2017-05-22 11:40 —
‘And Bildts only has 6,000 people left who speak it?’ He was leaning forward over the table for a solid ten minutes, all ears when I told him about Bildts, but he let him fall back into his chair out of disbelief now. ‘6,000… You hear that’, he asks the two Basques accompanying me today. They keep quiet yet nod, ‘yes, we know, it’s unheard of.’ ‘But then Bildts must be the smallest language in Europe! Why did we not know this?’ He can’t comprehend it. ‘Gerard, you must be featured in our paper. You need to be on our back page. I’ll arrange it.’ A good editor-in-chief always thinks of news first, of a story his paper needs to publish. He shakes his head yet again. ‘6,000 speakers…’
I’m a guest of Martxelo Otamendi. Editor-in-chief of Berria, the only newspaper that is written completely in Basque. It’s like the Leeuwarder Courant – with next to regional news also international news and sports – except everything is written in Basque. This Tuesdays’ newspaper is laid out on the table in front of us, with the biggest news on the cover being Macron winning the French elections. This news also – all the news – is written in Basque. Berria is housed in an old factory building in Andoain, a village in the province of Gipuzkoa, one of the three provinces that make up the autonomous Basque Country. Otamendi points next to the building, to a place under the ground, where the bunkers were. Or: still are, but will not have to be used as such any longer, so they hope.
Martxelo Otamendi was world news in 2003. On an early morning that year he – editor-in-chief of the Basque newspaper Egunkaria – was dragged out of his home, thrown into a car, and driven to Madrid. There he was thrown into a cel. Naked, in a concrete bunker, he wasn’t allowed to sit down for three days straight. They put a bag over his head and tortured him. The newspaper was closed from one day on the next, at government orders. The ‘charge’ from Madrid: The newspaper supposedly had ties with ETA, the Basque freedom movement. He always denied it: yes, he interviewed leaders of ETA for his newspaper. This is what journalists do. That doesn’t mean you align yourself with them, or are an extension of a violent freedom organization. And he wasn’t. ‘Madrid’ was wrong, as Amnesty International and the European Court of Human Rights would decide years later as well. He was given some pocket money in ‘damages’, and that was that. But then the tortures and intimidation had already taken place, and his newspaper had been destroyed. And this in Spain, in 2003, in a member of the EU, in a so-called democracy.
Fifteen years later Otamendi is the editor-in-chief of, again, the sole newspaper that published completely in Basque, Berria. They did not break him, though the arrest and torture did not leave him cold. He’s been very ill afterwards, too. But he continues to believe in the founding principles of journalism: hunt the truth. A true journalist cannot do otherwise. Even if he wanted to, he can’t hide his feeling of pride when he shows me around his impressive newsroom. Sixty (yes, 60!) journalists work at the only completely Basque written newspaper. The circulation is ‘merely’ 13,000, yet every day a newspaper of 50 to 60 pages appears. Without an enormous subsidy of the Basque government this would be impossible. He’s surprised to hear de Bildtse Post – or newspapers who deal with minority languages in the Netherlands in general – aren’t supported by local government. ‘What we’ve been through, the crackdown of the newspaper, was an attack on our language, our identity. By a democratically chosen government. You can’t defend yourself against that.’
The redivision of municipalities in Northwestern Friesland – Waadhoeke, he’s done his research – makes him fear the worst for the Bildts language. ‘But you’ll always find a path to continue on, despite all the obstruction. Your newspaper exists because Bilkerts exist, because you speak Bildts. And realize that a lot of minority languages in Europe exist that have their own newspapers and ways of expressing themselves. Smiling: ‘You just happen to be the smallest one.’