How media reflect and shape who we are (blog by Sanne Rotmeijer)

‘Mi no ta Charlie’ (I am not Charlie) in four different languages on the front page of Bon Siman, a weekly newspaper in Bonaire. A cover statement like this might be somewhat unexpected for a local paper on a Dutch Caribbean island. Moreover, the fact that the multilingual cover refers to an editorial written in Spanish, while Papiamento and Dutch are Bonaire’s official languages, is rather surprising. What is the editorial about? And what might it tell us about Bonaire?

Last week my ‘Confronting Caribbean Challenges‘ colleagues came back from their research trip to the Dutch Caribbean islands. I’m currently in the initial phase of my PhD research on how media reflect and shape (trans)national identities in the Dutch Caribbean, so they brought me some local Bonairean newspapers. One of them the latest edition of Bon Siman, established shortly after the dismantlement of the Netherlands Antilles on 10-10-‘10.

The children of Bonaire
Since 2010 Bonaire has closer ties with the Netherlands than it ever had before because it’s now a ‘special municipality’ governed directly from the Netherlands. But this change in governance structure does not automatically mean that the Bonaireans feel ‘Dutch’. Indeed, over the past years islanders have increasingly raised their voice for conservation of indigenous cultures and insular identities which they feel are threatened because of the intensification of Dutch governance as well as the influx of European Dutch people to the island. The foundation Nos ke Boneiru Bèk (‘we want Bonaire back’), for example, us a reaction to this ‘recolonization.’ The movement demands a referendum to give the yu di tera (‘children of the island’) a say. An important question, however, is: who are the children of Bonaire nowadays?

The island has always seen people come and go. And intra-regional and international immigration, emigration and remigration seem to be inevitably connected to the island’s history. A multilingual local paper such as Bon Siman, publishing in Papiamento, English and Spanish, serves to illustrate the islanders’ diversity. No less than 42 % of the Bonairean population has a foreign country of origin (that is to say not born in the Netherlands Antilles or Aruba – CBS). The director of Bon Siman, for example, is Justino Bravo. As a Venezuelan he represents the Spanish speaking population – 15.2% of the Bonaireans (CBS).

Raising voices
Bravo is also the author of the editorial to which the cover refers. In it, he reacts to the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo’s editorial office in France. Bravo is not the only one. Media all over the world have struggled with how to respond to the event. However, stating on the front page ‘I’m not Charlie’ has rather been rare and controversial.

His main point? Media should never fail to raise their voice for the oppressed instead of ‘abuse’ the right to freedom of expression to implicitly insult suppressed groups. Without going into detail, it is interesting to point out that Bravo’s statement can often be seen in current discussions on yu di tera versus the Dutch. Here too, the argument is that the local Bonaireans need a voice to preserve who they are while Dutch influence continues to grow.

But who exactly are the ones oppressed? Whose voices need to be raised? Considering the diversity of Bonaireans, it is questionable whether the binary division between yu di tera and the Dutch is useful to answer these questions. The cover of Bon Siman at least shows the complexity of defining who we are and can be within certain power dynamics, as well as the significant role media play in reflecting and shaping these processes of identification.

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