The incident in Christchurch last month where a man suffering from a mental illness allegedly kidnapped a woman and stabbed another man was quickly followed-up with offensive commentary in the newspapers, on the radio and internet sites.
The accused is a refugee from Somalia and journalists described him as "a knife wielding Somali man…", "Somali man goes on knife rampage" and so on. Not to be outdone the outspoken radio talkback host, Michael Laws, made the following comments on-air. “I’ve got something against Somalian refugees. No, I’ll be honest about it. I don’t think they should be here….” And so on. Maybe the callers weren’t phoning in so his comments continued to deteriorate. “They don’t fit in and they conspicuously don’t fit in and they’re just a bit too much of a problem.” The Christchurch daily newspaper, the Press, published an editorial cartoon about the incident which has led to complaints to the Press Council.
A Press Council spokesperson describes complaints about cartoons as tricky because they are regarded as opinion or satire and in this case the complaint was laid on the grounds of discrimination. It will be considered next month.
Meanwhile deputy editor of The Press, Ric Stevens, says the paper operates under a code of ethics but cartoons are different and looked at on a case by case basis. “There is a history of cartoons that is vigorous and edgy. This one is confronting but it doesn’t talk about a specific ethnic group. It talks more about the issue of whether committing a violent crime disqualifies someone’s right to stay in the country.”
The director of the Multi Culture Learning centre in Christchurch, Patrick O’Connor, disagrees and describes the cartoon as abhorrent. “That an individual has allegedly transgressed criminally is irrelevant to that person’s status or nationality. Human beings sometimes behave in unacceptable ways. This is inevitable and such people belong to all cultures and ethnicities.” The backlash has seen harassment, bullying and verbal abuse against the 200 plus Somali refugees who live in Christchurch. A spokesman for the community, Hassan Ibrahim, says Somali people are being labelled and feel separated from the whole community. “They are regarded as second class citizens. We are considering relocating some to Australia or even the U.K as this is a country that doesn’t respect cultural diversity.” He says Somali children fear bullying at school and women are scared to wear their traditional dress when shopping. “The accused was labelled as a Somali man when he should have been referred to as a man with a mental illness. He remains in hospital getting treatment for his mental illness which has been an on-going health issue for him.” Mr Ibrahim says the media coverage has reinforced this country’s failure to accept different cultures. He has discussed the issue with the Human Rights Commission and is urging the Race Relations Commissioner to focus more on educating New Zealanders about cultural diversity. Commissioner Joris de Bres says this is already a top priority for him and the Commission.. “We do it through the diversity action programme and other things such as sport around the country. It’s also up to every organisation to do the same.”
Mr de Bres agrees with Mr Ibrahim about some of the media coverage and points the finger at two particular examples that he believes were offensive. “The cartoon was in very poor taste and Michael Laws’ comments on RadioLive stereotyped the entire Somali community and caused a great deal of grief. It has led to one person’s actions resulting in the whole community being given a hard time. The media needs to be aware that every time they label someone it affects others in that community as well.”
The Commission received ten complaints about the cartoon and has advised the complainants to take the issue to the Press Council, the appropriate body.
Mr de Bres acknowledges that the Press did follow up by reporting on the reaction and concern from the Somali community which was positive. “But it still begs the question as to why the media use ethnic references in some cases, but not others. That needs a lot more thought. It sparks the kind of reaction that we have seen and there needs to be a very good reason to give such prominence to a person’s ethnicity. Why do we say someone is a Somali and not that another one is a Pakeha or Dutch?" Mr de Bres will be in Christchurch early next month to talk with refugee and migrant groups about the media reports and other concerns they have.