In many ways, the chaotic situation in Ferguson, Mo., seems like something that shouldn't happen in America. As WorldViews has noted, many of the hallmarks of the conflict are reminiscent of scenes from the Arab Spring and the Ukraine crisis – our former colleague Max Fisher has even wondered how American journalists would cover Ferguson, if only it weren't happening "here."
There are plenty of foreign journalists reporting on Ferguson, however, and for them, Ferguson is international news. Their coverage of the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest can offer a refreshing viewpoint on America's many problems. They can also reveal a lot about how such disturbances are viewed at home.
For most Americans, the most familiar foreign news outlets covering Ferguson will probably be the British ones: Not only is there a shared language, but some British outlets, most obviously the Guardian but also the BBC and the Daily Mail, have made big pushes into the U.S. news market. Notably, some publications are treating the conflict as they might a war zone — the Telegraph has sent its Afghanistan correspondent, Rob Crilly, to cover the protests, for example (he was arrested while reporting this weekend).
British coverage of Ferguson has emphasized the racial drama that lies behind the riots and the scale of the police response. And while Britain has had its own problems with race and riots (most notably the 2011 events in London and elsewhere, also caused by a police shooting involving a young black man), some journalists are struck more by the differences than the similarities. "While the [London riots] were at their worst, people were calling for rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons to be used against the rioters," Abigail Chandler of the free newspaper the Metro writes. "Ferguson is a living example of why we should be immensely grateful that those tactics were never used during the U.K. riots."
The German media leveled harsher criticism. Zeit Online, a centrist news site, saw the death of Brown as testimony of deep-rooted racism in the United States and concluded that “the situation of African-Americans has barely improved since Martin Luther King.” The publication went as far as to say that the “dream of a post-racist society, which flared up after the election of [President] Obama, seems further away than ever before.” Such criticism was echoed by its conservative competitor Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of the biggest newspapers in Germany, which also specifically singled out the U.S. president for his failures: “It seems like mockery that [Obama] is still called the most powerful man on earth.”
Spiegel Online, a centrist, left-leaning publication, discussed Ferguson with Marcel Kuhlmey, an academic who studies police reactions. Kuhlmey told the site that in Germany, “weapons are the last resort, but in the U.S. police officers make use of them much faster” and went on to say that the “last time the German police owned assault rifles [which are being used in Ferguson] was during the Cold War.” The expert concluded that police officers “would never proceed like this in Germany."
These criticisms echo those found in the media of other U.S. allies. Le Figaro – the main conservative voice of Germany’s neighbor France – focused less on the remaining racial tensions in the United States than on “the excessive militarization of the police forces." Despite its right-leaning editorial stance, Le Figaro predicts repercussions for the Republican Party “which may be felt for a long time and even cost the GOP the next presidential elections.” El Mundo, a right-wing Spanish newspaper, writes that Obama's "words of peace and reconciliation are perceived by many activists as inadequate and almost treason to a situation they see as a direct result of slavery and racial segregation laws that were in force until 1965."
At the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper with a conservative bent, it was time for some pride in how differently policing is done north of the border. "The sad events in the St. Louis suburb give us the opportunity to ponder how we do things differently, and to realize how comparatively well things work here," David Butt, a lawyer writing for the paper, explained Monday.
In Turkey, a U.S. ally with a more complicated relationship with the United States, a number of outlets compared the situation to Turkey's own anti-government Gezi Park protests that began last year. One pro-government newspaper made the comparison on the front page, while arguing that U.S. news networks were ignoring their own crisis:
Meanwhile in Russia, a country with a far more negative view of the United States, Ferguson has become a major news story. As our Moscow-based colleague Karoun Demirjian writes, the riots in Ferguson "provide an opportunity, in this era of sanctions and new Cold War-style sentiments, to accuse America of being a giant hypocrite." Russian state television has ominously warned Obama that the problem may soon become national. Russia Today, a state-funded English-language news network that portrays itself as showing views more mainstream Western outlets wouldn't publish, has covered the riots extensively. One popular Russian Web site has labeled Ferguson's crisis as "AfroMaidan" and says that Americans have "prejudice towards African-Americans … in their blood.”
Russia's reaction is complicated not only by distrust of the U.S. government but also an official fear of protests themselves — while Russian President Vladimir Putin seems secure and well-supported now, in 2011 and 2012, his government was rocked by a series of protests in major cities. These conflicted emotions may also be at play in the Chinese media. On Monday, state news agency Xinhua published an editorial that called America's racial problems a "deeply-rooted chronic disease." However, as Josh Chin at the Wall Street Journal has noted, official coverage of the Ferguson riots has been muted, perhaps due to worrying parallels with situations closer to home. Chin points toward the situation in the far-western region of Xinjiang, where members of the Muslim Uighur minority group complain of suppression by the Han majority, as one possible example.
Notably, the Xinhua editorial, for all its hard tone, ends with a passage criticizing the United States for its criticism of other countries. "Each country has its own national conditions that might lead to different social problems," it reads. "Obviously, what the United States needs to do is to concentrate on solving its own problems rather than always pointing fingers at others."
Perhaps the most direct criticism has come from a country that makes no bones about its opposition to the United States. In Iran, state media has covered Ferguson riots prominently. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, even took to Twitter to voice his personal disapproval of America's race-relations situation:
— Khamenei.ir (@khamenei_ir) August 17, 2014
So far, North Korea hasn't weighed in, though it may just be a matter of time – though the country has criticized the United States' racial issues before.