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Russia-Ukraine war: Western media criticised for racist 'blonde hair blue eyes' coverage of invasion

Major news outlets have aired racist views - often using comparisons with the Middle East - since the invasion began
An elderly woman is comforted as she sits on a bench outside a train station in Lviv on 27 February 2022 (AFP)

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has attracted wall-to-wall coverage from international media outlets.

With cities across the country under attack, civilians fleeing the fighting, and hundreds of Ukrainians dead since the war began on Thursday, correspondents have flown in from around the world to the eastern European country as news sites have pumped out non-stop stories.

But as the war has unfolded, numerous Western news outlets have aired views and statements that have been condemned as racist or problematic.

“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking," wrote journalist and former Conservative politician Daniel Hannan in Britain's Telegraph newspaper on Saturday.

"Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone."

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Prominent social media users have been quick to point out the racist tropes in this and other coverage.

On Friday, CBS's senior correspondent, Charlie D’Agata, said in Kyiv that “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades.

"This is a relatively civilised, relatively European - I have to choose those words carefully, too - city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

He later apologised.

One Twitter user ironically asked: “Is someone printing “uncivilized” t-shirts yet? I want one.”

NBC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella also came under fire from fellow journalists after she stated on air that "these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine... They're Christian, they're white, they're very similar."

On France's BFMTV on Friday one analyst said that “we’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours... to save their lives".

"We are in the 21st century, we are in a European city, and we have cruise missile fired as if we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, can you imagine?” said another commentator on the channel.

One French sociologist pointed out how Ukrainians fleeing the conflict are being described as "refugees" while Afghans fleeing their country last year were described predominantly as "migrants".

And Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a member of France's National Assembly, said during a broadcast that Ukrainian refugees would be “an immigration of great quality, intellectuals”.

Over on Al Jazeera English, a presenter sharing his observations of Ukrainians fleeing the fighting in their homeland said that “what’s compelling is, just looking at them, the way they dress, these are prosperous, middle-class people.

“These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European families that you would live next door to.”

Later on Sunday, Al Jazeera acknowledged that one of their presenters "made unfair comparisons between Ukrainians fleeing the war and refugees from the MENA region" and apologised. 

"The presenter’s comments were insensitive and irresponsible. We apologize to our audiences worldwide and the breach of professionalism is being dealt with," the news agency said in a tweet. 

On Saturday, David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, spoke to the BBC, suggesting that it was harder for him to watch white people fleeing conflict. 

“It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed,” he said. 

The presenter replied, “I understand and of course respect the emotion.”

Meanwhile, on Britain's ITV, a correspondent in Poland said: "This is not a developing third world nation. This is Europe."

Social media users have also drawn comparisons between the demonisation of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement with the willingness to use the same tactics on Russia.

Russia has been heavily sanctioned by Western powers and excluded from multiple sporting events.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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