From Belgian politican repeatedly spreading anti-Muslim sentiments online to a National Rally local candidate sharing a video blaming Jews for the coronavirus pandemic, these March highlights are an overview of the most significant results of our monitoring of traditional and new media in Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and the United Kingdom.
BELGIUM – Politician Sam van Rooy Repeatedly Spreads Anti-Muslim Sentiment Online
Date of publication: Several incidents throughout March
Media outlet: Social media, Twitter and Facebook
Politician: Sam van Rooy, member of parliament for the Vlaams Belang party
Description of the anti-Muslim content: Sam van Rooy is a politician belonging to the Vlaams Belang party. He is active on both Twitter and Facebook, on which he has 14,300 and 3576 followers respectively. This month he posted several pieces of content which included anti-Muslim sentiments. On March 11th, van Rooy shared a video on Facebook from a parliamentary discussion, using it to push the ‘truth’ about mass-immigration and Islamisation. On March 20th, he shared a video on Twitter which showed migrants at the Greek border. Along with the video he wrote: "Look at all these poor Syrian families, at the Greek border of Europe, ready to Islamise West-Europe." One day later on Facebook, the politician shared an article from Dutch newspaper Telegraaf, which explains how in the suburbs of Paris, some people are not following government guidance in regard to the coronavirus. Whilst the article does not detail any information regarding the specific people not following these rules, van Rooy states: “It is Allah who rules there, not the government. Islamization.”
Myth debunked: There is a very clear and worrying theme to van Rooy’s posts: consistent anti-Muslim sentiments and claims about Islamisation in Belgium, and Europe in general. In far-right circles, Islamisation refers to the supposed expanding Muslim population gaining control of Europe, resulting in a Muslim take over. These ideas are often linked with birth rates and mass-immigration, and are often the foundation for anti-Muslim hate. The ideas themselves are extremely worrying, but what is even more so, is that they are coming from an influential politician. Van Rooy’s influence has recently grown in the political sphere, as he was promoted to spokesperson of the Antwerp branch of Vlaams Belang and member of the Flemish parliament, as well as in the Flemish media. In January, Get The Trolls Out! highlighted how van Rooy was given a platform in Flemish newspaper De Standaard, and allowed to say things like “Van Rooy, nicknamed ‘Sam Islam’, places the Koran on an equal level with Mein Kampf, calls mosques" barracks of jihad, and predicted a religious war in his book,” without any context or criticism. It seems that van Rooy has moved from more extremist blogs, like Doorbraak.be, to mainstream platforms. With this switch comes a mainstreaming of his ideas, making terms like ‘Islamisation’ appear normal and accepted as the truth. His followers see him use these narratives time and time again, and with his increasing prominence, this can become very dangerous. It is therefore vital to continue to monitor this politician. The situation is critical as this exposes how the standards in Flanders of tolerance and respect for minorities are dropping, which in turn undermines pluralism - a necessary feature in a well-functioning democracy - in Flanders.
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UK – The Guardian Published Anti-Hindu Cartoon
Date of publication: 4 March 2020
Media outlet: The Guardian, British daily newspaper
Cartoonist: Steve Bell
Description of the anti-Hindu content: This cartoon, which was created by Steve Bell for The Guardian, shows the ebuyoth drawn as cows with horns and with rings through their noses. There was outcry at the cartoon, as many people felt that it was offensive towards Patel’s Hindu heritage. Former Chancellor Sajid Javid called out the cartoon, writing on Twitter: “Reminiscent of anti-Semitic cartoons from the last century. Incredibly offensive. @guardian should know better.” Despite backlash, the Guardian did not remove or offer a defence of the cartoon.
Myth debunked: Priti Patel is Hindu, and many saw this cartoon as Hinduphobic due to the illustration of both her and Boris Johnson as cows. The Hindu Human Rights group explains: "The discourse around that is a classic example of medieval ‘witch hunting’ where an accusation of the ‘blasphemy’ of her ‘being a bully’ was made and out came the stereotype of a ‘bull’. The bull is an ancient and sacred symbol of Hinduism, prevalent throughout Hindu iconography as Nandi. It is depicted on the helm of Vedic sea vessels. It links Hinduism to its origins of indigenous, ‘heathen’ worship. Social media comments have compared the depiction as similar to anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews by Nazis. Hinduphobic attacks frequently utilise the worship of cows to diminish indigenous traditional knowledge, whilst distributing the blame for isolated accounts of cow protection gangs across the entire community as ‘violent’.” It is unclear why Steve Bell chose to depict Patel and Johnson as cows, and The Guardian has offered no explanation on this matter. On the topic, the British Tamil Conservatives added: “This cartoon is offensive on every level. – It’s anti-Hindu. It portrays the Home Secretary, of Hindu origin as a cow. A sacred symbol for Hindus. – It's racist and – misogynist. It’s plainly unacceptable! It may constitute a hate crime.” Hateful caricatures are unfortunately something that many religious communities have had to deal with, and it is unacceptable for it to take place in a major British newspaper.
