The Ukrainian refugee crisis, triggered by the invasion of the Russian Federation in the neighboring country, continues to have an impact on the Republic of Moldova, even if it no longer generates “big news”. Therefore, the media should continue to report on topics regarding the integration of refugees into society, believes Monica Vazquez, UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) external relations officer in Moldova. In an interview for Media Azi, as the person responsible for UNHCR’s communication and public relations, she analyzes the response of the Moldovan media to this crisis and talks about the rules that journalists should take into account when approaching refugees as sources.
Media Azi: It’s been a year and a half since the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation’s army in Ukraine and the start of the refugee crisis throughout Europe and particularly in Moldova, as a neighboring country. How would you assess the response of the local media to it from the first wave of refugees until today?
Monica Vazquez: I think, in general, the media in Moldova has been very responsive and there has been an extensive coverage of the refugees’ situation. I also know, and I heard this from journalists themselves, it was a new topic, a new issue that there was not a lot of expertise on covering it. So, maybe, yes, these technicalities of the language, covering displacement, refugees, were very new for the country at large and for the press in particular. So, I think this is where we had a gap, and it was also reflected in many of the stories. UNHCR’s mechanisms sometimes require a lot of knowledge of the technicalities, of the language we’re using, it is very specific. So, I am sure a lot of journalists and media in general were struggling, at the beginning, with getting acquainted with what we were doing and what was happening.
What were the most prominent errors made by the press in this regard?
Something that I have definitely seen and for me is a red flag that we need to acknowledge is media replicating gossips, rumors, hence promoting disinformation or misinformation. Refugee crisis is a very sensitive topic, so journalists have to be very careful and make sure that they really go for the main sources and gather truthful information before reporting on it. Many of the stories about the refugees are based on hearsay, not always we can corroborate whether they are true or not, therefore even if it is a very powerful piece of information, the journalist has to balance it a bit. When publishing a certain story, even confirmed as being true, as a journalist you have to ask yourself how it is going to impact the community, the organizations involved, the refugees themselves. If at any point the media feel unsure about these answers, they can always find support and directions here, at UNHCR Moldova.
From your perspective, are there any major issues regarding refugees that need to be addressed in Moldovan media now that the peak of the crisis has passed? What should be a journalist’s concern on this topic today?
Yes, the peak of emergency has passed, we are moving into a new moment, into the inclusion of refugees into the society, ensuring they can have an employment, accommodation that is not temporary. I have the feeling that we have lost some of this coverage. I do understand it is not the big news anymore, but I think it is important not to lose sight of what is happening and especially what is still needed for the refugees. These things that are happening still have an impact on Moldova, at large, as well, so I do believe it is important we still keep working together and cover these topics right now.
What are the key professional references that a journalist should bear in mind when writing about refugees?
It is different when we speak about the topic than when we speak about the person. There are many things to bear in mind when working with refugees and, at large, with vulnerable people. Sometimes, the effect of violence when they flee their country is not visible when you, as a journalist, approach them, but it doesn’t mean it is not there. So, the media have to be very, very careful. I think, of course, they need to follow the ethics of journalism, it is always there, but there is a second layer that can be very sensitive – making sure that you are not re-traumatizing, re-victimizing the person by re-approaching the situation that the person went through. It is important to tell these stories, and I think we are lucky that the refugees trust these stories to our media and our voices. It is important to have in mind the world context, at large, and recognize that seeking asylum is a human right, and it is a protected one.
Also, ensure that refugees are more than just a source of information. We have one first rule that I think, actually, speaks for the rest of them, and it urges seeing the refugee as a partner when it comes to telling a story. A refugee can be a source, but also the receiver of the information. Also, a refugee can be the person to co-write with the journalist, co-create, therefore they have a right to decide how they want their story to be presented. They are not a silent partner or someone you just want to squeeze information from. So, in fact, it means to recognize you are facing another human being with all their rights, the capacity to make decisions and share their experience, because it is theirs. This one rule covers all others, because from there you go to things like making sure that your story does not reinforce stereotypes. Every refugee comes with their own story, even though it might seem they face the same problems. A journalist should focus on the story and not on certain characteristics of the person they are speaking to. Another important rule for us is making sure to gain consent, and it should be an informed one. Also, have an open mind. Even if you have heard the story many times, and you know where it leads you, you should still approach it with an open mind to share what they believe is relevant to be shared and not only what you want or believe in. As a journalist working with refugees, it is important to have empathy, but acknowledge you did not pass through their experience and don’t truly understand how it feels to lose it all as they did.
Is there a way of making the news about refugees attractive to the public?
As human beings, especially now with social media, we share what makes us look good, right? We share things which are aligned with our ideas or have an impact on us. In terms of communication, basically, a person connects more with information that impacts their everyday life, so, when we speak about making the content about refugees a bit more attractive, I do believe that the key is to ensure that it is relevant for the life of the audience. There are many things in the refugee response that the organizations are doing for refugees and that have a positive impact on Moldova at large. When we support the infrastructure for a registration center for refugees, for instance. Yes, maybe now it is a registration center, but the building is not going anywhere, and hoping that the war will end and people will go back to their normal lives, this center will become something different, will serve Moldovan people and, like this, there are many examples.
Should there be more content about refugees in the press?
It is hard to tell if there is enough coverage or not on the refugee topic, but what I would like to see, for example, would be some more comprehensive articles about them. Now that we have more time and we are not in an emergency, journalists can concentrate on more complex pieces, to provide more information, where we can gather more than just one source, so that readers can gain a better understanding. I think now the media should rather focus on quality, not quantity.
As the war unfolds, there is always a likelihood for new waves of refugees to seek safety in our country. Is there a way for the media to get prepared for it? What your recommendations would be in this respect?
There is no way to be prepared for the kind of situation we faced after the war in Ukraine began, but there is always more space for learning. There are projects, like the one from UNESCO, which is trying to build more capacity and ensure more tools for journalists. In this sense, you can take advantage of the UN, especially now that we have strengthened our presence in the country. All of us have a lot to share, and we are more than willing to build more capacity. There are many topics which can be learned from our different mandates, either if it is related to children, or it is related to women, domestic or gender violence, for instance. If you want to go and learn more about inclusive language, UN Women, I’m sure, are always happy to share a larger framework on what are the references in international protection even. So, there is a lot of room for getting prepared for future challenges.