Turkey-Syria earthquake: Media ethics in the face of crises
A tragedy of biblical proportions unfolded in the dead of the night on 6th February when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck several cities in southern Turkey and western Syria, leading to chaos, deaths and destruction within minutes. Over 46,000 people have died in both countries combined with the fatalities continuing to mount every day. The United Nations has launched an appeal for over $1 billion to fund the Turkish relief operation, and another $400 million for Syrians, as it predicts survivors will need months of assistance to rebuild their lives. Heart-wrenching tales of victims losing their livelihoods, families, homes and animals have been dominating the news for many days in a row and so are the stories of resilience and hope. Miraculous rescues of survivors being pulled out of rubble and flattened buildings days after the life-altering tragedy have been the only ray of hope for most people affected in the region that are still waiting for their loved ones.
The unprecedented situation and escalating casualties required an unprecedented response — in principle and in practice. Rightly so, the international community, including many of Turkey’s allies and fellow NATO states, rushed to help and sent emergency medical, search and rescue teams. Criticism was meted out on an inadequate response and slow delivery of aid to war-torn Syria though, where the Human Rights Watch reported local volunteers were left to “conduct search-and-rescue operations alone and that the situation was desperate.” As if the victims’ miseries weren’t already insurmountable enough, what contaminated the otherwise generous display of humanitarian and moral support from the media and many Western states was the French satire weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon mocking the earthquake victims in Turkey, drawing condemnation from many quarters.
Uploaded as “Cartoon of the Day” on Twitter hours after the earthquake wreaked havoc, it depicted damaged buildings, a toppled car and piles of debris. “Earthquake in Turkey. No need to send tanks,” it said with the illustration.
Twitter users, appropriately, were quick to term it “a new low” and a symbolic representation of the peak of dehumanization of Muslims in France, where their own French Muslim community has been increasingly marginalized, especially steps taken in the wake of terrorist attacks in the last decade — the French colonial past also has a role to play here in shaping perceptions on Islam and Muslims. Even a devastating earthquake’s victims are not spared from malice just because they are majority Muslim. This portrays a general apathy and disregard for human lives of “distant others” — Muslims in this case.
But the Charlie Hebdo incident is not the first of its kind where we see victims of a tragedy or a crisis being mocked. In 2020, similar cartoons and articles with discriminatory connotations were published by some French and Danish outlets mocking China — when it was the epicenter of the pandemic — and the people of Asian descent during the Covid-19 outbreak. In France, the local newspaper Courrier Picard published the headline “New yellow peril?” using an old racist slur for the virus and its potential carriers — indirectly hinting at the Chinese people and the virus’s origin, China. This paper later apologized. The coverage contributed to fueling anti-Asian sentiments in Western societies, studies revealed.
Charlie Hebdo in 2016, also posted “satire” on Italy’s earthquake victims by comparing them to different kinds of pasta in a rather deeply insensitive and disgusting take. Likewise, it mocked two-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned in the sea, as his family fled war.
The media has the power to shape public opinion and such depictions of minorities and particularly vulnerable sections, as in the case of earthquake victims or refugees, give more room to hate crimes and far-right fascism.
Likewise, Quran burning coverage and the recent Charlie Hebdo cartoon miss the point and depict a greater problem: the prevalence of parochial attachments of journalists, apathy and racist dimensions in the news coverage.
The lines between freedom of expression and racist rhetoric seem to have gotten blurred as channels of information grow. Satire can be a powerful tool, even essential in highlighting injustices. Freedom of expression is imperative. Yet we forget racist dimensions to news coverage — as also seen in February 2022 with Ukraine’s invasion and the influx of refugees — and mocking already vulnerable and marginalized communities does more harm and good, perpetuates misconceptions and stereotypes while sowing seeds of division in society and discontent among those targeted. Some of it even lacks any semblance of human decency and any regard for human life.
The rapid social media growth and greater accessibility to news across borders have given rise to what communication scholars call “global journalism,” which demands global, humanistic ethics while covering developments world over. Despite news transgressing borders and being more proximate than ever, the media’s coverage still seems to be bounded by national interests, deeply ingrained ideologies, cultural affiliations and even biases and insensitivity for “distant others”. Media publications need to become more globally minded and free of prejudices, and seek to transcend their parochial mindsets and approach and this is where, more often than not, most Western media outlets fall short.