For the first time in her nearly two-decade-long career, journalist Ece Temelkuran is without a job. The feature reporter and columnist, currently in Tunisia, writes regularly about the plight of Turkey’s ethnic minorities. She was fired from her staff position at the Haberturk daily on Thursday after publishing articles critical of the Turkish government’s handling of the massacre of Kurds on December 28 at Iraq’s border.
Turkey has long been feted by mainstream Western media as a bastion of secular democracy in a wider and largely Muslim region ruled by despots. However, critics argue that this image is allowing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to become increasingly authoritarian. In recent years, journalists who report on stories not fitting within the government narrative have been targeted.
Ninety-seven media professionals are currently in prison according to the Turkish Union of Journalists. In addition to this, The Economist magazine recently reported that 47 lawyers, more than 500 students and some 3,500 Kurdish activists are in prison. A recent survey by the Associated Press found that more than one-third of the world’s convicted “terrorists” are in Turkey.
Temelkuran has played a leading role on social media (she started the hashtag #freejournalists on Twitter) in defending 11 journalists who are currently on trial in Turkey for supporting illegal “terrorist” organizations.
After beginning her career as a correspondent in 1993, Temelkuran became a feature reporter in 2000 for Turkey’s Milliyet daily. In 2009, she left Milliyet to take a job at the nascent Haberturk, another major daily in Turkey. On Thursday Temelkuran received a phone call while in Tunisia that she had been dismissed from her job at the newspaper.
In addition to covering Turkish affairs at home, Temelkuran has reported extensively from the Middle East and Latin America.
I spoke to Ece Temelkuran on Thursday by phone about her career, her dismissal and the current state of journalism in Turkey.
Matthew Cassel: When you’re not reporting around the world what types of stories do you generally write about inside Turkey?
Ece Temelkuran: The Kurdish issue, Armenian issue, women rights, social issues…Not the most popular subjects, especially the Kurdish and Armenian issues.
MC: Why aren’t they popular issues in Turkey?
ET: Because since the establishment of Turkey [in 1923, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire] Kurds have been treated as second-class citizens and there has always been a lack of political and individual rights for them. There is deep and wide racism against Kurds in Turkey and there is the armed PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] movement and anything that goes under Kurdish issues is considered terrorism. So it’s not surprising Turkish media doesn’t cover the issue, and if they do they represent the government’s point of view.
On his visit to Beirut this past week, Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture and artist for the Black Panther Party, repeated a quote to me that he was once told in the early days of the Panthers: “speak in a language that a child can understand.” He told me that he tried to model his art after this idea, and it shows. The message is not hard to find when viewing his work. That isn’t to say it’s overly simplistic, of course not. Emory’s work has been widely celebrated, and since appearing on the front pages of the Panthers’ newspaper it has been exhibited in some of the most prestigious galleries and museums around the globe.
Today, it seems that we artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, etc. generally make our message more complicated than it needs to be. Of course, art changes over time as does society, and the world is a much different place now than it was in the 1960s. Emory was producing his work for the Black Panther Party newspaper. It wasn’t an academic journal, and it certainly wasn’t a publication concerned with presenting itself as “objective” in the way that most media do today. The Panthers had a clear political message that they wanted to share with the world, and that message could not have been more clear than through Emory’s work.
Maybe that’s the problem today: what is our message? And this gets at my bigger problem with most contemporary journalism. It has no message other than to “inform.” It takes no side, or at least it claims not to. But can one really not take a side on any given issue? If anything, by wrapping itself in a cloak of “objectivity” it fails to challenge the status quo, and in that way it has chosen a side.
I think we journalists should mostly strive to be objective in our work, but at the same time not pretend that we’re ever going to reach that phony enlightened state of total objectivity that many Western media often like to award themselves. Why can’t we take a clear position on war, healthcare, education, and other issues? Are we not human beings? When we see any situation, especially one as extreme as war, do we not feel for those who suffer from its results? Why are we allowed to show sympathy for Haitians brutalized by Mother Nature but not for Palestinians in Gaza brutalized by Israel? It seems a contradiction in journalism today, that when an issue is “political” we have to remain on the fence. But let’s face it, everything is political, and it’s impossible to say that the recent earthquake in Haiti is a catastrophe caused merely by nature.
What is already all too clear, however, is the fact that this impact [of the earthquake] will be the result of an even longer-term history of deliberate impoverishment and disempowerment. Haiti is routinely described as the “poorest country in the western hemisphere”. This poverty is the direct legacy of perhaps the most brutal system of colonial exploitation in world history, compounded by decades of systematic postcolonial oppression.
