Authorities and hate speech dominate the refugee debate

Toimittaja Renaz Ebrahimi, aktivisti Javiera Marchant Aedo sekä toimittajat Wali Hashi ja Enrique Tessieri vierailivat helmikuussa Tampereen yliopistolla keskustelemassa median pakolaiskuvastosta. Kaikki panelistit olivat yhtä mieltä siitä, että median puhe pakolaisuudesta on liian yksipuolista ja pakolaiset itse pääsevät ääneen aivan liian harvoin.

Journalist Renaz Ebrahimi, activist Javiera Marchant Aedo, and journalists Wali Hashi and Enrique Tessieri visited the University of Tampere in February to talk about the image of refugees in the Finnish media. They all agreed that media paints a one-sided picture of refugees and there is little room for the refugees’ own stories.

The refugees’ own points of view and arguments supporting them are buried deep on social media.
When refugees and asylum seekers are talked about in the media, the voices heard are mostly those of government ministers or political parties. “The refugees and asylum seekers themselves get the least airtime,” says Javiera Marchant Aedo, a Chilean-Finnish activist.

Aedo and journalists Renaz Ebrahimi, Wali Hashi and Enrique Tessieri visited the University of Tampere in February to talk about the image of refugees and asylum seekers in the media. The discussion was organised by Professor of Media and Communication Research Kaarina Nikunen, who will complete her research project, Information and emotions in the refugee debate: Research on media publicity of the refugee crisis of 2015, later this spring.

Nikunen’s study supports Aedo’s opinion.

“Refugees and asylum seekers appear in the media as an administrative problem. The discussion is reactive and focuses on numbers and borders, i.e. on whether the borders between countries should be open or closed. There is less talk about long-term solutions and the best ways to help the refugees,” Nikunen says.

The research data covered traditional media, from the best-selling Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and the Finnish Broadcasting Company Yle to the country’s provincial newspapers. In addition, the study looked at social media. Data from both were collected with computational methods, and parts of the dataset are still being analysed.

However, it can already be said that the mainstream media speak primarily with the voice of the authorities. By comparison, the debate on social media is more nuanced.

“Of course, social media are heavily used for hate speech and rumour-mongering, but they have also given a voice to the refugees and asylum seekers themselves. For example, blogs have played an important role in airing critical views on the reception centres and the activities of the Finnish Immigration Service,” Nikunen says.

According to Nikunen, journalists’ ignorance of refugees and the traditional working methods of editorial offices are among the reasons why the mainstream media have focused on replicating the authorities’ viewpoints. Instead of allowing time for such issues as source criticism, the news has been rushed. At the same time, Finnish journalists have found it hard to engage with refugees. Language problems and difficulties getting in touch with the right people have made it challenging to write about the refugees’ experiences and perspectives.

The news on refugees and asylum seekers and the tone of the news matter, because refugees and immigration arouse strong feelings. Particularly on social media, the discussions on refugees are intense and emotional. There is much talk about fear.

“Feelings accumulate in some conversations on social media as certain ideas are repeated. When a refugee reception centre was set up in the small town of Kauhava in September 2015, an atmosphere of fear prevailed among the inhabitants even before the centre welcomed the first asylum seekers. The speech that stirs up fear is on quite a different level from the real events that cause fear,” Nikunen explains.

Professor of Media and Communication Research Kaarina Nikunen

Professor of Media and Communication Research Kaarina Nikunen

According to Nikunen, a small but powerful network produces fear and other propaganda against immigrants. It has managed to dominate the debate so that many have already forgotten what kind of feelings the arrival of asylum seekers aroused at the beginning.

“Solidarity and sympathy were strong, and both social and mainstream media encouraged people to provide clothing, food and help to the newcomers,” Nikunen explains.

Since then, groups that help the refugees have been forced to limit the number of followers on their social media and to withdraw into closed groups that only allow approved members to join. Therefore, solidarity has also been pushed to the background. According to Nikunen, this is a shame, because talking about solidarity can be an important counterattack against the stirring up of hate. The present debate and political agenda have mainly been dominated by the latter.

In the current climate of this discussion, editorial offices should remember that the news also has consequences. For example, when the morning newspaper reports about an offence committed by an immigrant, the story may give rise to indignation that may be targeted at a random person who looks like an immigrant. For example, in the aftermath of the stabbings in Turku last autumn, immigrants living in Tampere encountered verbal and physical abuse in the streets.

“Editorial offices should acknowledge their responsibility, particularly when they write headlines. However, different editorial cultures exist. When we interviewed journalists for our study, it turned out that some felt great responsibility for the way the news was published. However, they were quite alone with their thoughts. In some editorial offices, such issues had not been discussed at all. For example, no attention was paid to the headlines, or they were changed against the journalists’ wishes,” Nikunen says.

According to Aedo, more discussion is necessary.

“Even factual stories often come with sensational headlines that evoke emotions. Many people just read the headlines. Thus, the author of the headline has a lot of power to direct the debate. Before publication, editorial offices should always think about what the average reader thinks of the headline and what the potential consequences are,” Aedo points out.

According to Nikunen, the most excessive headlines are luckily no longer common.

“Editorial offices are already considering how to attract readers without having to resort to sensational headlines. The mainstream media is aiming for fairly neutral policies in other ways, too. However, the tabloid press still makes the most of various sensational stories,” Nikunen adds.

‘Social porn’ and exotic heroes

Javiera Marchant Aedo, Renaz Ebrahimi, Wali Hashi and Enrique Tessieri would like to read stories that give a voice to refugees and immigrants themselves. Such stories would tell about the background of living in exile and present the number of refugees arriving in Finland in comparison to the numbers of refugees in other European countries. At the same time, they hope that the concept of “Finnishness” would also cover others than white people with Finnish surnames.

“Finnishness is always represented as white even though it is other colours, too. And when the talk is about others than Finns, they are exoticised and racialised. I would like to read stories on non-white people that deal with other aspects than them not being white,” Aedo says.

Aedo is also irritated about stories of heroic asylum applicants who want to participate in constructing Finnish society.

“The refugees’ journey to Finland has often been very traumatic. They have mental health problems and poor employment opportunities. However, this is not talked about. Or, if there is talk, it could be characterised as some sort of ‘social porn’. Ordinary human stories are left untold,” Aedo says.

Ebrahimi remembers a televised discussion on refugees organised by Yle, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, where an asylum applicant was interviewed at a reception centre and asked how he would benefit Finland.

“Why should refugees be of benefit? And why should they feel thankful for ending up here? Finns are not constantly thanking their home country, either,” Ebrahimi points out.

According to Aedo and Ebrahimi, refugees are required to achieve far more compared to Finns born in Finland.

“Furthermore, it is expected that they feel grateful about it. Why is it not acceptable just to lead a normal life?” Ebrahimi asks.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Photos: Jonne Renvall