The media prophecy that must be fulfilled

As the clock struck the first fleeting second of the year 2000, hundreds of doomsday prophecies were already headed straight for the trash. Seconds, minutes, hours and days passed, and yet the new millennium didn’t cause the end of the world and with it, the extinction of human beings predicted by some. In the end, speculations collapsed in the face of facts: life would go on, as beautiful and horrible as ever.

For me, that was not just any year. Not because humans had managed to survive the turn of the millennium (I hardly cared and barely understood), but because I’d just signed up for one of the local football teams in my city, Huesca (population: not quite 50,000). Nearly eight years old and with fresh legs, I was as excited as any other kid in the world whose big dream is to be a footballer.

There I was, the only black guy on the team. As plain as the nose on one’s face, a difference not really worth mentioning. However, that’s just not how reality works and, like other teammates with whom I share blackness, I had to endure racist incidents of one kind or another.

They say that history repeats itself in cycles with similar structures and different actors. I suppose that this maxim also applies at a small scale, re-using faces for lack of funds like in low-budget films. For me, that time-cycle came back around later, when the Roman calendars marked the year 2012 and the Mayans declared that humanity would perish on December 21st. I studied journalism in Madrid that year, and lived with the Mayan prediction but also with other, more ominous forecasts – which, for me, were objectively much worse, because they predicted nothing less than the end of journalism.

Years later, a fellow journalist with many years’ experience under his belt told me he’d never known a time when journalism said everything was okay. The arrival of social networks and the shift from print to digital reading signaled natural changes that, in the words of the pontificators – coincidentally, those who’d always worked in print – would surely be the death of journalism. Those people keep on pontificating as if nothing happened, which I think is a joke.

It has always been clear that the Internet and social networks heralded a new way of doing things, an unprecedented scenario that forced the old-guard media to make a choice: update, adapt or die. This opening also gave new media a chance to carve out its own niche, more or less successfully. This is how eldiario.es appeared around 2012 where three years later, I joined a relatively new team for its short journey, above all for its pioneering partners system and its vision of journalism.

But once again, there I am: the only black person. What’s more, there are people who call me the “black guy at eldiario.es“, or say that they hired me for being black in a show of modernity and a nod to diversity (rather than for my professional and academic merits), as if my curriculum vitae read only: “Moha Gerehou. Black”. I sincerely don’t take these comments to heart; the purpose they do serve for me, though, is to encourage deeper reflection about journalism and its profound importance in the narrative of reality.

The first one is obvious, and it’s still strange to see black people in media, while in other areas it’s absolutely normal. Correct me if I’m wrong, but not once in my life have I heard anyone stand in front of a group of construction workers and shout something like, “Hey look, it’s the black guy in construction”. There are places where we’re expected and others where we’re intruders, and the media are among this second group. Most of all, we should know what prevents black people from being part of the media when we are an active part of society. Basically, we must question where that ceiling is and who put it there.

In talking with Lucía Mbomío, a journalist from Radio Televisión Española (RTVE), she told me that the presence of black people inside both public and private broadcasting sectors had barely changed.She had been in the field for more than ten years and is an example of a black journalist who has arrived, but the focus must shift to the disconnection point that keeps Lucia’s presence an exception and not the rule.

Whenever I pass by schools, I’m struck by the great ethnic and racial diversity, which really shocks me given the panorama I lived in at university. We were four black people; one in my group was nicknamed ‘the fake Moha’. What I’m getting at is, how come all of the diversity present in the compulsory stages of the education system doesn’t transfer to higher education. What goes wrong along the way?

We must also address the lack of examples in media, a result of the prior point. People with similar life histories in those positions can help open visibility for a part of society that never sees itself reflected.