While Haitians slept on the streets, tried to unearth survivors, find places to bury the dead and waited for aid to be delivered by thousands of armed American soldiers, I walked with Emory around Beirut. “Is the situation today much different than it was in back then?” I asked. “Oh no,” he replied. “It’s the same stuff.” So, I wondered, where is the outrage today like there was around the world in the 1960s? Perhaps we artists and journalist concerned with social justice need to revisit that idea of speaking in a language that a child can understand.
On Friday I was invited to appear on Press TV (Iran’s international English-language satellite channel) alongside Donald Bostrom, a Swedish journalist who authored the recent article about the Israeli army stealing the organs of young Palestinian men it had killed in 1992 during the first Palestinian intifada. I surprised the producers at Press TV who I don’t think invited me to argue the article’s legitimacy, but instead reaffirm its claims.
After the show, a producer in Tehran thanked me and told me that it was nice to get someone from the “other side.” But I had to make it clear, that I was not from the “other side” as she meant it. I support uncovering human rights violations and war crimes wherever they occur, especially in Palestine, where I have worked for many years. I do believe Bostrom’s intentions were to do much the same but that his process was highly irresponsible. The problem is not that he is accusing the State of Israel of wrongdoing, but that he is making accusations of what would amount to extremely serious war crimes while providing absolutely no evidence to support his claims. Rather than advancing the cause of Palestinian human rights, such behavior hurts the many organizations, journalists, activists and others working tirelessly to expose and document Israel’s numerous violations of international law committed against Palestinians and people of other Arab nations in recent decades.
Bostrom’s article lacks credibility for a number of reasons. In the opening paragraph he tells the story of Levy Rosenbaum, a Jewish man in New York linked to illegal trafficking in human organs with counterparts in Israel. While Rosenbaum has admitted to buying organs from destitute Israelis, until now there has been nothing outside Bostrom’s article to suggest that this trade involved the organs of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army.
Rosenbaum has also admitted to being involved in the trade for the past ten years which is well after 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft may have occurred in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other than Israel being involved, there is no evidence to make a direct link between these incidents. It is poor journalism on Bostrom’s part to use a timely event and try to connect it to something that happened nearly two decades earlier without offering any evidence.
Bostrom also refers to Palestinians disappearing for days at a time and have in many cases returned dead. This is known to have occurred before, especially Palestinians being arrested and taken to detention centers without the Israeli authorities bothering to inform the families. This is something that has been reported on and documented by numerous Palestinian human rights organizations. Israel may have even performed autopsies on the bodies without the families’ consent, as Bostrom reports. He publishes a horrific photograph of one of these bodies alongside the article, but again, this is not proof that organs in that person’s body were removed and sold, or given to Israelis in need, as the author implies.
One must also ask why this story was not covered in 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft occurred. It seems this would be a more appropriate time to expose such a story when bodies of those killed by Israel could have been autopsied to determine for a fact whether or not organs from those Palestinians killed by Israel were in fact removed. In the Press TV interview, Bostrom claimed that he did approach many Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations but none, minus the UN, heeded his call for further investigation. Yet, he only makes brief mention of this in the article and says the UN staff was prevented from doing anything about his findings.
Unlike Bostrom’s reporting, when most Palestinian human rights organizations or other journalists have uncovered Israeli violations, they are sure to provide well-documented evidence to prove beyond a doubt that such violations were in fact committed. Even though Israel has made it very difficult for both Palestinian and international journalists and human rights workers to practice inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many have risked their lives to see that evidence of Israel’s crimes is uncovered and reported.
Many such well-documented violations committed over recent decades include: willful killing of civilians, including children; torture; extrajudicial executions; depriving a civilian population of food and other necessities; blackmailing patients in need of medical care to try to turn them into informers; wanton and deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure; punitive home demolitions; and illegal use of restricted weapons against civilian targets, including white phosphorus and cluster bombs. The list of UN resolutions and international treaties violated by Israel is far too long to list here, although these violations have been carefully documented over many years by human rights organizations that have worked tirelessly for their enforcement.
I am not trying to argue here that Israel or some Israelis could never have trafficked stolen Palestinian organs. In a place like Palestine, however, where evidence of Israeli war crimes has never been difficult to find — despite Israel’s consistent efforts to block investigations — those concerned with holding Israel accountable should not level allegations of such seriousness without producing some evidence.
Following Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza — during which more than 1,500 Palestinians were killed, the vast majority civilians — several well-known international human rights groups issued reports containing irrefutable evidence of shocking crimes. Israeli soldiers who participated in the attack on Gaza have been quoted in the Israeli press talking about how they or their colleagues committed atrocities, such as shooting dead unarmed civilians, including children.
The fact that Bostrom did not offer evidence for his organ theft claims has given Israel an enormous propaganda gift. Because he offered nothing more than conjecture and hearsay, Israel has launched a major campaign casting itself as an aggrieved victim of “blood libel.” This allows Israel to distract attention from the mountains of evidence of well-documented war crimes, and even to discredit real evidence. If there is no evidence behind the organ theft claims, Israel can argue, then maybe all these other claims about crimes in Gaza are equally dubious.
