Tim Ireland/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Standing outside the BBC headquarters in London, thousands of Kurds demonstrated in early March to ‘break the silence in the media’. They claimed there was a massacre happening in south-east Turkey. Demonstrators told me that the [international] media keeps quiet about it, and that Turkey is not held properly to account.
They were referring to the resumed decades-long conflict between the Turkish government and the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Since June 2015, hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been displaced, hundreds of civilians killed, and entire neighbourhoods levelled to ground, as was the case in Nusaybin, a city in Mardin province. The destruction in Nusaybin can only be compared to those seen in war-torn cities in neighbouring Syria. This devastation continues as I write this article.
Meanwhile, in late May the Turkish parliament approved a bill to strip MPs of their immunity from prosecution. It is said to affect all but four of the 59 MPs from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party or HDP. The charges against them are mainly related to terrorism.
This may trigger by-elections in the constituencies affected. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) hopes to win some of these seats in order to be able to make changes in the constitution and hold a referendum for an executive presidency - giving the country’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan even more power.
While Turkey lifted its parliamentary immunity, its parliament granted the Turkish army and armed forces immunity from prosecution in their battle against the Kurdish militants. The new law will be applied retroactively, thereby covering operations undertaken over the past year. This of course makes it even harder to investigate human rights abuses.
Turkey was yet again victim of a terrible terrorist attack on June 28, targeting its busiest airport in Istanbul and claiming the lives of more than 40 people. The Turkish authorities say the Islamic State was behind the attack. However, with each journalistic report, in particular in the initial hours, reporters repeatedly mentioned Kurdish militants in the same sentence with IS; often without any context to what is happening in Turkey’s Kurdistan. Even when they did mention the conflict, it was mere background information.
This media coverage coupled with media silence has catastrophic consequences for minorities, even more so in the case of the Kurds.
There is a Kurdish movie called Bekas (or Homeless) that portrays the dream of two young orphaned Kurdish brothers aiming to travel to the United States to meet the movie character, Superman. The younger brother, named Zana, buys a small notebook to write the names of every person who had been bad to them. At the top of the list, he writes the name of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Zana has a belief that Superman is a force for good who punishes bad guys. On the back of a donkey, which is their transportation, he asks his elder brother why Spearman has not punished Hussein yet? And he replies, because Superman hasn’t heard his name.
For Zana and his brother, ignorance exists in ‘the big city where Superman lives’ in the powerful west. From a Kurdish point of view, the media clearly did not play its role in informing the public. The movie is set in 1990, and two years before this Iraq had waged a genocidal campaign against the Kurds in which tens of thousands of people were systematically killed. The media did not report it as it should have, and the world did not act either.
This is not say that western governments were not aware of the crimes committed, they were, as emerged later when they were intent on changing Hussein's regime. But an informed public could have influenced their policies at the time.
Allan Thomson has researched the question of the role of media in the Rwanda genocide. He notes in his review: ‘more informed and comprehensive coverage of the Rwanda genocide, particularly in those early days, might well have mitigated or even halted the killing by sparking an international outcry. The news media could have made a difference.’
Kurds after all do know the difference when the media takes an interest in their cause. Take the battle for Kobane as an example. The city apparently was not strategic. So without continued media coverage and pressure, it would have been very difficult if not impossible to secure international support for the defenders of the city. The US-led coalition provided air support, to say the least.
It was this strategic cooperation between the coalition and the local forces that opened the door for more joint operations against the Islamic State in Syria.
The Kurds are now asking the world media to inform ‘Superman’ of yet another attack on their homeland in Turkey. But they say they are not hearing them, maybe this time because the news agenda does not coincide with what is deemed to be their national interests.