Minority language media and the COVID-19 pandemic – the case of Basque in Spain. An interview with Dr. Miren Manias-Muñoz.
In the third interview of the new series discussing the situation of minority language media (MLM) during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Miren Manias-Muñoz (University of the Basque Country) presents the case of MLM in Basque Country and Navarre. Spain has been particularly harshly affected by the pandemic, with its repercussions spilling over to MLM outlets as well. Production of radio and television content was halted, programmes well-liked by the audience were cancelled, while newspapers’ economic situation worsened even with readership increasing. Besides this, broader trends concerning broadcasters’ and local / regional authorities’ priorities further complicate the picture.
Before addressing the complexities of the current Basque MLM landscape, Manias-Muñoz first presents its general overview and places it in a wider historical context.
As an introduction, could you please summarise the minority language media (MLM) situation in your linguistic sphere?
Regarding public TV, in December 1982 ETB (now ETB1) started its broadcast fully in Basque-language, aiming at serving its community and aiding the revitalisation of the language. In February 1986, however, a second channel was created: ETB2. This channel broadcasts fully in Spanish. ETB and ETB2 were running at the same time, but soon it became an unbalanced linguistic configuration of the channels. ETB was renamed as ETB1 and pushed into the background as the public entity focused on ETB2. Today, watching Basque TV in Spanish is the norm and the public broadcasting service keeps hiding the Basque reality to non-speakers with all its consequences. Basque language and culture are non-existent on ETB2.
The minority-language media situation in the Basque Country was already quite weak before the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in economic terms. Its impact has pushed the sector to an even more critical situation, as advertising revenues have been drastically reduced across the board, but for small-medium size media companies in particular – the size of most of the media outlets working in this language.
In the Basque Country there are both public and private media services, regional and local radios, TVs and newspapers: BERRIA, Zuzeu, ARGIA, EiTB, Kanaldude, Hamaika, Goiena, ALEA, Euskal Irratiak,
Iparraldeko Hitza, Goierri Irrati Telebista, Erlo telebista, among others. After a long period of negotiations, in September 2019 the Basque Government and BERRIA reached an agreement in order to cover 30% of the newspaper’s annual budget with public funding – which was great news. The City Council of Pamplona, however, has recently established a new framework for the inclusion of public sector advertising in the media: only those with 10% of the total audience will be able to benefit from this. The municipal government will invest 6,000,000 euros in six media outlets, however, there are no Basque-language media outlets on the list. The language has partial official status in Navarre and just 10.5% of the population in Pamplona speaks Basque.
In the current (post-pandemic) situation, unless further and specific measures are taken, the future of Basque-language media is at serious risk.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the reporting of the MLM in your area and has there been any effect on readership / viewing figures?
Overall, media consumption in Basque language has considerably grown during the lockdown. Print media have managed to keep their readership and some of them even sold few more copies than usual. In addition, overall radio and TV consumption levels reached their highest level, and online portals of Basque-language media outlets achieved best figures ever in March 2020.
The umbrella Basque Media Association HEKIMEN was created in 2012 in order to facilitate collaboration and dialogue with external actors. It gathers the majority of Basque-language media in the Basque Country: a total of 50. Five outlets (10%) are of general information, 12 (24%) thematic, and 33 (66%) local. According to its data, in March 2020, online readership/viewing figures went up in all cases – although not all of them have grown at the same speed. In total, they achieved 400,000 more readers/viewers than in February, meaning an increase of 40% in a single month. Besides, BERRIA’s website had its largest audience in March and April by doubling normal levels of visits. This phenomenon shows that Basque media is a sector of proximity.
However, when it comes to Basque-language TV, the reporting has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Particularly, in the case of the public service ETB - which broadcasts in Basque on the ETB1 channel and in Spanish on the ETB2 channel. While ETB2 has offered high quality and new programmes during the lockdown, ETB1 has been pushed into the background with old re-runs of sport’s programmes and other repetitions. Some people may indeed be celebrating the good figures of the Spanish language ETB2 channel, but this discourse places Basque-language at stake with the neglect of ETB1 which has seen figures decrease. Therefore, the risk is indeed very high.
How has the lockdown / social distancing measures affected other covered content in MLM?
