Refugees: one week in Slovak online media

A review of Slovak online media outlets’ coverage of migration and refugees suggests that, at the time the “crisis” hit home, most political representatives had little understanding of possible humanitarian solutions. The analysis suggests that the media could have done more to combat this deficiency by providing context.

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In this article, I look at the discursive practices that shaped the image of refugees in Slovak online media in September 2015. A breaking point in the political and media discourse came on August 27, 2015, when 71 asylum-seekers died in a smuggler van at the Slovak-Austrian border. 1

This event was met with hateful reactions by a part of population, mainly on social networks and online discussions. At the same time, it mobilised civil society and certain public personalities to take a stand against hate in public discussion. Greater public engagement (mainly via the Plea for Humanity initiative, signed by some 12,000 Slovak citizens and residents) created a certain pressure to open up the debate about Slovakia’s stance on refugees. 2

Needy objects that’ll cost us

Overall, the media discourse was relatively balanced, bringing information about proposals for solutions both at home and at the European level, and questioning the government’s stance on refugees. The coverage of migration mostly focused on the activities of state institutions, foreign policy (for example, the negotiations in Brussels, shared positions among the V4, quotas, and the Slovakia’s position in Europe) and assistance provided to the refugees by citizens (for example, humanitarian collection drives and civic initiatives).

While the media put the Slovak government’s approach in the context of other EU countries’ positions, revealing its lack of solidarity with its fellow member states, some authors defined solidarity not as a principle, but rather as a commodity, something to be exchanged: “Less money from EU funds would mean that projects such as the reconstruction of the old bridge in Bratislava and infrastructure renovation in our regional and district capitals would require more investment from the Slovak budget”. 3

Refugees were framed as something “that will cost us”, because our refusal to accept them would negatively influence not only the available financial resources from the EU but also the country’s position in foreign affairs. Therefore, refugee acceptance became an economic question. Critiques of the politicians’ insufficiently principled positions appeared in a number of articles and commentaries, in some instances also aimed at representatives of the Catholic Church. Journalists at aktuality.sk mostly framed the proposed immigration quotas as a “Brussels dictate”, placing the topic of migration squarely within the larger discourse of centralised Brussels vs. Slovak sovereignty. At the same time, the media often emphasised the need for deeper solidarity with those countries that were accepting the largest numbers of refugees.

The refugees were constructed as a problem, something to be solved, and, at the same time, objects of assistance. As this was September 2015, perhaps it is not surprising, as acute humanitarian assistance was one of main issues on the agenda at that time.

Civic initiatives were positively represented in the media as alternatives to the state, which was not fulfilling its duty. One such article is titled “Fico does not want refugees; Slovaks do not want to be bystanders in their suffering”. 4

The analysed media outlets also provided information on specific opportunities for assisting and engaging in volunteer activities. The level of civic engagement was framed as “a nice surprise”, suggesting that the scope of this humanitarian assistance is not typical for Slovakia.

With the exception of the tabloid topky.sk, the surveyed media outlets tried to put the refugee issue into the context of the approaching parliamentary elections. Sme.sk pointed out that the issue could be abused in election campaigns and questioned the motivations of those politicians behind the country’s largely negative approach to refugee acceptance. News portal aktuality.sk reported that refugees arriving in Europe was nothing new or rare, pointing to Austria’s experience with accepting Balkan war refugees in the 1990s. It also reminded readers that Austria accepted refugees from Czechoslovakia during the communist era. It implied a need for a certain reciprocity and drew a comparison between the experience of Central Europe and that of the current refugees. In doing so, it softened the symbolic distance between “us” and “them”. 5

It also showed that Slovakia already had experience accepting even higher numbers of asylum-seekers in 2001-2004, and that 1,505 – the proposed quota of refugees for Slovakia – was lower than the country’s actual capacity.

