Another day, another nationalist movement. On 1 October, the semiautonomous region of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain held a referendum regarding secession from the rest of Spain. The results of the referendum have subsequently been declared illegal by both authorities in Madrid and the European Commission, but it is nevertheless not easy for anyone – on either side of the argument – to ignore over 90% of the electorate who allegedly voted in favour of severing ties with the rest of Spain (voter turnout was approximately 43%). Considering the relatively stable environment of Western Europe over the course of the last fifty years, any unrest involving the shifting of political borders is usually met with consternation by outsiders and the media. The international support and sympathy that has been shown for the Catalan people is therefore somewhatunexpected, as is the damnation of those who oppose them – for example Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who described the vote as ‘blackmail [and not] democracy.’
While the political context of Catalonia is complex, it is certain that in terms of cultural identity an independent Catalonia is not without precedence. Catalonia has its own pre-Franco history as an autonomous community within Spain and, even earlier, as its own kingdom; its own language and culture which have strong ties to, but nevertheless are distinct from, Spain; and a population of approximately 7.5 million, more than many small European nations. As clearly, albeit not legally, shown by this referendum and by an earlier one in 2014, there seems to be a great deal of support for independence. In short, all the ingredients apparently necessary for a self-governing country are present. The idea of an independent Catalonia had not been seriously entertained in recent years until the referendum of 2014, when many political parties in the region spent a great deal of time fighting for a free Catalonia.
However, a centuries-old dispute and a complex status quo cannot be summed up in a few sentences. There are many economic and social factors to be considered, not least the bigger picture of Spain’s position within the EU. It is important to remember that the Spanish government’s biggest quibble is that this vote took place illegally, not that the idea of independence through legal channels is impossible. Nevertheless, the media has taken hold of the narrative of oppression and twisted it, so that it is now difficult to fully understand what actually happened on 1 October and what is likely to happen in the next few weeks.
The most popular headline about the events that played out in Catalonia on the day of the referendum had to do with the violence supposedly inflicted by the Spanish police. ‘761 injured in violence,’ The Guardian reported; The New York Post put the number at 890. Both their sources were the local Department of Health, an organisation controlled by the Catalan government, which may be expected to show a bias in reporting these numbers. Furthermore, what most news organisations failed to report is that only four individuals out of the injured masses were in fact admitted to hospital. Centrist Spanish news agency El País points out that most of the injuries were bruises, dizziness and anxiety attacks – traumatic experiences indeed, but ones that are difficult to link directly to police brutality. Rather, it is not a stretch to say that these were consequences of thousands of people gathering together in one place in protest.
Admittedly, the narrative of oppression makes a good story, and hundreds of commentators, politicians, and media outlets jumped to defend the Catalan struggle for freedom. British Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable condemned Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson for not criticising the Spanish government’s handling of the situation; likewise Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called the British response ‘shamefully weak’. The comparisons to Scotland are inevitable, and while both the SNP and pro-Scottish independence news agencies have distanced themselves from Catalonia, there is little doubt that Sturgeon and her cohort are wishing that the Scottish independence cause had had the international media’s support that Catalonia is enjoying today back at the time of Scotland’s own legal independence referendum. Similarly, separatist movements in recent years in places like Quebec, Wales, and Ireland have been met either with scorn or with condemnation by the media. Catalonians are being put on a pedestal – freedom fighters instead of disturbers of the peace – and it is necessary to ask why.
It seems that the context of violent protest is certainly a major factor. Where the media turned against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or similar nationalist organisations as soon as they began inflicting acts of terrorism, here, the violence inflicted by pro-Catalan protestors has largely been glossed over, including the 11 police officers who were hospitalised. I am not suggesting that the mostly-peaceful protests in Catalonia are akin to the acts of terror inflicted by the IRA at the height of the Troubles, or that the police violence compares to Bloody Sunday or any day of conflict in Northern Ireland – but I am saying that the media portrayal has been decidedly biased. Timing is another factor: in an epoch of right-wing extremism becoming the mainstream, any story of a diverse, relatively leftist people fighting for a principle will be a good news story for the mainstream media. Madrid’s somewhat tactless handling of the situation has earned support for Catalonia as well. Many international politicians try to show their respect for nationalist movements within their own countries, as David Cameron did by frequently visiting and expressing his love for Scotland in the months leading up to the 2014 referendum, or Justin Trudeau has done for Quebec by pointedly addressing gatherings in fluent French and referring to his own Quebecois roots. Rajoy’s aforementioned dismissal of the Catalan’s fight for independence as ‘blackmail’ has leant him no favours from the press.
At the time of writing, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has announced that an independence declaration has been signed ‘and suspended’ and that ‘the only way forward is democracy and peace’. This is the time for the media to ask whether the actions in Catalonia constitute blackmail or democracy. However, in asking and even attempting to answer this question, it is important not make generalisations or use political shorthand. Each separatist movement in the world is unique, and to paint the people of Catalonia as either heroes of democracy or blackmailers is to ignore a complicated political context – regardless of what will happen in the future.
The author requests it be known this article was written on October 10 2017.