Warped mirror: how Russian media covers Europe’s refugee crisis

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For all of its sniping and sensation, Russian media’s coverage of refugees in Europe hit too close to home. на русском языке


Ivan Zhilin
25 September 2015

Russian citizens get their news from the television. In Russia, the ‘box’ is no longer a source of mass information, but a means of mass defeat.

The TV is used to demonise entire states (the US, Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), and now the TV is deployed to demonise the situation with refugees from the Middle East arriving in Europe.

‘Croatia’s tolerance lasted for all of two days’

To understand what the average Russian citizen thinks about refugees, you just have to switch on the evening news. For instance, take a news bulletin from federal TV channel Rossiya-1, which has viewing figures of up to 50m people.

The first block is titled: ‘The European Union is closed: Croatia blocks its roads.’

‘The Croatian army is now at a state of increased military alert,’ reels off the presenter. ‘All border crossings with Serbia are closed. There is no open route to Germany for refugees. Hungary detains them at the border, and Slovenia turns them back. The railway stations, overflowing with passengers, are now the sites of riots.’

Zafer Salikh, a refugee, tells the camera in Syrian how he’s sleeping on the rails for a second night running.

A correspondent from the Tovarnik station tells us that refugees imagined Europe differently—a place that would be happy to see them. Instead, women and children are forced to sleep at the station. More than 2,000 people, according to the journalist, are waiting for a train, and when it comes, there’s not enough space for everyone. But the most terrifying thing is the police: boarding passengers onto the train, they can separate parents and children. Everything is up to them.

Zafer Salikh, a refugee, tells the camera in Syrian how he’s sleeping on the rails for a second night running. After, the channel’s correspondent takes over to say that volunteers are the refugees’ only hope, and they’re already tired.

A girl in an orange robe speaks to the camera: ‘This needs to stop. It’s the 21st century. Europe should have learned something. Croatia has responded simply wonderfully.’ Then the correspondent reports how Croatia promises to take refugees to the border, in the direction of Austria and Germany, but actually transports them to a camp near Zagreb.

‘Croatia’s tolerance lasted for all of two days,’ says Rossiya-1’s correspondent, before the programme cuts to a shot of kids behind barbed wire. They can’t move on, to western Europe, and the other way lies war.


Refugees in a processing camp in Opatovac, Croatia. Photo (c) Beata Zawrzel via demotix

Room for irony

The next item on the programme focuses on how Russia is caring for Syrian citizens who have lost their homes as a result of war. Not on its own territory, of course.

Russian experts, the presenter states, have built a camp in Hamah, a town in the west of Syria. Here, people whose homes have been destroyed by Islamic State are met with kasha (Russian porridge). Meanwhile, on screen, we see a dark-haired boy eating—a direct contrast to those children kept behind fences in Europe.

Hamah is only 40km from the front line, but the journalist tells us that this is a big distance. The camp can take up to 500 people, and if necessary, 1,000.

The camera turns to the canteen’s tables, which even have roses on them. Europe can’t even dream of this: they make people bed down between railway sleepers there. A woman by the name of Anan speaks about she’s already learned how to use the Russian field kitchen, and that there’s at least a month’s supply of food here—all provided by the Russians.

But this story purposefully omits the fact that Europe has taken people trying to save themselves from war. For most Syrians, the prospects of receiving refugee status in the Russian Federation are slim: there’s no legal provision for it. Article 5 of the law on refugees states: ‘An individual who has arrived from a foreign country, where he or she had the opportunity to be recognised as a refugee, cannot be recognised as such in the Russian Federation.’

Given that there’s no direct land border with Syria, this is hardly possible: a Syrian citizen would be turned around to seek shelter in Turkey or a neighbouring country.

Here come the experts

Now Channel One tries to explain why refugees are fleeing to Europe en masse, rather than to their ‘brothers in faith’. Irala Zeinalova, the presenter, says that the mass movement towards western Europe is surprising given that the war in Syria has been going on for some time, and that no substantial change has been seen.

Then the ‘experts’ chime in. ‘Europe is resisting the Transatlantic Trade Agreement, which the United States is trying to push through,’ says Irina Alksnis, vice-president of the Aspect Center for Social and Political Research. ‘This move would mean becoming a satellite, the economic vassal of the US, in order to save the American economy at Europe’s expense.

