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In today’s society, where most of us are exposed to some sort of media all day, every day, coverage of war or international crises can get lost in the sea of headlines. Other pressing issues are left out of the media’s scope entirely, while those that are deemed to be deserving of Western media’s attention get sensationalized or trivialized beyond recognition. As a result of this type of reporting and our addiction to media, many wars, especially those in the Middle East, have become normalized. They have been normalized to the extent that it is not shocking news when we learn of a new bombing, airstrike, or human rights violation. However, these conditions are not normal for any country or any individual anywhere in the world. With the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, the hypocrisy and the superficiality of the media have been highlighted.
The War in Ukraine
The conflict officially began on February 24th, 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine. However, Russian president, Vladimir Putin, had already begun to mobilize troops and equipment for an invasion of Ukraine in October 2021. Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been present for decades given the two nations’ territorial claims and Ukraine’s status as a post-Soviet state, but the current bout of aggression has its roots in late 2013. In 2013, then-Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russia, tried to get closer to Russia and distance Ukraine from the European Union (EU) and the West overall. This led to protests in Ukraine as many citizens were pro-EU and were opposed to increased friendship with Russia. This was known as the Maidan revolution. There was severe unrest and many were killed in the violence that ensued. These protests led to Yanukovych being impeached by Ukraine’s parliament and pro-EU powers took over.
In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea as it was once a part of the Soviet Union and Russia believes it still has influence and power in that region. This led to tensions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine which have continued on since then. Russia believes that Ukraine is a part of its sphere of influence and does not want to see Ukraine build a closer relationship with the Western bloc through an affiliation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Many have speculated that Russia’s main reason behind the current invasion is to prevent Ukraine from officially joining NATO and thus becoming what it sees as an outpost for Western influence and a threat to Russian interests. The invasion has caused extreme human casualties and the destruction of many parts of the country, all as conditions continue to worsen.
Shedding Light on the Gross Disparity in Media Attention
The media has repeatedly referred to the Ukraine crisis as shocking as it is occurring in a European country that is supposedly more “civilized” than other places where crises and wars take place. According to Ukraine’s former Chief Prosecutor David Sakvarelidze as well as many reporters, this crisis is more impactful because blonde-haired, blue-eyed individuals are affected. One CBS reporter said “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” These types of comments imply that this conflict matters more or resonates more with individuals than other conflicts do.
Full media attention has been given to Ukraine while other crises are not even a few minutes of airtime. International aid from around the world, corporations and individuals included, is being raised to help those in Ukraine. Western countries are funding the Ukrainian military and sending aid. Just a few weeks ago, American Congress authorized a $13.6 billion aid package to Ukraine to fund medical supplies, weapons, regional diplomatic efforts, and other initiatives. In comparison, Yemen, which is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, has received $3.6 billion as of August 2021 since the crisis started in 2015.
This disparity in responses is damaging as it suggests that the lives of the individuals caught in this war matter more than others. It is potentially frustrating for individuals who are the victims of other wars and crises to hear statements that downplay their struggles and present their crises as normal.
An Afghan-Canadian interviewee who spoke with Spheres of Influence offered the perspective that it is not that those from countries facing similar crises want attention diverted from Ukraine, it is that they wish all countries had the same opportunity to get media attention and aid. She contrasted the help Canada offered to Afghanistan versus Ukrainian refugees by how Canada promised to bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada but thus far, only 1/4th of that number have come in so far. She commented that Canada offered immediate support for Ukraine and made many symbolic gestures such as lighting up the Calgary Tower in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. She also pointed out how many European countries complained about the Syrian refugee crisis but were quick to accept 2 million Ukrainians within days which demonstrates their selective help. She ended by stating how aid is only given to countries deemed “civilized” and this contributes to the dehumanization of and racism towards refugees who are not from the Western world.
For reporters to differentiate this crisis from others highlights how normalized and neglected crises in the Global South are. If aid or attention is given, it is largely from those who are locals or those in nearby countries.
The Rhetoric of Liberation
The media portrays those fighting for their rights in white-majority countries as “heroic” and “brave” However, those fighting for their lives and rights anywhere else in the world are often referred to as terrorists and shamed in the media. Nations have condemned the Russian intervention and spoke up in support of Ukrainians. In the media, Palestinians who resort to throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers are condemned whereas, in Ukraine, it is seen as an act of courage. This type of biased and frankly racist media coverage contributes to dehumanizing narratives about many individuals who face crises around the world. Ukrainians are regarded as brave and deserving of the sympathy that is given to them. However, if this were about a country outside of the West, this level of support and sympathy would not have been given.
The mainstream media also pushes the narrative that the goal of Western involvement in wars in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, and Africa is to “liberate” certain countries or peoples. This seemingly-altruistic justification is anything but that – it is the same imperialistic rationale used to paint colonialism as a positive thing, something which Russia is essentially doing in Ukraine. Just as Russia claims to be “freeing” Ukraine, so too do the United States and many European countries frame their interventions in the Global South. So what’s the difference? International intervention by the West in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guatemala has largely resulted in negative impacts and major civilian casualties comparable to those in Ukraine. All the countries now aiding Ukraine have had a hand in exploiting countries in the Global South in some manner. Afterward, they will either reluctantly accept refugees from the war-torn countries they had a hand in creating or create situations that will work against refugees.
The Treatment of Ukrainian Refugees Compared to Other Refugees
Ukrainian refugees from the Russian invasion are allowed to settle anywhere in the EU; they do not have to stay in camps or refugee-designated areas. They will be allowed to live and work in the EU for three years. However, migrants who came to Ukraine before the current crisis and who do not hold Ukrainian citizenship are not allowed into other countries due to their race or ethnicity. They are facing the same crisis as any other Ukrainian but they are not given the same liberties that white Ukrainians are. Many countries in Europe have painted refugees as burdens who take resources, but those same nations are now opening up their homes to Ukrainian refugees. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid spoke up in support of Ukrainians and offered humanitarian support. His support for Ukrainians is contradictory as his own country commits human rights abuses and is actively enforcing what many consider to be a regime of apartheid in Palestine. Refugees from countries such as Syria, Palestine, and Afghanistan are said to be abusing asylum systems. It is often citizens of the countries that refugees live in or those in power who believe such things. Many systems are in place to discourage and prevent refugees from entering countries such as intense border patrol and migration laws.
The policies in place against refugees from these countries are inherently racist and play into the idea of hierarchy – some individuals matter more than others and deserve peace and safety while others do not. Every war and crisis that occurs in the world is important and should be given close media attention. To neglect some for others clearly displays the hypocrisy that exists in the media and within the international community.
Edited by Chase Kelliher