In Europe, Tackling Hate Speech with Humor

In Italy, people are able to air their prejudices against Muslims or Roma without fear of contradiction.

There’s nothing inherently funny about the xenophobia that’s on the rise in Europe, but tackling hate speech with satire and humor is proving a useful tool in the fight against racism and intolerance. Together with our partners, the Media Diversity Institute has undertaken the “Our Elections, Our Europe” project, which includes cartoons and street theater in its arsenal. We have been working in Hungary, Greece, and Italy—three EU members badly affected by the economic crisis and its symptoms, like high unemployment and right-wing anti-migrant propaganda.

The situation in each country is not the same, of course. Immigration is a contentious issue in Greece and Italy; less so in Hungary, where hatred concentrates on the indigenous Roma people and also targets the Jewish community. The continued success of the violent neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece sets that country apart, but the xenophobic discourse is strong in Italy as well. In no country is there much positive media coverage of immigrants or minorities. 

Our campaign is tailored to suit local conditions, but in each case we have targeted young people. They are easy to reach through social media for one thing, and all our activities are updated constantly through a Tumblr page. In Italy, our partner Il Razzismo è una brutta storia  works extensively with young people. For “Our Elections, Our Europe,” they have staged street theater, mostly in Milan, and in locations frequented by young people, noisily enacting The Fable of the Land of Cockaigne with colorful puppets that mock the racist discourse of the right. In Italy, people stop, watch, and join in—casting a vote in a poll of phrases they associate with Europe.

This kind of street action doesn’t work so well in Hungary, so the cartoonist Gabor Papai is engaging the populist antics of some of the country’s politicians by drawing acerbic cartoons that are posted online in an immediate, and bruising, response. In Greece, our partner Symbiosis is producing radio  and video shows that have focused on the elections, giving voice to the young people and immigrants who are marginalized by the mainstream press.

In our media monitoring work, we attempt to draw attention to hate speech. Anti-immigrant politicians, like the Egyptian-born Italian MEP Magdi Cristiano Allam use the European Parliament as a platform for their extreme views. We can expose the worst aspects of what politicians like this are saying while trying to provide positive examples of migrant life in Italy at the same time.

In Greece, Golden Dawn politicians are particularly brazen and unapologetic. In April, Golden Dawn MP Ilias Panagiotaros spoke favorably of Hitler and Stalin to Australian TV, and denounced homosexuality as a sickness. Unfortunately, these words find support even as we denounce them.

In Hungary, we have two partners. The first is the Center for Independent Journalism. When media monitoring reveals defamatory content against migrants that violates the country’s Editors’ Forum code of ethics, CivilMedia (our other partner) submits an official complaint to the Media Authority requesting proceedings be initiated. In April, together with two NGOs (the Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities, and the Chance for Children Foundation), we submitted a claim against a film, Borsodi sötét, about the region of Borsod in the north of the country which targeted alleged Roma criminality. 

I am a migrant in Europe myself, having moved from Italy, where there are limited opportunities for young people, to study journalism at the University of Cardiff in Wales and subsequently to work for the Media Diversity Institute in London. I understand the pressures that young people face in Europe, and I work to draw attention to the plight of the disadvantaged through my journalism and advocacy. My goal is to publish positive stories on immigration, and in Italy my journalism has appeared in Il Corriere della Sera online and Redattore Sociale.

Taken as a whole, the media is more concerned with the sensational than the positive, or even the everyday. In Italy, people are able to air their prejudices against Muslims or Roma without fear of contradiction. They do so from a position of ignorance, and others, hearing the hate speech, parrot it for the same reason. It is easy to blame the disadvantaged, to vote for the party that promises to solve problems by leaving Europe or by stopping immigration. And meanwhile, immigrants are denied citizenship or held under appalling conditions in detention centers. What we at the Media Diversity Institute are working toward is tilting the balance back toward the positive influence that the media can also exert.

Moving forward, we want to continue the work that was started with “Our Elections, Our Europe.” It is important to continue to focus on young people, who as voters will decide Europe’s future. I do not believe young people in Europe are as apathetic as they are often depicted. We must also continue to help people of non-European origins who have been denied a voice. When we have empowered them, as we have on the streets in Italy, on the TV and radio in Greece, and through articles in Hungary, they have had a real impact.

We must be under no illusions about the severity of the situation. Xenophobia is increasing. When I interview people around Europe for my articles, they all say intolerance is getting worse. Recently, I was speaking to a man from Senegal who lives in Italy. He said that people won’t sit next to him on the bus. Two or three years ago, he said, this wasn’t happening to him.  

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