Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Human Rights: Time for European Rights Advocates to Look Inwards

Bashy Quraishy, President of European Network Against Racism

By Kalinga Seneviratne

Courtesy of IDN-InDepthNewsAnalysis

COPENHAGEN (IDN) - In the eyes and minds of most people in the developing countries of the South, Europe stands for liberalism, freedom and fairplay. No wonder, therefore, that tens of thousands of people from the troubled developing countries of the South have been flocking to Europe seeking asylum since the European Union abolished border controls within the community more than a decade ago.

The influx of migrants from the South has led to a backlash right across Europe where the very freedoms and liberal attitudes the migrants are hoping to enjoy, are increasingly coming under threat. Recent elections across Europe indicate that there is a significant electorate out there that votes for racist anti-immigration parties.

During a recent visit to Denmark, which I visited after more than 15 years, even though non-white migrants seem to be moving freely within the cities, often communicating, fluently in the local language, migrant media practitioners I spoke to were very critical of the lack of access they get to the mainstream media to counter negative perceptions about them in national newspapers, radio and television.

"They say you can speak free in Denmark but I don't believe in it," said Reza Mustafa, who was born in Copenhagen to Pakistani parents, and broadcasts on Radio Humwatan, a community radio station in the Danish capital. He argues that broadcasting to your own community in Urdu or Punjabi does not help to change the negative perceptions of Muslims and migrants from the South in the Danish society.

Since he speaks Danish fluently, when I asked him why he can't broadcast on the national radio network Denmark Radio, he answered: "It's only for those people who are well recognized. They can talk and it's their right to talk about anything, but if I say anything critical of Americans they (law enforcement authorities) will threaten me."

European countries like Denmark have been leading voices over the past four decades for promoting human rights across the world, and through their foreign aid programmes, they have been funding media projects which sought to teach people in the South how to allow minorities in their countries access to the media. Denmark's foreign aid agency Danida has funded many projects in Africa and Asia to promote community radios.


Now, within their own society with the increasing hostility of the native white population towards migrants from developing countries, the very projects Denmark has been promoting overseas are needed at home. With migrant communities lacking a voice in the media, it is time human rights activists question whether Europe's human rights advocates should focus their attention inwards.

Indian born, Pakistan raised Danish resident, Bashy Quraishy, certainly thinks so. He has lived in Denmark for over 30 years, is the chief editor of ‘Media Watch’ -- a quarterly Danish magazine on media and minorities -- and a member of the Danish Human Rights Institute Council.

"I publish a magazine which looks at coverage of ethnic minorities by the Danish media. We do a lot of data collection, analysis of trends in order to have a dialogue with the media. Western media is very snobbish and western journalists are unwilling to listen to anybody who is not western," he said in explaining their uphill battle to get their voices heard in the mainstream media in his adopted country.

"In Denmark non-Europeans are 5 percent of the population but in media they represent 35 percent coverage. Lot of it is negative coverage. We have tried to have a dialogue with Danish media for almost 18 years, unfortunately it has not succeeded," he added.

Though there is not a huge Asian migrant population in Denmark, like for example in the UK, yet, there are some 25,000 Pakistanis in Copenhagen alone, and across the country there are communities of Sri Lankans, Somalis, Arabs, Vietnamese and Indians.

"When I say negative, the focus is on criminality, youth violence, tax evasion anything which puts minorities in a very wrong light," explained Quraishy, who is also the President of the Brussels based European Network Against Racism. "If a second generation Pakistani immigrant stabbed violently an innocent Danish guy his nationality is always given. If it is other way around there is no mention of nationality or culture. I have no doubt that is done on purpose. It is done, because some journalist have an agenda," he added.

Another Pakistani born Denmark resident is Mustafa Hussain, a lecturer in sociology at the Roskilde University in Copenhagen. He has studied the projection of Muslims in the Danish media. "The Muslims living in Denmark are under very specific focus by the media on a daily basis," he argues.

"This trend started in early 90s when there were some people in Denmark, some academics like a professor in law, they started a movement to stop immigration from Muslim countries. It has had a tremendous influence on the whole discourse on migration and Muslim issues in Denmark."

But Hussain argues that it was not until the mass media jumped on the bandwagon with the whole set of rhetoric against Muslims that non-white migrants living in Denmark began to feel uncomfortable.

“Until early 90s mass media was fairly neutral but of course there were differences between right and left wing media. Problem became complicated because after the fall of the Berlin wall this ideological divide of the media on left and right almost vanished," explained Hussain. "So you couldn't distinguish reading a left or right wing paper."


While these campaigns started with most popular tabloids, Hussain says that it gradually spread to all the broadsheet press. "Today the situation is that it is quite normal to criticise Muslims and there is no resistance, almost nil. Even public service media write and tell about Muslims living in Denmark exactly the same way in the earlier years the populist right wing newspapers were writing. So rhetoric and discourse has turned to the extreme right in Denmark."

"Although they are ideologically after Muslims any coloured person who is living in Denmark feels it. You don't have to be Muslim in Denmark to be hated. If you are coloured you are suspicious, that is a very sad situation in Denmark," he added.

The changing mood in Scandinavian countries in particular, is a cause for concern, because traditionally they have been able to project an image of being tolerant, liberal and humane societies. They have projected this image not only to the world, but, to their own people -- constantly propagating their own humanism and its virtues.

These countries have become internationally known as model societies for the human race. But in recent years, something drastically has changed there, reflected in the well known episode five years ago, when Denmark’s largest newspaper 'Jyllands-Posten' published 12 defaming cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam. So what has gone wrong with this great social experiment?

Quraishy believes that the hostility against migrants from the South stems both from native white population's resentments against migrants who came to do the dirty work for them, but now wanting to stay behind and enjoy the same social welfare benefits as the native population.

"People who were invited to come and work as cheap labour such as, Turkish, Pakistanis, Moroccans, it was understood that these people will go back. On the contrary when they stayed and got unemployed they were going to the same offices to get benefits as white Danes were going. white Danes were not used to that," he pointed out.

"In the minds of most white Danes the perception is that this is their country, it's their hard work which has created these social benefits and so no one else should enjoy that. It's not so much racism but cultural discrimination," argues Quraishy, adding, "and then we had some politicians who used this minority card to get votes and get power. This combination of media manipulation with negative coverage together with political populist discourse created a situation in the last 15-10 years that it has become a prophecy fulfilled."