A man holding a Catalan separatist flag looks at men holding a Spanish flag outside the Generalitat Palace, the Catalan regional government headquarters in Barcelona
Spain |Analysis

Big Read: Catalonia crisis splits families and friends

  1. Yearning for independence inflamed passions
  2. Acrimonious politics seep into personal relationships
  3. 'The glass goes filling up over time until it overflows'

At first glance, Barcelona seems to be getting by just fine. People crowd into cafes during the day and spill out of bars at night, following friends and lovers. Some linger late outside apartment buildings, waking residents with their revelry. Hordes of tourists roam the city’s famous streets. Street traders hawk their wares, keeping an eye out for local police — the “Mossos” in Catalan.

But Catalonia’s capital – like much of the region – is being split by the worst crisis since Spain returned to democracy some 40 years ago. In a first since the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dissolved Catalonia’s semi-autonomous status, imposed direct rule over the regional government (Generalitat) and called for early regional elections on December 21. (See full report here).

Rajoy says he is enforcing Spain’s constitution, which describes the country as “indivisible”, after the Catalan parliament (Parlament) declared independence following a controversial referendum.

The question of Catalan independence has become the most divisive political and social crisis in Spain’s post-Franco history. Sensationalist parallels with the lead-up to the country’s civil war are almost certainly overblown but over the past decade – and especially the last year – the acrimonious politics of independence have seeped into, sometimes poisoned, personal relationships.

Many Catalonians fear theirs is becoming a “fractured society”.

The October 1 referendum – deemed illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court – split Catalonia. 43 percent of the electorate took part but of those who did, 90 percent voted in favour of independence, according to the Generalitat (link to results in Catalan). Many didn’t vote in order to boycott the referendum. Almost 900 people were injured that day in confrontations with Madrid’s security forces, according to Catalonia’s Health Department. Spanish broadcaster RTVE said that Spain’s interior ministry reported that 431 police and National Guards were also injured, with 39 requiring “urgent medical assistance”.

The day’s events gave separatist leader Carles Puigdemont the trigger to declare independence, ushering in a constitutional crisis that is now playing out across the dinner tables of many Catalonian families.

‘Spain robs us’

Xavi Bosch Martí, 43, was born in Barcelona and is the fourth of five siblings. He no longer speaks to two of them, and asked WikiTribune not to interview his family because of their fallout over the issue of independence.

Bosch has a nuanced perspective on Catalan independence that he feels isn’t reflected in the binary choice presented by the Generalitat. Although not opposed in principle to the idea of a sovereign Catalonian nation, Bosch strongly disagrees with how the regional government is pursuing independence. He also says Puigdemont and his associates pretend to speak for the whole Catalan nation while ignoring the views of pro-Spain Catalans.

Xavi Bosch, who told WikiTribune of his family divisions on the Catalan question. Photo: George Engels

His estrangement from his older brother and youngest sister over the issue of independence took place gradually. But Bosch recalls the incident that severed their relationship, three years ago, at a family dinner at his sister’s house.

“My wife and I hadn’t seen them for a while. We arrived, we opened the door, we sat down, and the first thing we heard was my sister’s husband telling my brother: ‘hombre, us Catalans feed the rest of Spain and thanks to us they live really well. They don’t work, they spend the whole day in the bar.’”

Bosch says his brother agreed with his brother-in-law, adding his own invective.

“You’re insulting my wife, my family.”

The notion that Catalonia’s prosperity, which accounts for about 20 percent of Spain’s GDP, is being squandered on other Spanish regions – particularly in the country’s historically poorer agrarian south – is a central complaint among separatists. “Spain robs us” has become a rallying cry for many pro-independence Catalans.

But for the couple the slight was personal. Margarita González González de Quevedo, Bosch’s wife, is from Andalusia, in the south. “You know where my wife’s family comes from,” Bosch remembers telling his brother and his in-law. “You’re insulting my wife, my family.”

Both men said they didn’t mean to include his wife in their generalisation.

This wouldn’t be the first or last time that the couple heard this sort of disparaging comment from Catalans. But this incident was different. “It hurt me a lot, because it wasn’t some stranger who said it, it was my family,” Bosch says.

After Margarita became visibly agitated, the couple got up from the dinner table and left the house. Neither have received an apology since the incident. “No one even called to tell me: ‘Maybe we went too far’,” says Bosch.

Margarita is more candid. Although she remains civil toward her husband’s family, she says: “They’re screwing with my life.”

Bosch speaks of a polarised society where “two identities increasingly seem condemned… to never understand one another. It’s a feeling of utter failure at a time when Catalonia, and it has to be said, is more prosperous than ever.”

