Stranger – welcome or farewell?
3 December 2008
Greek city of Patras – a big port in Peloponnese, European Capital of Culture 2006 and a centre of Saint Andrew’s cult – has appeared, together with Lublin, among twelve cities participating in the Intercultural Cities programme, a common initiative of the Council of Europe and the European Commission.
It was in the city of Patras where on 27-29 November was held a big conference “Media and migrants – welcome or farewell?,” devoted to the media’s role in the intercultural dialogue. The conference was attended by a large group of Greek journalists, media and emigration experts, and journalists from the cities of the Intercultural Cities project. In Greece, the intercultural dialogue has a very specific and complex context, and refers to the phenomenon of immigration the scale and problems of which often seem to be distant in Poland. Hence the meeting’s theme: “Media and migrants – welcome or farewell?”

It was said that daily there are 300 attempts of illegal crossings of the Greek sea border. The coast is the destination of the African and Asian refugees, many of whom come from Afghanistan, who want to get there even by dinghies. They choose Patras, which is the port of the cargo ships and ferries sailing to Italy. Two years ago there was in Poland a big affair over two truck drivers. In Patras they got on the ferry heading to Italy and were stopped by the police due to the fact that there were some Afghans hidden in the semi-trailer. The drivers explained that they didn’t know about it, while the Afghans claimed that they had paid the drivers to do so.

This time Patras was peaceful, however in August and September 2008 there was a clash of immigrants staying at the harbour and at the camp. Since Patras tried to present itself as a city which doesn’t conceal its problems, everyone could freely do the reportage from the refugee camp within the framework of “Patras Open City.” One, however, didn’t need to go there to realize how difficult the situation is. It was enough to have a walk with Rania Abdellatif who came for the conference as a delegate of the Italian city of Reggio Emilia. She is a second generation immigrant and actually a rightful Italian citizen with no complexes. She admits, though, that there is still some piece of the Egyptian soul left in her heart. She always wears hijab, which is a kind of a headscarf. Some young swarthy man approached her in the square by the harbour. He turned out to be an immigrant with no status. He was complaining about the Greek immigration procedures and claimed that the intercultural integration is just a fiction. Such bitter words were uttered also by those who went through these procedures and now are acting in the aid and nongovernmental organisations, and who were invited for the conference to share their experiences. What was really shocking were the photos from the cemetery of nameless immigrants who didn’t survive one of the stages of their journey to the Promised Land. All that was left of them were the plates with a number and a date on which a particular body was found.

Media were criticised for the lack of a real interest in the problems of emigrants (and minorities or foreigners in general), and for their tendency to publicize events in which emigrants are presented in the negative context of criminal acts. Therefore, media were criticised for a journalism subjected to the well-known expression saying that “good news is no news.” They were also reproached for the fact that they aren’t opposing xenophobia and racism firmly enough. It was said that media should serve as means of information and communication, but in fact they are running some journalistic shows instead.

And how to reach the refugees themselves in order to get to know their problems, since the cultural-language barrier sometimes seems insurmountable?

“Language is the key to writing about others. However, if they don’t speak German, they won’t learn a thing from us,” said a journalist from Berlin who underlined at the same time, that he never asks his interviewed persons about their nationality. “Berlin is so multicultural that nothing can surprise anyone.”

“Commercial media do not constitute the project of the European Union and no one can force them to take up these subjects,” said someone else.

Nevertheless, there were many examples of the local media commitment in the minorities affairs. Majoran Vivekananthan brought from Oslo a very specific example of such a commitment, namely a first Norwich multicultural newspaper “Utrop,” of which he is editor. The conference also brought up the question of the Internet. It was said that the Internet raises hope of becoming a tool of the so-called citizen journalism. At the same time, journalists themselves criticised heavily the way the media function.

“They told me to interview black Americans. However, they gave up the idea because I’m American and they needed someone who could grill them. Maybe it is true, because I won’t ask Americans certain questions as it is simply not the right thing to do for me. What does it mean? It means that all that counts are the social, national or other groups, and not individuals,” said Karyn Bennett-Lund who has been working in Norway for several years.

“Diversity may concern the race, ethnicity, education or material status. It can be an inspiration for the creativity and life’s wealth, but it can also lead to the mutual distrust, discrimination or to the conflict of values. That is why the media have such an important role in opposing it,” persuaded Milica Pesic, director of Media Diversity Institute in London.

During one of the debates, Stratis Balaskas, journalist of the Lesbos regional newspaper “Embros” and correspondent of a renowned Athenian daily “Eleftherotypia,” was applauded when he reminded that for years Greeks themselves were being forced to emigrate and so that they should be guided by the sense of solidarity with others. At the end of his speech he reminded that also both his grandfather and father once crossed the ocean in the search of a better life.

Delegates from Melitopol in Ukraine and Izhevsk in the Russian Federation have presented these issues in a totally different way. These regions are home of all the nations of the former USSR, and of those who were forced to live there by the Stalin’s regime. Izhevsk’s representatives have estimated that their city is inhabited by… 132 nationalities who obviously have no problems.

Grzegorz Józefczuk
Gazeta Wyborcza Lublin

Intercultural Cities