As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine displaces media attention to Covid-19 around the world, the racist undertones of some reporting on the war has not gone unnoticed in many parts of the non-white and non-Christian world.
Countless social media memes have been recirculating across Africa, the Middle East and Asia quoting racialized reporting.
The Daily Telegraph’s Daniel Hannan, also a member of the UK Board of Trade, said “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.”
He also stated “This time, war is wrong because the people look like us and have Instagram and Netflix accounts. It’s not poor in a poor remote country anymore.
CBS foreign correspondent, Charlie D’Agata said, “This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan … This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city” while Al Jazeera’s English anchor, Peter Dobbie said, “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obvious 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.”
UK’s ITV reported “The unthinkable has happened … this is not a developing, third world nation, this is Europe!” And, Philippe Corbé at BFM TV in France said “It’s an important question. We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing …. We’re talking about Europeans.”
BFM TV also reported “We are in the 21st Century, we are in a European city and we have cruise missile first as though we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, can you imagine!”
Western audiences have largely become desensitized to images of war, disease and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. As 1997 Nobel Peace Prize Co-laureate Rae McGrath remarked, the image of a three-legged donkey in Afghanistan was far more effective than images of maimed children in raising awareness about the horrors of landmines.
War in Europe is a novelty. The fact that Ukrainians are white makes it easier for western audiences to relate to and empathize with the victims. This war is about the West, not Edward Said’s “other.”
The quotation from Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, quoted by BBC stating “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed” is not altogether surprising.
There has long been a steady flow of stories of racism trickle out of both Russia and the Ukraine often associated with football. Images and stories of the far right wing Nazi formation within the Ukrainian military and images of Ukrainian troops displaying the Nazi swastika were well noted across Africa.
In fact, narrative of Nazi control fed into Russian domestic propaganda as a reason behind the invasion to liberate Ukraine.
It is also important to note that despite these instances, countries across Africa, the Middle East and the Americas have long enjoyed a thriving trade with Russia and Ukraine in a variety of sectors especially the arms trade.
Seventeen African countries abstained from voting as the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted on March 2 to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the son of Uganda’s President and Commander of countries land forces Lt Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba expressed support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine tweeting “the majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine.”
Many people across the developing world have experienced conflict first hand. Sitting in a public restaurant in the middle of a protracted civil war in Gulu, northern Uganda on 9/11 2001 watching the planes hit the Twin Towers on television in real time the reactions of the people sitting around was telling.
While none supported the attack and totally empathized with the victims; the general consensus was that America had a taste of the violence they were experiencing on the daily basis. A sentiment echoed across much of the world.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) identified “implicit and explicit bias” and recently issued a statement condemning the “orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict.”
The African Union condemned racial discrimination against Africans fleeing Ukraine into neighbouring countries. The media reflects our world views complicit with power and control. Language is powerful.
As Khan Khawar Achakzai quotes the prominent French philosopher Michel Foucault in the Kashmir Observer reminding us that logic is produced by discourse. Media reports are constructed and can support and/or change underlying perceptions and positions.
The war in Ukraine reminds Europeans that little has changed over the past century. Reporting on the war underscores the fact that the foundations of the colonial mentality remain intact. Digital technology is flattening the world as news reports are increasingly available to everyone.
Professional journalists need to exercise caution if they are to avoid reinforcing outdated power structures and negative stereotypes that normalize tragedy in the developing world.