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03 May

P24 marks World Press Freedom Day with the MA Birand Lectures

Ahmet Altan, former editor of Taraf newspaper, delivers first in annual series, asking “What are journalists for?”

P24 honoured the memory of Mehmet Ali Birand, a journalist who changed the parameters of his profession in a career spanning nearly fifty years with the launch of an annual lecture series. Ahmet Altan, author and journalist, inaugurated the series with a critical look at how journalists behave.
 
“It is a profession that is ninety-nine per cent despicableness and cowardice, and one per cent integrity and courage. And that one per cent plays a huge role in changing the world and in changing lives,” Altan told an audience at the Swedish Consulate in Istanbul, on 3 May – World Press Freedom Day.
 
P24, was founded last autumn under the presidency of veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, as a platform to support editorial independence in Turkey. The decision to name a lecture series after Mehmet Ali Birand was to commemorate a journalist who opened his profession to the outside world and who raised journalistic standards.
 
“As guardian of the liberal conscience, he was deeply critical of the self-appointed guardians of the Turkish state. He could be equally critical of his own profession and in later years confessed that the Turkish media was far too ready to self-censor and kowtow,” said Andrew Finkel, executive board member of P24.
 
According to Altan, journalists must confront “not just the state, the army and their bosses, but also of the reaction of their readers.” It also means confronting their own instincts and conditioning.
 
“Seymour Hersh reported the story of the My Lai massacre, a story for which he won the Pulitzer…was Hersh the only journalist who knew about this massacre, or was he the only journalist to publish the story?” Altan asked.
 
Cemre Birand, the widow of Mehmet Ali Birand, also addressed the gathering.  Author and journalist, Cihan Aktaş, parliamentarian Şafak Pavey and anchor woman Şirin Payzın  participated in panel on the nature of relations between  media and power. M. Gökhan Ahi, lawyer and professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University spoke on internet censorship.
 
A full report on those discussions will appear on the P24 website. You can read the full text  of Altan’s address here.


What are Journalists for?
 
What is journalism?
 
If you ask me, it is a profession that is ninety-nine percent despicableness and cowardice, and one percent integrity and courage. And that one percent plays a huge role in changing the world and in changing lives.
 
Before I answer the question “Why is it despicable?” I would like to give you a few well-known historical examples of this terrible dishonesty.
 
As I’m sure you know, Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian anarchists who were arrested for murder and then hanged in 1927.
 
Their crime was never conclusively proven, but this shadow of doubt was not enough to save them from death.
 
Why?
 
Prominent historian Arthur Schlesinger gives the answer to this question while describing a childhood memory related to the horrific event.
 
“I was off at camp in New Hampshire that summer and I used to read the paper, primarily for the baseball. I was 9 years old in the summer of 1927 and I remember an indescribable shock when I picked up a copy of the Boston newspaper to find the scores and there's a big headline saying, ‘Sacco and Vanzetti Executed.’  Then I overheard one counsellor say to another, ‘Thank God they finally got those bastards.’”
 
What made that camp counsellor speak so inhumanely, with such lack of conscience, with such contempt, was the despicableness of the press.
 
That ordinary American teacher didn’t know the details of the trial, knew nothing of the question marks surrounding it, let alone the question marks that remain unsolved to this very day. Yet he believed that those two Italian anarchists deserved to be hanged.
 
How did he form this belief? Who was it that transformed this camp counsellor, who may well have been a man of integrity, into someone who was, from the viewpoint of conscience at least, responsible for an unfair execution?
 
There is only one answer to this.
 
Newspapers and journalists.
 
During the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the American press published appalling articles about “migrant workers.”
 
In 1922, one year after Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested, Kenneth Roberts wrote in the Saturday Evening Post, “great numbers of men, accustomed all their lives to living on starvation rations, come to America and take jobs at low wages and then, in their determination to save money, crowd into wretched quarters and live in squalor and filth and darkness on a fraction of the money which an American workman must spend in order to live decently.  Such a proceeding lowers the standard of living in America.”
 
