Just before the local elections in March 2019, İlay Aksoy, a founder of the nationalist İyi Party and mayoral candidate for Istanbul’s Fatih Municipality, displayed campaign banners reading, “We will not concede Fatih to the Syrians” throughout the busiest points of the district. Her subsequent campaign speeches, rallies, and social media posts came to employ the same tenor of xenophobic language, blaming the Syrian refugee community for Turkey’s economic and societal woes. While criminal complaints have been filed against her for inciting public hatred, enmity, and discrimitaion, many media outlets opt instead to amplify her divisive message that “actually, it is the Syrians who pose the existential threat”. Such is just one of the many instances of anti-refugee narratives employed in nationalist/nativist political rhetoric and bolstered by right-wing media. What then are the dominant narratives in Turkish media regarding refugees and immigrants, and how can a more positive and truthful discussion be fostered?
The most basic definition of a narrative is a record or an account of interconnected events, simply defined as a story. The cognitive wiring of human beings leads us to believe stories that we hear multiple times. The media therefore plays a critical role in communications: in building (or dismantling) narratives that hold significant power to sway the beliefs that the audience considers to be truths.
In 2019, the Hrant Dink Foundation’s Hate Speech and Discriminatory Discourse in Media Report found that Syrian refugees in Turkey were consistently associated with “criminal actions such as murder, theft and harassment”, blamed for Turkey’s declining economy, and labeled as a “threat” against Turkey’s demographic structure. Furthermore, the Research Center on Asylum and Migration (İGAM) released a report on the Turkish media’s coverage of refugees between June 2017 and November 2018, finding that there were 17,814 news articles related to refugees, most of which associated them with violence and crime. Turkish digital news platform Ahval has also reported on anti-refugee rhetoric voiced by mainstream political leaders, as seen in the April 2019 social media posts of Ümit Özdağ, Istanbul’s deputy for the center-right opposition İyi Party. In his posts, Özdağ claimed that 1 million Syrian refugees had entered the workforce while 6 million Turks remained unemployed. He went on to rebuke Syrian workers for protesting against unfair treatment from their employers, invoking the populist maxim “love it or leave it” that is widely observed in many immigrant and refugee hosting nations.
Currently, there are only a handful of civil society organizations in Turkey that focus on the representation of refugee voices in mainstream media. Mülteci Medyası or Refugee Media is a web platform founded by refugees, journalists, and refugee rights advocates, committed to creating a media perspective focusing on refugee rights, reducing hate speech in the media that hinders social harmony, and enabling refugees to produce and publish their own news, tell their own stories and shape their own narratives. Civil society organizations such as the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (SGDD-ASAM) and İGAM have consistently run campaigns and produced digital content to present alternative perspectives on the Syrian refugee crisis and Turkey’s role as a host country. Nonetheless, the declining state of the Turkish economy, exacerbated by the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, has led to a rise in anti-refugee sentiment among local host communities.
In this context, a type of ‘peace journalism’ focusing on building compassion and understanding needs to be prioritized by progressive media platforms in order to highlight the advantages and opportunities that refugee populations bring to host countries. Moreover, an authentic representation of the imminent dangers and hardships faced by the refugee community on a daily basis would also go a long way in generating a sense of empathy with refugees among host communities. This begs the question, how can Turkish media practice peace journalism when building narratives around refugee issues?
Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch came up with a few basic principles that can serve as guidance for those building narratives and molding public opinion:
- Explore the formation of conflicts: who are the parties involved; what are their goals; what is the socio-political and cultural context of the conflict; what are the visible and invisible manifestations of violence;
- Avoid the dehumanization of the parties involved and expose their interests;
- Offer nonviolent responses to conflict and alternatives to militarized/violent solutions
- Report nonviolent initiatives that take place at the grassroots level and follow the resolution, reconstruction, and reconciliation phases.
Of course, peace journalism favors truth, as any form of journalism should. Reporters must be as veracious as possible when reporting the facts. However, peace journalism also urges us as the audience to contemplate how observers, reporters, and storytellers have come to encounter the particular facts, and how these particular facts have come to meet them. For this reason, in our roles as both producers and consumers of media narratives, we must be cognizant of the power dynamics at play in the representations and framing of the lives and stories of disadvantaged communities, especially refugees.
This article was written by HasNa President, Rukmini Banerjee.