The past week or so has seen a huge debate emerge from the broadcasting on (Greek) Cypriot state TV (CyBC-ΡΙΚ) of a documentary dealing with the 1963-64 clashes between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots of Paphos (primarily). The documentary, prepared by CyBC journalist Soulla Hadjikyriacou and titled Εν ονόματι της πατρίδος (in the name of the homeland), offered a loose narrative framework of the 1963-64 events, and was based on eyewitness and participant accounts of the clashes.
Since the broadcast on March the 3rd, there has been a wide range of reactions, mainly approving or dismissing its core content and message. I will attempt to summarise here the main trends, although I must also warn against over-simplification and reductionism to dual/polar models. The documentary was met with disapproval from a wide range of right-wing politics. The main arguments were that Ms Hadjikyriacou was biased, led on her interviewees with loaded questions and practised Turkish propaganda. The hysteria was expressed on many different levels, with some commenters (especially on CyBC’s page using the Facebook comments tool) even asking for a parliamentary enquiry into the waste of taxpayers’ money on something which was akin to propaganda, misinformation and so on.
On the other hand, viewers and commenters who were more approving of the documentary and its subject, took the view that the truth has to come out, that responsibility for conflict on the island belongs to all of us, and that it was good that these views, “expressing the truth” were finally heard. You can see the comments on the CyBC page here, but those with a weak constitution please beware of the bile and venom poured electronically there.
The reactions are a very useful and illuminating demonstration of how history is perceived in a space which is contested. History is viewed as something which belongs to nation(s), and especially something which is already known, settled. The perception that history is already known and ossified is something which is further demonstrated each time the question of a national curriculum is brought up. The deviation from a national narrative is a dangerous activity (often physically so). This understanding of history as a (material) possession sees reinterpretations and revisionism, and the search for new evidence (core to the historian’s craft) as a direct challenge. National narratives, identities and rhetoric do not facilitate research, especially on topics which are sensitive, contested, ideologically and politically employed to further the narrative. The national narrative cannot be wrong and cannot be challenged.
A second dimension of this is that the debate was exacerbated by the fact that the documentary was broadcast on TV, and state TV at that. If you come from any post-colonial or post-Soviet space (or Turkey)(*) you will know that there is a perception that if something is on TV it must (may) be true. State TV, the only TV which existed in Cyprus until the 1990s, was the propaganda tool for successive governments with varying degrees of authoritarianism. Anyone of the right age will remember that the 6pm/8.30pm news bulletins always started with the words “President (insert name here-Makarios or Kyprianou being the most enduring)”. For Greek Cypriot children this became a bit of a joke, as they were watching the news bulletin in Turkish starting with “cumhurbaşkanı Kyprianou” (president Kyprianou) they translated this to something sounding like “Puku Paska Kyprianou” (πούκου πάσκα is a wild spring flower). Something which was on TV was automatically the approved, past-the-censorship content which was ‘safe’ for the Cypriot viewer.
This age of state-approved TV, and TV as another tool in the implementation of a national narrative and education of the masses has given way to a period of neoliberal control of mass media, and TV has become the means for the implementation and dissemination of that agenda: aggressive advertising, mixed with the political beliefs of the elite where necessary. The paradox here is that now, the state TV has become (almost) a bastion for private interest-free TV, where occasionally documentaries such as the one in question here can be broadcast. State-owned TV now represents a TV which may function for the benefit of citizens, attempting to (and sometimes-if rarely-succeeding in) keep its distance from this neoliberal agenda.
Drawing back from that tangent, it’s important to assess the medium’s role. The fact that TV was seen as a valid (and was an official) source of information has led to the widespread belief that that is -or should be- the case today. If a historical documentary is broadcast on TV, to a lot of people this must mean that it forms part of an officially sanctioned version of history, the truth. The problem is manifold. I will focus on two aspects of it here. Firstly, the purpose of television cannot be the establishment of historical facts. Even when journalists are trained and accomplished historians and anthropologists, the need for an entertaining (and/or informative) TV often skews the outcome. The purpose of TV is to create debate, to entertain, to inform-the latter to a limited extent. In that sense, Ms Hadjikyriacou’s documentary was well made: it informed us of an aspect we may not have had much insight of previously. It highlighted a less known aspect of the Cyprus problem, it offered a hope for reconciliation, it captured some of the views of the participants. It has also generated a much needed debate on an important, yet less prominent aspect of the Cyprus problem. As such, it cannot come under serious scrutiny for its methodology, as it was not historical research. Ms Hadjikyriacou’s well-meaning questioning would not have passed the rigour of a research ethics committee, nor does it have to: it’s a TV documentary which lasts 1 hour.
The second problem is far more serious. The reactions to the documentary show that a large majority of the Greek Cypriots have associated the Cyprus problem with the events of 1974. This is their official story, that the Cyprus problem is a problem of a foreign invasion and occupation. This has been the mantra of the reactionary Greek Cypriot right, a stumbling block in any attempts at reunification and reconciliation. Bringing the inter-communal strife of the 1950s and ’60s into the picture is not part of this narrative-it’s not taught in schools, it’s not part of the problem. Ms Hadjikyriacou’s documentary directly challenges that official narrative.
I don’t remember anybody complaining in the 1990s when Antros Pavlides created a TV series on the history of Cyprus. That’s because his narrative coincided with the national one-he did not challenge anything, and if there were inaccuracies it didn’t matter to anyone. Moreover, Pavlides’ work, and that of many others, always steered well clear from ‘hot’ topics. A risk-free approach was to focus on popular topics which were not the subject of debate-settled, ossified, known. Ms Hadjikyriacou has dared through her work to rock that particular boat, and focused on a topic which is far from risk-free. Such TV must be encouraged, if only for the debate it generates.
The furore has served to draw attention to perceptions which are widespread and shared among not only the Cypriots, but other neighbouring cultures in the region. That history is owned by someone, somewhere and that it must be preserved as it is: that is, the national narrative must be protected from new research, new evidence, challenges. The role of television as the host for the dominant narrative in the twentieth century has remained as a perception. Due to the swing in the state of media ownership, state-owned TV is under threat, as we saw from the Greek example. Which is of course deeply ironic.
I think that it’s time that viewers, learners, citizens can be treated as more than sheep who have to be led to pasture by one side or the other. Can TV do that?
* The (rather trashy) Turkish TV series Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), a historical soap opera (very) loosely based on Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent’s reign in the 16th century, was initially met with huge protests, due to its exaggeration and ‘inaccuracy’. The protests soon died down, but the show has become one of the most successful in the history of Turkish television. This series can be compared to the BBC drama The Tudors. In the UK nobody protested.