Finally, there are the barriers to access ranging from difficulties in finding employment as a migrant, through the wall of the “Aliens Act”, to the invalidation of knowledge acquired in their countries of origin, especially from the Global South. Many migrant women who take work as cleaners have completed higher education in their home countries, but use their degrees in Spain. Academia and institutions invalidate and reject that knowledge for not having been achieved according to their standards and perspectives. This is a tragedy with grave repercussions, as it condemns people to greater precarity. Several ingredients are shaken into a social cocktail that’s perfectly designed for those same voices to be the ones that convey what goes on.

History is written by the winners, and these mostly tend to be men – white, straight, and economically powerful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie adroitly explained this problem in ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. You need only glance at the executive management of Spanish media, almost always (with some exceptions) led by people with this profile, to see an example. This problem can’t be examined from just an economic viewpoint; the analysis must also undertake a critique from the perspective of the racial, sexual, gender and all those historically excluded and inferiorized identities and realities.

Discrimination can greatly hinder one’s arrival, and it’s not as if it’s easy once you do arrive. A study published in 2016 by The Guardian hit the nail on the head, offering some compelling data as a departure point for exploring the structural causes. After compiling all of the comments posted on its website since 2006, they concluded that of the ten accounts that suffered the most harassment, eight accounts were women (four white and four racialized) and two men, specifically blacks. In addition, within that Top 10 there were three homosexuals, one Muslim and one Jewish person. The great paradox is that the majority of account holders were white men, heterosexuals and, to name a religion, Christians, but none of these were among the top ten most harassed.

In that same year of 2016, I uploaded a photo to Twitter that sparked quite a controversy on social media. I was on my way to work and while passing through the Plaza Mayor (Madrid), I came upon a rally of veterans with their flags and uniforms, calling for the street to remain named in honor of Millán Astray, an icon of the dictatorship and ideals of Francisco Franco. The Madrid City Council decided to eliminate this military reference in the capital city’s street map, a change that these reactionaries were not going to stand for. When I saw the scene, I took a selfie and uploaded it to Twitter with the caption: “The face you make as you pass a group of veterans calling for a street to be named for a Francoist.”

What followed that tweet was an unprecedented level of violence directed towards me. On top of the usual criticism of anyone defending the Law of Historical Memory was added a racist violence beyond all levels. My message was by no means among the greatest stands against a fascist demand, but what I got back in return perfectly illustrates how, when I air my political opinions in the media, they have to do with the racial issue.

Much of the questioning directed my way wasn’t because I supported a measure that was considered “left-wing”, but because as a black person I had an opinion on a political issue that affected Spaniards. Although I was born in Huesca, my blackness is not equated with Spanishness because of a monolithic, stale concept of what it means to be Spanish or European, a space exclusively reserved for whites. Here are five real examples of the shots fired:

  • “Shut up you ingrate, you know nothing about Spanish history, if you don’t like it go back to where you came from”
  • “Yeah right, you idiot, like we don’t have enough already with half the country criticizing the other half, we need you to come and make jokes”
  • “At least they’re Spanish – you’re not”
  • “When are you going to talk about the mass rapes in northern Europe by Islamist refugees?”
  • “What the hell do you know, deadbeat, go back to your country and live the dream”

This same logic applies to what happens in the media and interactions with readers or viewers. I remember that in my early days at eldiario.es, when I was writing on topics for the Economics section, some comments left for me on social networks went far beyond the disagreements and criticisms abounding in similar texts, and went on to directly attack me as a black person of migrant origin.

The same thing happens both inside and outside the newspaper with those feminists who dare to appear in the media, whether with gender related discourses or not. The challenging questions and violence to which they are subjected always focus on their state as woman, imposing the constraints of patriarchy on them. Columnists like Barbijaputa in eldiario.es, or the women of ‘Afroféminas’ or ‘Pikara Magazine’ came to know this reality all too well.

Faced with this reality in the media, what do we have left? Nowadays the presence of the different realities and identities forming our entire society has a greater weight in the public debate. This is something feminism especially encourages, like the initiative #LasPeriodistasParamos, but other questions arise that should be put on the table. How can we ensure, as much as possible, that racialized people and migrants can enjoy media space without being subjected to the violence that puts us in the crosshairs?

