Several remarks by reporters and media pundits have described Ukraine as more ‘civilised’ in comparison to other war-torn countries, sparking backlash on social media.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has continued into its fifth day, is being billed as the biggest conflict Europe has seen since World War II. Scenes of Russian bombardment and thousands fleeing their homes and hiding in bunkers has engendered an outpouring of public sympathy for Ukrainians across the globe.
However, media coverage of the conflict has come under stark criticism following several remarks by reporters and pundits, leading many on social media to call out a troubling racialised framing of non-Western war-torn countries.
CBS News foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata said on Friday: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
“This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan…this is a relatively civilized &relatively European -I have to choose those words carefully-city”— mahsa alimardani 🌒 مثلا (@maasalan) February 26, 2022
No respect and no words chosen carefully. Honest devalument of the non-European life. pic.twitter.com/6qHXp2SrX3
D’Agata apologised later, saying that he spoke “in a way I regret”.
On France’s BFMTV on Friday, one analyst said that “we’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours…to save their lives”.
They can do it in French too, obviously. https://t.co/cob8cY1Sta— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) February 27, 2022
Then on Saturday, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, said in a BBC news segment: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blonde hair and blue eyes being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets”.
To which the BBC presenter responded: “I understand and of course respect the emotion.”
The comments were met with anger online, with several users labelling the remarks as “double standards” and calling for a “reckoning”.
Double standards of the western media. Are Europeans a superior race than Afghans, Arabs, Asians or Indians? Western leaders and their media exposed one more time. https://t.co/LyFwQARgu5— Sudhir Chaudhary (@sudhirchaudhary) February 28, 2022
Also on Saturday, UK journalist and former Conservative politician Daniel Hannan wrote in the Telegraph: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.”
“Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone,” Hannan continued.
Colonialist, white, European-centric journalism, exhibit: 2,398,523— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) February 27, 2022
(Also, hi, remember the war in the former Yugoslavia? The unrest in Ireland? That was all in the 1990s, not that long ago.) https://t.co/oNUf3WIJX1
In a similar vein, ITV News correspondent Lucy Watson reported from a train station in Kiev that the “unthinkable” had happened to the people of Ukraine.
“This is not a developing third world nation,” she said. “This is Europe.”
'Now the unthinkable has happened to them, and this is not a developing, third world nation, this is Europe.' pic.twitter.com/BFYvql7iie— black lives matter (@jrc1921) February 27, 2022
Not to be outdone, on Sunday Al Jazeera English presenter Peter Dobbie described Ukrainians fleeing the war as “prosperous, middle-class people” who “are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East…or North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
Add Al Jazeera to the list... The Supremacy around the media coverage of this isn't even subtle. pic.twitter.com/ZuZtJ70K69— TᕼE GᕼOᔕT Oᖴ ᗪᗩᑎ (@DocRobotnivik) February 27, 2022
The Qatari media network subsequently issued an apology regarding the “inappropriate, insensitive, and irresponsible” comments.
NBC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella also came under fire after stating on air that “these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine…They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar.”
She didn’t get the memo. “To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine... They're Christian, they're white, they're very similar." pic.twitter.com/1Ch88mtx5K— Arwa Ibrahim (@arwaib) February 27, 2022
Discourse of dehumanisation
While the Russia-Ukraine war is often referred to by western media as Europe’s worst security crisis of the post-war period, many have pointed out an amnesia of recent conflicts on the continent, including the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
A lot. Bosnian during the Siege of Sarajevo and throughout the Bosnian Genocide were defenceless but never wavered.— Arnesa Buljušmić-Kustura (@Rrrrnessa) February 26, 2022
People are incredibly resilient and all over the world there are masses resisting oppression and war. Let's not be ahistorical in the name of supporting Ukraine. https://t.co/lX9HejN2ei pic.twitter.com/rjmh7w4GlT
In response to the litany of racist broadcasting, the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) condemned and rejected the “orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict”.
Such commentary “reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world,” as it “dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected,” it said in a statement.
AMEJA also noted the “racist news coverage that ascribes more importance to some victims of war over others".
At least 929,000 people were killed by direct war violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.
More than 38 million people living in and from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Philippines, Syria, and Yemen have been forcibly displaced post-America’s 9/11 wars.
Additionally, the discourse around the reporting that frames Ukrainians as victims deserving of more sympathy versus those in the so-called third world, is also problematic historically – given that Ukrainians have not been regarded as “real” Europeans until very recently.
PhD student and historian, Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, pointed out in a Twitter thread that her research shows that this improved perception of Ukrainians is a recent phenomenon.
My research on race and experience in Ukraine, Russia and the Soviet Union has taught me: Race is fluid and contextual, and the American racial paradigm too often shapes the global discourse. Ukrainians are often at the bottom of the European racial hierarchy. 1/— Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon (@ksvarnon) February 27, 2022
Journalist Usman Butt argued in a Facebook post, Ukraine has become “European based on who they are not,” given the consensus is that Putin is the single biggest threat to Europe.
On the point of European and British publics welcoming Ukrainians fleeing war into their countries, Butt believes if the conflict drags on longer that enthusiasm might become muted and give way to anti-refugee animus – much like it did with Syria.
“At the beginning of the Arab Spring there was a lot of enthusiasm, but this gradually gave way to security concerns and Islamophobia as things dragged on,” he said.
“The euphoria around Ukraine is partly a result of this phase of the conflict only being a few days old, if it drags on for years, I suspect we will see the enthusiasm die down and [a security] mindset dominate.”