By Zenobia S. Homan, with Sophie Henderson and Marija Sajekaite
IISA Resurgence of Russia & China Programme
Photo by REUTERS/Caren Firouz, taken from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/home.html
This paper discusses how the Northern Kurdistan (Bakurê Kurdistanê) media portray the war in Syria; not just the campaign against Islamic State, but the wider civil war, and human rights. Many researchers will run into the outsider-looking-in problem: they write from outside the region, do not share the culture and do not speak the language. However, this does not mean that their research is automatically without value. Here, we will explore a few methods of acquiring information, the problems encountered, and the results that can be achieved.
While Bakur has a unique and valuable perspective of the situation on its borders, there is a notable absence of consistent and coherent information from this region, which would be accessible elsewhere. To investigate this problem, several case studies have been selected for comparison: messages from Kurdish papers, television, blogs, social media and individuals will be contrasted with the image portrayed by Western media. This is challenging, as it is nearly impossible to access independent and unbiased journalism.
Although some studies have already been conducted on Bakur journalism during the 20th century, the July 2016 coup attempt has had a massive impact on media in this region. The effects of the coup attempt are not yet completely known and will surely be analysed for years to come. IISA hopes to create a comprehensive overview of the situation as a basis for further research. Particularly, because questions are all too often pointed in the direction of the Turkish government and the PKK, while other events receive less attention in the West. The Syrian civil war has been having, and is sure to further have, a huge impact on Kurdish culture and identity. The way in which this conflict is portrayed by the Bakur Kurdish themselves is a story which cannot be buried underneath internal media problems.
History of Bakur Kurdish media
Media can mean anything, from television to online networks, facilitating mass communication. To illustrate the facilitation of mass communication in Northern, or Bakur, Kurdistan, the genesis of the newspaper makes for a good example. Although early newspapers could be found already in 17th century Europe, the first newspaper printed in the Ottoman Empire was not released until the mid-19th century. The first Kurdish newsletters do not appear until the beginning of the 20th century – and mostly ceased publication during the First World War. Nearly all early publications were short-lived and there was no daily Kurdish newspaper until the 1958 Revolution. In the 1960s and 1970s several legal and underground Bakur Kurdish groups attempted to start new regular publications, but many were suspended or shut down by the Turkish government. The situation is similar today, with very few Bakur newspapers surviving past a decade and papers in the process of being set up face the same fate. Bakur media have traditionally focussed on publishing about literature and politics, which remain sensitive topics to many parties involved.
The July 15 coup attempt
On July 15, 2016, a faction in the Turkish army commandeered several tanks, helicopters and fighter jets. Amongst other things, they occupied important bridges in Istanbul and attacked major state institutions. They then seized the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, where a news anchor was made to read a coup declaration on live television. The attempt was short-lived and as dawn broke it became clear that the Turkish government was reasserting control.
The failed coup resulted in a number of grave consequences, of which the aftermath in the media is the focus of this paper. Turkey declared a state of emergency and by the end of July the authorities had closed over a hundred media organisations (television, radio, papers, magazines and publishing houses). Many of these were allegedly linked to Fethullah Gülen or the PKK. By September the closures were expanded to television channels airing Kurdish-language children’s shows. As a result of these actions, Turkey’s rank in the press-freedom index of Reporters sans Frontières has plummeted to 151st place (last checked October 2016). Regardless of blame, affiliation or participation the fact is that today there are over 150 fewer media outlets than there were three months ago. Many of these were Kurdish, significantly changing the Bakur Kurdish media landscape.
Post-coup Kurdish media’s reflections on the Syrian crisis: a literary analysis
Major Kurdish media include, or included, Kurdistan24 (K24), which supports the KDP, broadcasting in Sorani, Kurmanji, English and Turkish; NRT News (NRTV), which covers the PDK/KDP narrative, with headquarters in Sulaymaniyah and offices in London; Azadiya Welat, a weekly Kurdish newspaper with headquarters in Diyarbakir, shut down in late-August 2016; Ozgur Gundem, a pro-Kurdish newspaper shut down mid-August 2016; Yeni Ozgur Politika, a pro-PKK newspaper based in Germany, which, amongst other news, provides a daily analysis of Syrian conflict from a Kurdish perspective. Ozgurlukcu Demokrasi, a Turkish-language daily newspaper based in Istanbul for Kurdish readership; Dicle News Agency (DIHA), a pro-Kurdish news agency linked to the HDP; Firat News Agency, linked to the PKK with offices in Amsterdam (sites reportedly blocked by the Turkish government); Ronahi TV, based in Brussels, which provides news on Syria from a Kurdish perspective; Rudaw Media Network, based in Erbil, reporting in English and Kurdish and associated with the KDP; E-Kurd Daily, which claims to be unaffiliated; Nasname, which is anti-PKK and advocates independence and democracy; Nerina Azad, which is also anti-PKK and pro-independence; Rojnameya NewRoz, which advocates freedom and socialism; Gazete Kurd, which says to advocate Kurdish unity, freedom and dignity; Denge Kurdistan, which is affiliated with HAK-PAR; and Zer News.
