Worthy & Unworthy Victims:
Part I: The Case of Turkish-Kurdish Repression
The propaganda model continues to be relevant today when reviewing the "newsworthiness" of Kurds killed by enemies and allies of the
In reviewing recent events in the Middle East, one sees that mass media coverage deemphasizes Turkey's attacks on Kurds (both in Iraq and Turkey), instead heavily emphasizing the deaths of Turkish soldiers and civilians at the hands of Kurdish rebels. Extensive attention was devoted to the conflict between Kurdish guerilla groups (framed as aggressors) and the Turkish government (framed as the victim) throughout the October to December period. The Turkish parliament voted in October to authorize a military invasion of
Kurdish nationalists have been demonized by American and Turkish leaders for targeting civilians and government forces. Estimates suggest that over 37,000 people have been killed since the onset of the PKK's independence effort in southeast
Those who speak out against
Despite extensive documentation of Turkish repression, only Kurdish actions are designated as terrorist in the American reporting. The PKK has been consistently attacked by Turkish and American officials as a terrorist entity, and these attacks are uncritically transmitted in media coverage. A review of Washington Post stories from January 1990 through December of 2007 (a period marked by increased violence between Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish government) finds that the terrorist label is systematically applied only to the actions of rebels, and not to
American media reports have at times acknowledged Turkish human rights abuses. However, Turkish repression is never framed as terrorism. In addition, Turkish repression of Kurds is presented as a relatively minor setback in the grand scheme of U.S. and European relations with Turkey, as opposed to Saddam Hussein's repression of Iraqi Kurds, which is consistently presented as a major human rights tragedy. Kurds killed by Saddam Hussein are "honored" as "victims" of a major "atrocity" by the New York Times. Hussein's gassing of Iraqi Kurds is regularly referred to as a "tragedy," a "massacre," or as "genocide" in the elite press. Conversely, editors portray the U.S. and Europe as "sympathetic to" Turkey as it suffers under the Kurdish "terrorist threat," instead of sympathizing with Kurds suffering under Turkish terror. While the U.S. and its allies "have hesitated to accept Turkey as a political equal as long as it was committing terrible human rights abuses against Kurds," such abuses are not considered enough (as they are in the case of Saddam Hussein) to damper strong American-Turkish relations. The editors at the Washington Post allow Turkey a second "chance" to pursue a "breakthrough with its Kurds," even as human rights groups continue to release reports lambasting the government for widespread human rights violations. In short, the violent repression of Kurdish civilians is the subject of righteous condemnation only when those actors responsible are officially designated enemies of state, as in the case of Saddam Hussein. Turkish leaders may successfully target Kurds for torture and assassination, followed by strong American political and military support, accompanied by only minor objections in media and political discourse. Concurrently, Iraqi terror directed against the very same Kurds is morally reprehensible, so long as the victims are on the Iraqi, rather than the Turkish side of the Iraq-Turkey border.
Efforts to distinguish between worthy victims (Iraqi Kurds) and unworthy ones (Turkish Kurds) have been somewhat altered, however, in recent years. By 2007, attacks on Iraqi Kurds had also become acceptable in the U.S. media, so long as the aggressor was the Turkish government, rather than Saddam Hussein. The U.S. granted tactical and diplomatic support to the government of Turkey as it bombed various Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, allegedly aimed at PKK rebel targets. Despite reports of civilian deaths, American editorials lent moral support to the Turkish government. The editors at the New York Times postured that "Turkey's anger is understandable. Guerillas from the PKK have been striking from bases in Iraqi Kurdistan with growing impunity and effect…The death toll for Turkish military forces is mounting."
