Refugee Crisis: A tragic abdication | Abbas Nasir

THERE can be no doubt that the media plays a key role in disseminating information that influences opinions in societies, even decisions. If this role is played as it ideally should be, the media can cause much good. The opposite is also true.

Look at the ongoing tragic refugee crisis with hundreds of thousands of people spilling out of war-torn zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few. The crisis definitely wasn’t triggered yesterday, last week or even last year for that matter.

But, for example, in England the influential and often xenophobic tabloid press had whipped up a near hysteria against taking any refugees on humanitarian grounds by saying these were leeches who wanted to live off the country’s social welfare system.

This issue cast a long shadow over the last general election too where those who were opposed to ‘immigration’ posted substantial gains in England. In fact, the pressure of the tabloid press was such that the normally robust BBC also succumbed to it, refusing to call those displaced by violence in their home countries ‘refugees’ and insisting on the rather misleading term ‘migrant’.

The British have had a decent record of taking in large numbers of Jewish refugees facing the Holocaust in Germany and Nazi-occupied parts of Europe during the Second World War, then a huge number of Asians from Uganda when Idi Amin started to persecute them and more recently those displaced by the raging conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s.

The cumulative figure for displaced persons offered a home in Britain from these crises ran into tens of thousands. However, more recently when satellite TV coverage meant images were being beamed live into British living rooms a grand total of 216 people have been allowed in, such was the role played by negative barrage of coverage.

Of all the European countries, Germany appeared alone in saying it would welcome up to 800,000 refugees and Chancellor Angela Merkel minced no words in warning that xenophobia will not be tolerated and would be dealt with firmly. Where she showed leadership, a large number of Germans came forward to support the refugees.

In contrast, earlier in the week Britain’s leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, appeared adamant he wasn’t going to let in more than 1,000 refugees, insisting the problem needed addressing on the ground, that is on the fringes of the conflict zone

Then a three-year old changed all that. That haunting image from a beach in Turkey moved the usually xenophobic, right-leaning British tabloids too. From carrying columns referring to ‘migrants’ as ‘cockroaches’ that needed to be stamped out, the front pages of the major tabloids screamed demands that the prime minister do something.

Within 24 hours, David Cameron, whose determination that the solution to this crisis somehow needed to be found in an area where by some accounts nearly half a million people have perished and nine million displaced in some four years, suddenly said that as ‘a father’ he was moved by the situation

David Cameron, who is currently in Portugal for talks, was later expected to announce his country was going to allow refugees in ‘thousands’ from UN-run camps for Syrians in the region. He was scheduled to fly on to Spain for discussions where media and public rebuke has also forced the conservative prime minister to change his mind about how many refugees his country would permit.

There were reports from countries such as Austria too that some 20,000 people gathered in Vienna to say they opposed their government’s refusal to help the refugees, a majority of whom in this case weren’t economic migrants but those forced to flee their shattered homes for fear of life and limb.

No doubt the economic downturn triggered by some Wall Street bankers’ mindless greed in 2008 has had a huge impact on all developed countries with jobs taking a major hit. Take Spain for example which has a 23pc unemployment rate. The figure jumps to 50pc for the jobless youth. And such stats have informed official thinking and decisions on the refugees too.

But that single image of the boy on a beach in Turkey whom so many must have wanted to gather in their arms and see waking up smiling, shattered all reservations about what was the right thing to do. This isn’t to say that even all of Europe combined can absorb every single refugee. But the most vulnerable might now be better placed to get relief and shelter.

The role of the media here as an opinion-maker was vital; that powerful image needed no words, no commentary. It merely needed to be put before as wide an audience as possible and achieved what hundreds of hours of TV footage and thousands of printed words couldn’t for the refugees.

Of course, like you I wish too such tragedies weren’t needed to shake our collective conscience. But that’s the world we live in.

The media as an opinion-maker is a term one has often heard. However, DawnNews programme Zara Hatt Ke (I, for one, am really enjoying it as former colleagues Mubashir Zaidi and Zarrar Khuhro are doing a brilliant job) co-host and reputable Urdu columnist Wusatullah Khan coined the term ‘opinion-seeker’.

He was referring to the ‘ratings’ (based on what percentage of the total audience tunes in) which are the determinant of a programme’s and channel’s success or failure as advertising revenue is based on it.

A lot of what passes for journalism today particularly on the electronic media is justified in the name of ratings. My friend Wusat’s argument was that sensationalism and dodgy content is being peddled today in order to seek or attract the audience or please vested sections. The media often abandons its opinion-maker’s role.

That is but one of our tragedies.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2015

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