09.01.2009 | Halya Coynash

New Year greetings wrapped in statistics


A leading Russian television channel reported yesterday that in 2008 2,787 Ukrainian nationals had committed crimes in Italy.  In an interview, a well-known journalist claimed that this was the inevitable result of the recent honouring of Ukrainian Resistance Army [UPA] leader, Roman Shukhevych.  In Ukraine outrage is growing, with angry questions about unfair distortion of statistics, lies and attempts to destroy Ukraine’s image in Europe. .  Why not say how many Russians, yes and how many crimes were committed overall?  AND why report it anyway?

No apologies to the unnamed channel, it’s come up with much worse, however the first paragraph is pure fiction, or almost.

The report was issued by the Public Liaison Centre for the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MIA] and circulated to all media outlets. The latter duly hastened to report that 2,787 foreign nationals had committed crimes in Ukraine in 2008.  Perhaps the journalists were all awaiting the eminently predictable gas conflict and had no time to examine this new report of foreigners’ iniquity:  cut and paste would do. 

So as New Year approached, the media in unison reported that 150 “criminal gangs of an ethnic nature” had been uncovered, these supposedly guilty of 318 thefts. Ukrainian non-criminals can peacefully celebrate New Year – just see how vigilantly we’re protecting you!

Now the day before New Year, arithmetic is strictly for presents under the tree and bottles on the table. Presumably this explains the rather peculiar mathematical feat in the report which the media so obediently copied and circulated.  Of 2,787 foreign nationals we learn of 13 in three regions, all from one particular country, with another criminal gang consisting of an unidentified number of nationals from that selfsame country.  It is hard to imagine what the other people were arrested for if these specific crimes, predominantly burglary or theft, made such a profound impact on the MIA’s public liaison officers.

Better not to try to fathom what they hoped to achieve. It is difficult to believe that they could have wanted to make people suspicious of a specific nationality or of foreigners in general. On the other hand, if one can’t expect the media to check every report from this supposedly authoritative source for quality, the MIA staff must have known what a distorted picture they were painting. After all on the MIA’s official site you can read full statistical data about the crime situation in the first half of 2008  It turns out that the number of crimes decreased slightly during that period, by comparison with the same period for 2007 – 201,262 crimes against 208,125 (or -3.3%). In 2008 foreign nationals committed 0.9% of all crimes (1,300), as against 1.2% (1638) in 2007.  Thus foreigners committed 20.6 % less crimes in the first half of last year. Hardly breaking news material, but you can just about see some information value.

If you strain your imagination, it’s possible to envisage a situation where all Ukrainians with a criminal bent decided for some reason or other to take a six-month, so-to-speak, sabbatical in the second half of the year. Foreign nationals on the contrary unleashed a veritable orgy of criminal activity leading to an increase in the ratio of ill deeds committed by the latter. Nonetheless the number of actual unlawful acts will still be not much higher than that in just six months of the year for crimes linked with abuse of power or official position (2,716). Now these were most certainly not the work of citizens of other countries. The information which media outlets hurtled to pass on to their audience seems increasingly bizarre. .  

One might also ask what is meant by “foreign nationals”. We know the citizenship of all 13 people who, the MIA’s public liaison personnel claim committed crimes, plus an unidentified number of members of a criminal gang (but no way over 2 thousand). It would be worth clarifying this if the point of the exercise is to inform on observance of law and order.

And if the aim is not to provide information, then what is it? Why send the media figures wrenched out of all context so that they represent reality with about as much accuracy as one unwashed glass describes your New Year’s festivities? The information content is pitiful but the associations are clear: crime is linked with foreigners, and crime in general with nationals of one specific country since they are the only ones mentioned.

Now you have to be pathologically lazy these days to not have something to say on the subject of xenophobia and intolerance.  The Ministry of Internal Affairs is up there with the rest, and has even created a special anti-racism section on its site. You can find an entire “Action Plan on countering cases of xenophobia, racial and ethnic discrimination in Ukrainian society for 2008-2009”.  There is precious little specific detail, however judging by the words, the intentions are good, not to say noble. What is more, it’s been a full six months since the last outrageous statements on the subject of migration which had been coming thick and fast from high-ranking MIA officials.

Yet it’s hard to feel that any even basic lessons on avoiding xenophobic responses have been learned when you read the reports issued by the MIA’s Public Liaison Centre. And although it would be nice to see a more critical approach to reports which compensate their meagre information content with a lavish range of prejudices, in such cases it would hardly be fair to blame the media.

There are plans afoot to create in the near future a new body on migration matters which will be subordinate to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Ministry is clearly interested in assuming this role, and it is therefore disturbing to constantly run up against reports and statements which demonstrate at very least a seriously inadequate understanding of the scope of issues and duties falling within the sphere of migration. I could cite a whole number of positive duties which must be assumed, but will confine myself to one negative duty which takes on urgency and crucial importance in times of crisis and increasing social tension. Let the MIA look for cheap PR in other spheres and stop generating, through sloppy and primitive reports, harmful stereotypes and prejudice.

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