Jun
25
1999

Kosovars Vs. Kurds

Similar Crises Get Divergent Treatment in the New York Times

An article in the June 24 New York Times reported on the trial in Turkey of captured Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan. The Times provided background on the war between Kurdish separatist guerrillas and Turkish security forces:

The war that Ocalan has waged has cost more than 30,000 lives and made him the object of intense hatred. It has also made him a heroic figure to many Kurds who live in Turkey's southeast.

Contrast this description with the way the New York Times presents the background of another, very similar, separatist war (3/27/99):

The Serbian campaign against the ethnic Albanians has seen more than 2,000 killed in the last year, with hundreds of thousands of Kosovars driven from their homes, according to the United Nations.

The two news articles quoted above appear to assign responsibility for casualties in each war to one or the other side in the conflict: In the case of Turkey, blame for the 30,000, mostly Kurdish, dead goes to the leader of the Kurdish rebels. In the case of Yugoslavia, blame for the 2,000, mostly ethnic Albanian, dead is put squarely on the shoulders of the Serbian authorities putting down the rebellion.

This disparity is typical in Times coverage of the two conflicts. In an editorial on the Ocalan trial (6/24/99), the Times explained the Kurdish war:

In response to Mr. Ocalan's violence, the country's armed forces have devastated Kurdish-inhabited areas of southeastern Turkey, razing villages, and driving tens of thousands of refugees to Ankara and Istanbul.

On the other hand, in a March 24 editorial about NATO's bombing ("The Rationale for Air Strikes"), the Times' editoral writers describe the Kosovo conflict this way:

Serbian forces are shelling and burning villages, forcing tens of thousands to flee. They have also been killing ethnic Albanian civilians.

In these editorials, the two very similar conflicts are described in very similar terms. But the editorial about Turkey makes it clear that the security forces are acting "in response to Mr. Ocalan's violence"; whereas the editorial about Kosovo does not mention the existence of the Kosovar guerrillas at all. In fact, a reader who knows nothing about the Kosovo conflict would have literally no inkling, from reading this editorial laying out "The Rationale for Air Strikes," that an insurgency has ever taken place there.

Why the discrepancy?

The two conflicts are notable for the remarkable parallels between them. In each case, a local ethnic minority has seen its cultural, civil and human rights abused by the central government. In each case, members of the minority responded by organizing an armed guerrilla force in their local territory, aimed at secession and independence. In each case, the guerrillas used terrorism--e.g., sniping at police officers and civilians--to provoke a response from security forces.

And in each case, the security forces responded with overwhelming force--brutally clearing out villages suspected of providing support to the rebels and committing widespread human-rights abuses against civilians--all the while claiming they were merely preventing terrorists from threatening the territorial integrity of their country.

In both countries, the human costs of both campaigns were enormous. When the New York Times published its description of the Kosovo campaign, in addition to the 2,000 dead, an estimated 200 villages had been partly or completely destroyed, with approximately 450,000 people displaced in one year of heavy fighting. In Turkey, according to Human Rights Watch, 35,000 people have been killed, while more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed, and an estimated 2 million people have been displaced in 15 years of fighting.

But the two conflicts differ in one crucial respect: The U.S. militarily opposed Yugoslavia's actions in Kosovo. Turkey, on the other hand, is a close U.S. ally. As a State Department official told reporters in 1992, when Turkey's human rights abuses were reaching a peak:

There is no question of halting U.S. military assistance to Turkey. The U.S. sees nothing objectionable in a friendly or allied country using American weapons to secure internal order or to repel an attack against its territorial unity.

Clearly the U.S. has a double standard when it comes to civil wars--but that doesn't mean that the New York Times ought to.

ACTION: Please write to the New York Times and ask them to use a single standard when covering similar situations. If the editors believe that the Kurdish and Kosovo situations are fundamentally different, please ask them to explain what the differences are that deserve such markedly divergent treatment.

CONTACT: Andrew Rosenthal Foreign Editor andyr@nytimes.com