And this belief was adopted by the American public. If such a public opinion had not fostered, it would not have been so easy to sit those two Italians on the electric chair.
 
Let me give another well-known example from Germany.  The famous Reichstag fire.
 
Who was it that cleared the way for Hitler's fascism, and, at this important turning point, convinced the German public that the communists had set fire to the Parliament? Who was it that used this fire as an excuse to clear the way for Hitler’s fascist dictatorship?
 
I am sure that you know the answer better than me. The German press.
 
And let's also have a look at France. That poor Captain Dreyfus. Captain Dreyfus the Jew. He was accused of being a German spy, but he had no links to espionage. They sentenced him in full knowledge of this, simply by making use of anti-Semitism in France. But how had anti-Semitism spread throughout society? Who was it that spread this hatred?
 
You know the answer.
 
But I don’t want to talk only about cases that you already know, let me mentioned a few events that you haven’t heard before. I will give a couple of less dramatic examples. These examples are from my own country; they are things that happened to me, that I experienced personally.
 
My father is a famous left-wing writer, and he was also one of Istanbul's first socialist members of parliament. It was during the years that my father was at the very heart of the socialist debate and at the time when I was passing from childhood to adolescence that I saw a large headline in one of the newspapers that came to the house.
 
It said that my grandmother worked in a brothel and that there were official documents to prove it. This was the grandmother was the daughter of a general who had served as commander in the artillery school of Turkey’s second president, İsmet Pasha.
 
That morning, when she went to the bank, they showed the poor woman the newspaper and she fainted. When she came to, the first words spoken by my grandmother, who was around sixty at the time, were like those of a young girl: “what if my father had seen this.”
 
When I grew up I also became involved in journalism and political debates.
 
About twelve years ago I went to Germany where one of my novels had been published, and I took part in a meeting attended by a Turkish audience. I returned to Turkey. The following morning I picked up the papers left in front of my door; in the far right column of the paper on top of the pile were written two words in large font:
 
“French Ahmet.”
 
At first I didn’t understand what it was about. Then I read the article. It was about me. It claimed that during the speech I gave in Germany I had spoken words that I never uttered; it claimed that I had insulted Turks.
 
I made a statement saying that I had never said such things, and the next day the chief editor had written, “not only does he say these things but he also denies them.” Two pages of the newspaper had been set aside for the “witness statements” of people who claimed that I had said these things. Nobody defended me. The main TV channels wouldn’t host me and so I went around all of the small channels and explained that what was written in the paper was a lie, but I wasn't able fully to convince people.
 
Then one day a Turkish colleague from Germany called me and said, “I came to your speech that day and recorded it for Cologne Radio; if you want I can send you the tape.” It was only with that tape that I was able to prove that the newspaper had published a lie, for which  they apologised.
 
I will give one more quick example before trying to evaluate, in as broad a framework as possible, why journalists act in such despicable ways.
 
At about the same time I had written a novel called Aldatmak (“Betrayal”). One morning, one of the mainstream newspapers published an article with a headline that claimed I had “stolen the novel”.
 
The journalist who made the claim said that he had not read my book but that his wife had explained the plot to him and that it was stolen from an Arthur Hailey  book.  I held a press conference in which I said that this claim was an outright lie. The following day the newspaper that claimed that I had “stolen the book” published a headline that distorted my words.
 
One day I bumped into the newspaper’s editor and I asked, “Why did you distort what I said?” The answer I received was unforgettable.
 
He said, “Call it journalistic licence.”
 
For him, this is what journalism is. And this is what journalism is not just for him but also for many journalists. Distorting the truth.
 
Recently a voice recording was released of this same journalist (who, despite having never read my book, said that he “understood” that I had stolen the plotline) in which he suggested to one of the prime minister’s men that they “distort the public polls in a way that benefits the government.”
 
