The crowd that got together last night at the auditorium of Goethe-Institut Kenya was a very diverse one – more so than might have been expected at a German language institution. Kenyans, Somalis, Frenchmen (and -women), Germans, Italians, had all gathered to follow a panel discussion on an issue that has been making waves around the globe for a while now: Migration and Refuge.
The event was part of a thematic week tackling this complex topic, organised by Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française de Kenya. Kenyan journalist and actor John Sibi-Okumu moderated the discussion between the audience and the panelists, three journalists from Kenya, Germany, and France. The question of the night: How is migration and refuge being reported on in their respective countries?
Sibi-Okumu moderated the conversation with sharp questions, setting the tone with his first inquiry to the German panelist, Katrin Lindner of the German public service TV channel ZDF: “Are you a paid mouthpiece of the government, working for a public broadcaster?” Perhaps unconciously, Sibi-Okumu had touched on the currently popular Lügenpresse accusation in Germany. Lindner replied that, since the channel was not paid by taxes, it was operating independently from the government.
“We reported a lot about chancellor Merkel saying refugees are welcome, about people welcoming refugees”, Lindner explained. “Now we have a problem: There is a part of our population that doesn’t believe we are telling the truth. PEGIDA is a movement against migration, against refugees, people who believe in this movement don’t trust us anymore.”
So is there a politically correct way to deal with this? Do the media give PEGIDA equal time to express their opinion? “We did not count minutes, whether we were reporting on welcoming refugees or on critical opinions”, says Lindner.
I want to answer the question Why? Why does it happen? I will go on a private rescue vessel in Libya, and find out why people keep coming to Europe. And to find out that there is not one answer, but many.
Andrea Palasciano, the French panelist, works for the world’s third largest news agency AFP. She described how, despite certain changes in the era of Social Media, the role of a journalist can still be upheld and distinguished from that of a citizen journalist: “Working for a news agency, you start off with one fact, one source, and then you build upon it. There is little space for my personal opinion. In France, since the beginning of the refugee crisis, we have seen a lot of fact checking; our sources can be institutions like the Red Cross or the IOM, but also a boatsman in the Mediterranean.”
Sibi-Okumu was not entirely convinced by this sober approach: “Statistics are not doing it for me. I need human interest. Why are you shying away from the role of advocacy? Why shouldn’t journalists take a stand, just like everyone else?” Palasciano’s counterquestion: “The media are in a position of power, so why should they just report their own opinion?”
Adow Mohamed on the other hand, a reporter for the Kenyan newspaper The Star, says he rather writes human interest stories. “The majority of refugees here in Kenya are Somali, I am a Somali Kenyan. People ask me: ‘Are you doing this for your fellow countrymen?’ My answer is no, I’d do the same for the South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma.”
Unlike in Germany and France, refugees in Kenya often live in huge camps bordering the countries they fled from. The most well-known examples for such camps are probably Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting Somalis who fled from war and famine since the early 1990s, and Kakuma, sheltering people who fled from the more recent South Sudanese conflict.
There was a young deaf girl, during the Kasarani sweeps. An officer pushed her from the third floor. She was in the hospital for several months. I was called, somebody told me she had a high medical bill and the hospital would not discharge her. I picked up my camera and found her at the hospital. We narrated her story very passionately, and you know what? Within 6 hours of publishing that story, her bill was settled. Stories like that give you a positive outlook on the world as a journalist.
An audience member directed the panel’s attention to the terminology that was being used. Do we talk about refugees or migrants? What about asylum seekers, like another audience member proposed?
According to Katrin Lindner, ZDF uses the term refugee. “For many people, the status isn’t clear yet. That’s a big topic in our stories as well, because it takes a long time to find out who is a refugee and who is a migrant.” Andrea Palasciano added: “The discussion has been had in every single newsroom all over France and Europe, I think. We try to say ‘men women and children’, because that’s what those people are when you go beyond their status.”
As Adow Mohamed observed, there is one more term to make out: internally displaced persons. People who had to flee within their home countries. In Kenya, the term is most often used to refer to the people who escaped the post-election violence of 2007/08. “As a reporter, you have to distinguish these words. You have to be very critical. Some of these words carry stigma.”
“We always have to remember that this has happened before. After the civil war in Spain, many people came to France, just like a lot of Armenians after World War I. Everything is alright now. Our countries are going to be OK. It’s not easy to bring that across. But it’s important, sometimes, to fan the flames.”
Adow Mohamed’s closing words were a plea as much as they were a statement: “We are not doing enough as a society. We are not putting ourselves in people’s shoes. It is not their wish to be refugees. Nobody wishes to leave their home and live in a camp. Refugees are not a burden, they actually contribute massively to the economy. The benefits of refugees and migrants cannot be underestimated.”