Unprofessional journalism

Every, really every foreign journalist working in Turkey, writes about the Kurdish question. It’s one of the most urgent topics in the country, there are a lot of interesting developments to report about and the stories are usually pretty sellable as well. And I haven’t heard of any foreign journalist getting into trouble (the last couple of years) with the Turkish authorities for writing about the Kurdish issue, or for letting PKK members or PKK sympathizers express their opinion. Let me say straight away that for Turkish and Kurdish journalists it’s quite different: they get into trouble with authorities all the time for ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’ or for ‘inciting hatred among the people’.

Foreign journalists are usually not harassed by the state. Up until last week, that is, when American freelance journalist Jake Hess was arrested in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir. Some Kurdish organisation reported it first, and I could hardly believe it was true. A foreign journalist arrested for writing about the Kurdish issue, accused of having links with the KCK, an umbrella organisation linked to the PKK? Can you get accused of having such links when you interview somebody who fights for the PKK, or who has fought in the mountains, or would like to, or supports the armed struggle? If so, how come Jake Hess got into trouble, and not me, or many of my colleagues who also spoke to ‘terrorists’?

It soon became clear. Jake is not in the first place a professional journalist. He came to Turkey as an activist for the Kurdish cause and, for example, did some volunteer work for the Diyarbakir branch of IHD, the biggest human rights organisation in Turkey. I remembered his name when I heard it and checked my mail, in which I found several messages that he had sent from his private email address calling for action to support the case of several Kurdish activists in jail. One of them was Muharrem Erbey, human rights lawyer and chair of the Diyarbakir branch of IHD. He signed the email with ‘Jake Hess, human rights activist and friend of Muharrem Erbey’. Only very recently, I understand, had he decided to take up journalism, and he wrote two stories related to the Kurdish issue for Inter Press Service.

In my opinion, you can not call yourself both an activist and a journalist as regards the same matter. Part of being a professional journalist is keeping a distance from your subject, and Jake Hess was not doing that. He was not even trying – and that’s even worse. All journalists know it’s impossible not to have any personal feelings over matters you write about, so the least you can do is to try to stay as impartial as possible, and the logical result of it is that, for example, you can’t work both as an activist and a journalist. Journalism is not a tool for activism.

Jake Hess has been naive too, it seems to me. He must have known that both the PKK and the KCK are illegal organizations in Turkey, (and the PKK is on the list of terrorist organisations in the USA and Europe as well,) and that the Kurdish issue is still a very sensitive one. He certainly knew that you can already be accused of ‘having links with terrorism’ when you have ‘wrong friends’. Maybe he thought his status as a foreigner or even a ‘foreign journalist’ would protect him. But in Turkey, letting PKK sympathisers speak out is, in the eyes of many Turks, already a matter of ‘siding with terrorists’, and that suspicion of course only gets deeper when you don’t keep a distance from your subject.

A lack of distance also doesn’t help your cause, by the way: writing in as balanced, unbiased and well documented a way as possible only increases the chance that you might convince others of the importance of what you write about. Whenever Jake Hess writes again about the Kurdish issue in the future, anybody can immediately disqualify him by saying he’s not a journalist but an activist.

This doesn’t mean that I think it’s right that Jake Hess has been deported from Turkey. I don’t know all the background, but being both an activist and a journalist about the same topic is not a crime. It’s just unprofessional journalism.

5 thoughts on “Unprofessional journalism”

  1. Dear Frederick,

    Your piece here reminds me of Jonathen Rugman who was the journalist for The Guardian and The Observer in the mid ninties.

    As part of a human rights delegation in 1993, sponsored by the NUJ, I went to the OHAL or Emergency Region or what is known to many Kurds as ‘Kurdistan’.

    We travelled around for 12 days documenting extensive and systematic human rights abuses carried out by the Turkish state and were finally detained in a burning Kurdish village by ‘Contra Guerillas’.

    It’s a long a painful story but when we got back to Istanbul and were flying home I read a piece in The Guardian by Jonathen Rugman.

    He wanted to reassure his readers that there was no problem for the Kurds in Turkey and that his next door neighbours were Kurdish and they assured him that there was no problem at all and only a problem of ‘terrorism’.

    I wrote to the Observer’s editor and gave a long a graphic account of our delegation with photos.

    One week later The Ovserver sent Rugman to the OHAL region undercover and the next week, Exclusive, Turkey’s Secret War Against the Kurds!! Splashed on the front page!

    Journalists in Turkey who stay comfortably next to the swimming pool in Western Turkey and desperately want to ingratiate themselves with the authorities or even ordinary Turks who hold extreme Turkish nationalist views does not do the service of ‘professional’ journalism any favours either.

    You are wrong that no Western journalist has ever come into conflict with the authorities over the Kurdish issue.

    Many have and the OHAL was an effective no go zone for many years.

    Aliza Marcus was one of the best reporters in Turkey and for it she also landed herself in the courts.

    I have campaigned for Kurdish journalists and their plight is even worse.

    Now days I have not been to Turkey and have myself given up ‘journalism’ and have campaigned to raise awareness of the situation of the Kurds in Turkey and know very well the dangers for Western journalists in Turkey.

    One of the worst dangers is being to close to Turkish people themselves as their is rampant Turkish nationalism and you can lose sight of what are basic human and poltical rights being seen as somehow illigitimate!

    I actually applaud Jake and look forward to some of your reporting on the Kurdish issue.

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  2. Dear Marc,
    Thanks for your interesting comment. As you see in the beginning, I added ‘(in the last couple of years)’, because of course I would never suggest no foreign journalist has ever been in trouble over writing about the Kurdish issue. But the eighties and the nineties are over, with of course a whole, whole lot to be wished for.
    I don’t know if you are suggesting I don’t travel around Turkey and comfortably stay next to the swimming pool in Western Turkey, but if so: you are wrong. Not only because I don’t even like staying next to a swimming pool.
    Thanks again!

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  3. It is interesting that Mr. Hess had connections from the PKK and he acted within orders of some intelligence services, according to Prosecutor in Diyarbakir.

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