I think I have given plenty examples both from abroad and from Turkey. So let’s look at our fundamental question: why do journalists act so despicably?
 
Journalism has three main enemies: the government, newspaper bosses, and newspaper readers.
 
Governments try to use newspapers as a vehicle for their own propaganda, and most of them manage to do so. They attempt to prevent newspapers from publishing their “secrets,” and generally they succeed in doing so.
 
As you know, one of the best-known examples of this was when an American newspaper chose, “on request of the government,” not to publish the information it received about the “Bay of Pigs” invasion. Later President Kennedy reportedly said that he wished the paper had published the story, as it might have helped avoid the fiasco.
 
Today, newspapers in developed countries have managed to escape from this state pressure to a certain extent, but they can never fully escape it. One of the reasons for this is the desire to be “on good terms” with the government; another, and perhaps more important reason, is that the majority of journalists see “national interests” as more important than professional principles.
 
For a journalist the concept of “national interest” does not exist; it cannot exist. Protecting the “national interest” is the job of those who work for the state. The job of journalists is to publish the truth. This is a division of labour within society. Societies invented journalism for this reason: so that they could find what is secret, what is hidden, and bring it to light by sharing it with the public. If journalists start thinking like government officials, this division of labour within society will break down.
 
The government wants to be the only one to decide what is in the “national interest.” But what if the government makes the wrong decision or if the thing they decide is in the “national interest” actually goes against the interests of the state and society? How will this be understood without journalists and without the truth being published?
 
One of the biggest threats for society is when journalists, in matters of state, distance themselves from their own profession and put on the guise of “government officials.” This is a threat that exists in every society throughout the world. As I mentioned earlier, developed countries are gradually starting to free themselves of this great error, but in countries such as Turkey that are not yet sufficiently developed, this highly unethical professional conduct continues.
 
Our country is full of journalists who believe journalism means concealing the truth in the “national interest,” and, on top of this, we hear them boast about this unashamedly. We are surrounded by journalists who say, “I wouldn’t have published that article. “He wouldn’t publish it, because he thinks it isn’t in the interests of the state. I would like to ask those journalists this question: “What do you care about the state? “You are not responsible for the state; your only responsibility is to society and to your profession, and that responsibility orders you to publish every story of whose veracity you are certain. When you do not publish these, when you hide certain truths, you abuse the trust that society has in you, making you a fraud and a cheat.
 
The second problem that plagues journalism is that of newspaper bosses. Newspaper bosses want to be on good terms with both government and advertisers. They dislike strong opposition or reports that will anger the advertisers; they constantly try to restrain the journalists that they work with. The newspaper editors are aware of the desires of the newspaper bosses, and they do their best not to come into conflict with these wishes as they carry out their jobs. Working with newspaper bosses is hard, because they have a tendency to fire people.
 
I know this for certain, because I have been fired from many jobs. My first job as editor-in-chief lasted just ten days, which I believe is a record. I was once fired because I wrote an article entitled “Atakürt”. Not only did the newspaper fire me, the following day they published a two-column article on the front page saying that they had fired me “due to reader reactions.”
 
Working with newspaper bosses involves a difficult balance for journalists everywhere in the world. Keeping their position without losing their job but also without acting unethically is very difficult, particularly for newspaper editors. Running a newspaper while maintaining an ethical stance is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet, and there are very few newspaper editors in the world who are able to say, “that is precisely what I do.”
 
To understand the unethical behaviour of newspapers it is not enough to look at the “published” stories; what you really need to do is look at the stories they do not publish. And if journalists with integrity do not publish those stories, readers cannot know which ones they are.
 