Between sensation and facts

Sensationalism was present only in the tabloid articles. This included emotional language (“panic”, “shock”, “terrible tragedy”), misleading headlines, and references to information which could be “neither confirmed nor denied”. However, this type of language is common for that outlet, and was not really invented for the occasion. In fact, even the tabloid made an effort to balance the negative public discourse. For example, an interview with lawyer Zuzana Števulová from the Human Rights League focused on clarifying concepts related to refugee arrivals to Europe. In addition, the tabloid allotted space for background stories and examples of successful foreigners who came to Slovakia as refugees. This provided a human dimension through which refugees could be seen as individuals and people. Sme.sk similarly gave space to experts like Zuzana Vatráľová, head of the Slovak office of the International Organisation for Migration, who tried to respond to fears about cultural diversity. However, while people working with refugees were interviewed several times, refugees themselves had barely any voice.

(Ir)Responsibility for Schengen

Solidarity was one of the dominant themes in the given period, yet when politicians spoke about it, they were mostly referring to solidarity with countries on the southern Schengen border. Calls for solidarity with the countries accepting the largest numbers of refugees were marginal. The prevailing perspective involved doubting the ability of the states on the outer Schengen border to fullfil their commitments with respect to border protection, and questioning whether they were using finances for Schengen protection in the right way. 6

These references to the southern states’ insufficient fulfilment of their duties were meant to justify shirking our own responsibility for finding solutions, while at the same time arguing that Slovakia has always fulfilled its commitments on the Ukrainian border and therefore “has the right to request that the Schengen borders are duly protected”. 7

Slovakia was thus framed in a positive light as a responsible EU member that has fulfilled its duties, undeserving of any burden to pay the dues of those who have not. There is a sense of grievance in this narrative. Yet Slovakia’s eastern border is 97 kilometres long, much easier to protect than the thousands of kilometres long southern (coastal) border. However, this fact was not brought up by the media.

The Prime Minister kept suggesting that it was Greece and Italy who should shoulder the responsibility; that was where camps should be built to identify and divide up asylum-seekers. 8

The PM’s position shows a relatively limited understanding of global responsibility. Globalisation and global interconnectedness require a redefinition of political responsibility, including questions of sovereignty. Global questions (and migration is one of them) require a pooling of sovereignty with international agencies and supranational rules. 9

Think of the EU – decisions are not arbitrary, but a result of negotiations.

By not taking responsibility, Slovakia portrayed itself as a weak country, not as one with potential. Only a few public figures painted a more positive image of Slovakia. 10

Most suggested that the country was not even able to cope with domestic challenges, as referenced by this quote from the PM: “We’re not able to integrate the Roma, so let’s not pretend we can integrate someone who comes here with a totally different religion and traditions.” 11

In other contexts as well – for example, in reference to unemployment – the PM again characterised the Roma as obstacles to the country’s development, and also as an explanation for growing unemployment. 12

When Slovakia was supposed to accept a certain number of refugees, the narrative of Slovakia’s inability to integrate the Roma became a very convenient excuse.

Are quotas bad for refugees?

One of the dominant themes of political discourse was rejection of quotas. Robert Fico said: “We are offering cooperation, but why should I be the one to come to Brussels to quack only what someone else wants to hear? It’s not selfishness. We are ready to help everyone who needs protection, health or freedom, but quotas are not the solution.” 13

The Prime Minister emphasised Slovakia’s willingness to cooperate and help, but only in a way that suited us. He did not take into account the needs and interests of other states. Slovak politicians rejected quotas regardless of party affiliation. The PM especially presented quotas as imposed, as something that we couldn’t make a sovereign decision about. 14

This and similar statements fit into a broader discourse of the Slovak nation having to fight constantly for its survival. 15

The only real justification politicians used for rejecting the quotas was the interests of the asylum-seekers themselves. It was often suggested that their real destination was Austria, Germany or another Western European country, so they shouldn’t be sent to Slovakia anyway. Yet, while this was considered a legitimate and respectable argument for the sake of rejecting the quotas, elsewhere and in other contexts, the same argument was challenged on moral grounds: “But why, if someone is in France and says he is running from danger, does he need to go through the tunnel and flee to Great Britain? Does he not feel safe in France? We cannot accept someone deciding to come work in Europe, crossing the border illegally, and welcome him here.” 16