Editors at the New York Times placed responsibility for the violence primarily upon the shoulders of the Kurds, rather than Turkish leaders, as they argued that "The Kurds will find it much easier to prosper if they can live in peace with Turkey." How such cooperation is possible in light of Turkey's systematic human rights violations was not addressed. The paper's editors also portrayed the U.S. as an honest broker between the two sides, rather than a consistent supporter of Turkish repression of the Kurds: "Washington must now try to walk both sides back from this brink. It then should make a serious and sustained effort to broker a long-overdue political agreement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan." The editors at the Washington Post also presented the conflict through a pro-Turkish lens. Significant attention was directed to pragmatic assessments of the effectiveness of a Turkish political victory over Kurdish rebels: "The reality is that the PKK threat cannot be quickly eliminated by military means…Neutralizing it will require closer cooperation between Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish authorities, more effective Turkish military operations inside Turkey, and more political reforms in both countries."
This case study is instructive in one important respect: it suggests that American media attention to the repression and terror of foreign countries is not driven by legitimate humanitarian concerns, but by the strength of the alliance between the U.S. and the country in question. Little else can explain why the very same Iraqi Kurds who are regarded as worthy victims when killed by U.S. enemies such as Saddam Hussein are not worthy when killed by an allied government like Turkey. The consequences of such propagandistic news coverage are rather stark for those who take human rights seriously. A genuine concern with social justice requires a consistent condemnation of terror, regardless of whether it is pursued by American enemies or allies.
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the "War on Terror," due out in April 2008. He has taught Middle East Politics and American Government, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
 Onur Ant, "
 Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 37.
 Suna Erdem, "
 Associated Press, “Turkish Jets Strike Kurdish Rebels,” 26 December 2007, http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/122607R.shtml
 Karl Vick and Yesim Borg, "In Turkish Bombings, 'Who Benefits?'"
 BBC, "Kurdish Rebels Kill Turkey Troops," 8 April 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6537751.stm
 Amberin Zaman, "Rebel Kurds Asks
 Human Rights Watch, "
 Tamar Gabelnick, William D. Hartung, and Jennifer Washburn, "Arming Repression: U.S. Arms Sales to Turkey During the Clinton Administration," World Policy Institute, October 1999, http://www.fas.org/asmp/library/reports/turkeyrep.htm
 Chomsky, The New Military Humanism, 1999; Human Rights Watch, "Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper," 4 October 2004, http://hrw.org/backgrounder/eca/turkey/2004/10/; Human Rights Watch, "Displaced and Disregarded: Turkey's Failing Village Return Program," October 2002, http://hrw.org/reports/2002/turkey/; Human Rights Watch, "Still Critical: Prospects in 2005 for Internally Displaced Kurds in Turkey," 2005, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/turkey0305/3.htm#_Toc97005223
 Amnesty International, "Amnesty International Report 2007:
 Human Rights Watch, "Abolition of Capital Punishment and Prevention of Torture," 10 September 2002, http://hrw.org/press/2002/09/osce0910-stat.htm; John M. Goshko, "
 Human Rights Watch, "Whatever Happened to the Iraqi Kurds?" 11 March 1991, http://www.hrw.org/reports/1991/IRAQ913.htm#12
 John Ward Anderson, "Kurd Wins Free Speech Case,"
 A comprehensive analysis of Lexis Nexis was undertaken from the period of January 1, 1990 through December 31, 2007. Three key words "Turkey," "Kurds," and "Terrorist" were used, so as to capture a sample of articles referencing both parties (Turkey's government and Kurdish rebels) and any terrorist acts that may be discussed in regards to either of the parties.
 Searches of Lexis Nexis from March of 1988 (when Hussein gassed Iraqi Kurds at Halabja) through March of 2003 (at the time of the
 Steven R. Weisman, "The Struggle for
 Ann Scott Tyson and Robin Wright, "
 Foxnews.com, "Iraqi Officials Protest Turkish Jets Bombing Kurdish Rebel Positions," 17 December 2007, http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,317095,00.html; BBC News, "'US Backed' Turkish Raids on
 Editorial, "Even Closer to the Brink," New York Times, 23 October 2007, 28(A).
 Editorial, "Even Closer to the Brink," 2007.
 Editorial, "