Predictably, Israel and its supporters launched a ridiculous campaign not only targeting Bostrom and his newspaper, but against all of Sweden and its population of more than nine million. Some have started an online petition calling for the boycott of the furniture retailer IKEA, founded in Sweden, while the Israeli interior ministry claims it will freeze the entry visas for Swedish journalists. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Swedish government declare its “condemnation” of the article. This is a strategy that Israel could not use in response to the Gaza war crimes reports. With each violation clearly documented and coming from a wide range of credible sources and testimonies, Israel could not demand that governments condemn the human rights groups and publications that disseminated them. Israel predictably objected to the reports issued about Gaza, but tried to bring as little attention to them as possible — understandably, because the reports are irrefutable.
But Israel has done all it can to draw attention and create an international crisis out of the organ theft allegation. Even the president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden has condemned the response, saying that Israel “had blown the issue completely out of proportion.” As Israel does with increasingly little discrimination, it has claimed that the article was motivated by “anti-Semitism.” So far, Sweden has withstood Israel’s hectoring that its government must take a position on an article published in a free press. But given the record of pandering to Israel, it remains to be seen if Sweden will stick to this position. If Sweden does bow down to Israeli pressure, it would set a frightening precedent for journalists whereby Israel can affect a state’s policy of freedom for the press.
Israel’s tactics of intimidation are not justified by Bostrom’s article, which is nothing more than an example of irresponsible journalism and publishing. The editors at the Swedish daily Aftonbladet who published this piece, should’ve sent it back to the author and told him to investigate the issue further until he found evidence to corroborate his claims. If there is any basis for the organ theft allegations, diligent reporting would bring it out. As Malcolm X said, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed;” all we need is to collect the evidence to prove it.
Many, myself included, have been critical of Robert Fisk’s reporting in recent years from Lebanon. I spoke about him with a friend the other night who made the point that “when he’s reporting during war he’s brilliant, but in times of calm he’s awful.” It seems to be somewhat of a truth in his reporting, although I would use a word softer than “awful”. When you read his older stuff when he was reporting on many important and bloody wars in the Middle East in the 70s and 80s, his writing is incredible. His descriptions of people and places are always detailed and in context. Unfortunately, in recent years in Lebanon he’s spent a lot of time writing about his fancy dinners with important Lebanese politicians, and not about his going out around the country to actually talk to the Lebanese people.
Even if the quality of his reporting has declined in recent years, he is undeniably one of the most important Western journalists to cover the Middle East in the last half-century. He has the courage to call an injustice just that, and not beat around the bush when doing so. If only there were a few more like him these days. I’d need hundreds of pages to say more about “objectivity” and what it means in journalism today, but something journalists often forget is that we are human beings. It’s natural to have feelings in time of war and conflict, and we shouldn’t try to hide them. I admire that in Fisk. He expresses his feelings in his writing while at the same time he is sure to give readers the most complete picture possible — which is not easy to do with only 1,000 words.
I haven’t been able to put down his last book, “The Great War for Civilization” since I started reading it a few days ago. It’s over 1,000 pages, so I’m not planning to finish it soon, but there were a couple of paragraphs from chapter two (about wars in Afghanistan) that I felt I had to share:
For “terrorists,” read “guerrillas” or — as President Ronal Reagan would call them in the years to come — “freedom fighters.” Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists. In the Middle East, in the entire Muslim world, this word would become a plague, a meaningless punctuation mark in all our lives, a full stop erected to finish all discussion of injustice, constructed as a wall by Russians, Americans, Israelis, British, Pakistanis, Saudis, Turks, to shut us up. Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists? What cause could justify terror? So our enemies are always “terrorists.” In the seventeenth century, governments used “heretic” in much the same way, to end all dialogue, to prescribe obedience. Karmal’s policy was simple: you are either with us or against us. For decades, I have listened to this dangerous equation, uttered by capitalist and communist, president and prime ministers, generals and intelligences officers and, of course, newspaper editors.
Later Fisk writes about holding an Kalashnikov after finding himself hitching a ride with a Soviet army convoy through the hills of Afghanistan where attacks by the mujaheddin happened frequently.
I have never since held a weapon in wartime and I hope I never shall again. I have always cursed the journalists who wear military costumes and don helmets and play soldiers with a gun at their hip, greying over the line between reporter and combatant, making our lives ever more dangerous as armies and militias come to regard us an extension of their enemies, a potential combatant, a military target. But I had not volunteered to travel with the Soviet army. I was not — as that repulsive expression would have it in later wars — “embedded.”