Flight from Barcelona

Joan Rabasseda Gascón remembers the exact moment when the same feeling of intense despondency hit him. It was November 9, 2015, and he was taking the high-speed train from Madrid back to Barcelona, his home town. “Something in me snapped and I thought: ‘Enough. This can’t keep going on. I am returning to a place where I don’t want to return. I am returning to a place where I am singled out.’”

Rabasseda and his husband – both staunchly anti-independence – resolved that day to sell their flat in Barcelona. On December 7, it went on the market, where it remains.

“I guess the glass goes filling up over time until it overflows,” says Rabasseda. “And when it overflows, you don’t know why – If it’s the first drop, the third, or the last.”

Joan Rabasseda in a Barcelona cafe says he has felt alienated. Photo: George Engels

Rabasseda’s parents quit Barcelona in July. They had lived all their lives in the Catalan capital but decided to move to Alicante, a southern Spanish city. They had grown weary of the acrimonious atmosphere generated by the issue of Catalan independence. “They were clear that they wanted to spend their remaining years in peace,” he says.

“For me, Barcelona was the best city in the world,” says Rabasseda. “Now I’m anxious to leave. I don’t want to live in a fractured society. Because this [society] is going to remain fractured.” As we speak, he pulls his smartphone out of his trouser pocket and shows it to me. It’s protected by a plastic case with a Spanish flag design. “If they [pro-independence Catalans] see me with this phone, they call me facha,” he says. Facha is short for “fascist” in Spanish.

Separatists accuse Madrid of using “fascist” methods – including police repression, propaganda, and economic warfare – to derail Catalan independence.

But every pro-Spain Catalan WikiTribune interviewed complained of being physically or virtually harassed, or both, due to their political views.

Some separatists deny this. Frederic Serret, 67, a retired advertising executive, is among them. “I’ve never experienced anything of the sort directly. On the other hand, it’s possible that in conversation one person might express their thoughts, while another person expresses theirs, and there comes a point of marked estrangement,” he says.

“But, for someone to receive an insult as they are laying out their position at the start of a conversation is, I think, either because they have faulty hearing or they have such thin skin that maybe they’re hearing what they want to hear,” Serret says.

Other separatists, like University of Barcelona student Robert Michelena, admit that political intolerance is common among their pro-independence friends.

“My best friends from Girona (the second city of Catalonia) can’t discuss the [independence] topic with someone who doesn’t think like them,” says Michelena. “They don’t respect people who don’t share their position. For me this is a grave mistake because, in my opinion, in politics no one is ever right.”

Joan Rabasseda lived this intolerance first-hand while volunteering for Sociedad Civil Catalana (SCC), an organisation founded by pro-Spain Catalans to promote unity between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

“Who do you think you are?”

Two years ago, Rabasseda and a retired female friend were manning an SCC tent on a busy street in central Barcelona while other volunteers broke for lunch. A man walked up to them. “He came straight up to me and said in Spanish: ‘Who do you think you are? What do you want?’” said Rabasseda.

In Catalan, Rabasseda said he was as Catalan as the man interrogating him, who then became aggressive.

“The gentleman started shaking the tent,” he says. “He got so close to me his nose and mine were almost touching, calling me a ‘Catalan son of a bitch’.” Rabasseda is 58 years old and has a slight build. “I stood completely still, just putting up with it.”

The pro-Spain Catalans WikiTribune interviewed all cherish their culture and traditions. All of them are proud Catalan-speakers. Even adopted Catalans, like Javier Rodríguez, say they integrated well. Rodríguez, 63, is a native of Asturias, in northwest Spain, but moved to Barcelona 42 years ago to study. His wife was also born in Asturias but their daughter – Nadiesda – was born in Catalonia. The family all speak fluent Catalan. Rodríguez now spends most of his time in Madrid, where his daughter lives, but returns to Barcelona every month.

“When I got to Barcelona,” he says, “I participated in demonstrations in favour of Catalan culture.” These were the early days after Franco’s death, when the central government had begun to relax its stranglehold on the country’s regions and ease off some of the anti-Catalan curbs on language and cultural expression.

“Then I worked at a private institution that had 1,100 students. I was the school’s headmaster for six years,” says Rodríguez. “I promoted bilingual classes at a time when most classes in Catalonia were still taught in Spanish. I spent my life engaging with and spreading Catalan culture.”

Now he – like most unionists – resents how separatists have tried to make independence into a cornerstone of Catalan identity. Anyone who isn’t, he says, is made to feel less Catalan.

