Accused, defamed, expelled: Media attacks on migrants in Malaysia
Migrant workers keep the Malaysian economy running during peak periods. But when times got tough, they were scapegoats.
As COVID-19 swept through Malaysia, xenophobic comments in the mainstream press defended and amplified the government’s harsh treatment of undocumented workers.
Migrant workers face health, social and economic challenges even in the best of times. During the pandemic, the plight of undocumented workers in Malaysia became desperate as they struggled with job loss and insufficient access to healthcare. Hate speech on social media intended to humiliate and blame the community has become more widespread, and these xenophobic messages have been repeated in mainstream media.
In July 2020, Al Jazeera aired a documentary titled Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown, which focused on the hardships endured by migrant workers during the first implementation of the MCO.
The documentary highlighted that many migrant workers found themselves stranded in their dilapidated and poorly maintained hostels, relying entirely on their limited savings and hiding from immigration raids. Al Jazeera criticized the Malaysian government’s perceived lack of empathy for the plight of migrant workers.
In response, authorities defended immigration raids and investigated Al Jazeera journalists. A Bangladeshi national interviewed and featured in the documentary has been deported.
Between July and September 2020, numerous articles were published highlighting the alleged threat posed by undocumented migrant workers, in a clear attempt to justify the government’s aggressive actions against them.
The Star – the most widely circulated local English-language newspaper – published 29 articles or reports on migrant workers in Malaysia, at least 13 of which mainly included negative reactions from various government officials to the Al Jazeera documentary.
The “migrant workers are a threat” narrative was used in almost all of the reports, which focused on quotes from government officials, police officers, academics and local citizens living in areas with high numbers. of migrant workers. The Star even published articles quoting professors, columnists and economic experts who claimed that foreign workers were responsible for “the spread of the virus” and “the rising cost of hiring which is worsening the economy of the world”. country”.
Berita Harian – one of the most widely circulated Malay newspapers in Malaysia – published numerous articles and reports, directly and indirectly, condemning the Al Jazeera documentary. Words such as fitnah (slander), tidak beretika (unethical) and tidak tepat (inaccurate) have been used repeatedly to describe the report and the journalist who produced it. A few of Berita Harian’s articles went even further, questioning Al Jazeera’s legal status as a media agency operating in Malaysia and insinuating that there was a foreign imperialist agenda against the country.
Migrant workers were repeatedly described using words such as bahaya (dangerous), ancaman (threat), jenayah (crime), seludup (smuggling) and sindiket (crime syndicate). The Bangladeshi national who featured in Al Jazeera’s report was described as someone who deliberately made a series of false accusations against the Malaysian authorities and who must be deported immediately.
Both The Star and Berita Harian are part of private media companies associated with parties that make up the ruling government.
This social phenomenon is not unique to Malaysia. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the influence of right-wing ideologies and policies has increased through effective digital media strategies.
Importantly, the xenophobic narrative in the media has been challenged by some Malaysian journalists and social activists, who argue for a more objective and constructive analysis. National news agency Bernama and online media outlet Malaysiakini published articles citing individual foreign workers as the main source of information. This gave marginalized workers a platform to share their experiences. Pseudonyms were used to protect the identity of workers.
Similarly, human rights activists who speak out on behalf of migrant workers have been cited more often by online media outlets such as Malaysiakini and The Malaysian Insight. These media organizations have referred to migrant workers using terms such as “undocumented foreign workers” instead of calling them “clandestine”.
However, in general, individual migrant workers are only mentioned, mostly under pseudonyms, when they are the subject of a report. They rarely have the opportunity to directly contribute to policy decisions on issues such as the high number of undocumented workers, human trafficking and forced labor in Malaysia.
Newsrooms have great power over how the public learns about migrant groups and forms political judgments. Ethical journalism is key to spreading inclusive stories about migrant workers and at the same time guaranteeing freedom of expression for all. It is also crucial that editors and journalists are aware that there is a range of key international texts condemning discrimination, racism and hate speech.
In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations establishes that each individual has the right to inalienable rights and freedoms. Similarly, the UNESCO Declaration on the Mass Media (1978) called on the media to “contribute to the promotion of human rights, in particular by giving a voice to oppressed peoples who struggle against … all forms of discrimination and racial oppression and who are unable to make their voices heard within their territories”.
Journalists should be aware that when interviewing migrant workers, it is their responsibility to ensure the safety of those interviewed. The fate of the Bangladeshi national featured in the Al Jazeera documentary shows that it is risky to reveal the identities of migrant workers in news reports. Therefore, journalists must ethically grant anonymity to those who are most vulnerable.
Media organizations could more often discuss potential ways to combat xenophobia towards migrants, assess existing media practices to raise awareness of multiculturalism and xenophobia, and develop partnerships to design new training activities.
Ethics and professionalism should be emphasized as the most effective solutions. Some international groups have called for media regulation to tackle xenophobia exacerbated by news outlets, but Malaysia’s restrictive media environment means such regulation is unlikely.
Therefore, it is essential to create a functional community involving journalists’ unions, media activists, non-governmental organizations and universities to support and carry out activities, workshops and trainings that promote the ethical reporting and representation of migrant workers.
(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)