Voice of the people recast as language of terrorism

August 29, 2003

Spain's campaign against separatist bombers has had a big impact on a quest to preserve the Basque language, reports Jackie Urla.

Are language rights human rights? And if so, what do these rights include? How far do they extend? On what terms do we justify them? The forecasts that linguists are making of a spectacular loss of language diversity in the century to come, together with an upsurge in language revival movements worldwide, have put language rights and the broader cultural value of linguistic diversity on the table.

In recent years there have been some international efforts to address the matter, such as the 1996 adoption of a Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights by the World Conference on Linguistic Rights. But if recent events in the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain are any indication, speakers of lesser-used languages can add challenges from anti-terrorist initiatives to their woes.

A dramatic demonstration of this took place on February 20 2003. In the early dawn hours, the Spanish military police were ordered to close down the only Basque-language newspaper, Egunkaria, and arrest ten members of its administrative board for presumed collaboration with the armed Basque national liberation organisation Eta. The ten, including respected journalists and scholars, were dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night and held incommunicado in Madrid for five days, where they were subjected to the most severe interrogation including, as editor Martxelo Otamendi revealed on his release, beatings, humiliation and torture.

Meanwhile, the offices of the newspaper were closed, its website shut down and documentation, archives and computers confiscated by police. Seven staff were bailed after paying millions of euros. Three, however, are still in jail, unable to contest the charges against them, which remain secret in the interests of state security.

A state-enforced closing of a newspaper should always be cause for alarm in a democracy, but when it is the only paper a linguistic community has available to it, the damage is much greater.

Tens of thousands of indignant Basque citizens streamed onto the streets in protest, but there was little solidarity shown by major leftwing Spanish journalists or media organisations, which apparently accepted the government's depiction of the paper as the voice of extremist or radical leftwing nationalism and saw its closure as a necessary step in the war against terrorism. Although the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages and minority language journalists and media groups sent protests, the meagreness of the international response shows the suspicion and misunderstanding that surrounds separatist movements and the diversity of cultural and linguistic projects that are created in their orbit.

In the Basque case, language revival has accompanied Basque nationalism since its first stirrings in the late 19th century. At the time, this unique pre-Indo European language was almost exclusively a language of farmers and fishermen. With cities growing and industrialisation changing the shape of the future, middle-class Basque reformers were keenly aware that if their language was to survive, it needed to be a part of the modern world.

Thus began the first efforts at standardising and modernising the language to achieve what must have seemed the utopian task of developing a Basque reading and writing public. The triumph of Franquist forces in 1939 put a stop to these projects and initiated a period of hostile repression of Euskara, the Basque language, and Basque culture more generally.

Ironically, this repression probably contributed to Basque's salvation, for it helped to make the language almost iconic of anti-Francoism and place recognition of Spain's language diversity on the agenda for the transition to a democratic state. By the 1960s, thousands of people were signing up for adult language classes and helping to create Basque-medium schools, ikastolas, for their children. After Franco died, a limited form of regional autonomy gained in 1979 gave Basques much greater governmental powers and funds to act on behalf of language revival and they have done so, incorporating Basque into public education, public administration, radio and television.

The turnaround in the past 25 years has been impressive. The overall percentage of speakers in the autonomous region is growing slowly, hovering now at about 30 per cent. But it is much higher among young people who, in contrast to earlier generations, are literate in Basque. In addition to institutional support, Basque language revival has retained its populist element, boasting a host of groups involved in the promotion of Basque language and culture, in education, publishing, local cultural associations, as well as sociolinguistic research and planning. This vital non-governmental dimension, which incorporates everything from the militant Basque groups to the conservative and erudite Basque Language Academy, is one of the strengths of the Basque-language movement.

It was from this sector of civil society that Egunkaria emerged. From its inception in 1990 its creators wanted the paper to be national in scope, addressing Basques on both sides of the Spanish-French border, and independent of all political organisations and the Spanish press.

Egunkaria 's largely young and energetic production staff has had to improvise and literally invent its methods and language on the hoof. They have worked hard to deliver international, national and local news and high-quality cultural and literary features.

How then did this project become vulnerable to accusations of terrorism? The answer is two-fold. One has to do with the strong tendency in Basque political culture to slot all nationalists into one of two camps: the conservative/moderates of the majority Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV) party on the one hand, and the radical nationalist left on the other.

Non-governmental nationalist groups are routinely conflated with the latter.

This by itself has been a source of frustration for language loyalists, who have worked hard to be non-sectarian and transcend this bitter and paralysing divide. Within the Basque country, their efforts have been recognised. Not so by the Spanish press, where the unnuanced conflation has become intensified. Since the late-1990s, the government's anti-terrorist campaign has enlarged its focus from the pursuit of Eta members to the "social and political infrastructure" on which the armed organisation was seen to depend. The chief architect of this strategy was Judge Baltasar Garzón of the Audiencia Nacional, a court specifically created to handle crimes of terrorism. In 1997, Garzón put forward the thesis that Eta materially and socially sustains itself by indirectly controlling publishing houses, schools and media outlets that funnel resources to armed militants. These, he argues, are run by Eta and are instruments in its terror campaign.

This is an almost textbook case of how the discourse of anti-terrorism thrives upon reductionism and spectral associations. Like the pursuit of communists in McCarthy-era America, Eta is seen to be everywhere in Basque nationalist culture, disguised under different names and most especially lurking behind many non-governmental organisations.

As Carlos Trénor, a lawyer arrested in an earlier clampdown, explains, the logic of Garzón's reasoning leads one to the inescapable conclusion that the peaceful pursuit of Basque sovereignty and a distinct Basque identity has become a crime. Basque nationalists, he says, have become enemies of the state.

The narrowing of the sphere of permissible political speech in the name of anti-terrorism cannot help but have consequence for language revival projects for the simple reason that speakers of lesser-used languages, not surprisingly, often aspire to social and political change as well as language preservation. Whatever we may think is needed to guarantee the future of language rights in the century to come, the Basque case is a reminder that the protection of lesser-used languages inevitably relies upon the vigilant protection of basic civil rights to freedom of expression and association. Without the freedom to speak and write in their own language about the political communities they aspire to create, minority language communities lose a most fundamental civil right and their language becomes increasingly turned into a mere museum piece.

Jackie Urla is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. She has spent 20 years chronicling the Basque-language revival movement.

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