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Willing Accomplices? The Danish Media and the Political Discourses on Minorities

 

Willing Accomplices?

The Danish Media and the Political Discourse on Minorities

The darkest chapters of human history tell the story that genocides begin in the conception of the “other” as subhuman: The Germans likening the Jews to rats; the Hutus likening the Tutsis to cockroaches. Today, in Denmark a (now former) member of the rightist party in the ruling coalition, the Danish People’s Party (DPP), has likened Muslims to “cancer cells” (Frevert DR Nyheder).

Although the DPP represents a radical fringe of the Danish political landscape, there has been a radicalization of the political discourse on minorities in Denmark, especially those of Muslim faith. If institutionalized discrimination and massive violations of minorities often begin in a trend of creating an “other” in rhetoric, as history implies, then the current political discourse in Denmark gives good cause to worry.

Today, in Denmark there is a “relative impunity with which politicians in general, and members of the DPP in particular, regularly make incendiary statements against minority groups in the media [which has contributed to a] pervasive atmosphere against refugees, asylum seekers, as well as minority groups in general and Muslims in particular”(29),  states a European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) report on Denmark.  The media, thus, provides a forum for radical political statements towards Danes of a different ethnic background and especially of Muslim faith.

Our report explores whether, and to what degree, the media has played a role in the radicalization of the Danish political discourse towards Muslims and immigrants.

How has the Political Discourse Changed?

“No matter how friendly Mustafa is, he will never become Danish.” (Jensen: 1.)

“[The Muslims] are born by pigs, and they think like pigs.” (Jensen; 1.)

“Some of [the Muslims] talk nicely to us, while they’re waiting for becoming many enough to kill us.” (Thobo-Carlsen; 9.)

During the last ten years, Muslims in Denmark have had to listen to rather extreme statement from members of the DPP. Today, at the website of the party’s youth wing, a hundred Danish crowns will buy you a T-shirt saying “Ikke stueren”. Literally translated, that means “not clean enough for the living room”. In other words: Not part of the good company. But that, in fact, is exactly what the DPP has become; rhetoric that was before deemed radical is now normalized. And the T-shirt may be seen as a celebration of that.

The word “stueren” was introduced in politics by the Social Democrat Poul Nyrup Rasmussen who Prime Minister in the 1990s. “You will never become “stueren””, he said to the DPP eight years ago. Today, DPP has become ”stueren”, while the mainstream parties, including the Social Democrats, have become more like the DPP – in politics as well as in rhetoric. Best summed up by Henrik Sass Larsen, a top member of the Social Democrats: “In general, I don’t think the debate [on immigrants] in Denmark is going wrong. I think it’s fair and direct.” (Bonde; 5.)

As the Sass Larsen quote indicates, even moderate politicians do not shy away from anti-Islamic statements, often blurring the line between fundamentalist Islam and Islam in general. In this way, the leader of the Social Democrats Helle Thorning-Schmidt this spring said, “I don’t like that headscarf, and I hope that more young girls will put it away.” (Politiken.dk)

This change in the political discourse in widely reflected in the Danish media, believes Bashy Quraishy, Chief Editor of the periodical Media Watch. “The radicalization has been underway for 20 years. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Today, most Danish media is both anti-Islam and anti-immigrants,” he says.

Kenneth Kristensen, a young DPP candidate for parliament, agrees. “The debate has changed,” he says, then adds: “For the better. Today, the Danish media tells the truth about immigrants. We have an open and free debate.”

While Kristensen is happy that he can now say more things about Muslims and immigrants, others worry about the similarities they see between the way the DPP refers to Muslims, and the rhetoric aimed at Jews in the 1930’s and 40’s. Progressively, there has been a concentration on those minorities of Muslim faith:  “It’s important to tell the truth about Islam. It is the menace against society,” says Kenneth Kristensen, “there is really no problem with immigrants from, for example, China.”

In fact, the rhetoric has become both simplistic towards the Muslim communities, collectively treated as the Muslim community, and increasingly Islamophobic. In the Danish media, the “weak immigrants” have become the “strong Muslims” (Døving; 5) who, furthermore, are seen as a collective community; one group with a political agenda – irrespective of the diversity in background amongst the Muslims immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and Danes of another ethnic background.  This collectivization of the Muslims, in which increasingly there is a tendency to refer to the “Muslim opinion” as a whole, resembles the collectivization of the Jews in the 1930s, argues historian of religion Cora Alexa Døving in an article in Politiken.

