The Cyprus problem: how not to cover a protracted conflict

United Nations peace keepers stand guard in the UN-controlled buffer zone in Nicosia on June 28, 2017. (IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images)

Cyprus, an island divided into Greek and Turkish-speaking enclaves where countless peace processes have failed for four decades, seemed on the verge of reunification in July. From the chambers of the UN to headlines in international newspapers, optimism abounded that the conflict that began in 1974 finally was coming to an end. The only place people didn’t believe a deal was imminent was Cyprus itself.

Local reporters recognized history repeating itself as the latest round of talks progressed. But non-local journalists fell for rosy pronouncements. In their eagerness to sell the story, they bought the line of UN officials that a deal was close. Officials had talked up the chances of an agreement to put pressure on the two sides to seize the historic moment, a strategy that required journalists play a role. And they fell for it, lacing stories with too much optimism, and setting a cautionary example for journalists covering similar conflicts around the world.

A day before talks collapsed, Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades stood outside a conference hall nestled in the Swiss mountains and lashed out at those “who purposely cultivate a climate of excessive optimism.” International media had for months been filling articles with ebullient quotes from officials. In January, when a previous international conference was held in Geneva, the BBC ran with “Cyprus peace deal close,” quoting UN secretary general António Guterres. The New York Times published a similarly upbeat “Symbol of Hope” piece suggesting a settlement was near.

“The UN had something to gain by presenting the situation as an ‘end game,’” says Lefteris Adilinis, editor in chief of Cyprus Weekly. “I think they thought the Greek Cypriots would budge under the pressure,” he adds. “They were wrong.”

What pushed President Anastasaides over the edge were leaks of a deal being so tantalizingly close that the prime ministers of Greece, Turkey, and Britain were about to fly in to Crans-Montana, Switzerland, where the conference was being held. (The three countries have been guarantor powers since a 1960 treaty in which each agreed to safeguard the independence and security of Cyprus). A hall for the signing ceremony had even been booked. Anastasiades felt he was being unfairly pressured into a deal.

Local reporters have seen numerous peace processes come and go since the conflict began in 1974. They remained largely skeptical during the talks. “The international press were obviously more optimistic because first of all they don’t really know the situation here in Cyprus,” says Adilinis. “And second of all, they talk only to the UN, who were creating an atmosphere of finalizing things.”

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Journalists didn’t hype the chances of a solution entirely without cause. The UN special envoy to Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, repeatedly talked up a deal. “And so if you hear the person responsible for moderating talks saying that this is the end game, you tend to believe it,” Adilinis adds.

Was the foreign press too naïve in its heeding of UN officials? Perhaps. The Financial Times hailed the January talks in Geneva as the “Moment of truth,” while Eide was quoted as saying: “We are now in the final moment.” After that conference broke up abruptly with no deal, little progress was made between the two sides in the interim — if anything they moved farther apart. The once friendly leaders publicly fell out and a two-month hiatus followed. Yet when the UN announced a new international conference for July, foreign correspondents once more reported it as being the critical final stage and the last chance for unification. Cypriots have seen innumerable “last chances” since this conflict began.

Journalists covering frozen conflicts face a significant challenge. Cyprus is one of many examples around the globe of a small place caught between more powerful countries often invested in the status quo. The real reasons behind its division are complex. This doesn’t help when trying to persuade an editor to cover a new round of negotiations.

“My sense is that there really is fatigue with the Cyprus Problem,” says James Ker-Lindsay. He has worked on the issue as an academic for 25 years and attended Crans-Montana as part for the UK Foreign Office’s negotiating team. Long-time correspondents covering Cyprus told Ker-Lindsay that it had been difficult pitching the latest talks to editors. “We’ve been here so many times before, I think an editor just says, ‘Oh no, not Cyprus — it’s never going to be solved,’” he says.

In this difficult environment, journalists are perhaps more likely to clutch at over-optimistic statements from those facilitating talks. Foreign correspondents need headline-grabbing quotes from high-up officials for their stories to gain traction at home, while the UN needs media hype to put pressure on the two sides. 

“It’s about trying to build up a sense of expectation,” says Ker-Lindsay. “If you increase the hope of a settlement, that in turn puts pressure on the leaders,” he adds. “That sense of, ‘If you don’t do it now, when is it going to happen?’”

Eide’s optimistic approach came with the best of intentions, believes Ker-Lindsay. But the Greek Cypriot side found the resulting hype and pressure on them to be unhelpful. “The standard theory is you use that intense atmosphere to get a solution, but it can work in other ways,” Ker-Lindsay admits.

Cypriot press tended to take UN optimism with a pinch of salt. Some publications even veered towards being extremely negative. “They’re pandering to their readers, aren’t they?” says Jean Christou, editor in chief of the English-language daily Cyprus Mail, which aims to be politically neutral.

Local journalist Esra Aygin believes that “the role of off-the-record briefings by [local] officials, who deliberately give out negative messages to the journalists, should not be forgotten.” While UN officials fed reporters with positive statements, local officials did the opposite. Aygin is keen to point out that Turkish Cypriot media had generally been more hopeful, “[But] both sides act like they are in a war even during peace talks. There is negativity and blame games in these briefings even when this is avoided publicly.”

The difference between local and foreign press coverage is also a question of distance. “The outside foreign media look at it is a diplomatic issue, but on the ground it’s different,” Christou says. “You can talk to the UN representative, you can talk to international observers,” she adds, “but unless the foreign media comes to Cyprus and talks to actual Cypriots, that’s all you’re going to get.” 

Physical presence from foreign press was notable by its absence in Crans-Montana. Nikos Christodoulides, who was part of the Greek Cypriot negotiating team and government spokesman for the southern Republic of Cyprus, says “nobody” from international media attended. “The people that were actually there were in a much better position to present the situation,” he says, adding that a statement to the press is not just about the words but body language and tone.

“Having worked on Cyprus for so long, I’ve seen these processes come and go, and this had the least media attention of any I can remember,” agrees Ker-Lindsay.

It’s a symptom of the fatigue that can set in around frozen conflicts. Publications are likely to have balked at the expense of sending journalists back to Switzerland for yet another round of talks.

The Greek Cypriot side blamed the UN and international media for over-hyping talks, but perhaps the more important factor was not enough interest. “If you had all the world’s media there — The New York Times, CNN, BBC — all clamoring for an interview with Anastasiades and Akinci [the Turkish Cypriot leader], op-eds in senior newspapers about how to solve it, talk of Nobel Prize winners,” says Ker-Lindsay, “it might have helped.”

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Darren Loucaides is a writer from London based in Barcelona. Follow him on Twitter Follow him on Twitter @DarrenLoucaides.