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GREECE – Major Newspaper Uses Coronavirus to Spread Anti-Muslim Hate
Date of publication: 21 March 2020
Media outlet: Kathimerini, a leading Greek newspaper which is deemed trustworthy by the general public. It is conservative leaning.
Cartoonist: Elias Makris
Description of the anti-Muslim content: This cartoon was published on the Kathimerini official Twitter page. It shows two women in Turkey (which we can deduce from Aya Sofya pictured in the background along with a Turkish flag) both dressed in burqas. Pictured underneath the facial mesh of the burqa is an image of a virus, assumingly the coronavirus. Kathimerini published this cartoon, which was created by Elias Makris, without any text or explanation. Kathimerini is one of the biggest and most respected newspapers in Greece, and this cartoon was shared to their 46,900 followers on Twitter.
Myth debunked: It is significant to mention the timing of this cartoon; Kathimerini shared it at the height of Greece and Turkey’s border troubles, during which Greek security forces used violence against asylum seekers and migrants to force them back to Turkey. Greece framed this incident as an attempted invasion from Turkey, and its media suggested that Turkish news outlets were not allowed to report on the coronavirus pandemic, and that Turkey doesn't do its part to tackle the outbreak. It was at this time that the cartoon was published, and we can see some of these themes reflected clearly. The cartoonist seems to be implying that women who wear the burqa, and we can infer Muslims in general, are infected by the coronavirus. Additionally, the cartoonist seems to suggest that the women are hiding the virus, perhaps to use as a weapon. This would be in line with the far-right narrative that Muslim refugees come to Europe to invade and wreak havock, an extemely hateful and inflammatory idea. One of the big issues here is that there is no text to accompany the cartoon, which means that people will construct all kinds of meanings to this work. If we look at what Kathimerini has published in the past, there seems to be a reoccuring theme of anti-Muslim sentiments. This cartoon is in line with the fear-mongering style on this topic, and only further desensitises their audience to this hate. To use the deadly coronavirus to spread anti-Muslim hatred is cruel and unacceptable.
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GREECE – Sensationalist Newspaper Pushes Far-Right Narratives
Date of publication: 1 March 2020
Media outlet: Proto Thema, a well-established right-wing sensationalist newspaper
Headline: "Video: Shouting 'Allahu Akbar' immigrants try to invade Greece"
Description of the anti-Muslim and xenophobic content: This article is based on a video which was supposedly filmed at the Greek border, where refugees and migrants tried to cross from Turkey to Greece and were met with violence. The article states that “hooded immigrants and various ammunition are seen firing and cutting down tree trunks to use them to invade Greek territory.” The article further goes on to explain that “indeed, at some point there are shootings, and many of them refer to Allah with the now known ‘Allah Akbar’ meaning ‘Allah is Great’.” The article then links to their source for the video, which is a Twitter account named ‘Generation Europa’ who have as their slogan: “Defend Europe.” The original Tweet with the video, which is embedded into the Proto Thema article, states: “Islamist illegal #immigrants shouting "Allahu Akbar" trying to break into #Europe, an invading horde, they must not enter at all costs.” The article has been shared 2,300 times.
Myth debunked: The language used in this article is worrying and is very much in line with far-right rhetoric. The author talks about refugees ‘invading’ Greece, which is a common sensationalist rhetoric when talking about immigration. The events that occured at the Greek border this month were complex, and they certainly must be covered by the media. But the issue here is how it was covered. Seemingly the only source for this article was a Tweet by Generation Europa. One look at their Twitter page and it is clear that they take a strong anti-Muslim and xenophobic stance, posting content which talks about the Great Replacement Theory and conspiracy theories around immigration. The content is very similar to that of Generation Identity, a far-right youth network, though it is unclear whether the two are linked. A news article should not be based solely on one Twitter source, especially not when it is clear that that source has a strong, hateful agenda. Instead of informing their readers, Proto Thema only gave a large platform to fear mongering and hate.