A good portrait of this increasing fear and dislike of Islam in the political discourse is drawing comparisons between the anti-Semitic statements of the 1930’s and anti-Islam statements today.  In the Danish Broadcasting Corporation's late evening news show ”Deadline”, the host purposefully replaced the words ”Muslim” and ”Islam” with ”Jew” and ”Judaism” in a statement by DPP member Mogens Camre, pushing the comparison to an extreme. Read aloud, however, the results were alarming:

“Our society has a growing underclass of people who will never be integrated, but one day will tear the Danish society in pieces, because the Jewish culture destroys any society. Judaism doesn't belong in Europe, and our first priority must be to repatriate the Jews. Judaism threatens our future, and we must prevent Judaism from setting an agenda in Europe.” (Engelbreth Larsen.)

The resemblance of today’s statements concerning Muslims and anti-Semitic statements became starkly obvious. While the host of Deadline may not have lived up to all rules of journalistic ethics, he did make DPP chief ideologist Søren Krarup – proud of his father’s role as a resistance fighter during World War II – unable to defend the party’s current rhetoric.

The anti-Islamic political language of today is in stark contrast to the rhetoric of the 1980s. Back then, the emphasis was on the respect of differences, and “racism was the problem.” (Kjersgaard.) Today, the stress is on what the “Muslims” can contribute to society with, and increasingly, “the Muslims are seen as the problem.” (Kjersgaard.)

What Caused the Radicalization of the Political Discourse?

While the change in rhetoric vis-à-vis the Danish Muslim communities is easily identifiable, the causes are much more complex. 

Bashy Quraishy, the Chief Editor of MediaWatch, argues that change appears to have been progressive: Guest workers were invited in the 1970s with a need for labor, yet they worked mainly in the service sector, remaining largely invisible. After the oil shock and the subsequent recession, these immigrants became more and more visible as they searched work and unemployment benefits. Quraishy contends that the Danish frustration originated then. Danish politicians did little in anticipation that guest workers would remain in Denmark for various reasons, either to ease integration or to explain the Danes the causes and complexities of the increase in immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. As Quraishy states, “[Denmark] invited workers, but human beings came.” In his view, had the government provided more explanation to why the immigrants were invited, and had it organized itself to facilitate integration, then the underlying tensions that are now exploited by politicians might have never been so strong.

Furthermore, September 11 had a negative effect on attitudes towards Muslim across Europe. In Denmark, that same fall, the present coalition between a liberal-conservative government and the “openly Islamophobic” (Seidenfaden) DPP was formed. Since, the political discourse in Denmark has changed fundamentally, and the DPP has been testing the limits of free speech, often making “shockingly racist statements in the media, without being suspended from this party.” (ECRI Report; 29) The ruling coalition’s dependence on the DPP gives it considerable leverage, often protecting the DPP from criticism from the government for their radical statements.

However, political commentator Clement Kjersgaard warns against the concentration on the radical rhetoric of the far right. In his perception the entire discourse has changed.  As sensational and radical as these statements might be, it is important to note that the moderates have used this new evolving debate to make negative statements about, among others, the Muslim veil: these might be worse, because these politicians symbolize a mainstream that will remain in power and then openly signal that Muslims cannot be part of the Danish society.  Politically, Kjersgaard sees an irreversible trend in which the moderate parties are moving increasingly to the right of the political spectrum. Most parties do not oppose the immigration law changes that have been pushed through by the DPP and the ruling coalition.

Kjersgaard explains this change in the Danish debate as part of an inter-European trend, away from multi-cultural debate towards a “little nationalism.” Rather than being a proud and aggressive nationalism like the one Europe experienced in the 1930s, the “little nationalism” is a passive attempt to oppose change in the society in order to preserve the traditional nation-state, and hence oppose multi-cultural trends.  Nevertheless, while the intent might not be racist, the effect appears to be.

Statistics collected by the ECRI support Kjersgaard’s observations: 70 percent of ethnic Danes have no interest in “meeting members of other groups.”(ECRI Report; 30)  Furthermore, Denmark is still largely perceived as a homogenous society. Thus, the popular trend, whether exploited by or created by the radical political discourse, is unfriendly to accommodate differences and a multi-cultural society.  According to the ECRI report, the media and the politicians give the “general public … the impression that integration has failed and that minority groups are to blame as they do not wish to integrate.” (30) Debate is hence concentrated on seeing the immigrants as the problem and little forum for alternative debate is visible.