Other sources for news include Rojname, a Kurdish search engine that publishes primarily Kurdish news-feeds, and international institutes such as the Kurdish Institute of Brussels. In fact, the main source for news is often quoted to be social media such as Facebook, followed by blogs. Examples include http://cptikurdistan.blogspot.lt, http://kurdishstruggle. tumblr.com and https://www.facebook.com/kurdishblogger/.
People we have interviewed have said that Kurdish media have always been more or less party affiliated, involved in “a battle for political and ideological control in general”. Media may propagate conspiracy theories, particularly in relation to Turkey and whether it is involved in supporting IS. Since the Siege of Kobanî 2014-2015, Kurdish media and Turkish media have differed drastically in their portrayal of the war. In particular, Kurdish media have pushed the narrative that Kobanî was a heroic struggle for the Kurdish people and that Turkey is aiding IS. Much of such content is blocked on Turkish internet connections and the Turkish government removes content it disapproves of. In addition, when inside Bakur Kurdistan, it is difficult to find information because many people feel like they could be monitored and potentially arrested.
Whereas access is challenging, interviewees have praised the role of Bakur Kurdish media in the Syrian conflict. Syrian Kurds were relatively pacified prior to the war and there was no large media presence. However, when people were prohibited to broadcast, this encouraged activism. The Bakur Kurdish media played a big role in this, recording what was happening in Rojava and reporting the day-by-day events. According to the narrative written by the media, the main aim is democracy, and the main concerns are safety and control. Interviewees do not however describe Kurdish people as politicised by the media: rather, they say that the media reflects what the Kurds think.
Figure 1. Statistical reflection of popular topics in Bakur Kurdish media.
To build our narrative of the war in Syria through Kurdish media, we compiled our own literature analysis. Sources included in the initial analysis were written in either English, Kurdish or Turkish and published by biased as well as unbiased authors. Articles used to compose Figure 1 came from online publications by Nerina Azad, Rudaw, E-Kurd, Kurdistan24, Dicle Haber, Rojnameya Newroz, Özgürlükcü Demokrasi, Denge Amerika, Ara News, ZER News, ANF, Gazete Kurd and the Kurdish Institute in Brussels. The only key-word used was “Syria”. We collected 100 articles, dated between July 15 (the coup attempt in Turkey) and October 15 (the time of writing). Of these articles, 15-20% were opinion pieces. The most popular topics covered developments in key cities, such as Mosul and Aleppo, nationalism, as well as women’s rights, humanitarian affairs and possible solutions for the conflict. By some distance, the primary topic was foreign involvement, of which almost three quarters concerned with Turkey. Articles categorised as “other” included involvement by countries such as France, reports on cities such as Al-Hasakah, Manbij, Hama, Homs and Idlib, and attacks by IS on countries such as Afghanistan.
Unbiased sources reported on movements on the ground, such as the placement of explosives in Mosul and bombings in Aleppo. They provide aerial views of the destruction, and overviews of recent clashes. Opinion pieces reflected that the Mosul operation was being launched prematurely, and that foreign support may be desired; but on the other hand, some authors insisted that foreign forces, particularly Turkish troops, would not be necessary. Many journalists voiced that stability for Mosul requires a political solution, including comments on the Sunni population and the operations of the Peshmerga. Media have cited Aleppo as the “epicentre” of the Syrian conflict, with Assad using it as an example of his strength. Reports on foreign involvement such as that of Britain are concerned primarily with military support, with one source specifically suggesting that this support is pro-Russian.
Western media and the Syrian conflict
For comparison we also searched “Syria” at the five largest UK newspapers (The Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Mirror) and the five largest German newspapers (Bild, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, Die Welt, and Handelsblatt).
