Does the media in Belgium paint an accurate picture of ethnic minorities? An initiative is seeking to diversify the pundits the media calls on to better mirror society.
Joeri el-Hazimi is a successful, young Belgian professional. The 32-year-old works as a training manager for a famous international sports brand. Away from the office, el-Hazimi has been an elected socialist member of the city council in his hometown of Mol in Flanders since 1994. He is also something of a pundit on history, photography and vintage Citroën cars.
As his name indicates, el-Hazimi is of mixed Belgian-Moroccan descent and is a walking example of the cultural melting pot that is increasingly becoming a daily reality. El-Hazimi, however, shares the frustrations of other Belgians of foreign descent at the limitations of their role in the media.
“It is often difficult for people with foreign roots to express themselves as just ‘Belgians' without the tags,” El-Hazimi explains. “The political and media environment tends to put people into boxes: a Belgian-Moroccan should only be interested in issues concerning immigrants, racism, or discrimination.”
To address this, the young multilingual is taking part in an initiative to raise the profile of ethnic minorities in what remains largely a monocultural media. The Forum for Ethno-Cultural Minorities hopes to encourage the Flemish media to mirror more accurately the country's subtle multicultural make-up by compiling a database of pundits of foreign origin.
“Our aim is to help the media broaden the scope of their reporting,” says the project's co-ordinator, Danny De Bock. “For those in the media who want to reflect the diversity in society, but find it hard to do so, for reasons of time pressure or lack of contacts, the database should be of help.”
Although the media is taking a keener interest in minority issues, particularly following the recent alleged racist murder and riots in Antwerp, the Forum would like it to go a step further and hear the voices of minorities in a wider context. The underlying goal of the project is to help pluck minorities out of the media ghettos and propel them into the mainstream.
De Bock suggests that encouraging journalists to venture beyond their regular contacts would, in addition to opening new angles for them, bring to public attention the diversity within immigrant communities and overcome the negative image of immigrants as disenfranchised, unemployed and violent.
“If there is a flu epidemic, why not talk to a doctor of foreign origin?” asks De Bock. “This would help address negative stereotypes in the media.” It would also, he notes, help minorities find their voices and feel more like an integral part of society.
The Forum hopes that the directory, once it hits editors desks in the next few months, will contain experts from a multitude of fields and ethnicities.
The project has already gathered the details of dozens of specialists in fields as wide-ranging as domestic and international politics, culture, business, sport and medicine. The profiled experts come from the country's main ethnic minorities: Southern European, North and Central African and Turkish.
De Bock insists that the initiative is not a positive discrimination drive but a response to the wishes of the media to reach out to minorities. He notes that the idea was actually the brainchild of a journalist and caught the imagination of other media officials, prompting Mieke Vogels, the Flemish minister for equal opportunities to commission the project.
“I think it's a good thing that will help promote multiculturalism,” says Bart Sturtewage, deputy editor of Flemish broadsheet De Standaard. “At the moment you often get to hear the more extreme voices.”
Sturtewage notes that the sensationalist segments of the media, in their quest for higher circulation or ratings, may be a little deaf to moderate voices. But he insists that the ‘quality' newspapers have, in recent years, been working hard to project a nuanced picture of immigrant communities.
Although his broadsheet offers a podium for a wide range of voices from minority groups, it does not, however, consciously seek out the views of pundits from ethnic minorities for more general stories.
“We don't do this as a conscious, positive-action policy,” Sturtewage notes. “But when we come across experts like that, we are more than happy to use them in our stories.”
He says that when the directory becomes available his newspaper will promote it actively among its journalists. Sturtewage cautions, however, against expecting too much from the initiative.
“Sensationalism sells, so don't expect magazines and newspapers to change the way they operate overnight,” he warns.
The Forum acknowledges that the initiative will not transform media coverage but will help tip the balance a little in the favour of minorities from whose ranks more of tomorrow's opinion setters will hopefully come.
“We hope to see more colour and fewer stereotypes in the media,” concludes De Bock.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Bulletin on 13 February 2003.