Reportage

A seat at the table

The power of multilingual journalism

YANIS WATCHES ME intently as I talk – I am grateful. An attentive audience can never be anticipated in Athens, where interjections, animated debate, sarcasm and Socratic monologues are more typical.

It’s the European summer of 2019, and I’m detailing an imagined platform for multilingual journalism in Greece. More specifically, I am articulating an urgent need for migrants to have a seat at the decision-­making table through an independent and inclusive European broadcasting channel. I am describing a pilot project that I’ve set underway in Greece. Its founding vision is to develop a public information service in Greece for migrants and ultimately a permanent space for debate and discussion about news, culture and rights in contemporary Europe.

Yanis nods thoughtfully as I speak; he recognises the purpose, which is why he is one of several journalists I have sought out with whom to propose a collaboration. As someone who works in the struggling Greek media sector, he sees the need for transformation, diversification, independence and renewal. And as a reporter who covers the effects of Europe’s immigration policies, he knows how little representation – let alone participation – there is for migrants to Greece in the public sphere.

I conclude my introduction. Yanis pauses, then offers a gentle shrug. It combines an upside-­down smile with his chin tilted into the air, his hands raised slightly, palms to heaven. It’s a gesture frequently used in Greece. I’ve come to understand it as, variously, an indication of resignation, pessimism, collective apology or acceptance.

Today, I take it to mean something along the lines of: ‘It will never work here.’ ‘You don’t understand.’ ‘Yes it’s a problem, but it’s out of our hands.’

Yanis is a composite of the many people I’ve discussed these ideas with. Their reactions are almost always the same.

 

I CAME TO Greece for the first time in early 2016, soon after the peak in refugee arrivals to Europe – mainly from Syria – via the ‘Balkan Route’. I was working with an international humanitarian organisation as part of the emergency response to Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ – which I had quickly come to understand as a European policy crisis. The most pressing emergencies were resulting from crises in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and around the crises following many millions who had fled to nearby Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. By 2016, around 1.5 million people had managed to arrive in Europe, joining upwards of 500 million European Union citizens. Nation by nation, policies were shifting towards increasing exclusion of asylum seekers from the benefits of social democracy. That same year, the EU arrived at an open turning point, signing a ‘deal’ with neighbouring Turkey to actively block the route to Europe.

By 2016, techniques for effectively sharing information and engaging with communities on the move and in crisis were well advanced. They’d been developed, tested and adapted by a network of tenacious advocates working in the humanitarian sector. These professionals brought experience from emergency settings across the globe in relation to conflict, famines, climate shocks, natural disasters, mass displacement, virus outbreaks. Methods drew on documented case studies and best practice about how to engage with crisis-­affected people; to gather questions and concerns; to provide verified, useful, timely information; to overcome misinformation; and to limit the spread of rumours that generate additional vulnerability in communities.

But as we progressed, our methods were obstructed and challenged. Repeatedly, we failed to reach people, to listen and respond adequately, and to get critical information to those who needed it. Political events would continue to reshape the usefulness and relevance of any information we could source in response to the questions and rumours we were hearing. As refugees and asylum seekers remained for longer periods in Greece, our challenges expanded. Questions about how to meet their urgent and basic needs – food, water, shelter – were accompanied by complex ones about their legal rights and status in Greece and wider Europe; about navigating the administration around their access to employment, education, healthcare, and longer-­term accommodation and financial assistance. The Greek government, with support from United Nations’ agencies and non-­government organisations, was rapidly establishing assistance programs to fund and provide basic services. But Europe’s political and economic environment was dynamic and fluid; and even migrants’ most predictable concerns and confusions about legal status and rights could not be addressed.

Working through this quagmire, I relied on the swag of skills and values I had learnt while growing up watching, listening to, and then working in multilingual and multicultural media in Australia. I thought often that people coming to Europe needed their own trusted news channel. Some established European broadcasters – like Germany’s Deutsche Welle and the French-­based Euronews – present content in multiple languages. But a bottom-­up service driven by migrant and refugee communities: could this exist in Europe?

 

AUGUST 2019. YANIS is back in the capital after reporting on the conditions for refugees on the island of Lesvos. He has been doing this for several years now, each time witnessing further deterioration in access to basic services and increasing tensions that compound the calcifying uncertainty. There has been a fatal incident in the state-­operated Moria camp on the island, where many thousand asylum seekers are forced to live. For this meeting we’re evading the heat in a café upstairs to find a light breeze. We are free – far from Moria – but the dire circumstances driving the emergency are never far from our minds. I’m acutely aware of the profound lack of information available to the tens of thousands of people in camps on the Aegean Islands, and to the many thousands more living among the urban communities in Athens and across the Greek mainland.

