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For Tatar-Bashkir Service, Language Is Medium and Message

Tatarstan -- Young Tatars participate in a discussion about language on World Mother Language Day Feb. 21, 2014.

RFE/RL’s small Tatar-Bashkir service has long existed on the margins of a Russian-dominated political and information landscape. But Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea has brought renewed attention to Tatar communities both on the Black Sea peninsula and in the Russian Federation, and underscored the relationship between native language media and fact-based reporting.

The Tatar-Bashkir service, known locally as Radio Azatliq, has functioned since 1953 as an alternative to state-run Russian media, broadcasting in the region’s local languages to ethnic communities in Russia’s Volga region. As such, it has become an authoritative information source and a champion of the Tatar and Bashkir languages.

Both languages are vulnerable and present the service with challenges. UNESCO, the U.N. office that monitors languages at risk, assesses Bashkir as possibly endangered. Tatar has been taken off the endangered list because of its widespread use in rural areas of Tatarstan, but Tatar-Bashkir service director Rim Gilfanov says that it is in decline in Kazan, the capital, and other urban centers where it is viewed as a provincial language lacking in sophistication.

In a recent discussion organized by the service with the Tatar Youth Forum, a Kazan-based group that supports Tatar language and culture, a majority of participants agreed that the prevalence of Tatar is diminishing. They attributed the decline to the policy of “Russification” that has been imposed on minority communities across Russia, marginalizing many local languages and customs. They also pointed to several aspects of the Russian educational system which, for example, allows Tatar language education in public schools but requires high school students to take their final exams in Russian.

“If you study in Tatar, you’ll be afraid you won’t pass these exams, so of course many parents are forced to put their children in Russian schools,” said Gilfanov.
For Gilfanov, the system has meant a short supply of young Tatar and Bashkir-speaking journalists.

The service’s use of programming platforms is strategically tied to its focus on language. For example, its website is published in Tatar, which in its written form is easily understood by Bashkir-speakers.

Its radio broadcasts, which are available via satellite and Internet, help promote and preserve the local languages by the simple fact of ensuring that they are heard. In fact, its audio and video reports have been used in local schools as teaching tools.

Russia’s incursion into Crimea has prompted the service to increase its programming to the Black Sea peninsula’s Tatar communities which, while ethnically and linguistically distinct from Volga Tatars, are related.
Russia -- A woman looks at a tablet screen showing a Russian map that includes the Republic of Crimea on the Russian Federation Council's website, Moscow, March 24, 2014.
Russia -- A woman looks at a tablet screen showing a Russian map that includes the Republic of Crimea on the Russian Federation Council's website, Moscow, March 24, 2014.
The service has aired biweekly programs in the Crimean Tatar language and retransmitted them to the peninsula since the 1960s as an extension of its mission to provide a fact-based local language alternative to Russian state media.The mission has taken on renewed importance in recent weeks in light of the falsehoods and distortions propagated by Russian outlets.

“Most of them are really engaged in what I would even call a Nazi type of propaganda, not only one-sided reporting, but exaggerating and even lying,” Gilfanov said.

Even without Russia’s current offensive in Ukraine, reporting in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan is not without consequences. Journalists with the Tatar-Bashkir Service have been harassed and threatened for questioning public policies, reporting on sensitive issues and amplifying voices that are ignored in mainstream media.

In Crimea recently, Tatar and other journalists have been accused of fomenting unrest and attacked while on assignment.

But the service has had its triumphs, too. On the all-important issue of education, reporting by the service last year on a plan to close several local language schools helped mobilize public debate, resulting in a decision to nix the proposal and keep them open.

Gilfanov savors the impact and accepts the challenges as part of the job of any critical and independent press. “It’s practically impossible to avoid this challenge because you have to deal with authorities.”

--Sophia Omuemu