'Uncivilised and proud': How Ukraine exposed the Western media's racial bias
“I am utterly appalled at some individuals who dare to call themselves reporters referring to refugees from the Middle East as ‘uncivilised ' as opposed to Ukrainians who are fleeing.”
This is how one Ukrainian journalist, Anastasiia Lapatina, reacted to the coverage by some Western media outlets reporting on the conflict in Ukraine, compared to similar crises in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan.
Patience has been wearing thin amongst many who have decided to speak out against a variety of mainstream media outlets that have increasingly been called into question for their biased and discriminatory coverage on the Ukraine war, rife with double standards.
Even typically liberal and progressive outlets have sometimes resorted to discriminatory and Orientalist tropes, particularly when describing Ukrainian refugees as “civilised” and celebrating the armed resistance to Russian aggression.
"The pace and scale of international mobilisation in support of Ukraine, both online and offline, has stirred curiosity and scepticism, laying bare that other conflicts, from Syria to Palestine and Afghanistan, failed to garner a similar reaction from the international community"
Some commentators have been slammed by critics on social media platforms, whilst others have been bombarded with emails of editorial complaints, accusing them of being racist, biased, and selective.
The New Arab spoke to a communications and development officer based in the MENA region, Lina Zhaim, who commented on the outrage she felt at some Western media outlets, complaining about their editorial guidelines and ethics.
“There has always been implicit and explicit biases and racism by Western media but it was baffling to see them deliberately and openly hypocritical and racist,” Zhaim said. “The media bigotry was at its epitome with the hierarchy of victims and refugees and their civilised vs uncivilised discourse,” she added.
For some media analysts, the recent coverage of the conflict in Ukraine shines a light on deeper systemic issues of discrimination and selective values that are deeply rooted in some organisations.
I am utterly appalled at some individuals who dare to call themselves reporters referring to refugees from the Middle East as “uncivilized” as opposed to Ukrainians who are fleeing. Anyone who supports this narrative is a racist bigot, and deserves colossal shame.— Anastasiia Lapatina (@lapatina_) February 27, 2022
In the span of just a few days after Russia's invasion began, several media outlets were criticised for their breach of professionalism.
Some have issued apologies, such as Al Jazeera, who admitted that their “presenter made unfair comparisons between Ukrainians fleeing the war and refugees from the MENA region.” But for many, an apology does little to address the deep-seated racism and bias within the world’s most prominent newsrooms.
“Apologies might be a start, but they are not sufficient and while the agenda of those media conglomerates is selective, the work to achieve equality and fairness in reporting remains far from over as deeper issues have to be addressed first,” Aqsa Khan, a British Pakistani journalist who was appalled by the bias in the coverage of the conflict in Ukraine, told The New Arab.
The pace and scale of international mobilisation in support of Ukraine, both online and offline, has stirred curiosity and scepticism, laying bare that other conflicts, from Syria to Palestine and Afghanistan, failed to garner a similar reaction from the international community.
According to some experts, there may be psychological explanations for the stark difference in reactions by Western media. Ramzi Abou Ismail, a political psychologist, explained to The New Arab why conflicts in non-Western countries are routinely dismissed while Ukraine has received an outpouring of support.
“It is very different how people perceive in-groups compared to out-groups, and there is often more solidarity attached to people that are regarded as 'common' in their culture, values, and lifestyle,” said Ismail.
“People often feel that they do not connect with people whose culture, religion, or background is different, and this, unfortunately, is what creates this division and lack of attention towards other peoples’ conflicts,” he added.
This phenomenon is reflected in an article by Daniel Hannan, a Telegraph columnist, who wrote that “Those suffering in Ukraine seem so like us. This is what makes it so shocking…”
From CBS News to the BBC and Al Jazeera, journalists seemed shocked that this was not happening in “Iraq or Afghanistan” but in a “relatively civilised European city”.
One said: “These are prosperous middle-class people… these are not obviously refugees getting away from the Middle East. To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine, they’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar.”
"Despite the media's double standards, Syrians, Afghans, Palestinians and others who are intimately familiar with war have been some of the most vocal in their solidarity with the Ukrainian people"
Such comments have sparked the realisation amongst many in the non-Western world that Western journalists, and society, perceive conflict in the Middle East as more justified and less worthy of outrage, whilst conflict in Europe is deemed unacceptable.
But in response to these statements, people from across the Middle East, Asia and Africa have found ways to reclaim and celebrate their identities. The term “uncivilised” remains trending on social media with people proudly sharing their stories and highlighting the culture, heritage, and history of their countries.
Despite the media’s double standards, Syrians, Afghans, Palestinians and others who are intimately familiar with war have been some of the most vocal in their solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) has issued a full statement on the issue, as has the African Foreign Press Association, emphasising the critical role played by the media and the urgent need for diversity.
“There are two issues at play. First is the fact that violence against civilians in some places, such as Ukraine, are being covered with more empathy and understanding than they are in many others, for example in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and as a consequence, their tragedy has received a lot more attention,” Jamal Rayyis, AMEJA Vice President, told The New Arab.
“Second, reporters and news presenters have implicitly or explicitly said that violence and tragedy is something to be expected for people in some parts of the world, but not in Europe,” Rayyis continued.
The statement calls on all news organisations to be mindful of implicit and explicit bias in their coverage of the war in Ukraine, whilst sharing examples of racist news coverage that they have tracked in the last few days, which they believe ascribes more importance to some victims of war over others.
Journalists from the MENA region feel that the media’s racial bias has been highlighted not just in the discourse used, but also in the sheer amount of coverage.
"More sensitive, sympathetic coverage creates conditions to provide genuine support for people fleeing violence, that's the way it should be"
Lebanese journalist Tala Ramadan told The New Arab: “Most news outlets today have some sort of around-the-clock live blog of events to cover the invasion in Ukraine, yet we haven’t seen this type of full reporting in any conflict in the MENA region.”
For Ramadan, the use of photojournalism and compelling interviews with people in Ukraine stands in stark comparison to most MENA conflict reporting, where the coverage tends to be scarce and detached.
News coverage can have powerful effects, and representations of conflict have a significant impact on public perception, political will, and resource allocation.
“More sensitive, sympathetic coverage creates conditions to provide genuine support for people fleeing violence, that’s the way it should be,” Rayyis said.
Rayyis notes that less nuanced, less sympathetic, and scant coverage can do the opposite, ignoring the very real tragedies and hardships people are facing in places like Yemen, Tigray, Palestine, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and countless others.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462