Due to the lockdown and social distancing measures, some TV programmes and series, as well as films, had to stop producing, whilst some others were broadcast from home. Particularly, those produced in Basque-language: ‘Gure kasa’, ‘Go!azen’ or ‘Ur Handitan’, among others. Moreover, some programmes were even cancelled, paused, or replaced by cheaper alternatives. This is the case of ‘Ahoz aho’ a news and entertainment magazine broadcast since 2016, cancelled by the public service broadcaster ETB during the pandemic and replaced by ‘Berben lapikoa’ (ETB1) – a much cheaper programme which will not even continue from September on. However, in the same conditions, ETB has kept producing most of its programmes for the Spanish language channel ETB2. This includes the magazine Qué me estás contando and the successful reality show El conquis. As a consequence, viewing figures of the Basque-language TV channel ETB1 have been falling to levels never seen before: below 1% of share.
How has MLM covered issues of majority-minority relations and has the situation or voice of minorities been covered in majority media?
My impression is that, in general terms, the voices of minorities have not been covered by majority media (El correo, Deia or ETB) in the Basque Country. Certainly, issues related to the language and the Basque community have been mostly covered by minority media: ARGIA, BERRIA or GARA, among others.
Similarly, Basque majority media outlets have not covered majority-minority relations during the pandemic; however, if there is any coverage of this issue it is indeed provided by Basque language media. As to why this is the case, I argue that particularly Basque-language media works for its community and is committed to cover issues that concern the minority community. That is, information related to the vicinity of the territory; they hardly look at Madrid's attitude towards minority communities in Spain (which I am not saying is the right thing). If you add to this that most media outlets working in Basque language are of small size, the support of its community (in the form of consumption, subscriptions, donations, etc) becomes crucial for their survival.
In what way has the pandemic affected MLM practitioners’ day to day work and have there been any future implications discussed?
MLM practitioners, as well as the Basque community, have been making great efforts in order to support the language and supply its speaking community during the pandemic. Nevertheless, this has not been enough: language rights have not been respected in many occasions. The situation of the language during the pandemic and its future challenges have been discussed from different perspectives and by different organisations: Kontseilua, Topagunea, BERRIA, Hizkuntz Eskubideen Behatokia, Euskal Hedabideen Behategia,
and Bai Euskarari, among others. In short, they ask public authorities to bring the language question to the centre of political debate. However, Basque-language media and culture does not seem to get much attention. We have already been able to see the results of such inaction within public administration; for instance, some voices have recently denounced the dismantling of the Basque language service at the Education Department. Moreover, the head of Basque language service at the Department of Education has recently resigned. Regarding public TV, ETB has been prioritising the Spanish language channel to report on the recent Basque Government election’s campaign. In addition, the end of important and successful Basque-language programmes such as ‘Gure Kasa’ have recently been announced by ETB.
How has social media in minority language played a role during the pandemic?
To be honest, I am not surprised with most reactions found on social networks against ETB. Some Basque TV presenters, for instance, have used their own programmes to denounce the critical situation that the main Basque-language public TV channel ETB1 is going through. Social media have indeed played a key role during the pandemic, one example being the specific accounts that have been created asking for the boycotting of ETB. The Basque community is really worried about it and engagement has been massive. On one occasion, the pressure of people on social media has made EiTB provide an answer as to why there has been a Spanish-language advert on the Basque-language public radio station Euskadi Irratia. However, the pressure has not yet forced them to turn it into the minority-language though.
During the pandemic, social media have been also used to gather support for two football players of Athletic de Bilbao (Mikel San José and Beñat Etxebarria), as they were both threatened after publishing an official statement only in Basque language. The content explained that even though their contracts ended in June, they would accept the offer made by the club and continue playing until the end of the season.
About the author:
Miren Manias-Muñoz has a PhD in Social Communication studies from the University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU (2015) and was awarded ex-aequo as the 2015 Best Doctoral Thesis by the SGAE Foundation. Her research has been mainly focused on media and cultural policies in minority-language contexts. In 2016 she obtained from the Basque Government the Basque Visiting Fellow grant to join the Centre for Cultural Policy Research (CCPR) at the University of Glasgow. From 2017 to 2019 she has been a Postdoctoral Visiting Researcher at the University of Edinburgh (Celtic and Scottish Studies Department) working on a three-year research project about minority-language TVs in Europe, with Scottish Gaelic broadcasting as a case study. In October 2019 she coordinated the inaugural Minority Language Media International conference ‘Crowded Out or Limitless Horizons?’ co-organised by the Etxepare Basque Institute and the University of Edinburgh. During the conference the International Association for Minority Language Media Research was founded and Manias-Muñoz was a member of the leading group. Previous to her academic career, she has worked as a journalist, communication and production assistant on TV, press and cinema. Currently, she is a lecturer of Journalism II Department at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU).