In recent days, the news headlines have been full of information about the situation with refugees at the Belarus border. For instance, Poland does not regard migrants at the border as refugees refusing them asylum. Over the past few months, Latvia and Lithuania have reported a growing number of refugees at the border with Belarus, most of them from the Middle East and Asia. Poland, Latvia and Lithuania also emphasize that the migrants are under the control of Belarusian military units and, therefore, unable to fully exercise their civil rights. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said that the EU should review the scope of the current sanctions against the Belarusian regime to expand them, applying the fifth package of EU sanctions “both for cynical use of migrants for a hybrid attack at EU borders and the crimes and repressions of the Lukashenko regime against its own people.” Meanwhile, the German Bundestag is already proposing to redirect the refugees from Belarus to Ukraine so they can wait here while their asylum applications are considered in the EU.
Such a foreign policy situation inevitably causes an uproar from the media and politicians, and, unfortunately, this reaction is often explicitly xenophobic contradicting the basic principles of humanity. Since the spread and incitement of xenophobic sentiments can have real and negative consequences for Ukrainian society, the Independent Media Council deems it its duty to remind the Ukrainian media of ethical and legal standards they are obligated to adhere to when covering such sensitive topics. In particular,
The Independent Media Council brings attention to the Recommendation on how to prevent hate speech against protected groups and stereotypes in the media outlining in detail the requirements for media coverage of vulnerable groups or events that may cause public outcry or create a wave of public intolerance towards such groups. As for covering the events concerning the refugees in Belarus, the media should strictly avoid racism and Islamophobia, refrain from negative stereotyping of vulnerable groups, and avoid one-sided coverage of the events that impose an undue financial burden on Ukraine or carry a risk to national security. The media should keep in mind that the issue of refugees and migrants is extremely sensitive and requires educating the audience in a spirit of respect for human rights, human dignity and other universal values. To do so, the media must also keep in mind the principles of ethical journalism and, in particular, the principle of humanity: journalism should do no harm, and journalists should be aware of the impact of their reports on the lives of others.
The Independent Media Council also brings attention to the case of discrimination and xenophobia in the coverage of refugees in Yahotyn, whereby it clearly stated its position on the unacceptability of hate speech against vulnerable groups and the coverage of providing shelter to refugees as posing a significant threat to society since this could lead to a wave of violence and discrimination from the audience. In its opinion on the Yahotyn case, the Independent Media Council had to acknowledge that most media coverage of such a vulnerable group as people forced to flee the persecution and horrors of war was characterized by elementary legal, political and cultural ignorance, creating and imposing negative stereotypes, manipulation aimed at spreading xenophobia, and sowing panic among the local population, as well as a striking lack of empathy for human suffering and respect for human rights values. Such irresponsible behavior of the media is unacceptable not only in a UN member state seeking to establish itself as an active and independent subject of international relations, not only in a country that also has suffered from aggression and undeclared war but also in any civilized society that has not lost its humanity retaining respect for people, their life, rights and freedoms. The Independent Media Council hopes that this time, the Ukrainian media will be able to avoid xenophobia and cruelty in covering this sensitive topic.
The Independent Media Council stresses the need for adequate and active coverage of information about the rights of refugees and migrants, being consistent with all relevant requirements of international and national laws and ethical standards. This also applies to the understanding and use of terminology: a migrant is someone who is not a citizen of the country and has obtained a residence permit on its territory or plans on obtaining such a permit, while a refugee is someone seeking refuge due to fear of persecution, unable to obtain the protection of the country of their citizenship. It is crucial to fully and properly cover the grounds on which a person applies for refugee status, including more contextual information and taking time to investigate migration and its causes, including dramatic climate change making it impossible to feed families, international and domestic conflicts, and authoritarian governments resorting to systematic repression and extermination of their own populations. It is important to provide competent opinions of experts in the field of refugee rights to interpret the circumstances of each particular situation. First of all, it is necessary to contact human rights organizations, representatives of international institutions, and lawyers working on refugee cases.
Since the issue of refugees is often the subject of coarse political speculation by both domestic and foreign politicians, the Ukrainian media should read the relevant media recommendations set out in the recently adopted Joint Declaration on Politicians and Public Officials and Freedom of Expression by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, the Organization of American States Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information. In particular, the declaration emphasizes that the media should ensure that internal rules are in place for covering cases whereby politicians or political parties resort to statements or actions promoting intolerance and xenophobia. On the one hand, the media must cover these events in such a way as to keep the public properly informed about such politicians’ and political parties’ actions. On the other hand, media reports per se should in no way incite intolerance or xenophobia.
Finally, the Ukrainian media must always pay attention to the socio-political and security context in which they operate, and which ultimately determines the course of events in the wider region of Eastern Europe. There is good reason to believe that the Russian Federation is using the illegitimate government of Belarus both in its political confrontation with the “West” and in the international armed conflict with Ukraine. The height of the cynical cruelty in this hybrid aggression is to make use of the refugees’ despair and helplessness and each ordinary person’s desire to live a safer and better life. On the one hand, we can expect any provocations in this situation, including violent ones, which, however, does not mean that all the people currently forced to freeze in the “gray zone” on the Belarus border are dangerous criminals or “agents” of the aggressor state. On the other hand, the ultimate goal of the Russian Federation in this confrontation is to drive both Western countries and Ukraine to moral bankruptcy, to a public betrayal of the values of humanism and human rights, traditionally associated with democratic government. Disparaging and degrading democracy and human rights will be the most desirable achievement for the current leadership of the Russian Federation since a world where only the right of the stronger prevails seems to be a comfortable environment for arbitrariness and aggression. The Ukrainian media should be extremely careful not to be used as historically known “useful idiots” to achieve this disgraceful goal.