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
Double standards have been openly promoted by the highest authorities in some of the EU states.
While accepting Ukrainians with open arms and relaxing the rules for Ukrainian refugees is showing the EU’s newfound compassion, most of the EU states have also ruthlessly hunted down refugees from the Middle East and Africa and locked them up in refugee camps. This is not surprising, as such double standards have been openly promoted by the highest authorities in some of the EU member states. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, for example, said that “these are not the refugees we are used to….These people are intelligent, they are educated people.” Jean-Louis Bourlanges, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the French National Assembly, stated that that the Ukrainian refugees will be “an immigration of great quality, intellectuals, one that we will be able to take advantage of.” Meanwhile, the stories of Middle Eastern refugees and the humanitarian drama of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa has basically disappeared from the media.
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Boško Jakšić, a prominent Serbian political commentator, former war correspondent from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, and former foreign policy editor for the Serbian daily newspaper Politika, told Inside Arabia that the manifestation of Western or Christian egocentrism is quite common. The stark difference in approach towards refugees from Ukraine in comparison to those from the Middle East exposes the hidden but always present bias towards racism and Islamophobia. Jakšić said that it is grotesque that the Hungarian Prime Minister, who in 2015 was erecting concrete walls and barbed wire on the border between Serbia and Hungary in order to protect the nation from the invasion of “Islamic hordes” in the form of refugees, now warmly welcomes Ukrainian refugees. The same goes for Italian extreme right-wing populist Matteo Salvini, the creator of anti-immigration policy in the Mediterranean Sea, who has also gone to Eastern Poland to express his solidarity with Ukraine.
The western press coverage of the Ukrainian conflict starkly contrasts that of other conflict zones. While Russia’s overt aggression against Ukraine is an illegal and barbaric act, the West often forgets that in identical situations, when their governments participated or launched attacks on other states, their reporting has been very different.
Western mainstream media have identified with Ukrainian resistance but have been very cautious in applying the same rhetoric for Palestinian, Iraqi, or Yemeni resistance against foreign invaders such as the US, NATO, or their allies. For example, while defense preparations by Ukrainian civilians (making Molotov cocktails and building trenches and barricades in Ukrainian cities) are interpreted as acts of resistance and fighting for freedom, Palestinian or Iraqi resistance has been often labeled as “terrorism,” linking the Palestinians with extremist movements such as Hamas (which is designated as a terrorist group by many Western governments).
Most of the US media cheer led the US’ invasion of Iraq, which the government justified under the premise it was “freeing Iraqi people” (from themselves). Similar rhetoric was used during the NATO attack on Libya and US-led aggression on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which resulted in the occupation of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. In reality, NATO and the Western governments have created nothing but destruction and chaos.
“The involvement of other countries in wars has a lot to do with the narratives these countries promote.”
“The involvement of other countries in wars has a lot to do with the narratives these countries promote, and each war’s individual situation,” explained Ramzi Abou Ismail, a political psychologist, doctoral researcher and Associate Lecturer at the University of Kent, to Inside Arabia. Ismail explained that when the US attacked Iraq, the narrative centered around world democracy invading a dictatorship that has weapons of mass destruction and people who should be freed. On the other hand, the Russian war’s narrative is that of Putin’s authoritarian regime attacking the democratic country of Ukraine because it feels threatened by NATO. “The narrative is different,” Ismail said.
In Jakšić’s view, the double standards are as old as journalism itself. “Patriotic” journalism is basically a synonym for propaganda. He recalls that during the Falkland war, British authorities were deciding which news reporters deserved to embark on warships and travel to a war zone in accordance with how patriotic they were. Those who asked “unpleasant questions” were simply excluded.
Jakšić thinks that the mainstream media were always on the side of the ruling elite: in the East by command, in the West upon request. The final result is nearly identical, with the only difference being in interpretation or impression. While Russia Today, for example, is often described as Putin’s propaganda tool, Jakšić observes that CNN’s narrative does not differ much, as both media serve one goal: propaganda.
The question remains: why have mainstream media and their journalists and editors chosen to take such a biased and Islamophobic approach? Most of them are veterans of war reporting from the Middle East and Balkans, and it is almost impossible to think that they are unaware of ongoing different patterns of reporting.
Dr. Alexander, however, disagrees that most of these journalists and editors could be described as “veterans of war reporting.” He said that “the lack of security and military expertise is a significant problem in modern journalism. The specific war correspondent –– well versed in military jargon and able to critically evaluate military strategy and propaganda –– is a dying area of expertise.” He explained that parachute journalists, who only yesterday were covering a story on culture, economics, lifestyle, etc., are today reporting from a battlefield and requesting, perhaps disingenuously, that the audience have confidence in the quality and accuracy of what they say. In his opinion, “some key individuals certainly retain expertise in warfare –– often the older journalists –– but for most, they focus on the human interest and the humanitarian story because the suffering resonates with ease, and the politics of the situation is hard to understand and certainly cannot be learned [from] a few days in Ukraine, Syria, etc.”
“The lack of security and military expertise is a significant problem in modern journalism.”
Moreover, one cannot ignore the political pressure on journalists, regardless of where they come from. Countries with a free press are no exception.
Jakšić, for example, revealed to Inside Arabia that his American journalist colleague from one of the most prominent world newspapers complained that he had been warned to change his writing/reporting style when he tried to objectively report about the NATO-led attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, otherwise he would be replaced and sent back to London.
The Western mainstream media, in his opinion, have picked a side in the Ukraine conflict much as they have been doing in the Middle East for decades, carefully following the interests of their governments and allies: Israel, Egypt, or the Gulf States. “This brings us to a paradoxical situation where, for example, liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published far more critical articles about the Palestinian struggle and occupation of the West Bank than, for example, the New York Times.” Jakšić said. Of course, Russian and Chinese papers also closely follow these trends, but it is true that in times of peace, there is more room for free and objective reporting than in times of conflict.
In a similar vein, Dr. Alexander noted that “journalism is never impartial and any journalist or news organization claiming impartiality is either lying or deluded.” He said that journalists certainly look to the governments of the countries where their networks are based as having more authority over the situation than other sources.
“On domestic matters, journalists are readily critical of politicians for deception tactics, but when it comes to a foreign crisis like Ukraine or North Korea testing nuclear weapons, those same sources are deemed trustworthy. The idea that a politician (Western or otherwise) only lies on some issues and not others is farcical,” Dr. Alexander noted.
Nevertheless, media should play a decisive role in living up to universal values that are common to all people, regardless of their ethnic origin or socioeconomic background. They must also address controversial subjects, no matter how challenging, while holding powerful people and governments accountable for their actions, because selective justice is injustice.