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BELGIUM - News outlets use misleading photos that obscure human rights abuses at the Turkey-Greece border
Date of publication: 1 and 18 March 2020
Media outlet: La Libre and Le Vif, mainstream French-language news outlets
Headlines: “Turkey opens its borders: Greece announces that it has blocked the entry of 10,000 migrants in 24 hours” and “New overnight incidents at the Greek-Turkish border”
Description of the anti-migrant content: When reporting about the tensions at the Turkey-Greece border at the beginning of March, Belgian news outlets La Libre and Le Vif used inaccurate and fear-mongering photos to accompany the articles. While the articles focus on clashes involving police repression at the border, the two chosen photos portray migrants as dangerous rioters. Specifically, the image in La Libre depicts a combat zone scenario with hooded migrants, shouting and setting fire to barricades at the Turkey-Greece border. The image in Le Vif shows two migrants holding a board to protect themselves from the water cannons, which were used by the Greek police to block entry in the province of Edirne. The abusive Greek forces and the violent Turkish police are out of the picture.
Myth Debunked: In early March, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that he was opening the country’s border and that migrants would no longer be stopped from trying to reach Europe. Since then, tens of thousands of migrants have been trying to get to Greece through Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing in Edirne, as well as the Evros river, a natural border between Turkey and Greece. As a response, Frontex, the European border control agency, deployed reinforcements to help the Greek police push back migrants, while Greece decided to temporarily suspend EU asylum law for people irregularly entering the country, and to start summary deportations. In numerous clashes with migrants trying to force their way to the country, Greek riot police fired teargas, water cannons and plastic bullets against them. In return, the Turkish police have also been firing teargas towards Greece, to interrupt officers trying to halt migrants. Human Rights Watch has urged the EU to protect people in need, and denounced the severe abuses being committed in the area. “Greek security forces and unidentified armed men at the Greece-Turkey land border have detained, assaulted, sexually assaulted, robbed, and stripped asylum seekers and migrants, then forced them back to Turkey”. The two articles in La Libre and Le Vif mention the deployment of police reinforcements from the EU as well as violence by the Turkish and Greek security forces, but the photos do not illustrate this, obscuring this side of the clashes. A better representation of the clashes would have shown the full picture, as videos and images on the BBC did.
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GERMANY - Author spreads fears and hatred over asylum seekers crossing Turkey-Greece border
Date of publication: 2 March 2020
Media outlet: Die Achse des Guten (Achgut.com), a political blog
Author: Ramin Peymani, book writer and journalist
Headline: “Refugees Reloaded: The Sultan Organises the Mass Rush”
Description of the anti-Muslim and anti-migrant content: The article reports on the early developments, and possible consequences, of the decision by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to cease preventing migrants from trying to reach Europe through the Turkey-Greece border. It explains how the refugee deal signed between Turkey and the European Union in 2016 has always been fragile due to Turkey’s greater contractual power, and that the end of the agreement means the new arrival of migrants to Germany. The article reports this by using inflammatory words (“masses of immigrants”; “flood gates”) and fear-mongering language (“the fear that it could become larger than that of 2015”; “unforeseeable additional burdens”). The author creates a binary opposition between Erdogan, portrayed as evil (“it was a pact with the devil”) and the European Union, depicted as obedient (“Brussels humbly fulfilled his every wish”). Asylum seekers are described as posing a potential threat to Europe, through the infiltration of Islamic State members among the new arrivals. Furthermore, the use of militaristic language contributes to the idea of an immediate threat that needs to be urgently addressed: “an unknown number of Islamists [...] are waiting as ticking time bombs to be waved through from Turkey to Europe”.
Myth Debunked: This article is a perfect example of unethical reporting on migration. By using incendiary language, the author’s intention is to fuel anger and invoke a hateful reaction from the readers. Weaponised language that draws on anti-Muslim and anti-migrant tropes amplifies the fear of migrants. The article depicts asylum seekers as an unstoppable, indistinct “wave” of people who would constitute a terrorist threat as well as putting a strain on the German welfare system. The article also fuels fear through unsubstantiated numbers. The data regarding the 75,000 migrants that have allegedly crossed the border comes from a vague, unknown source (“Turkish information”). Moreover, while trustworthy journalistic reports have shown the staggering negligence of the EU when it comes to addressing refugee movements, Die Achse des Guten accuses the European Union of being submissive to Turkey. From cutting rescue missions in the Mediterranean to the violence of the Greek riot police officers at the border with Turkey, the EU is responsible for the human tragedies happening at its borders. Professional reporting, such as the media coverage offered by Al Jazeera and Deutsche Welle, would have relied on trustworthy sources, included the stories of those migrants who are assaulted and detained by the Greek police, called out both Turkey and the EU for human rights violations, and avoided discriminatory language.
