The relentless attack by Russia on Ukraine has reproduced scenes for anyone familiar with 21st century news: intense bombardment, resistance by civilians, a looming hunger crisis, and families, having lost their loved ones, flooding border crossings in search of a safe haven. Not only has the biggest European war in decades sent shockwaves across the world but, on the flip side, has also ultimately exposed the Western media bias.
Marred with racial prejudice, the coverage of the war between Russia and Ukraine tends to normalise such tragedy in other parts of the world.
Charlie D’Agata, a CBS news correspondent, commenting on the conflict described Ukraine as a “relatively civilized, relatively European” place in comparison with Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a framing propagates the narrative that wars and conflicts are unacceptable in Europe where the people have “blond hair and blue eyes” and “look like us”, but justifiable elsewhere. After his comments went viral, Charlie D’Agata did issue an apology but this was far from an isolated incident in the bigger picture. There are far too many examples reflecting the prevalent biased mentality in Western journalism.
In the same vein, Daniel Hannan of the Telegraph wrote, “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections, and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon remote and impoverished locations”. Philippe Corbe of BFM TV, a France-based channel, reported, “We are not talking here about Syrian fleeing the bombing of Syrian regime backed by Putin, we are talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”
When Western interests are at stake, the resistance is labeled as “gallant, brave people fighting for their freedom.” Otherwise, they are mere “barbaric savages” or “terrorists”
This orientalist signalling relies on the notion that our looks and economic factors play a role in determining who is “civilised” or “uncivilised” and whether the war is somehow normal and expected in other areas of the world.
Even Al Jazeera, a Doha-based news outlet, could not refrain from such insensitive and irresponsible comments. Although they did apologise for the comments made by Al Jazeera English commentator Peter Dobbie about how Ukrainians do not “look like refugees” because of how they are dressed and look “middle class”, it shows how deeply ingrained such stereotypes and preconceived notions really are.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association issued a statement categorically condemning such “comparisons that weigh the significance or imply justification of one conflict over another.”
Mehdi Hassan, a political analyst, on his show on MSNBC, bluntly called out this blatant hypocrisy, “when they say, ‘Oh, civilised cities’ and, in another clip, ‘Well-dressed people’ and ‘This is not the Third World,’ they really mean white people, don’t they?”
However, this imprudent emergence of biases is not just restricted to journalists.
Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s VOX party, said in parliament, “Anyone can tell the difference between them (Ukrainian refugees) and the invasion of young military-aged men of Muslim origin who have launched themselves against European borders in an attempt to destabilize and colonize it.” Such commentaries enable the expression of racism pervading in the Western society. The mere existence of “men of Muslim origin” is conflated with a threat in itself.
The far-right French presidential candidate Marie Le Pen, rightfully, and very conveniently, recalled the Geneva Convention when posed the question about Ukrainian refugees. However, when she had to acknowledge the plight of the Syrian families seeking refuge in France, she defended her disapproval by stating that France does not have the means and if she were from a war-torn country, she would have stayed and fought.
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said, “These are not the refugees we are used to. They are Europeans, intelligent, educated people… this is not the usual refugee wave of people with an unknown past. No European country is afraid of them.”
Such comments are not unprecedented, they have been emboldened by years of biased coverage of geopolitical events that serve western interests normalizing such narratives.
When America invaded Iraq under the garb of threat from weapons of mass destruction, it was done to “free the Iraqi people” from themselves. It was done in the name of liberation. The Economists’ May 2003 edition was titled “Now the waging of peace”. All it did, however, was leave a trail of destruction and chaos in the region.
The biggest humanitarian crisis is ongoing as you read this, and it is being perpetrated by American bombs and funding to Saudia Arabia. The United Nations Food Agency warns that 13 million Yemenis – nearly half children – are on the brink of starvation. All because of the genocidal US-backed war, yet no outrage on this catastrophe.
In 2014, when Israel killed over 2,300 people in Gaza with their incessant bombing of more than 500 tons of explosives, there was not a single outcry in the Western media outlets. Moreover, Google even allowed games like ‘Bomb Gaza’ to be sold from the play store. Earlier this year, Amnesty International even declared “the only democracy in the Middle East” an apartheid state, yet Western journalists and politicians flocked to its defense.
Just last year, even Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenksyy defended Israeli apartheid aggression against Palestine. The United States and the European Union continue to support and uphold this “cruel system of domination and crime against humanity”, yet hardly are there any calls for collective action against the perpetrators.
When Western interests are at stake, the resistance is labeled as “gallant, brave people fighting for their freedom.” Otherwise, they are mere “barbaric savages” or “terrorists.”
The framing of the current crisis at the expense of others is abhorrent, at the least. We must show solidarity with civilians under military assault all over the world regardless of their socio-economic factors; for selective justice is injustice.