The use of refugees/migration as instruments of election campaigning has become common in a number of countries. Refugees are often a tool for maintaining political hegemony, but rarely actors. 17

As a consequence, the needs of refugees were portrayed as inferior to “our” needs. Proposed solutions concentrated on keeping the refugees behind borders – for example, by offering financial and technical assistance to protect the Schengen border, planning projects to stabilise the refugees’ countries of origin, and granting assistance to countries with large refugee populations. The protection of borders and the safety of the native populations were priorities.

“The safety of the Slovak population” was also reflected in discussions about Austrian refugee camps in proximity to the Slovak border. The governor of the Bratislava region said that the system in the camps was “humane and fair to Slovak and Austrian inhabitants”, as: “In these camps there is really a very strict order; if someone does not abide by the rules, there will be a fine. In cases of more serious problems, the police immediately intervene and the offender is moved to a central detention camp. Only those who follow the rules stay.” 18

Yet while asylum-seekers were the most impacted by this system of governance in the camps (as it was they who were bound by these rules), their perspective was rarely considered. What mattered was the rules’ impact on “us”. The media coverage did not confront this one-sided emphasis on order and protection, and did little to provide a humanitarian context or address the need to ensure that refugees were living in conditions conducive to leading a dignified life.

Refugees or economic migrants?

Refugees were often constructed as desperate have-nots requiring immediate help. The expressions “people in need” and “help” added a humane dimension to the discourse. However, the “help” framing was connected with an emphasis on the need to distinguish between refugees, who need help, and economic migrants, who do not. The “economic migrant” was quickly redefined as a “parasite” whose motives are not legitimate.

The urgency of quickly deporting economic migrants became a matter of consensus among all political actors, including those who were more open to refugee acceptance. A culture of distrust and doubt about the incoming migrants’ motives permeated the whole political spectrum. And while it is important to distinguish between people who satisfy the criteria for international protection and those who do not, doubting the economic motives for migration can have consequences for foreigners who come to work in Slovakia and whose numbers are growing every year (foreigners with work visa in June 2015: 5467; in June 2016: 7210). 19

Politicians, mainly the Prime Minister, kept repeating that 90-95 percent of people who came to Europe in 2015 were “economic migrants”. They presented this as an irrefutable truth (“we all know that”) while giving no evidence to support it. To illustrate, Prime Minister Fico said: “We have to identify who is a threatened refugee. Does someone who can pay 5,000 EUR to a smuggler suffer from hunger? Look how many young men there are looking for work. It’s 90 percent.” 20 This rhetoric was challenged by only a minority of politicians. 21

In distinguishing between refugees and economic migrants, politicians emphasised Slovakia’s readiness to help “those who really need it”, yet this supposed solidarity rarely extended beyond the declaratory level. More precisely, given the politicians’ reliance on 90-95 percent of the migrants being illegitimate “economic migrants”, they seem to have been working under the assumption that they really would not have to show this solidarity.

President Kiska seems to have been the only politician to avoid dehumanising discourse about “masses” and “influxes” and bridge the distance between “us” and “them”: “But let’s ask the question: how many people here would not use or spend everything they own if they and their families were under threat? And how many parents would not use those resources to at least save their children?” 22

Typically referred to as “masses”, refugees were only rarely introduced as individuals. The Minister of the Interior said: “Refugees are not grains of sand, rice, or some other commodity that we have to divide up. These are living people, with ties to their relatives, religion and culture. … At the end of the day, they will be the most dissatisfied with quotas – while they’re the ones at stake.” 23

This particular case, though humanising the refugees, still fed into the narrative of justifying quota rejection. The discourse of “helping those who need it” was applied selectively, particularly as Christians were often highlighted as the most threatened group of refugees. Calls for offering assistance only to Christian refugees were justified by references to the persecution of Christians in ISIS territory and by assumptions that their integration would be more successful because of close cultural and religious proximity.

