Understanding Press Coverage of Cross-Border Migration in Southern Africa since 2000.

Series Editor: Jonathan Crush

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 37

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this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


Executive Summary

Xenophobia is a distinctive and widespread phenomenon in South and Southern Africa. The print media, in particular,
has been accused of exacerbating xenophobic attitudes. This paper discusses press coverage of cross-border migration in
Souther n Africa from 2000-2003, with a focus on xenophobia. The study revisits research conducted in South Africa by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) in the 1990s to determine what, if any, changes have occurred in that country’s press coverage of the issue. It also extends the investigation to three other SADC states (Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia). Empirical variations across the region serve to highlight that there is no single or universal explanation for xenophobic press coverage in Southern Africa. More importantly, the paper poses a series of hypotheses which attempt to explain why xenophobia does (or does not) exist in the region’s press and how the problem may be addressed. The hope is that these hypotheses will help us better understand the causes of xenophobia in the South African press – and any trends away from xenophobic press coverage – to assist with ways of combating xenophobia in the future.

The study draws on a comprehensive electronic database of English language newspaper clippings related to cross-border migration in Southern Africa at Queen’s University. The time frame for the coverage is mid-2000 to early-2003. The countries included in the database are South Africa, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This paper covers South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia. This is the same database used earlier
to assess xenophobia in the South African press in the 1990s and therefore provides sourcing consistency.

The results of the research in South Africa reaffirm previous findings of the press in that country. A large amount of newspaper coverage of migration issues remains anti-immigration and non-analytical. The coverage has, however, become highly polarized, with a sizeable portion of the articles now being pro-immigration in their orientation and/or analytical in their discussion of migration issues.

The survey reveals a continued perpetuation of negative stereotypes of (im)migrants in the South African press. Images of most migrants as “job stealers”, “criminals” and “illegals” only serve to perpetuate ill-considered stereotypes of migrants and migration and continue to be used in reportage on these issues in the South African press. The source of these xenophobic comments is highly skewed, with the vast majority emanating from the wire services. For example, of the articles that used the term “job stealers” the South African Press Agency (SAPA) was by far the worst offender, making up 38% of the articles that refer to
migrants in this way.

The most obvious, and perhaps most likely, reason for the persistence of xenophobia in the South African press is the widespread existence of xenophobia in the country. In other words, media coverage simply reflects the reality on the ground in the country, either through journalists reproducing their own images and ideas of migrants and migration and/or by editors providing space for articles, letters and opinion pieces that they feel reflect public consensus on the issue. Whether the xenophobic press is merely a reflection of public sentiment or stems from xenophobia within the press itself is ultimately impossible to decide. What is clear is that there is a cycle of negative (mis)representation of cross-border migration in the English-language print media and it is likely that public opinion and journalistic opinion simply feed off of one another.

A second explanation for continued xenophobic press coverage can be found in the openly xenophobic attitudes of some South African political r epresentatives and officials. Although the general tenor of official government policy on migration is changing and becoming more liberal, it is not uncommon to find reports of openly xenophobic statements by officials that pass unchallenged in the press. A third explanation for the persistence of xenophobic reporting can be traced to the heavy reliance on wir e services which stream in extr emely simplistic and xenophobic material. Superficial reporting on migration is exacerbated
by the media’s reliance on police reports. In addition, reporters do not tend to specialize in migration issues and their newspapers do not have a specialist reporter for this “beat.” A fourth reason for the persistence of xenophobic reporting is the growth of a tabloid press in South Africa. Tabloids latch on to reactionar y and sensational issues and attitudes, such as those that surround the presence of foreigners in the countr y, in order to sell newspapers.

Possible explanations for a decrease in xenophobia (or, more accurately, an incr ease in the polarization of coverage on migration) are equally complex. There are various possible reasons. The first relates to the fact that immigration is no longer a new – and therefore “unknown”– quantity in South Africa. The initial influx of migrants after the end of apartheid – particularly those from other parts of Africa – no doubt came as a shock to many South Africans steeped in isolationism and may have contributed to some of the original sensationalism on the topic in the press. But after a decade of cross-border activity, it could be argued that some newspapers and journalists have a better grasp of the issue and have perhaps overcome their own xenophobia. Second, there appears to be a growing professionalism on migration issues, at least in some newspapers. Some editors have even stated their interest in creating an educated and dedicated staff on the matter. Real, lasting change
may only come with the hiring/training of more reporters committed to proper coverage of the issue and/or the hiring of journalists from countries outside of South Africa. Third, big business has actively pushed for a more liberal immigration regime. This advocacy has extended to a media itself dominated by big business.

The impact of public debates on the need to improve media coverage on migration should not be underestimated. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) initiated a series of sophisticated and comprehensive workshops for journalists in the late 1990s as part of its “Roll Back Xenophobia” campaign. Opinions differed amongst editors on the impact and effectiveness of this campaign. Another possible explanation for improved media coverage is a growing pan-African perspective in South Africa which has created new political, cultural and economic imperatives to be more positive about African integration. A final explanation for an increase in pro-immigration media coverage relates to the interests of South African business in ensuring easy access to skilled and unskilled labour from outside the country via a relatively open and liberal immigration regime. With the rise in xenophobia in South Africa in the 1990s there was a very real possibility of government
introducing an overly-bureaucratic, closed immigration system.

The survey found that press coverage of migration-related issues in Zimbabwe is just as polarized as it is in South Africa, although for different reasons. Despite the r elative freedom of the press in Botswana, newspapers in that country have produced, on average, the most xenophobic coverage of the countries surveyed. In Namibia, where xenophobia is high amongst the general population, it comes as little surprise that the media appears extremely xenophobic as well. Migrants and refugees are typically portrayed as “illegal”, crime is associated with Angolans and Zimbabweans, and regular warnings of an “influx” of
refugees from the conflict in Angola are repeated in sensational ways, often courtesy of government spokespeople.

Overall, the press in the countries surveyed remains uncomfortably xenophobic, suggesting a difficult, uphill battle for advocates of a more tolerant and migrant-friendly press. There are signs of a shifting, albeit polarized, approach to coverage of the issues – at least in South Africa – but xenophobic writing and editorializing in that country remains a
concern as well.

Any shift away from anti-foreigner rhetoric should be met with relief. Xenophobia in the region has led to harassment, abuse and even death for non-citizens. But we cannot simply assume that pro-immigrant coverage in the press is going to improve the lives of migrants in the region. Nor can it be assumed that pro-immigration press coverage is inherently a good thing. Pro-immigration news coverage and editorials can be politically and economically motivated in ways that do not necessarily
lead to good journalism, resulting in problematic “facts” and analysis. These pro-immigration articles must therefore also be closely scrutinized for content, origin and intent. Only then can there be a tr uly balanced debate about migration and immigration in the region’s press.