“It’s a tremendous disappointment,” Rodríguez says. “Disappointment because I helped people, helped a political idea based on reclaiming a culture, and it turns out that your curriculum means nothing if you’re not in favour of the movement for independence”.

Identity and the drive for independence

The concept of Catalonia as a distinct cultural space  has existed for centuries. But the drive for its own nationhood is more recent, and became sharper after freedoms and powers that had been suppressed by Franco flourished once again under democracy.

The question is: Has independence always been a central characteristic of modern Catalan identity? Quite the opposite, according to Joan B. Culla i Clarà, professor of contemporary history at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), and former columnist for Spanish newspaper El País.

“Why, and this is a rhetorical question, why has Catalan nationalism, which has existed for 120 or 130 years, until seven years ago never been pro-independence?” Culla asks. “I insist: Catalan nationalism was practically the only form of European nationalism that didn’t espouse, not even in a significant way, the objective of having a state.”

Instead, Culla traces the roots of separatism to June 28, 2010. That day, Spain’s Constitutional Court overruled an already watered-down autonomy statute that would have given Catalonia greater control, mainly over justice and finance regulations, as this report from Politico Europe described.

REUTERS/Juan Medina

Culla believes this decision knitted together a Catalan grassroots movement that unfurled its separatist flags for the first time at a massive demonstration in Barcelona on July 10, 2010.

“It was an extraordinary historic novelty. I have witnessed important demonstrations in Catalonia since 1977,” says Culla. “It was during the one on July 10, 2010, where I saw for the first time an enormous number of pro-independence flags, signs, and slogans. Until then, separatism was a marginal affair.”

“What drives this pro-independence mobilisation in Catalonia is outrage”

Culla believes that separatism was fuelled by the 2008 global economic crisis, which hit Spain particularly hard. He says separatist instincts were compounded by a “catalogue of insults and slights” levelled at pro-independence Catalans over the years by the Spanish media and central government.

“What drives this pro-independence mobilisation in Catalonia is outrage,” says Culla.

Some unionist, or pro-Spain, Catalans now feel that their voices are finally being heard. By forcing independence, separatist parties have spurred the Spanish government into action. Pro-Spain Catalans no longer feel isolated and alone.

“I think of what’s happening now like a pus-filled boil that has burst. It had to burst. Because how things were before, I couldn’t breathe,” says María Juher Layret. “It was truly unbearable”.

Maria Juher Layret pictured in a cafe in Barcelona. Photo: George Engels

Juher, 52, says she had reluctantly made plans to leave Catalonia before the crisis hit. “But it’d be hard leaving Catalonia. It’s my homeland. I love it. It’s my roots. It’s everything I have here.” In the middle of the political crisis over independence she is now less afraid.  “The Spanish state has realised what’s happening and what Catalans free of nationalism are going through and for the first time, they are backing us. We didn’t use to exist.”

Pro-Spain demonstrators take to the streets in Barcelona. Photo: Xavi Bosch Martí

In Barcelona, subtle signs of a unionist awakening hang off walls and windows. The Estelada  the gold-and-red striped flag with a white star set against a blue triangle – has long been a symbol of Catalan separatism. It drapes balconies and buildings all over Catalonia’s capital.

But now there are Spanish flags too. “You didn’t see these before,” says Xavi Bosch, pointing at two hanging off a balcony in Barcelona’s Raval neighbourhood. “They started appearing half a year ago. Especially in the last two months.”

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George Engels

"Hi Hector, time permitting, I will up..."

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Author

George (Jorge) Engels is a staff journalist and producer at WikiTribune. He's originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and has lived in London for five years. He has a background in history and philosophy and a strong interest in international politics and social affairs, particularly in cases where governments are failing their people. His work has been published in The Sunday Times, The Camden New Journal, The West End Extra and the Islington Tribune.

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Big Read: Catalonia crisis splits families and friends

Talk about this Story

  1. Other

    George, could we get the full transcript of the interviews referenced in this story?

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Hector, time permitting, I will upload the recordings of the seven main interviews later this week or early the next.

  2. Rewrite

    At this point of the article: “Separatists accuse Madrid of using “fascist” methods – including police repression, propaganda, and economic warfare – to derail Catalan independence” it would be a must to talk about the well-documented brutality that the police used during the referendum, against the voters.

    Separatists and voters suffered an undemocratic treatment on that day, a fact which has to be mentioned in the article because it triggered a definitive switch on separatists’ feelings.

    The whole history of the relations between independentists and unionists, changes on the day of the referendum and this would be a key argument of the topic of this article, which unfortunately shows a pro-unionist allure losing the balance and a neutral approach, considering also the conclusion of the history.