Yet ISIS is far from being the only threat in Syria. Human rights organisations have reported attacks on civilians regardless of religion, indiscriminate use of weapons, arbitrary arrests and torture conducted by a variety of groups, including those fighting on behalf of the government. 24

Christians are far from being the only threatened group, and the scale of destruction in Syria has made a life of dignity impossible. Certain politicians’ expectations that Christians from the Middle East would be easier to integrate suggest that those politicians’ knowledge about these issues is limited.

A missed chance to provide background

Most of the stories published in the researched period were news agency reports, without much added content by the outlet that published them. For some stories the outlet’s own staff added content, for example pointing out the politicisation of the topic of refugees as part of the pre-election struggle. 25

Sme.sk and aktuality.sk were relatively critical of the government’s stance. They pointed out the use of fear politics and provided space for alternative discourses. Alternatives were limited, however, represented mostly by the President (in his speech on September 7, 2015), occasionally a few members of Parliament (for example Martin Poliačik and Rudolf Chmel) and Ombudswoman Jana Dubovcová, who also joined the Plea for Humanity.

References to “waves” and “an influx” made the refugees into a mass without a face. Their voices in Slovak media were absent. They were instead represented through intermediaries, such as migration experts and representatives from non-governmental organisations working with them and providing integration services. One possible explanation for why the refugees’ own words were absent from the media is that refugees were simply not present in or coming to Slovakia. Yet not even former refugees were asked for their thoughts. It is possible, however, that given the emotionally charged atmosphere, foreigners living in Slovakia refused to talk to the media. At the same time, one should keep in mind that most journalists belong to the dominant Slovak ethnicity, and it is from this position that they think and act. 26

Solidarity was an oft-discussed topic, though limited mainly to solidarity with other countries. Talk about solidarity with refugees was relatively marginal, which is probably a function of their framing as a collective, rather than individuals with unique stories.

In sum, the media largely missed their opportunity to provide more background information and to counter misleading statements on the part of politicians.

Notes:

