Thursday 20 June 2019

Is there a disconnect between the media and the man in the street?

This article first appeared in Malta Today

I have been (silently) following the various conversations since Lassine Souleymane was tragically shot and killed while walking along the road in Birzebbugia late on Saturday evening. Two other men were also injured in the shooting.

I say silently because this is one of those hot, controversial issues which can easily draw you into a rabbit hole of never-ending back and forth comments which get you nowhere, guaranteed to keep your phone pinging for several days. I haven’t even shared the story on my timeline for this same reason.

We need to thread very carefully because, while the motive behind the drive-by shooting has not yet been verified, speculation in the media has meant that emotions triggered by this murder are in full swing. Those who are against the very presence of African refugees in our country, and against all foreigners period, have come out in full voice. I will not be repeating what they have said because I truly believe this is not helping to calm things down but is merely giving them a wider platform.

No matter how well-intentioned certain sections of the media may be in their efforts to highlight the dangers of hate speech, I remain convinced that giving it publicity has the opposite effect. It does not squash it, and it does not serve to tone it down. Apart from those who are appalled by it (who were already appalled by it in the first place) it simply adds fuel to the fire, and those who may not go so far as to voice it themselves may be quietly nodding in full agreement because it echoes what they truly feel in their heart. Human nature is perversely like that: when you know there are others who think like you, it emboldens you to be more adamant in your views, no matter how extremist and inhumane those views may be. People are more daring in numbers.

The ease with which such views can be shared these days makes controlling and keeping them within the acceptable boundaries of free speech even more difficult. Like-minded people can easily seek each other out, form secret FB groups and generally “enjoy” themselves venting and ranting. This is what we are dealing with; the simmering resentment keeps growing every day, and has now seeped into the mainstream as could be seen by the comments under an article posted by this very website yesterday.

The article called attention to the fact that the Far Right was attacking the media for suggesting this was a racially-motivated killing. As if to prove the article right, the comments in their majority continued in the same vein: “the media lies”, “it brainwashes”, “it has reached rock bottom”, “there was not a shred of proof that the murder was racially-motivated”, “it is forcing people to gravitate towards the Far Right”, “it never reports attacks against the Maltese” and more to that effect.

Are these accusations well-founded? When one works in the field, it is sometimes very hard to step back and analyse whether one’s profession is indeed guilty of what it is being accused of. I think the role of those who work in the media should be to try and accurately reflect back what is happening in society (apart from other roles such as investigative journalism and factual reporting of events). Sometimes the mirror we hold up can be an unpleasant, unpalatable truth, so does that mean we should desist from saying so? I also think we have an enormous responsibility not to be sensationalist, especially when it comes to the choice of headline.

The comments took umbrage because a section of the Maltese public is being labelled as ‘racist’. But the hot-headed reaction paradoxically seemed to confirm that yes, hatred of others because of their skin colour or because they are not “like us” is very real. Some people will casually admit in face-to-face conversations that they are racists and that they loathe blacks. Others have no problem loudly complaining that they are being served by foreigners and forced to speak in English for their benefit (even though the alternative would be to go to a coffee shop or restaurant and have to serve yourself, because no Maltese can be found to do the job).

Turning back to media reports, from what I have read I have not seen anything which can be described as stirring things up “against the Maltese” (as has been claimed). When a random African man is shot in the head late at night on a lonely road in a drive-by shooting, it would be remiss not to question whether the motive had anything to do with race. It was the first thing which occurred to me in fact. And if the media had not brought up this probability, the public certainly would have posed this question itself, especially as the man was not known to be a trouble maker. According to the Times the area is also notorious for being a “hotspot for racial attacks and incitement”. In the past, “migrants were pelted with stones, spat on, and in at least one case, an African man beaten up.”

Other media outlets similarly reported that racial hatred “was not being excluded”, which is quite different to actually saying that it definitely was a racist attack. At the time of writing, we still do not know for sure.

The mere mention of racism is a touchy issue and people get very hot under the collar when the R-word is used, claiming that their legitimate concerns about how Malta has changed should not be swept under the carpet. I believe that if we are ever going to defuse this escalating tension, we need to swivel as much as possible and see things from the opposite point of view. As much as those who spout Far Right extremist views thoroughly scare me, I think the media still needs to acknowledge that there are concerns which are not being addressed by the authorities and that ignoring them or slapping a label on them is simply making people more resentful and angry.

There has to be a way to bridge the gap between being alarmist and being truthful to the current demographics of the country and the subsequent repercussions. It has also escaped no one’s notice that the Prime Minister has been particularly silent on this matter, when he should have been the first to speak up after a man was murdered simply for walking along the road.

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