    Also, regarding the anecdotical parts of the article, which lacks enough separatists’ voices, it would be important to talk about how peoples (Catalans) would see themselves in the European Union as an independent nation, this could be a way to expand the story over the European Union context.

    1. Rewrite

      Hi Andrea. I agree with you that the police violence of October 1 was excessive. I also believe, like you do, that it polarised further an already tense situation.

      What I’m not quite so sure of is when you say it triggered a “definite switch”. What do you mean by that? How does, in your opinion, the “whole history of the relations between independentists and unionists change that day”?

      I’m not quite sure what you mean in your last paragraph. Which Catalans see Catalonia as a EU nation?

      1. Rewrite

        Hello George, thanks your answer is very appreciated. The brutality of the police during the referendum is an emblematic case which marks a non-return point of the diplomatic relations between the autonomous region and the central state, plus it attacks human rights and freedom of the separatists-Catalonians, who, as a consequence, start to generate a new approach to the independentist cause. In a few words, the brutality they suffered has given them both a further why and new reasons to ask for independence. If before things were quiet and reasonable, after the brutalities all change, because the law has been broken.

        The third paragrapher’s intents were to enrich the article and to highlight the EU connections with Spain and Catalonia, as at the moment the EU is an indissoluble entity with Spain. It could be interesting to also interview the independentists about what could be their relations with Europe if the independence would come. Because as things are, leaving from Spain means also leaving from EU. I didn’t mean that the Catalans see Catalonia as an EU nation.

        1. Rewrite

          Hi Andrea, thank you for the chance to talk these things out.

          What do you mean by a point of diplomatic no-return?

          If October 1 was a point of diplomatic no-return, why would most separatist parties be willing to participate in the snap elections on December 21? Or closer to the date, why wouldn’t have Puigdemont declared independence on October 10, when he instead gave a suspended declaration of independence?

          Independence might still be on the agenda, particularly if separatists win the December 21 election, but the ‘how’ seems quite diplomatic to me. This poll seems to suggest that: http://ceo.gencat.cat/ceop/AppJava/loadFile?fileId=25479&fileType=1

          And while I’m tempted to agree with you that October 1 might live on in the memories of pro-independentists, my experience is that things are still reasonable and quiet, if tense at the highest political echelons .

          There has been no overt violence between unionists and separatists, no semblance of violence even (as is mentioned in the story). But there is a growing disaffection between both groups, and this has been the case for years, not only since October 1.

          And when you say the law was broken (by police, I presume) on October 1, it’s important to keep in mind that for many Catalonians and other Spaniards (including the courts), it was the separatists who knowingly broke the law that day.

          I’m sure most separatists (save for the anti-capitalists at the CUP) would like to see Catalonia as a part of the European Union, but it also depends on the European Union, which has said it supports Spanish unity. So although I agree it would be interesting to get their opinion, I think it goes beyond the intentions of this article, which were to show how the independence crisis has driven a wedge between friends and families in Catalonia.

          1. Rewrite

            Hi George, I appreciate that you want to go deeper beyond my suggestions, but I am keen to keep my position and that’s why I asked some rewriting.

            With your story, you well empowered the nationalists but not the separatists.

            I see and appreciate the intentions of the article, but in my opinion, the news is that there has been a referendum and that Catalonia asked for the independence, as a consequence the article should be considering deeply this mentioned present point to describe friends and families’ disagreements.

            The article offers only nationalists’ sources, moreover, the only interviewed source with expert knowledge, Professor Joan B. Culla i Clarà, is a columnist of El Pais, a strong loyalist paper defending the unity of Spain.

            Plus, the end of the story of Joan Rabasseda is somehow confusing and it doesn’t get to a clear conclusion but is portraiting separatists as the bad sides and substantially and factiously alimenting that “acrimonious” feeling that you try to describe in the article.

            I insist that adding at least a sentence about the brutality of the police on October 1 would be highly appropriate, especially in the part where you talk about a “controversial referendum”.

            The sixth paragrapher should be expanded, as if the Government of Spain has the right to declare illegitimate the referendum, it also exists the people right of self-determination to choose a sovereignty, a well-defined principle of international law. On this argument and on the role of the EU in the Catalonian crisis I suggest the lecture of the Open letter written by intellectuals and exponents of the EU Parliament, you can find it here: https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/barbara-spinelli-et-al/upholding-rule-of-law-in-european-union

            In order to offer a neutral view to our readers, the article should consider these previously offered suggestions.

