Immigrant Panic and the Estonian Media

Reading a text at a meeting carried out by EKRE in Tartu last February 6th. The party held meetings in cafes that day in different cities of the country to inform of the dangers of multiculturalism, heeding to the call of a pan-European day of fight against immigration called in conjunction with the German party Pegida among others. (Photo: Anton Klink for Delphi)

A survey taken last month has found 21% of Estonians considers immigration to be the biggest problem Estonia is facing at the moment. Unemployment was second, chosen by 12% of the respondents.

The question is the following: how did 21% of Estonians come to consider immigration their main national worry when the country is yet to receive a single asylum seeker from the assigned EU quota? Or, in other words, why so many people are troubled about something they do not know from first hand? The answer must then lie in what has been told to them about the immigration crisis.

This leads me to think, despite my limitations as an observer –remember my shamefully low command of the Estonian language, [1]— the Estonian media have not been able to inform the public with enough accuracy on all the elements involved in the current refugee crisis. At the same time, this informative vacuum has been filled by the social media in the hands of those who have made fear of immigration their main tool for achieving political power. As a result, 21% of Estonians are afraid of something, but they are not sure of what since they do not have any experience with the object of their fear.

How and why has the media failed to counter fear with information? It can be said the role of the media in a democracy consists in providing reliable information. This information in turn enables the people to make decisions regarding their future. If these decisions are made on the basis of accurate and truthful information, they will reflect the freedom of those who make them. If the information is biased, the decisions of the people will not be free, but reflect the bias and intentions of those who manipulated information in the first place [2]

The images and news we have seen in the last months are, of course, disturbing. From the massive arrival of desperate people to the central states of Europe, to the inability of many countries to cope with the overwhelming flow of refugees. But it is precisely because of this urgency they demand from us, that we need to be able to consider the problem calmly and with all the facts on the table.


Spy-like photo of a black man taken by a concerned citizen in Tallinn. It was republished by some anti-immigrant groups in Facebook. It is not too clear why they do this though (Photo: Facebook)

The most dangerous aspect of the current situation is the way a sizable part of the public seems to be receiving maimed information  to the point of being actual propaganda (in a very similar way the Russian government has used information regarding Ukraine since the Maidan, by the way), which deprives people from their ability to think for themselves. If you are bombed with information about the refugee crisis framed in an urgent way telling you your country is being invaded by monster-like human beings, you simply do not stop to think whether it makes sense. You become somehow scared inside, maybe even subconsciously at first, or maybe even develop hatred towards those who look like the supposed invaders.

This is a basic process of de-humanization. What started as being a mass of civilians fleeing from an already 5-year-long civil war that has taken the lives of 250,000 people and made 11 million people leave their homes [3], has now somehow become a matter of protecting Europe from the legions of the poor and displaced for many citizens. The far-right emerging from the deepest caves of the European political underground has seized the moment and thrown its obsessions into the informative space: race, Islam, terrorism, rape, crime, think of the children, the destruction of our identity, a war against “European civilization”…

Moreover, in this confused mass of fear messages, the far-right has also succeeded in connecting with the grievances of those parts of society that feel displaced from the success of the European project and cannot possibly share its values. In the case of Estonia, the rural areas away from the Tallinn-Tartu axis [4], and even the working class districts in their outskirts.

In the absence of clarity, the far right has managed to play on the mainstream narrative of how Estonia gained its independence to present the possible arrival of (poor) people of a different culture as an existential threat to the nation. Next February 24th[5], we will have a chance to see if their strength in the street matches their might on Facebook and their different websites. But they have already succeeded in instilling a fear of the other in the hearts of 21% of this country.

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  1. [1]Which makes my observations not as reliable as I would like them to be, but give me some time. Corrections due to this are always welcome as well
  2. [2] Which leads me to think achieving high quality media, with truly professional journalists, should be a matter of state policy
  3. [3] According to the UN:
  4. [4]Having their heartland in the city and province of Pärnu of all places
  5. [5] The country celebrates its declaration of independence 98 years ago. EKRE and other organizations are planning marches in the capital

5 comentarios

  • “Or, in other words, why so many people are troubled about something they do not know from first hand?”
    Don’t forget, that we have experiences mass immigration during more than 40 years.

    • I know, but I don’t think it’s fair to compare both cases. The next post is going to be about this. Thanks for commenting.

  • It’s easy to dismiss those who disagree with you as brainwashed. I think it would be more interesting to engage with their most legitimate concerns.

    Personally, when this refugee crisis started, I held the same position as you. I changed my mind when the German government said it would take *nearly a million refugees a year.*

    That was a breathtakingly irresponsible statement that only exacerbated the crisis for the entire EU. It was obviously not thought out carefully, as the Germans had to disavow that policy within a matter of months.

    I support multiculturalism and humanitarianism, but I don’t think borders should be fully open, and I believe a state’s first responsibility is to its own citizens.

    • The message the Estonian far right has succeeded in conveying is not one that addresses any legitimate concern (just look at their posters). It’s a message of fear and hate. If we combine this with a bad coverage by the press of a complex issue, what the survey is telling us is precisely that people are scared. Since fear and hate are no way of solving any problem, but emotions useful for political mobilization, I think it is right to say there is manipulation going on. And addressing “legitimate concerns” is exactly what I am calling for.

      Having said that, I have never advocated open borders. But a response to your complaint about Germany’s decision could be whether you think it more responsible to have one million (!) people roaming homeless around the EU. It’s not about supporting multiculturalism, it’s not a debate. It’s a very real problem on which we need to act now because people keep coming and they will die in our streets or in our doorstep if we don’t do anything. Since there is no good option, we need to calm down and think carefully; instead of manipulating people into hating those who need our help.

      What I will always oppose is the racist message implicit in most of the Estonian far right’s discourse. And, as soon as I have time, I will address that too… Thank you for commenting.

      • Thanks for your response. I may have failed to communicate my point, which was that a wide range of people take issue with your position on mass immigration, for a wide range of reasons, but that in your telling, they are all “far right” (or dupes of the far right), guided by “fear” and “hate.”

        I agree with you that we need to “calm down and think.” That was precisely the problem with Angela Merkel publicly announcing that Germany would welcome almost a million refugees per year. She didn’t think the consequences through. She inadvertently (but quite predictably) encouraged many more (including economic migrants) to make the dangerous journey to Europe, and she made a big crisis even bigger, as virtually everyone now acknowledges. Now that her popularity has suffered, she has backtracked by saying, “Well, of course we expect these people to go home when the crisis is over.” [?!]

        In my opinion, more could be done to resettle these refugees closer to home, whether temporarily or permanently. It’s not as if settling them in Europe is the only solution. The goal should be to save their lives, not prove our multicultural bona fides by trying to integrate them all here in the EU. Humanitarian assistance would be much more effective within the region.

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