The “assault” by “sub-Saharan immigrants” in the media

revue Mugak

When, from the anti-racist camp, we voice our concern about the treatment that news
concerning migration issues receives in the media, some people think that we are denouncing
a sort of media plot by people who hold xenophobic views, who need to be unmasked. Well,
it’s not like that at all.

Neither is it a matter of conspiracies nor, most importantly, are we
talking about journalists with xenophobic opinions (although these do exist). The matter is simpler and, it would be fair to say, more serious. What we observe is that, in contrast with
the media’s great capacity to establish images about immigration in public opinion, the
professionals working for these media neither have sufficient knowledge about the issue they
are reporting and expressing opinions about, nor are they conscious of the concrete
repercussions of their work, of the stereotypes they reinforce, of the ammunition, in effect,
that they provide to those in the political arena who do push forth policies of exclusion and

There are, of course, professionals who do an excellent job, but between the
fact that there are few of them, and that media businesses, who are the ones who should
take up this issue, are not willing to do so, the end result is that in spite of the use politically
correct arguments, the image of immigration in public consciousness is in constant decline.

Let’s look at this through a glance at the press treatment of what happened around Ceuta and
Melilla in the second half of the year that just ended.
Construction of the news in the media
The attempts by a considerable number of immigrants to jump over the border fences of
Ceuta and Melilla to enter Spain have been portrayed in the media by resorting to all kinds of
metaphors, whose effect throws up an image that has very little relation with the truth, but
which is strongly indicative of how certain migratory issues are tackled and of what
understanding media companies have of these. On 27 August, which is when the recent cycle
of events began, the headlines report the news in a reasonably aseptic and, by and large,
balanced way: «The Guardia Civil blocks the entry into Melilla of 250 immigrants using riot
prevention materials»
(ABC), «The Guardia Civil prevents the entry of 250 illegal immigrants in
(El Mundo), «The Guardia Civil blocks a mass entry of immigrants in Melilla» (El País),
«Around 250 Africans attempt to jump the fence that surrounds Melilla» (El Periódico de

The assault

However, in the body of the news articles, metaphors start to appear about “repeated
”, “avalanches”, “assaults”, among which the account by El País from that day stands
out, which reads: “it was an example of military strategy”, “they use military tactics”, “they
use the call to prayer by the muezzin to send their comrades to the assault
”, “when the horn
sounded, an army of sub-Saharans came out of the vegetation; they simultaneously carried
over 100 ladders... and the battle commenced. It was like a medieval assault

And, on the
following day, the same reporter insisted on this idea by resorting, in this instance, to the
government envoy, “we do not rule out that among them there may be members of the
militias from the many wars that Africa is suffering
This description is very significant. It is not just a literary means used by the author, but
rather, it shows a perception that we will continue to find throughout the following weeks:
the understanding of Spain (and, by extension, of the European Union) as a fortress under
siege, that must be protected from the onslaught by massive waves of poor people
(particularly Africans) resorting to well-defined means to do so, either material (more fences,
higher and equipped with more control tools), human (more police, and even the army), or of
international cooperation (calling the EU to assist us, or Morocco and its army) in response to
a situation that is described as an emergency and as one of the most serious problems faced
by Spain. This is the discourse and the views that are practically unanimous.

The differences
surface, on the one hand, due to the political game played by parties and, on the other, as a
result of the degree of proximity that most journalists seek to achieve in relation to the
authentic dramatic human circumstances that the protagonists of this story carry with them.
Already on the second day, the newspapers begin to carry their own ideologised view of
events in their headlines, and thus they tell us of “avalanches”, “waves”, “injured Guardia
Civil officers
”, of the “assault of the fence, “mass assault on the border” and, while we’re
at it, on the 31st, El País carries the headline “assault on Melilla”. The difference between
jump” (saltar, in Spanish) and “assault” (asaltar, in Spanish) goes far beyond a simple vowel.