I continue to explain my project to Yanis, drawing a vivid picture of possibility from another time and place. I appeal to him by recalling the influential Greek Australians who appeared on Australia’s public broadcasters – Mary Kostakidis, Mary Coustas, Alex Dimitriades, George Megalogenis. I describe Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) and prolific multiethnic and multilingual community broadcasting sector – a vast network of stations, radio programs and broadcasters who gather daily and weekly. The sector trains community and language groups in digital and analogue technologies, which means they can directly access the airwaves. This in turn means they can reach their own communities with vital information, music from homelands and familiar voices; they can carve a space in kitchens, lounge rooms and on car radios; they can educate, entertain, and preserve language and culture.

Forging Australia’s multicultural public broadcasting sector was made possible due to a confluence of circumstances, including a grassroots movement to recognise the rights of ‘ethnic’ communities – and political will from federal governments (led by prime ministers Gough Whitlam and then Malcom Fraser) that acknowledged the lack of diversity in Australian media. As Whitlam’s Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, observed in a 1973 symposium paper, ‘How often do our television screens reflect anything like the variety of migrant groups encountered…through our city streets?… Where do these people belong, in all honesty, if not in today’s composite Australian image?’ Testimonies from this time recall the ‘the desperation for information’ among migrants and refugees. For them, multilingual broadcasting was essential to ensuring a ‘vital support system in a very practical sense: to become effective participants in Australian society [these communities] need specialist assistance in areas such as health, housing, employment, education and English language learning.’

In discussions with potential project collaborators and participants in Athens and Thessaloniki, and beyond in wider Europe, I discover that the SBS story has a very specific power to hold attention. The broadcaster began in the 1970s with content in eight languages, broadcast four hours per day over three months on two national FM radio stations in Melbourne and Sydney. It’s now grown into a 24/7 public service, comprising radio, television and online channels, broadcasting in seventy-­four languages. In 1991 the SBS Charter enshrined its ongoing function: ‘to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians, and, in doing so, reflect Australia’s multicultural society.’

I have been struck by the parallels between the situation of migrants in contemporary Greece – particularly those settling for the long term in urban areas – and the circumstances that drove Australia’s migrant communities (Greeks prominent among them) to insist on their own place in public broadcasting over the past four decades. I see the same needs in the diverse communities I have been working with in Europe since early 2016: health, housing, employment, education. An added benefit of SBS and community broadcasting in Australia has been the rich interactions it has enabled between diverse migrant communities themselves. Perhaps a similar channel in Greece could foster a cosmopolitan multicultural ethos by assisting listeners to navigate difference? Perhaps Greeks could get used to the sound of Arabic, Farsi, French and the Kurdish languages in their public sphere, and to become accustomed to the ‘difference among them’ as Anglo-­Celtic Australians were challenged to do by our own multicultural project?

I arrive at a silence that I invite Yanis to fill.

There’s another pause, then he says, ‘Yes, that’s wonderful, Rachel. But this is Greece.’

 

IT IS DIFFICULT to argue with the closure of this phrase. I am an outsider, an Australian. I come from the New World – what do I know about Europe and its old ways, its sovereignty, its centuries, millennia, of undisputed histories and traditions? This statement by Yanis has the resignation of his earlier gesture. It is not xenophobic, nor is it defensive. Its resignation is almost apologetic. Greece is a destiny in and of itself: Greece cannot and will not change. I hear this phrase often, sometimes in relation to tasks as unremarkable as opening a bank account, waiting for a bus or fixing a pothole. Greeks tell me that there’s no reason to expect it will happen; if it does, it will not happen quickly. Progress will be plagued with bureaucracy, possibly corruption. It will put you in a very dark mood if you care too much about the result.

I could reply: ‘Yes, but it can happen elsewhere, so why not here?’ ‘Yes, but Greece has already changed so much.’ ‘Yes, and Greece is also Europe, and Europe is cosmopolitan, isn’t it?’

But I don’t. And I don’t offer back the tired appeal to Greece as ‘the birthplace of democracy’.

While the idea of a multilingual channel is initially inconceivable even to my most progressive Greek (and wider European) friends and colleagues, beneath their gestures of resignation is a chink of light – a cautious openness to being convinced that it may be possible. The door is not closed.