The greatest dishonesty and fraud of journalism lies perhaps not in the articles that are published but rather in those that are “unpublished. “I have always believed, and I still believe, that “the best newspaper” will be created by publishing the stories that other papers do not publish. A “small” newspaper that publishes stories that other newspapers do not publish has more impact than “big” newspapers. We published a newspaper called Taraf, and I think that this newspaper confirmed my view. Apparently, before the paper was published I said to the newspaper's owner, “If we sell thirty thousand we will shake up the country.” I forgot I had said that and the paper’s owner later repeated that conversation to me, saying that when I said this he had thought I was “talking nonsense.”
 
In fact, we shook up the country without even reaching sales of thirty thousand.
 
I say this not to reveal a truth but to boast. Journalists have a weakness for boasting, for having a penchant for the words “we did it first,” but that’s the topic of another speech.
 
Let’s move on to the most difficult problem faced by journalists: newspaper readers.  Societies, like every living organism, do not like change; and like every living organism they need change in order to live. This creates a strange emotional dilemma.
 
The ninety-nine percent of newspapers that work in the service of dishonesty address the part of society that does not want change; the one percent that has integrity addresses the part that is obliged to change. Anywhere in the world, your everyday newspaper reader likes to read praise about his or her nation, homeland, religion or language. This is known by all politicians, who constantly praise their public.
 
There is no country that does not have the “most glorious history in the world;” every country believes that it has the “most glorious history in the world.
Here we are talking about a level of stupidity in which nobody questions how it is possible for every country to have the most glorious history in the world.
 
This is the shared stupidity of humanity and the biggest problem faced by journalism. What are you to do if the truth that you are obliged to tell goes against the belief of your readers, who think that they have the most glorious history in the world?
 
Let me give you a wonderful and timely example.
 
The Armenian genocide.
 
As you know, as we approach the one hundredth anniversary of 1915, this subject has become an important issue in Turkey. Using a neutral expression and without using the word “genocide”, the prime minister offered his condolences to Armenians. If today a newspaper writes about the Armenian genocide using the word "genocide" and tells the truth about what happened, the first reaction will come not from the state but from its readers. There are very few newspapers that can stand up to such pressure from their readers. Readers do not want to read news articles and comments that go against their beliefs, their learned ideas and their entrenched knowledge.
 
Until recently the Turkish state and the Kurdish organisation PKK were at war. Neither Turkish readers nor Kurdish readers wanted to read the truths about this war. They both wanted to hear about the heroism and legitimacy of their own fighters.
 
As the major newspapers were all Turkish they always wrote about the legitimacy and heroism of the Turkish soldiers. There were almost no Turkish newspapers that wrote about the injustice faced by the Kurds.
 
This was not due only to pressure from the state and the newspaper owners, but mainly to pressure from readers.  As the newspapers bowed to this pressure, as they constantly showed the Kurdish community as being in the wrong, when the state decided to make peace these newspapers had difficulty explaining the benefit of peace to their readers.
 
All of the newspapers in the world are up against a conditioned readership that has been created by state propaganda, the state-controlled education system, and the country’s official history. While in the developed world this has in part changed, it has not changed entirely. This is the problem that is the most difficult to overcome.
 
Let me give you another example from my own personal experience.
 
Three or four years ago, the headman of a small hamlet in Kurdistan called our newspaper. He described how a mortar launched by a military unit had blown a young girl to pieces. We sent a reporter to the scene of the incident.
 
The truth he discovered was terrible. After asking her mother to cook her some pasta, young Ceylan left home to play in front of the house; she was blown to pieces by a mortar launched from the military unit located on the hill opposite the hamlet. We published the story as a front-page headline.
 
The following day not a single line was printed about the incident in the Turkish press.
 
On the second day we again dedicated the front-page headline to the story, along with additional details.
 
Again, not a single line was printed in the Turkish press.
 
When we wanted to continue the story on the front page on the third day, a colleague from the editorial department said, “don’t waste your time Ahmet Bey. This story isn’t having any impact.”
 
But still, on the third day we published the words of the young girl’s mother on the front page. Her mother said, “I collected my daughter’s pieces in my skirt. “It was only after this third article that other newspapers, using Taraf as their source, gave space to this story, and that young girl became a symbol of injustice.
 
