The beards are a good example. The beards that were shaved off by men in Diyarbakir and other south-eastern cities and towns, because they feared that if they did not shave their beards, they would come under attack from pro-PKK Kurds for being ‘Islamists’ or ‘IS supporters’.
Many papers published articles about it, everybody took up the subject, and the juicy story even made it to many foreign media outlets. The stupid thing is, of course, that nobody actually checked it. Well, one journalist did. Pinar Tremblay of Al-Monitor. She quoted Nurcan Baysal, a Diyarbakir-based columnist for the T24 website, as saying: ‘I do not think this news is accurate. Around here, many men wear beards, and neither Kurdish Hezbollah nor IS members are concerned about hiding their identity’. Then Tremblay wrote: ‘None of the members of Huda-Par (a Sunni Islamist party) that Al-Monitor contacted had shaved their beards.’
Being a Diyarbakir resident myself, I too had my doubts about the story. Men who once chose to wear a beard shaved their beards off in a half panic out of fear for their lives? As if there were murder squads roaming the streets of the city looking for bearded men to kill. Unfortunately, I couldn’t pursue the story myself, as I was busy with other stories and on the road again, travelling to Suruc and to Istanbul for work.
What exactly are the beards and the endlessly repeated and unchecked stories a good example of? A very subtle form of ‘hate speech’ in the media. Hate speech is usually defined as speech that incites people to violence, but at a short symposium about the subject from the Hrant Dink Foundation last week in Istanbul, several examples of more subtle forms of manipulative and hateful reporting were discussed. Such media behaviour adds to the negative image of certain groups in society, usually minorities that are already being oppressed.
And what is the implicit message of the beard story? Kurds are savages and naturally inclined to kill people, especially pious Muslims.
This message that Kurds are savages perfectly fits the narrative about Kurds that has been going strong in Turkey for decades, or in fact for around a century now. The Dersim massacres of course were a good example. Uncivilized Kurds were living there, they were involved in an uprising and these savages had to be subdued by the state. But Said Riza, a leader of the Dersim Kurds at the time, was not a rebel leader, he was a resistance leader. The massacres in 1937 and 1938 were carefully planned, Seid Riza and other leaders knew exactly what was coming and they resisted their fate with all the power they had. But the savage Turkish state was way better equipped than the Kurds and determined to wipe the people of Dersim off the face of the earth. And so they did.
Portraying the PKK as a terrorist organization that had nothing to do with Kurdish rights was also part of the denigration of Kurds. An example is the Güclükonak massacre of 1996, in which a minibus was attacked and eleven men were burnt to death. The PKK had carried it out, the security forces claimed, and the whole of Turkey was made to believe that version of the truth because the media were controlled by the state. But it was the army that had attacked, eagerly putting the blame onto the PKK.
But it’s not only such murders that depicted the PKK as terrorists, it was the whole context in which the Kurdish issue was placed that contributed to the image not only of the PKK, but also of Kurds in general being murderous and terrorist. To this very day, many Turks believe the southeast of the country is a dangerous area, that the people there are violent in nature and that some terrorist can kill you at any moment.
See the fertile ground the beard story was planted in? In western media, the beard story often ended up in the ‘remarkable’ sections of papers and websites: you know, the corner where somewhat funny news ends up. Media are unfortunately unaware of how harmful this reporting actually is. Maybe you can’t blame the desk editors at a media outlet in some country in the world for that, but the Turkish media should be aware of these dynamics. I don’t think most of them deliberately try to picture Kurds as savages, but it is the result of such stories, even if it is only on a subconscious level. Media consumers should be aware of such dynamics as well.
Turkish Media should know that for decades they helped create this fertile ground, and that such viral beard stories do not contribute to creating an atmosphere in Turkey that leads to peace. However ‘juicy’ the beard story is, check before you publish, and if it’s untrue, don’t publish.
Which leaves me to add that such stories don’t contribute to peace, but, of course, neither do attacks on members of religious parties, which is what actually did happen in Diyarbakir earlier this month when the tension over Kobani got totally out of hand. I saw the video, I saw the pictures, and I read parts of the autopsy reports. It was vicious and disgusting, and the ones responsible should be found and brought to justice.