  1. Kern, Miroslav, ‘V dodávke v Rakúsku zahynulo 71 utečencov, v Maďarsku zatkli aj vodiča,’ Denník N, August 27, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nGrbTH (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  2. I analysed articles published in the three most-read online dailies shortly after the tragedy of 2015: sme.sk (quality outlet), aktuality.sk (news portal) and topky.sk (tabloid). Readership information according to http://online.aimmonitor.sk/. I focused on articles discussing Slovak positions or giving information about the situation in Slovakia. I reviewed articles published between September 3, 2015 – September 9, 2015 containing the keyword “refugees”. This search generated 24 articles on www.sme.sk, 23 on actuality.sk and 9 on topky.sk.
  3. Mikeš, Zolo, ‘Nedostatok solidarity s utečencami by mohol výjsť Slovensko draho,’ Aktuality.sk, September 4, 2015, http://bit.ly/2mUPL4w (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  4. Kyseľ, Tomáš, ‘Fico utečencov odmieta, Slováci sa na ich biedu už nechcú len prizerať,’ Aktuality.sk, September 3, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nRz1dr (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  5. Tajfel, Henri (1982). Social identity and intergroup relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. ‘V4 by mala žiadať vysťahovanie ekonomických migrantov, myslí si Martvoň,’ SME.sk, September 03, 2015, http://bit.ly/2npxkkl (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  7. ‘KDH s kvótami nesúhlasí, Bugár nevidí aktívnu pomoc vlády,’ SME.sk, September 9, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nClc0o (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  8. ‘Fico: Je otázne, či trpí hladom ten, kto má päťtisíc eur na pašeráka,’ SME.sk, September 5, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nCAouE (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  9. Bearsworth, Richard (2015): From Moral to Political Responsibility in a Globalized Age in: Ethics&International Affairs, 29, 1, pp. 71-92.
  10. ‘Ombudsmanka a Rudolf Chmel sa pripojili k Výzve k ľudskosti,’ SME.sk, September 3, 2015, http://bit.ly/2oo8XEK (accessed on March 30, 2017); Poliačik, Martin, ‘Hanbím sa za premiéra Fica, Aktuality.sk, September 5.09.2015, http://bit.ly/2npJeLp (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  11. Kováč, Peter, ‘Fico hovorí aj o vojenskom zásahu (utečenecká kríza – víkendové fakty),’ SME.sk, September 6, 2015, http://bit.ly/2ohVu4z (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  12. Folentová, Veronika, ‘Fico vidí za vysokou nezamestnanosťou Rómov. Štátny inštitút hovorí niečo iné,’ SME Ekonomika, February 17, 2014, http://bit.ly/2nGgYX8 (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  13. ‘Ten, čo trpí hladom, má 5000 eur na pašeráka? Pýta sa Fico,’ Aktuality.sk, September 5, 2015, http://bit.ly/2ohTnO1 (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  14. ‘Utečenci tu nechcú zostať, tak načo sú nám kvóty? Pýta sa premiér Fico,’ Aktuality.sk, September 6, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nlK9LX (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  15. Chudžíková, Alena (2013): Construction of National Identity in the Political Discourse in Slovakia, http://bit.ly/2nRxSTm (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  16. ‘Fico: Je otázne, či trpí hladom ten, kto má päťtisíc eur na pašeráka,’ SME.sk, September 5, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nCAouE (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  17. KhosraviNik, Majid (2010): The representation of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in British newspapers: a critical discourse analysis in: Journal of Language and Politics, 9, 1, pp. 1-28.; Costas, Gabrielatos – Baker, Paul (2008): Fleeing, Sneaking, Flooding: Corpus Analysis of Discursive Construction of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK Press, 1996-2005 in: Journal of English Linguistics, 36, 5, pp. 5-38.
  18. ‘Slovenskí starostovia sa informovali v utečeneckom tábore v Bergu,’ SME.sk, September 03, 2015, http://bit.ly/2og1t9M (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  19. Prezídium Policajného zboru, Úrad hraničnej a cudzineckej polície (ÚHCP) (2016): Štatistický prehľad legálnej a nelegálnej migrácie v Slovenskej republike. I. polrok 2016, http://bit.ly/2nlV4Fm (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  20. ‘Fico: Je otázne, či trpí hladom ten, kto má päťtisíc eur na pašeráka,’ SME.sk, September 5, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nCAouE (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  21. Poliačik, Martin, ‘Hanbím sa za premiéra Fica,’ Aktuality.sk, September 5, 2015, http://bit.ly/2npJeLp (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  22. ‘Prečítajte si vyhlásenie prezidenta k utečeneckej kríze,’ SME.sk, September 7, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nlHbXQ (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  23. ‘KDH s kvótami nesúhlasí, Bugár nevidí aktívnu pomoc vlády,’ SME.sk, September 9, 2015, http://bit.ly/2nClc0o (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  24. Human Rights Watch: Syria. Country Summary. January 2015, http://bit.ly/1PWtuJl (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  25. Krbatová, L., ‘Utečenecká kríza môže ovplyvniť aj výsledky volieb,’ SME.sk, September, 3, 2015, http://bit.ly/2oFuckD (accessed on March 30, 2017).
  26. Van Dijk, Teun (1989a): Mediating racism. The role of the media in the reproduction of racism in: Wodak, Ruth (ed.): Language, Power and Ideology. Studies in Political Discourse. Amsterdam/Filadelfia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 199-226.
Alena H. Chudžíková

Alena H. Chudžíková

graduated from the University of Sussex, Brighton where she majored in Applied Social Psychology. In 2009 she joined the Centre for the Research of Ethnicity and Culture where she specialises in political discourses on minorities and national identity as well as prejudice, stereotypes and social identity issues.