The British place most emphasis on developments in Mosul and Aleppo, migration issues, Russian and Turkish involvement, humanitarian aid and at the moment also the possible effects of the outcome of the U.S. elections. However, the coverage of such outlets as the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph differs tremendously from narratives presented by tabloid newspapers (the Daily Mail, the Sun and the Mirror). The former are most concerned with political developments, while the latter offer highly graphic overviews of atrocities committed by IS. They focus on events such as violent episodes caused by individual refugees in their host countries and violence towards children, linking to shocking images and videos.
A search for ‘Rojava’ resulted in 2 hits on thesun.co.uk: both articles announcing that a British volunteer died fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Manbij at the beginning of August 2016. On mirror.co.uk the search resulted in 19 hits, dated between October 2016 and November 23, 2014. Main themes were British citizens who were killed fighting for IS, violence, brutality, weapons and sex slavery. Three out of five papers did not have easily searchable online archives, which is a notable fact in its own respect. A search on theguardian.com yielded 64 hits, with regular dates spread between October 2016 and May 2015. It looks likely the Guardian online archive simply does not extend back beyond this. Articles address, amongst other things, human rights, Syria’s future and conflict development regarding Rojava. The telegraph.co.uk does not have a search engine, but combining the name of the paper with the search term on Google resulted in 3 hits, dated between May 2016 and July 2015. The dailymail.co.uk does not have a search function either. A Google search likewise resulted in 3 hits, between August 2016 and January 2015, primarily about Australians and Americans fighting alongside Kurds.
The only paper with any hits for ‘Bakur’ was the Guardian. Whereas the Mirror search included expected sensationalist articles, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph apparently do not use terms such as ‘Rojava’ and ‘Bakur’ in general, reflecting on the expected knowledge and interests of the audience.
When searching “Syrien” in Germany, the most prominent topics are also foreign involvement, with heavy emphasis on Russia and Putin in this case, the threat of IS, the refugee crisis, with strong criticism of the EU, the situation in Aleppo, and humanitarian aid. Kurdistan received little to no mention in these articles. A search for ‘Rojava’ at bild.de resulted in 9 hits, dated between August 24, 2016 and October 14, 2014. Many of those articles were concerned with events in Germany (such as a pro-Kurdish protest). At sueddeutsche.de there were 11 hits, dated between August 24, 2016 and March 28, 2014. The majority of these articles addressed the (im)possibility of an independent Kurdish state. At faz.net there were 19 hits, dating between August 3, 2016 and September 9, 2013, with particular emphasis on Kobanî. At welt.de there were 34 hits, between September 21, 2016 and April 28, 2014. These articles were more varied and included interviews with and stories about Kurds. At handelsblatt.com there were 2 hits, dated March 17, 2016 and July 20, 2015. The first concerned with Putin and military action, the second an overview of the history of Kurdistan. Only sueddeutsche.de and handelsblatt.com showed any results when “Bakur” was entered as a search term. The first had 4 hits, addressing a newly released documentary; the second had 3 hits, all concerned with Turkey and Erdoğan.
It is especially noticeable that between July 15 and October 15 of this year (online) articles concerned with the Kurdish narrative of the war in Syria, Rojava in particular, were extremely limited and mostly published during August. It is also worth observing that most papers did not begin to report on the situation of the Kurdish population of Syria until it proposed autonomy in 2013, or, in fact, over a year later. The more general German narrative of the war in Syria seems to focus on internal politics and international relations, especially with Russia. There are regular and factual reports on bombings and attacks, but topics such as human rights, culture, religion, health and education are – while not absent – less prominent.
While this was a brief survey of select sources, it is evident that British and German media rarely turn to Bakur Kurdistan as a source for information. As a result the narrative of the war in Syria differs strongly between Bakur and the West. Media in Bakur as well as the UK and Germany are very interested in foreign involvement in the conflict in Syria. Whereas Germany primarily worries about Russia, Bakur’s main concerns lie with Turkey. Both of these perspectives are understandable, from a historical geo-political point of view. Excluding tabloids, the main difference in the narratives is European focus on refugees versus Kurdish interest in nationalism. European sources tend to summarise the situation in Syria as one in which many different factions are fighting one another, that this is chaotic and that it is difficult to predict where it might go.
While this is true, sources from Bakur report more often on specific events and people, with a particular interest in the Kurdish fight for autonomy. These are stories which provide a socio-cultural background to the Syrian conflict, encouraging insight and understanding. European sources also tend to focus on IS and Assad, providing few details on other parties involved. Essentially this simplifies the narrative to the point of misinforming the audience. Bakur Kurdish media do not highlight the effects of the Syrian war on Europe or the rest of the world, but present how the war affects the region and its inhabitants itself.