From France to the UK and the US, much of the media coverage of the war in Ukraine has been saturated with racial bias. It’s dangerous, if unsurprising.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, ordered his forces to enter Ukraine on Thursday, following weeks of military build-up on the border, sending the country into chaos. Hundreds of thousands are attempting to flee to safety – mainly through borders to countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania.
Now, because of the Ukrainians’ whiteness and proximity to the west, it’s apparently difficult for some political commentators and roving reporters to grasp how this conflict could have come to pass. It’s as though bloodshed and invasion is only to be foisted upon countries inhabited by Black and brown people – and some have had no qualms about sharing their sense of alarm regarding this sobering turn of events, perhaps unaware of how this feeds into white supremacist ideology which renders the lives of others of no value.
Hundreds of Ukrainians have been killed so far during the invasion, an official has said. According to the UN, half a million have crossed into neighbouring countries. “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone,” Daniel Hannan wrote in The Telegraph.
So, it’s confirmed: not only do we have racism at the Ukraine borders, where ethnic minority refugees report being turned away from safety, we have the same vein of bigotry across parts of the international media sphere. This only serves to further legitimise the dehumanisation of non-white people and especially those who are suffering through conflict.
A senior foreign correspondent for CBS News, Charlie D’Agata, apologised on Sunday after claiming on air that the attack on Ukraine cannot be compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because the Eastern European country is more “civilised”. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades,” he said. “This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
Al Jazeera English was also forced to apologise after presenter Peter Dobbie said during a Sunday broadcast: “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East [...] or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”
“We are in the 21st century, we are in a European city and we have cruise missile fire as though we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, can you imagine!”, a commentator on BFM TV, France’s leading news channel, said during a live broadcast. During another BFM TV broadcast, journalist Philippe Corbe said: “We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”
Visibly fighting back tears during a broadcast from Poland, Lucy Watson of ITV News said: “Now the unthinkable has happened to them, and this is not a developing, third world nation, this is Europe”.
NBC news correspondent Hallie Cobiella said: “To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine [...] They’re Christians, they’re white. They’re very similar [to us].”
Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze told the BBC: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed”. BBC presenter Ros Atkins apologised today for failing to challenge the prosecutor about his remarks. The accountability is welcome.
The media has also glorified Ukrainian locals’ armed resistance to the Russians in a way that’s not afforded to nations comprised of Black and brown people. Crowdfunding campaigns towards this effort are being shared on social media as we speak, whereas donation to monetary accounts, such as PayPal, thought to be associated with public aid efforts linked to Middle Eastern countries have been subject to sanctions.
On Friday, Sky News broadcast a clip of people making Molotov cocktails – effectively bombs – explaining in intricate detail how to make these devices as effective as possible. Can you imagine if these were Syrians or Palestinians? They’d quickly be branded as terrorists.
The pervasive language used across this coverage is also telling. For example, European politicians, such as the Bulgarian prime minister and French National Assembly member Jean-Louis Bourlanges using words like “intellectual” and “quality” to describe white Ukranians seeking sanctuary across Europe, denoting a greater worth and warranting a warmer welcome than the undesirable people of colour who typically flee their war-torn countries.
Of course, none of this is particularly shocking, coming from a western media and political class that’s predominantly white. Europe has a long way to go in improving media diversity. This is also the case for US media, where 77 per cent of employees at public radio and TV stations are white compared with their 60.6 per cent of the population, meaning this group is overrepresented in this space. Meanwhile, around 94 per cent of journalists in the UK are white.
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Thumbing through the aforementioned examples and more, I felt like we were existing in a dystopia which is, by definition, an imagined society that’s plagued by immense suffering and injustice. And then I realised that this dystopia is very much here, and we can often count on parts of the media to not only rationalise but also sanction racial disparities under the guise of “putting it into context”.
This is unacceptable. Though the media is so often a force for good, with platforms like the BBC and Al Jazeera among the few to have reported on racism at Ukraine borders for example, collective improvement is needed.
Now is as good a time as any for those at the helm of media organisations and journalists reporting on Ukraine to have a long, hard think about how to privately examine their own privileges and go about producing balanced coverage.
Take this advice from a critical, albeit exasperated, friend and colleague who’s utterly tired of the skewed coverage about my Black and brown counterparts.