“A lot of the language happened automatically; it developed out of a culture of competition. It reflects the idea that when I am reporting on the other side they are in the wrong, whatever happens, and our side is always right,” says Greek Cypriot journalist Yiorgos Kakouris.
As a political reporter at the forefront of covering the dynamics of the long-divided island of Cyprus, Kakouris is no stranger to the impact that language can have on a society, especially one in conflict.
His beat at Politis, the island’s second largest Greek-language newspaper, involves not only covering diplomatic negotiations between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot politicians, but also reporting on the Turkish Cypriot community from his base in the south.
“There’s terminology in our media that doesn’t try to report on the facts but tries to just perpetuate the image we want to have of the situation,” he says.
The 35-year-old is amongst a group of young journalists embarking on a series of work exchanges between media outlets serving the Mediterranean island’s Greek Cypriot communities in the south and the Turkish Cypriot population of the north, as part of a move to “break an information impasse”.
Amongst those coming south will be Turkish Cypriot Kibris newspaper reporter Gözde Öz, 25, who says she hopes the exchange will “help journalists to encourage dialogue rather than promote violence”.
The Cyprus Dialogue initiative is bringing together journalists, their trade unions and press councils on both sides of the divide – under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – in an attempt to strengthen quality journalism and “increase understanding in both communities about the lives of their neighbours,” says the OSCE’s representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Désir.
The project also involves the production of a joint glossary of “insensitive words and potentially inflammatory speech” to counter stereotypes in media reporting.
“By providing information about the neighbouring community to their home audience, the journalists will be part of the efforts to increase understanding of each other – which is one of the first steps of any conflict resolution effort,” adds Désir.
Those involved all have some hope that the project could, in time, bring some influence to bear on the reunification process in Cyprus, the diplomatic side of which hit the buffers in July when the latest talks ended without a peace deal.
But the Cyprus Dialogue is also part of the global battle to protect and improve standards and ethics in journalism, which are being threatened by multiple factors including a rise in hate speech, propaganda and ‘fake news’. The collapse of the conventional media business model has led to the closure of thousands of outlets and the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, while political polarisation and technological changes often allow disinformation to fill the vacuum.
The increase in precarious working conditions has also had a “negative impact on how journalists go about their work and consequently on the quality of information,” says Ricardo Gutiérrez, general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists, which represents 320,000 journalists in 71 unions and associations and leads the Europe-wideMedia Against Hate campaign.
“Improving working conditions for journalists is certainly part of the solution as playing the watchdog role of democracy requires resources and time,” he adds.
Mind your language
Taking time and care with language is never more important than in periods of discord. The island of Cyprus has been split since conflict erupted in 1974; a United Nations buffer zone currently separates the two communities. The self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is not recognised by the south, nor by the international community beyond Turkey.
Journalism unions and media councils recently began work on the glossary, which will be produced in English, Greek and Turkish, and later edited by Aidan White of the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN). The EJN has collaborated on several guides on hate speech for journalists in various regions, as well as a general five-point ’test’to detect hate speech and deal with it.
“In Cyprus the north is very sensitive about portrayal of anything related to Turkey, for example. And the south is very careful about anything that gives the perception of acceptance of the status quo,” says White.
For example, the use of the word ‘invasion’ to describe Turkey’s military action in the north (in response to an Athens-backed coup attempt in 1974) is regarded as “unacceptable” in the north, White says, which is why it will feature in the glossary.
“It’s a classic example of where you have to explain why sometimes a word can cause offence and can be an obstacle to promoting dialogue.”
However, it is not about banning words, White says, but looking at terms that “make people see red” and acknowledging them. He says he has detected a “real willingness” from journalists in both communities to understand that “if the other side has a very strong view that something is an offensive term…they are entitled to have that view.” He describes this as “an enormously important step forward. It’s a tolerance of other opinions, particularly about historical, political and cultural issues, which have been lightning rods for conflict.”
White adds that while the peace talks have currently stalled, the media project is a “confidence-building measure involving civil society”.
He continues: “It can have an immediate benefit on the quality of journalistic reporting on both sides. And if it helps to lower the temperature on some of the discussions taking place, then it will do something else that’s useful.”
Tackling misinformation and bias
It’s an effort that some journalists have already been making of their own volition, says Kakouris.
Speaking on the phone from Cyprus, he gives the example of his own use of certain terms: “In the media here there are approaches to describing the legitimacy of the other side that become offensive to the others, even though there’s a reason for it. You might have noticed I said the ‘so-called parliament’ – it happens automatically. [When reporting on the north] journalists in the south often write ‘so-called parliament’ and ‘so-called leader’ or put the words parliament and leader in quotation marks.
“Personally, I have tried to pare it down as much as possible and find other ways to describe things; finding ways that don’t evoke this feeling of putting words ‘in jail’ when they describe something we don’t approve of.”
Kakouris says that the sub-text of this practice is the idea that “‘Turkish Cypriot people don’t have political will, Turkey tells them what to do’. But if we understand that we’re also political actors then it’s easier to envision the cooperation that has to happen if we are going to live in a federal country.”
He continues: “We can have our political debates and disagreements as a people without casting them in nationalistic and tribal terms. I think that’s what we, as journalists, can do in the long term.”
His Turkish Cypriot counterpart Gözde Öz, agrees that there’s a problem with “bias, inflammatory language and misinformation” on both sides.
“Despite journalists’ good intentions, we might have prejudices because we are working in conflict areas. The language journalists use directly affects readers in positive or negative ways,” she says.
At its most extreme, the media can actively incite violence and murder, as in the case of the Rwandan genocide.
But it can also “easily aggravate an already precarious situation”, which was the basis for an International Press Institute-backed guide to “loaded” language in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, entitled Use With Care.
“Alarmist discourse” such as that used in much coverage of the migrant crisis is also immensely damaging, and has been the subject of numerous studies and guides to help journalists produce more balanced reporting. A 2015 EJN study, Moving Stories, found that journalism under pressure from political bias, lack of resources and opportunism was guilty of hate speech, stereotyping and social exclusion of refugees and migrants. However, it also found “inspiring” examples of “careful, sensitive and ethical journalism”.
Similar guides have been written to address terminology and reporting on race, poverty and LGBTI issues, with members of large unions such as the UK’s National Union of Journalists often taking the lead in defending quality journalism.
“This is the moment we should be talking up journalism as being an absolutely vital part of any answer to the current information crisis,” says White.
“In countries like Cyprus, or Russia and Ukraine – where you’ve got a tremendous amount of propaganda and all this fake news – we really need journalism and journalists to be pointing the way towards a better form of communication. Don’t blame it on journalists, use journalism to do it. It’s more important than it’s ever been.”