Those newspapers that had found it difficult to publish this story were afraid not only of the state, the army and their bosses, but also of the reaction of their readers.
 
Of course there is another truth that needs to be told here.
 
The majority of journalists also share the reactions of the public; they are the victims of that same conditioning, the same education, the same official ideology. For that reason they know exactly what the public reaction will be, they react themselves even before the reader does. This conditioning prevents them from carrying out their job as journalists.
 
Just as they sometimes “become part of the state” and think like the state, they sometimes become part of their readership and think like them. They are not even aware that they are doing this. And when they do so they betray their responsibility towards their readers and their profession.
 
Journalists must free themselves, save themselves, not just from the state but also from the conditioning of their readers.
 
The segment of readers who do not want to change is made uncomfortable by the truth. But this is the same segment who need to change are not even aware of this need and which  makes these truths of interest to them. Journalists who act bravely and honestly evoke these negative reactions and also arouse this interest; the existence of journalism prevails thanks to this dual tension.
 
As you know, Seymour Hersh reported the story of the My Lai massacre, a story for which he won the Pulitzer.
 
I want to ask you a simple question:
 
Was Hersh the only journalist who knew about this massacre, or was he the only journalist to publish the story?
 
I don’t know the answer to this for sure, but my guess is that he was not the first journalist to know about it, he was simply the first to publish it.
 
It would be rare in such critical cases for the information to reside in the hands of just one journalist, but in general it just the one journalist or the “one percent" of journalism which displays the requisite courate.  And it is that one percent that changes lives and changes the world.
 
Hersh’s story played an important role in changing American public opinion regarding the Vietnam War.
 
If Hersh had thought like the state, if he had thought like his boss, if he had thought like his readers, he would not have written that story; but he thought like a journalist, he acted like a journalist, and today, thanks to his courage, his name is being mentioned in this corner of Istanbul.
 
The ninety-nine percent of journalism is forgotten, that one percent is remembered.
 
For that reason a true journalist takes the risk of clashing with the state, their boss and, most importantly, their readers.
 
Being that one percent in a profession where ninety-nine percent hide the truth is like being a match lit in a dark room: everybody sees you.
 
A match burning in the darkness is brighter than a floodlight shining in the light. For that reason the journalist who writes the truths that nobody else dares to write immediately attracts attention. He also provokes anger and grievances, but he or she is unforgettable.
 
We know this all too well, because today this speech is being given in a society that has returned to being a dark room; here we continue to experience the full depths of that darkness that developed countries are gradually leaving behind. Turkey is going through a period in which journalism is under the worst form of oppression. There is a government that doesn’t want even the slightest criticism. It is the owner of a large section of the press. Those sections that the government does not own are threatened in various ways. The government accuses those who publish truths that they do not like of being traitors. This is a government that says that its own interests are the same as the country’s interests.
 
They have journalists removed from their posts not only because they do not like what they are doing, but also because they do not like what their husbands or wives are doing. The number of unemployed journalists is rising every day.
 
They are trying to make their supporters rich, while condemning their opponents to starvation.
 
Today the Turkish press is under great pressure.
 
Our press is like the magician’s rabbit; no matter how much pressure you put on it, it continues to exist without being crushed by or objecting to that pressure, and still today it continues to exist. The ninety-nine percent acts meanly and dishonestly. It hides and distorts the truth; it attacks those who speak the truth. But there is also the one percent.
 
Like a match in the dark they light up their surroundings, consuming themselves to be able to tell the truth.
 
We see their light, their light gives us hope, we trust in their courage and integrity.
 
As I come to the end of this speech that has gone on long enough, I would like to offer my respect and gratitude to that one percent all over the world, those flames in the pitch darkness who burn themselves out to create light; and I also thank you for having been kind enough to come here to listen to me speak.




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