The meaning changes entirely, and it is not a matter of bad use of language (those writing are
professionals of the pen, and language is their tool). Jumping the fence, crossing it, entering
illegally... have nothing to do with assaulting. There is no need to resort to the dictionary to
understand that the connotations that the word assault implies are very different from what
the immigrant people referred to are trying to do
, that is, to get into the EU however they
can to be able to work and thus earn means of subsistence for themselves and their families.
And let’s not say that what they are assaulting is not a fence, but the city, Melilla, as such.

It’s obvious that, with events portrayed in this way, the alarm bells start ringing.
Nor is it pointless to note that it is El País, precisely, that presents this view. There is no
doubt that the author of these accounts, and it may even be fair to make a generalisation in
this sense about the entire newspaper, acts from an anti-xenophobic and anti-racist
subjective stance, as is evident from other news items.

However, if even when working with
this starting point it is possible to construct the images that we are discussing, this means
that they are common currency in the media as a whole. That is, we have no need to resort
to examples that are more explicitly xenophobic which, of course, have been distilled by the
pens of other journalists from different newspapers whose stance in these matters is less
In the coverage of these days, as could be expected, there are also plenty of references to
these people as “illegals”.

This climate that was created progressively fertilises the ground to legitimise the intervention
by the army, and when it takes place on 29 September, the image according to which we are
witnessing a bellic problem is definitively propped up, just as the headlines and photographs
from these days reflect, as do various accounts like the one in El Diario Vasco, on 1 October,
which begins with “the military operation on this side of the fence leaves one breathless”.

The figures

The use of figures, something that the media like very much, does not reflect the true
quantitative dimension of the events at all. We are talking about a few thousand people who,
apparently, would end up saturating our countries, when it turns out that every two or three
days, through ports and airports, this same total number of people enters and ends up staying
in spite of not having a residence permit. In these days, we also saw how the figures were
inflated by the practice of identifying the number of attempts to jump over the fence with
the number of immigrants, when the Guardia Civil itself, which is the source that was
consulted, insisted that the same people attempt the jump several times.

This is what El
Mundo does on 29 September, when it details that “over 12,000 immigrants have tried to
jump the fence
”. From this perspective, that of figures, which journalistic references so
often employ, the number of people who gain access to Melilla and Ceuta is absolutely
marginal. In spite of this, the treatment of these events well beyond their scale can be seen
in El Mundo, which, already on 31 August, in its editorial comment under the headline
Melilla, faced by waves of immigrants”, states that “the immigrants now launch massive
” and, a month later, on 30 September, will refer to them as “one of the greatest
problems that Spain has

The excess of figures features grotesque1 examples such as those from the Diario Vasco on 9
October, which features among its headings (in this case a sub-heading): “The Spanish
frontiers of Africa are not in Ceuta and Melilla, but rather in the desert, where there are
swarms of Islamist groups, and millions of sub-Saharans arrive to jump into Europe
”. If we are
talking of millions who come to jump into Europe and who, moreover, have some connection
with Islamists, of course, we’ll end up shouting the classic: “Legion, come to me!

why should we call on the media for rigour, when a veritable intellectual of the standing of
Sartori is capable of clamly stating, in El País Semanal on 25 December 2005 that “The
African problem is very serious: it has been calculated that between 200 and 300 million
people would be ready to go to Europe by any means, even if this is by jumping fences, as has
happened in Melilla, or in dynghies


Insofar as the immediate response on the border is concerned, the accounts of the first few
days stress the impeccable behaviour of the Guardia Civil. If, in spite of everything, some
people are injured, this is apparently due to the ladders having fallen, after which, of course,
they were immediately taken care of by the Guardia Civil, which thus honoured its name, the
benemérita2’. Even if, on the first day (29 August), one immigrant is found dead at the foot
of the fence, no responsibility can be laid at its door, as only the official versions are
reported. It was left to various associations (Medicos sin fronteras, Prodein, SOS Racismo,
) to take the step of directly contacting the people on the receiving end of the
intervention and to disclose the data and evidence that end up emphatically contradicting the
credibility of official sources and illustrating the damage caused by the use of rubber bullets,
truncheons and other repressive equipment by the Guardia Civil.