What Has Been the Role of the Media?

The causes for the change in the political discourse on Muslims and immigrants are complex.  Nevertheless, it is clear that the political language referring to Danes of another ethnic background and/or faith in Denmark has progressively radicalized. How has the media interacted with this change? The debate is divided on this point.

Martin Rosengaard, a Danish artist, experienced that the media does influence the normalization of Islamophobic political expressions. When he, as part of an art project, published footage of members of the youth wing of the DPP competing to draw the ugliest Muhammad caricature, he felt the media coverage reflected the view of DPP. Rosengaard remembers: “In all media, even in Politiken, the story was: ‘When will they go crazy?’, ‘they’ of course being the Muslims. Some of the media went as far as to use old pictures of burning flags and angry masses from the [original] Cartoon Crisis.”  In this case, the media took the angle of reporting on the frantic Muslim, rather then reflecting on the anti-Islamic action of the youth politicians. Inadvertently, the media played into the Islamophobic fears propagated by the DPP’s youth wing. 

In Bashy Quraishy’s view, Rosengaard’s example is part of a general trend: “Most Danish media is anti-Islam and anti-immigrants. Journalists are very ignorant and not trained in a multi-cultural discourse. The only view they reflect is the view of Islamophobia,” (Interview with Quraishy)

However, Kenneth Kristensen of the DPP denies that the media is giving him or other Islam-critical politicians an easier time today than they used to. But they do phone him more often. “The necessity for them to do that is bigger now,” he says, referring to the DPP’s position as the decisive factor in Danish politics. A position of political influence Kristensen thinks the Danish media coverage of Islam and immigrants has helped them reach. He compares the Danish political climate to the situation in Sweden where the media coverage of Islam and immigrants is much less critical of immigrants and especially of Muslims – a reason, he thinks, for the minor role that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslims parties play in Sweden.  The media’s coverage of the political debate on immigrants thus influences the political atmosphere.  This example suggests that a more critical media reportage towards the political discourse on other faiths and ethnicities may hinder the force of radical political language.

Yet, the media is only one factor among many.  From his Politiken corner office at the Town Hall Square, Editor-in-Chief Tøger Seidenfaden warns against overestimating the role of the media in creating the change in rhetoric on Muslims and immigrants. The media does have an important role, Seidenfaden admits, but “the role of politicians is more important, because what is accepted in the parliamentarian context is – and must be – reported by the media.”

Nevertheless, the media does provide the public forum for the political debate. Bashy Quraishy, for his part, thinks the media runs from the responsibility when downplaying its own role. “The responsibility lies with the media, because the media has the power. If the journalists hold up the microphone for [extreme] statements without questioning them, then they are willing accomplices.”  Thus, he suggests that the media is the arbitrator of the playing ground of political debate: a more critical coverage could hinder the normalization of Islamophobic remarks that influences public attitudes towards Muslims.

Nevertheless, the effects of different media coverage are not necessarily clear. Clement Kjersgaard notes that if the media does question the DPP statements, for instance, and draws strong comparisons between their language and Nazi rhetoric, it can help normalize the moderate Islamophobic political language. “It creates an unintentional safe space for moderate politicians to say discriminatory remarks, since they are not as bad as the DPP,” he says.  Sensational coverage of the most radical language thus may not deter the general political trend against immigrants.

Kjersgaard further states that the media “is not there to battle anyone.” It must remain objective and neutral, otherwise it will have an agenda of its own. Nevertheless, he admits that the media does have a responsibility for “not providing enough background information on [Islam and immigration].”

Tøger Seidenfaden believes the media must “frame and contradict” extreme statements. While he thinks the media often does so, he also admits that journalists often see their obligations ended, when both side have been heard, and the facts are right. “The notion of broader responsibilities for dialogue, tolerance, etc. is not strongly held in the profession,” Seidenfaden says.

Bashy Quraishy, however, underlines that in other European countries, Sweden being an example, the media remains objective and simultaneously refuses to publish anything derogative or disrespectful towards minorities. The lack of this respect in Denmark, in his opinion, is hurting the situation of the Danes of another ethnic background.

