Saturday, February 4, 2012

Activists to MTV: Racism is not funny

Now Lebanon

In October, MTV news came under fire from local activists for airing what they said was a racist report blaming foreigners (including migrant domestic workers) for an increase in crime, prostitution and drugs.

Activists are again riling over an MTV program, this time a comedy show called "Ktir Salbe" (Very Cool) which did a skit making fun of migrant domestic workers and the organizations that work for their rights in Lebanon. Read a rough English transcript of the skit here.

This week alone, two maids reportedly committed suicide. Last week, a Gemmayzeh bar was forced to cancel an event it had planned after activists protested it as racist. Life bar invited patrons to dress up as “any maid you want… look like a Philippino [sic], Bengladish [sic], Sri Lanka [sic]”  for the chance to win a $100 cash prize.

All this comes amid a special report from The Guardian this week chronicling the life and death of Lila Aacharya, a migrant worker from Nepal who was trafficked into slavery. Two months after her arrival in Beirut, her body was flown back to her family.

“I can’t think of anything lower than this. I don’t know where we are going,” said Farah Salka, who works with the Anti-Racist Movement in Lebanon, in response to the Ktir Salbe video. “The main problem is that people don’t see these workers as human beings, and this is the best example: they’re making fun of them dying.” 

“There is a very thin line between being stupid and being funny and MTV just doesn’t get the difference,” said Wissam al-Saliby from the Ethiopian Suicides blog. “And we’re not just talking about abuse anymore, the problem has expanded. Now we’re talking about slavery, trafficking and sometimes sexual enslavement.”

“So some people are calling for shutting down MTV, which is unacceptable, said Saliby. “But what is equally unacceptable is not sanctioning this or finding a way to prevent this from happening in the future.”

Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for Lebanon and Syria, Nadim Houry, warns that some viewers might not even understand the supposed humor implied in the sketch: “There are people who will watch it, will identify with it and not get the point. So you are actually reinforcing the idea that this is ok… It’s disgusting when it’s what people actually say.”

I was able to reach the director of Katir Salbe, Hani Khafsheh, who said that critics “don’t understand the video.”

“Ktir Salbe has a double meaning in Arabic. You can say  it in your daily life and it means ‘very cool.’ And the other meaning is the exact translation with is ‘very negative’… When we raise a serious subject, we talk about it as very negative, like what’s happening with maids.”

Khafsheh also said, “this program, if you see it, most of the sketches defend human rights. So these people talking about human rights are big liars, hypocrites, because they’re doing nothing. We’re doing something.”

Salka maintains that the skit only contributes to “inciting hatred against a huge population that has zero rights whatsoever. Things like this fuel hatred.”

“They knew that putting up a racist video would get them publicity, there’s nothing else to explain how people could be so insensitive and racist,” said Saliby, adding, “you cannot justify in any way possible what they did.”

There are an estimated 200,000 domestic migrant workers in Lebanon. In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch found that domestic workers were dying at a rate of more than one a week.

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