            If there are recorded separatists’ sources, those should be added in order to be fair without favoring one side or the other, keeping in mind accuracy and objectivity.

            1. Rewrite

              Hi Andrea,

              Thank you very much for your thoughts. I am addressing some of your concerns individually.

              1. There are four main ‘unionist’ voices and three ‘separatist’ voices in my story. Culla is one of the latter. You can check his bio out here: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_B._Culla
              2. Separatist Catalans have had their voices heard (some, including unionists, would say overheard) by virtue of having a separatist government (and institutions). Unionist Catalans – who may be as numerous, if not more, as their separatist friends & families – have not over the past few years.
              3. Most people who have been following this story know that there was a disputed referendum in Catalonia and that as a result, the Parliament declared independence. In a previous draft of the story, I went into some detail about the events that occurred that day, but we later decided to remove it because we had already written about the violence on October 1. We may attempt to come back to this aspect of the story as it progresses.
              4. Thanks for the open letter. I think the argument of self-determination vs territorial sovereignty is for another story, which you’re welcome to start yourself by clicking “Add a new story”.

              Thanks again for all your insights.

              1. Rewrite

                Hi George, thank you, I am glad that you are appreciating my insights, but unfortunately, those were not so effective.

                Do you really think that the separatist voices that you mentioned in your article, have been useful to appease the disagreements between friends and families?
                Are you sure that portraiting the separatists as those who yell “Son of bitch” to the counterpart is it good?
                Are you convinced that portraiting the separatists as those who aren’t able to have a political debate is going to ameliorate the situation there?
                And do you think that a separatist voice which doesn’t agree with the Puigdemont’s actions is it useful, or balanced, in this context?

                Well, this is the way how the separatists’ voices are used in your article, not mentioning that of the Professor, which should be a neutral one because it offers an expert knowledge contribution. But look it, the Professor describes in the article the treatment that the Spanish media reserved for the separatists, which reflects exactly how you treated them in your article.

                I feel this is a dangerous practice in journalism, none who yell “son of a bitch” to someone should have a place as a source in such a delicate argument like this that we are treating here, it doesn’t neither support nor helps the cause. Instead, it nourishes the separations, it adds the braces.

                Can you figure out, what would be the outcome of your article in a pre-war context of Kosovo? I imagine it: ” The media treat us Kosovars as those who rudely yell at Serbs, the media say we are incapable to have a political debate, the media don’t even mention our right to claim independence from Serbia…” Would such an article help to not have a war? I am not sure.

                But I am sure that each good article is a piece of history that someone will be reading in the future and the fact that we have already written the main fact somewhere else in the journal it doesn’t matter because the main fact has always to be repeated, especially when we are writing about such serious issues as those of a fractured society.

                Thank you, George, I am really glad to have this golden opportunity to write a story, but now I value more to ameliorate this one here, at least to highlight what I consider to be some mistakes which I would appreciate to edit together.

                1. Rewrite

                  Andrea,
                  Given that this is based on interviews which were on the spot and made during a visit to Barcelona we’re not going to crack open the story again to do more with the “other side”.
                  The story represents a fair reflection of what the reporter found and the views or “ordinary people”. If there are historical or factual errors we’ll change it but not the tone of the people George was able to interview.
                  Some sort of 50/50 balance might be theoretically desirable but the story is the account of real people in a difficult situation. We have extensively reported on all aspects of the Catalonian crisis, including explanatory pieces, news, the briefing and on the spot reporting.
                  I was also struck today reading The Economist how strongly it had chosen to effectively condemn the Puigdemont perspective. It also makes an interesting comment about the Kosovo comparison: https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21730874-government-intervention-and-snap-election-have-defused-not-settled-crisis-goes
                  I am not saying The Economist tone in a news piece rather than commentary was correct but it does deal strongly with some of the separatist tropes.
                  Regards, Peter

                  1. Rewrite

                    Peter,
                    I understand that the field process of the reporter has been undoubtedly well reported in the article, however, I thought some objections were necessary. Hopefully, the talks will largely suffice. I also espouse the editor vision and really appreciate your personal intervention. Thanks for the Economist’s article, it arouses a reflection: if the Slovenian’s referendum would have been condemned as this of Catalunia, we may still have an entire Yugoslavia.

  3. Other

    Regarding Catalan’s Oct 1 Referendum, I have read that the low voter turn-out was because pro-unity people boycotted the referendum. If that is accurate, referencing the 90%-pro-independence result w/o mentioning the boycott is a serious distortion of the facts. Just saying there was “low turnout” implies that both sides skipped the referendum in roughly equal proportions.

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