I understand the caution in people I approach to collaborate on my project. The success of Australia’s SBS story is convincing, but equally tangible to them is the contemporary social climate in Greece. Years of financial crisis and uncertainty have resulted in a sense of constriction. It has put a hold on taking risks, throwing money at an idea or even making long-­term plans – all perceived luxuries. Penetrating the Greek media with anything not ‘Greek’ in the current climate – never mind the voices and views and languages of migrants – would be folly. Raising the required financial backing, impossible. During several years of living and working here, I have become increasingly familiar with the partisan and nationalistic tone that dominates the Greek media. As in other parts of Europe, refugees are portrayed either as the villain, invading in absurdly inflated numbers, or (more rarely) as the victim. Mainly they are absent from the narrative. There is little sign of the small – but increasing, and increasingly permanent – presence of the migrants who are now recognised members of Europe’s community: refugees who have settled for the longer term in Greece and beyond after seeking asylum during the peak in refugee arrivals to Europe of 2015–16. They are urban-­dwelling residents of European cities and towns who speak and understand multiple non-­European languages and whose cultures are non-­European, but whose children attend European schools, who use European public transport, and who buy their groceries in European shops and markets. But they are rarely to be seen in the media – unless they are the subject of the ‘refugee’ story or the ‘migration crisis’.

To me, this points to a need for these people to be able to access reliable information critical to them, just as Australia’s migrant communities do. A dedicated channel to reach, include and involve these communities in public discussion – with migrants themselves at the helm, producing content from their own communities that is delivered in multiple languages. Such a channel does not have to represent a perceived ‘migration crisis’, nor be assigned to ‘helping’ refugees, but should primarily address needs and rights, with a flow forward into wider visibility for migrant communities in European society. This would be a public forum where communities – the public – could ask questions, find useful information, familiar voices, cultural connections. I picture my Syrian and Afghan colleagues as media makers, taking the camera and the microphone and shifting from outsider to narrator, messenger. Like their Australian counterparts, they become broadcasters, writers, editors, researchers or camera operators who collaborate with Greek and other European journalists. I talk to Yanis about the people – previously unknown to each other – whom I have drawn together in this project, through word of mouth, and their interest in journalism and in informing their communities, wanting to build skills and opportunities for their own new lives in Europe. They’re interpreters, translators and cultural liaison officers from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Congo, Syria. They work full-time in other jobs. We hold training workshops on weekends, when they have spare time.

I break it down one more time with Yanis. This is why this project is a pilot. We try it and see if it works. If not, we move on. I say: ‘You could be a guest trainer for an afternoon, just talk to the students about your work, explain how you got your journalism skills, how you learnt to speak to camera, to find and verify information, to analyse and visualise data, to interview people, to research.’ We can prise open a door and, siga siga, watch it open up into a wider space. Now is the time.

Discussions inevitably end on an optimistic note, or at least with a sense there is nothing to lose. Yanis is in.

 

AS THE COVID-­19 pandemic crashes in terrible waves across Europe, I find myself asking new yet familiar questions. Circumstances are more dire than ever for refugees and migrants in European camps, and only government policy and urgent action can protect them from the disasters posed by immediate health and economic risks. Advice on handwashing and physical distancing is exclusive to those who control their own living environment. Who is talking to, listening to, those who can’t?

There is no doubt that such a media platform is more necessary than ever. Alongside clinical containment and rapid scientific investigation, health risk communications and community engagement have been identified as key tools in the kit, and as the only way to overcome the deadly transmission of a virus. The community itself is the ‘first responder’ in the emergency. Australia is witnessing this exact effect in the constraint of its own coronavirus numbers: information, participation, repeat.

This pandemic is all-consuming. No disaster preparedness workshop could train us for its scale and reach. The humanitarian sector has made enormous progress in its commitments to community engagement in health crisis contexts – because we have seen that it works. The Ebola outbreaks were overcome in some of the most dynamic, harsh and complex settings – West Africa, Congo – through the sheer tenacity of frontline workers and aid agencies who persistently engaged with and informed communities. When a crisis like this hits a first-­world democracy, responding effectively should be much easier.

In some settings, it has been. But there are persistent patterns in the problems in Australia and Europe, and these suggest that we must sustain one critical question: is the wider public, including the most vulnerable and the least literate, being informed, engaged and included in their own languages and in ways that resonate culturally? Do they have a seat at the table?

5 June 2020

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