How not to report on the Catalonia crisis

Israelis know the importance of word choice when it comes to media coverage of controversial events. For many years, we have been calling out major news sources on biased headlines and slanted language. Word choice has particular importance when reporting on a subject that regular readers may not be following carefully, since they may develop their opinion on the matter based only on the context they are given in the article.

As one of the few Israelis carefully following the political crisis between Catalonia and Spain — and who, as I’ve explained before, is unapologetically biased in favor of the pro-independence movement for personal reasons — I couldn’t help but notice that our media is guilty of the same offense.

For example, TOI picked up a piece by AP correspondent Joseph Wilson on the arrest of Carles Puigdemont yesterday. “Germany arrests fugitive ex-leader of Catalonia,” went the headline, and the article went on to describe Carles Puigdemont as an “ardent separatist,” and the background of the situation thus: “Spain was plunged into its worst political crisis in three decades when Puigdemont’s government flouted a court ban and held an ad-hoc referendum on independence for the northeastern region in October. The Catalan parliament’s subsequent declaration of independence received no international recognition and provoked a takeover by Spanish authorities that they say won’t be lifted until a new government that respects the Constitution is in place.” He also wrote that Puigdemont “had wanted to be re-elected as Catalonia’s regional boss— albeit while remaining abroad to avoid arrest — but eventually was stopped by a Spanish court.”

Let’s break this down, shall we?

“Fugitive”?

Carles Puigdemont is, in a sense, a fugitive from the Spanish justice system. He fled Spain to avoid arrest and continue his efforts to lead the independence movement from abroad. However, this term makes him sound like a lowly criminal trying to avoid being punished, as opposed to an elected leader of a democratic government, trying to fulfill his commitments to his voters against an oppressive government acting in a decidedly undemocratic fashion. In a previous op-ed of mine I explored the possible reasons for his flight to Brussels, and I wrote the following: “Most importantly… he knew that his arrest would lead to civil unrest at a level that might spill over into violence, and he was very clear that he wanted to avoid that at all costs.” The protests sparked by his arrest on Sunday — in which nearly 100 people were injured and around 10 were arrested — certainly support that concern.

“Fugitive” makes it sound like he fled to save his own skin. Puigdemont is not that kind of fugitive. The Catalan media calls him and the other ministers who have fled Spain “exiled”; this is also not really accurate, because it’s a self-imposed exile. If we were really to swing the bias in the other direction, we’d call him a refugee. If we want to stay neutral — best to avoid any of these terms.

“Ex-leader”?

This one is factually inaccurate. One might argue that he is an ex-president, or an ex-presidential candidate, or an ex-president-elect, but he is certainly not an ex-leader. The protesting hordes in the streets of Barcelona are still calling him their president. Regardless of his status as president, it is clear that many Catalans still see him as their leader.

I think “deposed president” is probably the most neutral description.

“Separatist” and “secessionist”?

These terms are factually accurate, but, like “fugitive,” they have a certain negative connotation. It’s the difference between “pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Israel”. Both terms can be used, but the second one is more negative. “Pro-secession” or “pro-independence” are more neutral terms.

“Flouted a court ban” to hold an “ad-hoc referendum”?

There is so much context missing here. First of all, “ad-hoc” makes it sound like it was thrown together at the last minute. Puigdemont’s party, then called Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), was elected on the specific platform of a promise to organize that referendum back in 2015. The referendum was two years in the making, and the vast majority of Catalan citizens supported holding it (though only around half of them support independence). The problem was that it’s illegal to secede from Spain under the Spanish Constitution. The Catalan government had been trying to negotiate with Spain for decades, and breaking away was a last resort. So, yes, technically, they “flouted a court ban” — after many years of attempting to solve the crisis through legal means, they saw no other way out of the situation.

“Defy” would be a less judgmental word than “flout”, and the adjective “ad-hoc” was simply unnecessary here.

Puigdemont “wanted to be re-elected”?

That’s a funny thing to say about a presidential candidate who ran for office and, despite the disadvantage of not being in the actual country, still managed to be legitimately elected as president of Catalonia. It’s not that he “wanted to be re-elected”. It’s that the people of Catalonia wanted to re-elect him.

It wasn’t “him” that was stopped by the Spanish court. It was the entire Catalan parliament, which was trying to invest him as president.

After several months of trying to figure out how to get invested as president while not being able to physically attend the investiture debate in parliament, Puigdemont stepped aside as presidential candidate, instead recommending his colleague Jordi Sànchez. Sànchez has been sitting in jail awaiting trial since October under charges of rebellion and sedition for organizing a pro-independence movement as a civilian, and his bid for presidency was also blocked by the Spanish courts. Then, they tried to invest Jordi Turull, but were unable to achieve a majority of votes for him — and then he was sent off to pre-trial jail as well last Friday.

The point is, the wording of this article makes Puigdemont sound like a power-thirsty criminal leading a revolution against the Spanish government, the latter of whom is simply trying to maintain law and order as Puigdemont prances from country to country trying to rally people to his cause. That’s simply not the case. Puigdemont did not leave Spain to evade justice, but rather to pursue it. He hasn’t been trying to rally support for his own political gain, but rather to secure the rights of the Catalan people to be governed by the officials they themselves elected.

I’ve seen similar wording in the New York Times, the Guardian, and CNN, to name a few. Still — as Israelis, we’ve learned not to expect much in the way of neutrality from those news sources. I’d like to think, however, that we expect better of the pieces that get published in our own media.

About the Author
Daniella Levy is a mother of three, rabbi's wife, writer, translator, self-defense instructor, bridal counselor, black belt in karate, and certified medical clown — and she still can't decide what to be when she grows up. She is the author of By Light of Hidden Candles and Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and her short fiction, articles, and poetry — in English, Hebrew, and Spanish — have been published in numerous magazines, journals, anthologies, and media platforms. Born in the USA, she immigrated to Israel with her family as a child, and currently lives at the edge of the Judean Desert with her husband and three sons. Learn more about her at Daniella-Levy.com.
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