In the end, “the media and politicians … play a major role in forging their image of minority groups” and in the view of  the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance “they have unfortunately used this role to divide rather than to unite people.” (30)

Where Could the Media Go from Here?

As the DPP’s Kenneth Kristensen rightly remarks, the “media is the gatekeeper that restricts the access to the audience.” In the context of Denmark, however, the forum created by the media for political debate has been a largely unquestioning one. Freedom of speech and the value of objectivity has dominated the extent to which the debate has indeed been contributing to a perverse atmosphere against Danes of another ethnic background and/or faith.  Thus, inadvertently, the objectivity has biased consequences.  

“Freedom of speech is very important, but it is also always restricted,” reminds Bashy Quraishy. “Here in Denmark, it has evolved so that the majority is allowed to hurt, offend, and degrade purposefully the minority. This normalizes the worst kind of exclusiveness.”

Nevertheless, the media is only one aspect of a larger trend. Clement Kjersgaard remarks that newspapers write to their respective audiences and that the media only follows a larger trend. Denmark indeed continues to define itself as a largely homogeneous society at the expense of its inclusiveness of differences. This popular self-conception is an over-arching trend, in which the media is only one among many factors.

Even though in the Danish journalist profession there is a dislike of the “deontology of responsibility in the field of reporting political debate”, as Tøger Seidenfaden remarks, where the responsibilities of dialogue and tolerance are seen as less important than the reportage of facts, the result has been deplorable.

Thus, our report concludes the media has a responsibility that lies beyond the usual journalistic criteria of getting the facts right and hearing both sides; beyond reflecting the opinions of the public and the politicians; a responsibility of recognizing the consequences that the media coverage of immigrants and Muslims has for these groups.

As a gatekeeper of information, the media has a responsibility to be respectful towards all residents in Denmark; the media has the choice of supporting a respectful debate, mindful of Denmark's diverse citizens, or it may be evolving unwittingly to become willing accomplices in the progressively exclusive political discourse. While massive discrimination often begins in the rhetoric of the other, multi-culturalism and tolerance begins in a language of respect and a well-informed debate.

 

References

 

Bonde, Annette: ’Dansk intolerance vækker bekymring’, in: Berlingske Tidende, December 18, 2005

Danish People’s Party’s Youth Wing’s online shop; accessed  06/27/07;  http://www.dfu-nettet.dk/side194.html

Døving, Cora Alexa: ‘Kronik: Medierne og ‘den kollektive muslim’’, Politiken, January 7, 2007

“Frevert meldt til politiet” DR Nyheder September 30, 2005, accessed 06/29/07 http://www.dr.dk/Nyheder/Politik/2005/09/30/090240.htm 

Jensen, Pia Fris: ’Lukket møde i Kjærsgaard-land’, Information, February 27, 1998

Engelbreth Larsen, Rune: ”Da Søren Krarup blev mundlam” Humanisme.dk; accessed  06/27/07 http://www.humanisme.dk/artikler/tendens23.php

Nyrup Rasmussen, Poul: Folketinget  accessed  06/27/07 http://www.folketinget.dk/Samling/19991/salen/R1_BEH1_3_3_263.htm

“Third Report on Denmark” Council of Europe May, 16, 2006, accessed  06/27/07 http://www.coe.int/t/e/human_rights/ecri/1-ECRI/2-Country-by-country_approach/Denmark/Denmark_CBC_3.asp#TopOfPage

Thobo-Carlsen, Jesper ; Christensen, Bo: ’Dansk Folkeparti i krig mod islam’, Berlingske Tidende, September 17, 2001

Hüttemeier, Christian: ’Helle Thorning vil hjælpe unge muslimske piger med ungdomsoprør’, in: Politiken.dk, April 23, 2007,  accessed 06/27/07 http://www.politiken.dk/indland/article289256.ece 

Interviews Conducted:

Kieler, Jørgen; Resistance Fighter (June 23, 2007)

Kjersgaard, Clement; Political Commentator (June 24, 2007)

Kristensen, Kenneth; Candidate for Parliament, Danish People’s Party (June 25, 2007)

Quraishy, Bashy; Chief Editor, Media Watch (June 26, 2007) 

Rosengaard, Martin; Artist (June 22, 2007)

Seidenfaden, Tøger; Chief Editor, Politiken (June 27, 2007)

 

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