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FRANCE - National Rally local candidate shares a video blaming Jews for the coronavirus pandemic
Date of publication: 3 March 2020
Author: Alain Mondino. At the time of the post, he was the head of the far-right National Rally list in municipal elections in the Paris suburb of Villepinte
Media outlet: VKontakte
Title of the video: “Coronavirus for goyim”
Description of the antisemitic content: Alain Mondino, head of the far-right National Rally list in municipal elections in the Paris suburb of Villepinte, shared an antisemitic conspiracy theory video on his account on VKontakte, a Russian social network. The video, titled “Coronavirus for goyim”, claims that the Coronavirus was "developed by the Jews'' in order to "establish their supremacy". “Goyim” is an Yiddish pejorative term to refer to someone who is not Jewish. This word has been adopted by antisemites to highlight what they think is a hostile behavior Jewish people have against non-Jews. The video shared by Mondino claims that Jewish people plotted to spread a disease tailored to infect all continents, in order to ensure their hegemonic power. First shared on VKontakte, the video was also posted on Facebook and Twitter. When his sharing of the video was picked up by the newspaper Le Parisien, Mondino deleted it from his account and claimed that he “found the title so stupid that I clicked,". He explained that he "did not share" but "simply liked" the video because “it is an aberration” that made him laugh without even watching the video. After a few days, the National Rally spokesperson announced the withdrawal of the party backing Mondino because they “have no common values” and he had “broken the rules”.
Myth Debunked: In times of an epidemic or a pandemic, rumors and fake news rapidly spread, especially with the help of instant sharing on social media. The search for the “the real origin of the virus”, and for someone to blame, leads to the flourishing of conspiracy theories. For centuries, Jewish people have been accused of plotting the destruction of the world out of their hatred against non-Jews, and to establish power. During the Black Death in the 14th century, the myth that Jews poisoned wells in order to cause illness or death was widely disseminated, and although there was no evidence to support this accusation, it led to wide-scale persecutions. The allegation that Jewish people developed the coronavirus to establish hegemonic power is a new iteration of the century-old well poisoner myth. It functions by exploiting the culture of fear, grief and anger that can develop during times of crisis, deflecting attention away from scientific evidence, and government accountability.
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HUNGARY - Local news outlets sensationalise Islamic radicalisation to serve pro-government agenda
Date of publication: 19 March 2020
Media outlet: Bama, local newspaper covering the Baranya county
Headline: “Radical Muslims rule British prisons”
Description of the anti-Muslim content: This article begins with an attack by an inmate against an officer at the maximum security prison Whitemoor in England. The fact that the attacker had been previosly sentenced for preparing an act of terrorism in 2015, prompts Bama to expand the subject to report about Islamic radicalisation on British prisons. The article claims that “Muslims seek absolute control of prisons and try to force their extremist views on everyone, regardless of their religion.” The article also refers to Muslim inmates who act as leaders as “jail emirs”, a derogatory, sensationalistic term used by some British conservative papers such as The Times. Without any comprehensive investigation, this piece puts together information from various British media outlets to depict an alarming image of Islamic radicalisation in the UK and Europe. Statistics on an increased percentage of Muslim inmates are also used to imply that Muslim people pose a greater threat to society, linking Islam with Islamic terrorism.
Myth Debunked: Islamic extremism in Britain, and its presence in prisons, is a complex issue, with many interconnected elements, such as marginalisation, unhealthy prison environments and failing counter-terrorism strategies. This does not mean that reporting about Islamic radicalisation is not possible, but it should be done taking into consideration numerous aspects, and avoiding any generalisation and sensationalisation. The intention of this article in Bama is not to investigate the causes and solutions of Islamist extremism in prisons. On the contrary, with its alarming tones and simplifications, it is serving Viktor Orban’s government’s agenda against Muslims and refugees. This article gets its information from V4NA, a recently established news agency with strong links to Orban’s government. The same article has been published in local newspapers and online news sites, all owned by the government-friendly KESMA (Central European Press and Media Foundation).
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