Even so, when a third
immigrant died on 15 September in the hospital in Melilla with a destroyed trachea3, the
very peculiar” official version according to which this person had been found in that
condition by an immigrant in a Moroccan village and had been able to walk to the frontier in
Melilla in such conditions, where the fence was opened to let him through and he was picked
up and taken to hospital, was initially not even questioned by the press, even taking into
account that the immigrant in question was taken to hospital after a charge during which
rubber bullets were used.

Once again, it was left to these associations to question the official
version. It is also true that throughout these months, the press has also gathered some
accounts that indicate that there were interventions by the Guardia Civil that contravene
current legislation and the rights of the people trying to jump the fence, but from an overall
glance at this period a clear trend can be noticed, whereby such actions are presented as
specific episodes, which is also as far as the official version ever goes, when it has to face up
to unquestionable facts such as, for example, the repeated agression by a Guardia Civil
officer against an immigrant who was on the floor and was not putting up any sort of
resistance, which was broadcasted by Tele 5.

Concertinas or barbed wire?

The “spin” operation reaches grotesque levels when, to refer to the barbed wire that crowns
the fence, we repeatedly hear people talking of “concertinas”. It is obviously not an effort
to improve the population’s musical education, but rather of sweetening a reality that causes
terrible damage to those who try to jump over the fence. When they have been spending
several years selling us the argument for a very strong investment of euros in a panoply of
technological means (acoustic sensors, infra-red optical systems, video-cameras...) that,
“Esperpéntico” in the original, a term used to refer to grossly exaggerated portrayals which
supposedly, will painlessly prevent the entry of unwanted immigrants, it now turns out that it
all looks more like the barbed wire fences that surrounded the concentration camps of the
Second World War, which are sadly remembered in European memory.

As for the underlying responsibility, what is emphasized above everything else is the version
(also maintained by large part of the political class) that points to Morocco, which is
considered responsible for what is taking place, and is required to “solve” the problem. Only
a marginal space is afforded to the systematic violation of fundamental rights by Morocco, by
its judicial and penitentiary system, and its police and military forces, alike.

What stands out
is a unanimous outcry requiring Morocco (in spite of the fact that it claims to have detained
23,000 immigrants so far this year and argues that it is a problem that does not depend on its
actions) to act, and to do so with more forcefulness than it has up to now.

The newspapers
make this demand by a large part of the political class their own, bringing it to editorial
prominence without it being made subject to Morocco respecting Human Rights or the right to
asylum. This pressure will have an effect, and Morocco will go so far as to resort to the army,
killing five immigrants with their bullets in Ceuta on 2 October and six more in Melilla, four
days later (as well as many people suffering gunshot wounds and various other injuries).

the clamour for “cleaning up” the border anything is allowed, and we thus see how dozens
of immigrants are rescued by «the Polisario» from the desert where they had been abandoned
and sentenced to death by the Moroccan police forces.

Packaging agendas

The ability of the media to set and change the agendas of the political class can be seen in
this example of what occurred in Ceuta and Melilla.

Its newsworthiness in the media was replaced by the revolts in the French suburbs, which also
had a sell-by date. The bulk of what happened in September and October in Ceuta and Melilla
has not changed. There continue to be attempts to jump over the fence (albeit in smaller
numbers), as happened previously; hundreds of immigrants, men, women and children are
languishing in military camps like the ones of Taouima in Morocco and the one of Adrar in
Algeria; hundreds continue to wander in the hills that are found near to the border... but it is
not the moment for this. Its coverage in media has changed radically. And therefore, they are
not the focus of concern in the political agenda.

 This article was published in SOS Racismo’s: “Informe Anual 2006. Sobre racismo en el Estado