Baghdad, Iraq – Like much of the world, Arabs were stunned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but shock quickly gave way to indignation over media commentary seen by many as racist against people from the Middle East.
“This isn’t a place — with all due respect, you know — like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades,” said Charlie D’Agata of US network CBS News.
“This is a relatively civilised, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully too — city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope it is going to happen.”
A day later, after much online furore, D’Agata apologised for his “poor choice of words”.
This was just one of many remarks on reputable media outlets drawing a line between the conflict unfolding in Ukraine and those in other parts of the world.
But Arabs were quick to point out the double standard, noting that while the toll of war may be similar in the respective conflicts, the media treatment is not.
Many also drew a comparison between Europe’s welcoming of Ukrainian refugees and the influx of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, which was declared a “migrant crisis”.
Political scientist Ziad Majed said that, while there was “magnificent solidarity” from the world over the Ukraine conflict, it also revealed a “shocking distinction”.
The discrepancies in media treatment revealed the “dehumanisation of refugees from the Middle East”, said Majed, a professor at the American University of Paris.
“When we hear some commentators speaking about ‘people like us’, this suggests that those coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa are not (like them)”.
– ‘Racist coverage’ –
The Qatari channel Al Jazeera English was also not immune to the controversy.
“These are not, obviously, refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war,” said one of its anchors.
“They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
The network later issued an apology, describing the remarks as “insensitive and irresponsible”.
Salem Barahmeh, director of the pro-Palestinian platform Rabet, was quick to point out seeming discrepancies in the commentary.
“First we discover that international law still exists. Refugees are welcome depending where they come from. Resistance to occupation is not only legitimate but a right”, he wrote on Twitter.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists’ Association condemned “examples of racist news coverage that ascribes more importance to some victims of war than others”.
“This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalising tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America.”
– ‘Civilised’ –
For Syrians, the disparity in media treatment is particularly striking as Russia launched a bloody intervention to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime more than six years ago.
Before the war in Ukraine, Majed said, Syrian territory served as a “laboratory” for the Russian army, on which it “tested its arsenal and tactics”.
Journalist Philippe Corbe referenced that conflict when he spoke about the Ukraine refugee flow on French broadcaster BFM TV.
“We are not talking about Syrians fleeing the bombardment of the Syrian regime, supported by Vladimir Putin,” he said.
“We are talking about Europeans who are leaving in their cars, that look like our cars… and who are just trying to save their lives.”
Contacted by AFP, the broadcaster said Corbe’s remarks were “clumsy but taken out of context… (and) led to the mistaken belief that he was defending a position opposite to the one he wanted to emphasise, and he regrets this”.
Some Arabs have poked fun at what they see as double standards.
A popular meme shows a scene from US sitcom Family Guy, where the main character stands behind a skin tone chart with a line in the middle that indicates who is considered “civilised” and “uncivilised”.
But for others, the issue is no laughing matter.
AdeelaOfficial, an Instagram account dedicated to offering humorous commentary on celebrity news, took a break from the jokes to decry media “racism”.
“The Western media claims to protect human rights and defend democracy, when in reality it is ignorant, racist and cannot see beyond its own nose,” it charged.
Majed said that “we can understand that the Ukrainians are Europeans and that the memory of war in Europe can revive a lot of emotions”.
But he argued that the discourse also illustrates an extreme shift to the right in public debate, saying that “certain political elites don’t have any problem expressing themselves as though racist speech has now been permitted”.