People running across the borders, others hanging for their lives on an overcrowded boat and a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach. These are just some of the chaotic images reported to us by the media on the Syrian refugee crisis.
European newspapers have been giving space to cover the crisis, but the actual voice of refugees has not been heard. Not until a Danish newspaper, Dagbladet Information, let 12 journalist refugees take over the newspaper for one day last month.
The initial idea
Anders Fjordbak-Trier, news editor of Information, says that the idea came up during a meeting with the editorial staff. “Only by getting to know each other we can start building bridges in Europe. There is no chance of a constructive dialogue if you talk through razor wire.”
“Basically we felt the need to give a voice to the group of people whom everyone in Europe talk about, but never actually listens to – the refugees. Its a democratic responsibility and a journalistic virtue to give the speechless a chance to answer,” Fjordbak-Trier told New Canadian Media over e-mail.
Letting the journalist refugees work on the newspaper inspired the creation of a significant amount of content.
One of the journalist refugees, Lilas Hatahet from Syria, is a member of a small network of refugee journalists in Denmark established recently by The Danish Union of Journalists and International Media Support.
She wrote over e-mail that the experience with Information was a unique opportunity to be working again in a professional context and “to reconnect with your own professional identity, which for all refugees, not only journalists, is so difficult to maintain.”
According to Fjordbak-Trier, finding the journalists was easy because of social media and other networks. Letting the journalist refugees work on the newspaper inspired the creation of a significant amount of content.
“We normally print 20 pages on Fridays. This Friday it was 48. If we had the resources to do it, we could easily have made a much larger paper, but Dagbladet Information is a pretty small organization, so we did what was possible for us.”
Hatahet describes the idea to give refugees their own voice as exciting.
“It was a chance for us to speak directly to readers in our new country of asylum, in which we want to get a normal life in freedom as respected and contributing citizens.”
According to Hatahet, working together with other refugees and with the colleagues at Information resulted in a strong unity.
She says the work process carried “an important positive message in itself at this tense moment of increasing stigmatization of refugees even in a small Scandinavian country like Denmark,” says Hatahet.
Importance of refugee voice
Information’s idea was not just to put refugees in the mainstream limelight.
“It is important to state that in making this paper the refugees were not only opinion makers. They were the editors of the day,” says Fjordbak-Trier. “It was their stories, their journalistic selection of what the paper should cover.”
“Instead of being perceived as just victims they will appear as willing and able to engage actively in their new society.”
Hatahet finds it extremely important to counter the persistent, dehumanizing image of refugees that is often portrayed in the media.
“How can a western audience understand and deal with ‘the refugee crisis’ without having heard the experience and perception of those who are risking their lives in a desperate search for rightful protection in accordance with the international conventions,” she puts forward.
Hatahet explains another important aspect of the idea.
“Last, but not least, when refugees are given a chance to be heard in mainstream media, it will be clear how resourceful many of them are. Instead of being perceived as just victims they will appear as willing and able to engage actively in their new society.”
Information’s Oct. 9 edition became a sought-after item.
“After reading, people passed it on to the next reader, but only if they promised to return it,” says Fjordbak-Trier. “We measured the digital version and the amount of readers exploded these days. For example, our reach on Facebook this week was 60 per cent higher than the week before.”
“I hope, it will serve as an inspiration to other media, not only in Denmark.”
From Hatahet’s perspective, the readers’ reaction might imply that the idea was making a strong impact.
“I think the many reactions, reflections and comments we have seen already clearly shows that the initiative taken by Information has struck something very essential in people’s mind. I hope, it will serve as an inspiration to other media, not only in Denmark,” she says.
As a result of this endeavour, Hatahet hopes to see an increased acceptance of refugees as active participants in the debate in all countries of asylum.
“I hope that media everywhere – radio [stations], TV stations and newspapers – will see the merit of following this idea, of giving the refugees a voice and thereby making the debate more nuanced and comprehensive.”
Fjordbak-Trier says Information is listening to the public and is “already working on the next project.”