Last Wednesday 30 reporters and editors from local newspapers around Turkey -- as well as a few politicians and foreign reporters, like myself -- gathered in the upstairs of Istanbul's Cezayir restaurant to talk about the news and the challenges reporting it. The subject of the panel, organized by the UK-based Democratic Progress Institute, was the role of local media in conflict resolution, and many of the attendees were representing embattled regions in Turkey where fighting between the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and the Turkish Army is always breaking but reporting on it can land you in jail.
According to a recent report published by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), entitled "Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis," there are 76 journalists in prison in Turkey. Sixty-one of them are there only because of their work as journalists, contrary to adamant denials from the Turkish authorities. "Today, Turkey's imprisonments surpass the next most-repressive nations, including Iran, Eritrea, and China," the report reads.
About 70 percent of these arrests, according to CPJ, are related to the ongoing KCK trial which, since 2009, has resulted in the detention of close to 8,000 Turkish citizens, most of them Kurdish. KCK is the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, which the Turkish government considers the urban arm of the outlawed PKK. Those arrested have been caught in Turkey's severe anti-terror law, which hangs like a web over the Kurdish community. They are lawyers, activists, politicians, and journalists.
Because of these sad facts, those in attendance last Wednesday carried with them a glow of good luck or the gloom of anxiety, or both. Although the panel wasn't specifically focused on the Kurdish issue, it headed there quickly; in Turkey, after all, the "Kurdish issue" is more or less synonymous with "conflict." First, there was an outside voice.
British journalist Paul Moorcraft had been invited as a the keynote speaker and his message was clear. "I don't believe in advocacy journalism," he said. "I don't try to create change. I report what I see." Moorcraft went on to detail his time in war zones, recount his interviews with newly minted dictators whose duplicity he only recognized years later, and tell jokes: "If people want to lose weight, go to Afghanistan."
Choosing sides, to many in the room, was moot. What the government considered advocacy journalism -- and what they were willing to prosecute -- has shifted the very definition of journalism in Turkey. When it comes to the controversial Kurdish issue, attempts at balance are seen as advocacy; the very spectrum that Moorcraft aims to land dead center on is direly skewed here. In its war on terror, the Turkish government is doing a very good job of confusing and wounding, maybe fatally, Turkish journalism.
An editor from Diyarbakir in the Kurdish southeast (we were asked not to use names) said, "We write news about what's going on here and when it gets to an Istanbul newspaper it is mistranslated, exaggerated, and then people misunderstand the news." He said that Moorcraft's notion of balance, however ideal, was impossible for a Kurdish journalist: "As a local journalist we do whatever we do. We write out news, but it is limited depending on where you are. You have to pick a side."
He went on, eager to explain the spectacular pressures of being a local reporter in a long-time war zone. "Okay, let's imagine in your hometown you hear about a murder and it's done by someone you know. You know he is guilty because you know his face, you live in the same neighborhood. You have to write this story, but you have to choose your words carefully. In Diyarbakir this is true with PKK conflict. You really have to choose your words. You have to consider the reaction from the PKK, who are your neighbors, and the government. In Diyarbakir, in Sirt, in Batman - having a political identity is like wearing a shirt that's on fire."
An editor from Mardin, also in the southeast, agreed. "Local press is a key witness in Turkey, but we have two pressures: the neighborhood and the government."
The Black Sea region, to the north, has a reputation for Turkish nationalism. Its profitable harvests of tea and hazelnuts attract migrant workers, many of them from the Kurdish southeast. "We received migrant workers from the Kurdish regions," an editor from Trabzon said. "Their living conditions are inhumane. They are forced to live in tents and they have to go through security checks to enter the cities. But things are getting better."
"The biggest problem in Turkey is the Kurdish problem," an editor from Hakkari, a tumultuous region bordering both Iraq and Iran, said. "But does that mean that the Kurds are a problem? Journalists are exploited from all angles. Your text is changed to misreport in order to manipulate the people. You will get clubbed, your camera will be broken, you might face tear gas, you might be beaten. In my 20 years as a journalist I have experienced all of these things."
"We are not like Mr. Paul," he continued. "We are not going abroad to become war correspondents. We are trying to be correspondents in our own war. Sometimes we have to take sides because we feel emotions. Your brothers, sisters, mothers all live there. It is impossible for you not to encounter your own family."
Moorcraft had been listening quietly and was given the chance to weigh in. He began with an apology. "Excuse my levity, my humor," he said. "I can sense the hurt and anger in this room. I was not being dismissive of your concerns. I've found that the only way to keep from going completely insane is to have black humor." He paused. "I know that it is more difficult to be neutral at home. But it's even more important for you to be neutral. Unless you have the goal of neutrality, there's no point in being a journalist."