The well-rehearsed speech the media has ready about their struggles against the pressure bearing down from political and economic powers, which get transformed into concrete initiatives, must also incorporate their vision of a response to pressure from racist, macho and homophobic powers. Otherwise, the media ends up being just another way to toss us into the lion’s den. From initiatives that eliminate all hiring barriers to those that seek to end harassment in the newsroom, to finding a way to guarantee freedom of expression, we do our journalism or occupy media space. We must reflect and above all act to guarantee the full expression of the rights of those facing different forms of discrimination. This means both re-examining existing initiatives and applying a more comprehensive approach to all that lies ahead.

The latter reminds me of a conference organized by a progressive foundation in order to discuss ‘Journalism and Migrations’. It was full of recognized journalists who do great work and with unquestionable track records, but two omissions really stood out for me. First, there were hardly any migrants anywhere in the event, and the few migrant attendees had jobs focused not on the Spanish state, but instead mostly related to situations in other countries.The second was that basically, there were no journalistic initiatives led by and performed by migrants present. I can think of the websites EsRacismo, Afroféminas or Afrokairós, to name but a few good examples.

The gravity of the problem is that today, when it comes to migrants and racialized people, media space is made available only when we’re the subjects of research, but not to present us as the owners of our own political identity. Even when we’re occasionally portrayed as such, from a global perspective it’s a drop in the bucket.

Every time a terrorist attack is claimed by an Isis group, the media presence of Arab and Muslim people instantly increases. The modus operandi is usually the same: if the Muslim population wants to be freed from association with the terrorist act, they must proclaim loud and clear that they do not side with terrorism. This brings up several issues. First, it’s those who are guilty of an attack, indirectly or not, who should be trying to escape blame for their act, not those who sharesome trait (in this case, religion) with the perpetrators of a massacre. Otherwise, the entire Muslim population is found guilty, with nothing left to do but publicly beg forgiveness in the eye of the media.

The second thing is that Arab and Muslim people’s presence as experts in the media practically occurs during attacks, only. The rest of the time it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to find a woman in a hijab appearing in a debate on the economic situation, or offering her opinion of the Catalan conflict. Space in the media is reduced to the racial, migrant and religious condition, almost always as victims or executioners, leaving little room for our role as subjects capable of communicating beyond race, origin, or religion.

Intersectionality is not a concept, and diversity is not an objective. Instead, both are existing realities and if they are not present socially, the reasons can be traced to an underlying history rooted in discrimination. I mention this because in my few years as an activist in the anti-racism struggle, all we hear are promises and pleas for patience because things are going to change.

There are prophecies to be made but especially to be fulfilled, and in the debate on the future of the Spanish media, that process remains incomplete. It has to be put on the table: journalism must be diverse in order to better reflect a diverse world. I am convinced that journalism always warrants the use of a perspective that’s as broad as possible in order to show the full picture; to be rigorous, truthful, faithful to reality and critical of abuses committed by all forms of power.

Solutions can only come from a collective debate starting with some basic outlines that will become more complex along the way, both to think about and to establish in society. Media whose professionals are a true representation of society, without economic, racial or gender barriers. A media strategy that takes all of these considerations into account while never losing rigor. Results that uphold the classic pillars of journalistic standards and broaden access to knowledge and information for all of society while not ignoring other fundamental rights. In a context where rights and freedoms are more at risk than ever, journalism is more necessary than ever as one of the greatest monitors of power and guardians of the right to freedom of expression.

Back when I stood not even a meter high, the first prophecy marked me as the only black man on the team. Years later, the second prophecy foretold the future of journalism. The third prophecy must come from uniting both visions into one, bringing the racial issue together with journalism to create a just society at all levels. It is in our hands, in the hands of the media and institutions to really put it on the table and make it happen. These are the essential steps for a media prophecy that must be fulfilled.

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