Press freedom also means media in indigenous languages: The case of France's Occitan

Screenshot from the ÒCtele YouTube channel

Thirty years ago, the UN's branch supporting education, science and culture, UNESCO, launched World Press Freedom Day to highlight the key role of media freedom. This year, the celebration focuses on “Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights,” but what indeed is freedom of expression without the freedom to produce and access information content in one's language? This is particularly relevant in the context of indigenous and minority languages, as the example of Occitan demonstrates in the case of France.

For more, read Global Voices’ Special Coverage on World Press Freedom Day

Occitan is a Romance language that was the first language of the vast majority of people living in southern France until the early 20th century. Today, it is spoken by less than half a million people in an area of around 30 million people, even though it has a rich written legal and literary tradition dating back to the 11th century . This comes as the result of imposing French as the only official language in education starting from the late 19th century,  while banning the public use any regional languages until 1951. Since then, the attitude of the government has slowly changed towards more recognition and support, though suspicion about possible linguistic separatism remains in some branches of the government, particularly in regard to legislation and education.

Given that the overwhelming majority of Occitan speakers today are new speakers — that is children, younger people and adults who learnt or are learning it besides their native French — it is essential to create an environment where the language is used and accessible on the most up to date platforms of communication. This is where the role of media comes in, whether traditional such as radio, TV and print, and perhaps even more importantly on the internet and over social media. As the September 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) states in its Article 16 (1):

Indigenous Peoples have the right to establish their own media in their own languages and to have access to all forms of non-Indigenous media without discrimination.

Occitanophone media: A mix of private and state initiatives

One of the driving forces of Occitanophone media is television, as it is both a traditional and digital media given its presence on the web and on associated social media accounts.

Òc Tele is a private TV channel broadcasting in Occitan since 2013. It was created by journalist Lionel Buannic, and is run by LB Groupe, a private company that also maintains a similar channel in France's other major regional language, Breton, a Celtic language. It broadcasts four hours every day, offers daily news, movies, and a series of regular shows covering anything from sports to food, literature to learning and improving Occitan skills. It counts over half a million views per year. While a private initiative, it gets funding from local government in a few regions where Occitan is still spoken. It is also present on most social media platforms, including Instagram and YouTube.

State-owned and state-funded radio stations that are part of the France Bleu network also offer short programs in and about  Occitan: this is the case of France Bleu Béarn (a region in the Pyrénées mountains on the border with Spain)  in the show “Les mots d'Oc” (“The words of Oc,” where Oc is how the word yes, pronounced “oui” in the northern half of France, is written in the southern part, also called Occitania, and often pronounced “uc” or “uts”), where one word of the local version of Occitan is used within its cultural context to share knowledge about Occitan traditions or literature. The show is mostly in French but gives examples of Occitan sentences and words.

France Bleu Périgord (another region of Occitania) offers a show entirely in Occitan focusing on Occitan proverbs, and is called “Meitat chen, meitat pòrc” (“Half-dog, half-pig,” an Occitan proverb).

Ràdio País is a private music radio station with programs in both Gascon Occitan and French that broadcasts mostly music in Occitan, Catalan, and in French, by musicians from southern France. It was established in 1983 in the same Béarn region when France allowed “radios libres” (free radio stations), that is private, associative radio stations, thus ending state monopoly on radio broadcasting. It also broadcasts news.

There are about a dozen of other radio programs and stations dedicated to the Occitan language, music and culture that are also available on the internet, making content easily accessible and in podcast format as well.

Journals and magazines are also available in Occitan, notably the Lo Diari  (The Newspaper) which positions itself as a magazine covering Occitan culture, including literature, music, movies, performing arts, in Occitan, and exists in print and online. It is published by an NGO called Institut d'estudis Occitans (Institute for Occitan Studies).

It is interesting to note that, while Google has expanded its number of languages, and includes indigenous ones, such as Samoan, Uyghur or Corsican, Occitan is yet to appear on its Google Translate page. This page allows for decent Occitan to English translation.

Social media: The next frontier of Occitanophonia?

In 2022, the Ofici Public de la lenga occitana (“Public office for Occitan language,” a public institution created in 2016 to promote the use of Occitan in France) launched its first ever competition for social media influencers using and/or promoting Occitan, and announced the winners in February 2023.  Young people present on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok were awarded for promoting the language.

The top winner, Gabrièu Pelission, is a young professional online tutor of Occitan, and maintains a presence on YouTube, on his channel Parpalhon Blau (The blue butterfly) with over six thousand subscribers, and on Instagram, as can be seen here where he speaks Occitan with a colleague in Japan:

Laurie Privat, who came second, maintains an elegant black-and-white Instagram account where she uses images and words in Occitan, as here where the text says “We do not want to die at work,” and people discuss expressions and translations:

Occitan is also present on Twitter thanks to Mariona Miret, who came third and tweets in Occitan from her account.

Another interesting winner is this Instagram account Biais_de_dire that teaches Occitan equivalents of French idiomatic expressions, as here where instead of the French “How sad, he died,” speakers are encouraged to use the Occitan idiom, “A acabat de manjar” (He finished eating).

If Occitan is to live into the 21st century, it must be present digitally, but also be taught in bilingual schools, and valued as a significant heritage by state and private initiatives.

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