A speaker presented some data about media in Turkey. The numbers -- 40 national newspapers, 250 private TV channels, 1,500 local newspapers -- painted Turkey as a country obsessed with reporting on itself. But other facts, such as the prevalence of words like "scare," "disaster," and "danger" chronicled the damage resulting from this glut of reporting. The incendiary news vocabulary has only deepened the division between Turks and Kurds.
Reporting on Kurdish issues can be an emotional task for any reporter. It's difficult to see the impact of decades of resistance and violence, and you wrestle with balance yourself. But there is no comparison between the work of a Turkish or Kurdish reporter and a foreign journalist working in Turkey. Where they take enormous risks, we take few. The majority of us do not have family in Turkey, and though contacts can become friends they remain in the column of work. We will not be sent to prison, like Turks or Kurds reporting on the Kurdish issue. Distance is a luxury.
"You say to a Kurdish child that the bread here is good and by the third sentence the child will say to you, 'My village has been burned,'" the editor from Diyarbakir said. "We are very politicized."
"There is a famous story of two funerals," he continued, "one for a solider and the other for a guerrilla killed in the same battle. At the soldier's, the camera films the mother crying and the anchorwoman says, 'Our hearts are broken because of the mother's tears.' But at the guerrilla's, the anchorwoman says, 'The mother of a terrorist is crying.'
"I don't say 'terror' or 'terrorist,'" the Diyarbakir editor said. "Language is violence."
This didn't please the editor of a Trabzon paper from the Black Sea region. "I can't call a 'terrorist' a 'guerrilla,'" he said. "We sell 4,000 newspapers in the region and in Istanbul. If I start calling them 'guerrillas,' the next day I will only sell 1,000 papers. And the next day we will be shut down."
He continued, "I also believe that they are terrorists."
"I'm not judging you," another editor from the southeast said to the Trabzon editor. "But what if you called them 'PKK members' instead of 'terrorists'?"
"To local people it is the same thing," the editor from Trabzon replied. "They kill people."
"But sometimes the state kills people, and they are not PKK members," the southeastern editor said.
"It's state terrorism!" someone shouted from across the room.
An editor from Van, in the southeast, joked, "In Van, if you pronounce it 'pee-kay-kay' it means you support the PKK. If you say, 'pay-kah-kah' then you are against it. We say 'pay-kay-kay' to be neutral." ("Pay-kah-kah" is the Turkish pronunciation of the letters "PKK.") He stopped smiling. "We think twice and speak once."
"I cannot understand or rationalize terror," the editor from Trabzon said. "I cannot call a 'terrorist' a 'martyr' or a 'guerrilla.'"
"Cok kolay gelsin!" Another sarcastic shout from across the room -- a common Turkish phrase that loosely translates to "take it easy."
"This is a huge problem if you go to the Kurdish region," an editor from Hakkari said. "When I wake up in the morning I don't think about the Tokyo stock exchange, I think about boots on the ground in eastern Turkey."
"We should be as cool as the international correspondents," a reporter from the Black Sea region volunteered. "We should do the same in our country."
"Remember, it's not easy being a journalist in Trabzon," an editor from Bursa, a city in northwestern Turkey said. "The job of the prime minister isn't easy either. None of us are walking around with a basket of eggs on our shoulders like he is. Thank you." He pushed the microphone away.
"We are all here as journalists," the editor from Hakkari said. "Can't we change the language? Can't we have empathy? We are all journalists."
"In the southeast, the PKK members -- let me put it this way -- come to Trabzon for medical help," the editor from Trabzon said. "I'm always saying that Kurdish people are rejected and ignored. I see Kurds as victims. But it is another thing to take arms in the mountains. That is terrorism."
"What do you call the fighters in Chechnya?" the editor from Diyarbakir asked.
"I don't call them terrorists."
"And they killed civilians."
The editor from Trabzon banged his water bottle against the table. "They are under occupation. If Kurds want to say that they are also under occupation, then they can leave the Black Sea region and go back to Kurdistan."
At this, the moderator spoke loudly from the head of the table. "I am sure you are all disturbed by this," she said. "There are people shouting at each other. But this is supposed to be a conversation about journalism. Can't we talk about that?"
There were a number of women present at the meeting, one a popular parliamentarian with the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). She spoke about terrorism and prison, and her speech resonated through the ensuing arguments. She offered an anecdote about visiting a 19-year-old Kurdish girl, a recent graduate of Batman High School, newly in prison. "She is the only daughter and the youngest, so her parents really wanted her to do well," the MP said. "But she was in prison. I visited her and she said, 'My mother said to me, 'You are very hardworking, you can be anything you want - a doctor, a lawyer, a journalist. Now I am in prison. But in prison with me are all the doctors, lawyers, and journalists.'"