‘But I’m not surprised, if the migrants get what they want as a result of the destabilisation of Europe. One can only guess and assume how much European capital has shifted over to the US.’

Next, a voice-over says that thousands of terrorists are trying to get into Europe, masquerading as refugees. ‘You might think this nightmare which is happening today is the work of some invisible hand. In actual fact, there is no such hand. The chaos we see before us is all according to the scenario of an author who is all too known to us [i.e. the US]. This director has rather blurred conceptions of good and evil.’

In fact, ‘blurred conceptions of good and evil’ would be an accurate description of those in charge of content for official media. Ulyana Skoibeda, a journalist for the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, notorious after voicing her regrets that the Nazis didn’t make enough lampshades out of the ancestors of Russian liberals, published an article titled ‘Chronicle of the death of Germany’—a diary of a Russian woman living in Munich.


‘Croatia’s tolerance towards refugees lasted for all of two days.’ Photo (c): Beate Zawrzel via demotix

We see the following on the pages of the most popular newspaper (7m copies sold weekly):

‘Residents of Munich are preparing to hold a demonstration in support of the government’s migration policy. Idiots. “Germany should be coloured” they shout, demanding the government take more Islamic refugees. Demanding the government put more weight on their necks. Did we even have to fight Germany? Seventy years on, the country is killing itself.’ (Do we need to remember that, 70 years ago, Germany was destroyed by its radical intolerance?)

Further, the Komsomolka tells us how Germany’s wealth is a myth. ’12.5m people live below the poverty line.’ ‘People stand in line for old food.’ ‘For many, collecting bottles is the only way to survive.’ At the same time, to the indignation of the author, Germany spares its refugees nothing—not its benefits at 2800 euros, not its furnished apartments, not its health service.

The finishing touch in the destruction of Germany, however, is the passage about pensioners, who are being forced out of their homes.

Europe is pictured as a place that cares neither about refugees, nor its own citizens. 

Komsomolka offers the following quotation from the German authorities: ‘In Germany, the housing situation is tough. We are accepting refugees, but we can’t offer them housing. At the same time, many elderly people live in apartments that are too big for them. We have to accept a new programme of forced resettlement of the elderly into rooms or smaller apartments. The situation is very difficult, we call on the German people to understand and help.’

This is actually an appeal by the IG-Bau trade union. It doesn’t have any relation to the German government.

Ignorance, hostility and ideology

For the most influential of Russian media, Europe is pictured as a place that cares neither about refugees (who can’t get in due: people’s reserves of tolerance are spent), nor its own citizens (who are forced to live in poverty and even forced out of their own homes to make life more comfortable for refugees).

In covering the refugee crisis, Russian media is actually showing its citizens their own country. The only difference is that they call it by a different name.

After all, it’s Russia that has lacked tolerance towards migrants and refugees for years. The demonstrations on the Manezh in 2011 showed how strong nationalist moods are in Russia.

Simultaneously, it is Russia whose generosity to people forced to re-settle outstrips its generosity to its own citizens. Ukrainian refugees received 800 roubles a day; a Russian citizen, on average, earns 421 roubles per day. (According to Rosstat, the state statistics agency, the average monthly wage in Russia is 12,462 roubles.)

Russia’s leading media picture Europe and the refugees in dark tones. Inviting viewers to the screen, the TV producers try to persuade them that what they are seeing isn’t a reflection of life here. The viewer believes this, and has reason to believe so.

The first reason: ignorance. Most Russian citizens have never seen refugees, Ukrainian, Syrian or otherwise, for real. Only on TV. And here the difference between Ukrainian and Syrian refugees is exaggerated: the Ukrainians are modest, law-abiding and ready to work; the Syrians are uneducated, scroungers, criminals and even terrorists.

The second reason: high levels of hostility towards Muslims. According to the Public Opinion foundation, 23% of Russian citizens surveyed have negative feelings towards Islam (53% are neutral, 19% - positive). This hostility comes largely from criminal reports, which often feature people from the Caucasus. This is their metric for the rest of the Muslim world.

The third reason is ideological. ‘People believe what they want to believe.’ The decline of the west, as heralded by Russian television, has been Russia’s national idea for too long. Anything that brings the end of the west closer is only to be welcomed.


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