Migrants and refugees as new actors in politics and the media

Annika Reich gave a keynote speech on behalf of WIR MACHEN DAS (WE’RE DOING IT) at the FORMATE DES POLITISCHEN (POLITICAL FORMATS) conference in Berlin on November 3. The focus of the speech was on the extent to which the media present newcomers as actors and the discriminatory ways in which they are portrayed. Here is an extract from her speech.

von Annika Reich

The Author Annika Reich during the conferenz. Photo: Jesco Denzel
The Author Annika Reich during the conferenz. Photo: Jesco Denzel

Firstly, I see the heading as a call for migrants and refugees to appear as actors in German politics and media. I find the topic great as a vision, but as a status description it doesn’t match our observations at WIR MACHEN DAS. Refugees are often portrayed in the media (in both text and images) in three main ways:

  1. a) People are reduced to their flight stories. The issues and stories revolve around escape routes, tug boats, dangers, etc. As far as images are concerned, these flight stories are generally told as part of the famously infamous “wave” rather than as individual stories.
  2. b) People are criminalised as potential dangers (mostly male) or regarded as psychologically traumatised.

These labels are aimed at screening people or weeding them out.

In addition to these two attributions, people are often portrayed as being in a state of passivity having surrendered to their fate, which bears absolutely no resemblance to the courage, willpower and organisational strengths that an escape of this kind requires. It is noticeable in the case of Syria that people are almost never portrayed in their role as revolutionaries. Instead, you often see people in mass panic on their escape routes, or groups of people hanging around in refugee homes.

  1. c) Examples of successful integration, in line with the motto, “I’ve become more German than the Germans.” Individual cases are presented that reveal an understanding of integration as a one-way street rather than as participation, i.e. of sharing and exchanging.

The first conclusion we can make is as follows:
Newcomers often appear in the media either as perfectly assimilated people or as potentially dangerous, traumatised, passive refugees. Both portrayals are two sides of the same coin, and both are masks. The true image is concealed by doubling it up. By referring to and presenting displaced people as refugees, the “refugee” becomes a projection charged with a wide range of perceptions, which means that displaced people often appear in the media as surface images with no differentiation between inner and outer, and that is precisely what constitutes one of the main features of racism.

It is precisely this masking that needs to be avoided, and people’s real faces shown. The more detailed the description, the better. And the more a person is shown in the role of actor, the better.

At WIR MACHEN DAS, we’re attempting to confront this problem:

  1. a) Talking to newcomers rather than talking about them.

We give newcomers the opportunity to speak at our Meet Your Neighbours events around the country. We ask them what they want to talk about and in doing so bring the old and new neighbourhood together.

  1. b) Letting newcomers speak for themselves rather than speaking for them. This also includes allowing them to choose the topic and whether they want to be referred to as displaced journalists or not.

Syrian journalists regularly write about their chosen topics on our homepage. Ameenah A. Sawwan, for example, published a series of 10 interviews with Syrian activists from the city of Moaddamiyeh while the Syrian-Palestinian author Hiba Obaid suggests initiatives. Both are members of our editorial team.

In 10nach8, a Zeit Online column associated with WIR MACHEN DAS, displaced journalists write as guest authors among others and they’re free to choose what they want to write about. Dima Al-Bitar Kalaji and Kefah Ali Deeb write very successfully as guest authors for us.

What needs to happen now as far as journalism is concerned is to understand newcomers as actors – in their representation in the media and as media-makers themselves. If people didn’t constantly focus on the radical right minority but instead on the 8 million people involved in refugee support, for example, then an image would eventually emerge that reflects what I have seen in the past year, namely the emergence of a new society whose affiliation is based primarily on being here and working together. It’s a new culture of responsibility in which we no longer delegate the success of a new social togetherness – neither to the state, nor to professionals, nor to a guilty conscience.

From my own experience, I can say that becoming active, looking for encounters and sharing space massively relieves feelings of helplessness. The stronger the wind blows from the right, the more I plug it into my tailwind ventilator. After all, one thing is clear: we, both old-timers and newcomers, for whom migration is an opportunity, are more numerous – and we have without doubt the more beautiful stories to tell.

The hall of the Bundespressekonferenz was occupied to the last place. Photo: Jesco Denzel
The hall of the Bundespressekonferenz was occupied to the last place. Photo: Jesco Denzel
The afterwards panel discussion with Kefah Ali Deeb, Orwa Nyrabia, Jaafar abdul-Karim, Annika Reich and the chairwomen Ebru Tasdemir. Photo: Jesco Denzel
The afterwards panel discussion with Kefah Ali Deeb, Orwa Nyrabia, Jaafar abdul-Karim, Annika Reich and the chairwomen Ebru Tasdemir. Photo: Jesco Denzel
Kefah Ali Deeb, artist and children's book author, Orwa Nyrabia, producer and filmmaker, are authors for WIR MACHEN DAS. Photo: Jesco Denzel
Kefah Ali Deeb, artist and children’s book author, Orwa Nyrabia, producer and filmmaker, are authors for WIR MACHEN DAS. Photo: Jesco Denzel

The FORMATE DES POLITISCHEN conference is a co-operation of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, the Federal Press Conference and the German World Service. In the podium discussion that followed, the visual artist, activist and children’s book author Kefah Ali Deeb, the producer and filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia and the journalist and host Jaafar Abdul-Karim discussed their experiences with German media. The contribution by the German World Service gives a summary of generalisations and clichéd portrayals.

The full speech as well as the entire panel discussion is available as an audio file.