Kofi Annan, Al Gore and Abdullah Gül were there. And high profile leaders of academics and civil society, famous in and beyond their field: Helen Clark, Wim Kok, prof. Tariq Ramadan, Patriarch Bartholomeus, Wendy Chamberlin, Kemal Dervis, Lord Nicholas Stern. It was, overall, interesting and now and then even inspiring, but does that make Istanbul the new Davos, like some Turkish officials claim? Not by far. The congress lacked a global urgence and charisma. And was ocassionally misused solely to serve the Turkish government.
I’m talking about the Leaders of Change Summit, held March 14 and 15 in Istanbul. I went there to report on it for my new bussiness, IstanbulCongressCity. My first amazement came when I got my entrance ticket at the press counter and got the programme in Turkish. I could read that, but an English programme seemed more practical. There was no English programme, the press counter lady said in Turkish. She didn’t speak English. Her colleague did, but she looked as if she found my request very strange. In the end, at the sponsor desk they helped me out and gave me what I needed.
This constantly happened. In the hall with sponsors, many stands were filled with personnel speaking no English. The young men and women of the organization: same thing. Most of the personnel in the restaurant: same thing.
That could be overcome if the rest of the congress was overloaded with an international spirit. It was not. Some of the sessions were truly international, but many of the panels were filled with Turkish academicians (of whom a fair share also don’t speak English!), bussinesmen (no, no women), politicians and journalists. Their contributions were overall not very interesting. They have a tendency of focussing on the Turkish angle without taking it a level higher. Which is of course not so strange when you don’t speak another language than Turkish and can’t inform yourself very broadly. Which international audience is interested in exactly which remote places in Turkey get a new airport? The Turkish Minister of Infrastructure could have made his contribution more interesting by getting deeper into the public-private funding matter, but he spoke of that only with a few words. To name just one example.
Truly embarassing it became in a session called ‘Media that changes the world’. With Al Jazeera, with specialists in multimedia online reporting, for example? No: three Turkish journalists were speaking, and the editorial director of Euronews. Euronews, you know, the channel that broadcasts no urgent news whatsoever and surely doesn’t change the world. As if that wasn’t painful enough yet, the answers to questions about press freedom in Turkey made the failure of the session complete. One of the Turkish journalists said: ‘I’m not defending oppression but journalism isn’t a title that enables you to commit crimes’.
Going completely beyond the point. True, journalists can’t commit crimes, nobody is above the law, but that’s not the problem in Turkey. The problem is that journalists are jailed for what they write. And the ones that are jailed because prosecutors say they have committed real crimes? They don’t know what crimes they are accused of, their lawyers get no information about the evidence against them and some of them are kept in jail for years on remand without an official accusation. Defending that with ‘rule of law’, like this journalist did, is just ridiculous and shameful.
Who was this journalist? Ümit Sezgin, editorial director of TRT Turk. State television, very close to the government. Lucian Sarb, from Euronews, quickly took over the debate, and one minute later press freedom was off the table again. As if Sarb was instructed not to get in to the matter. Media that change the world? Media that protect the powers that be!
Talk about ‘one minute’: that’s the famous quote of Prime Minister Erdogan when he attended Davos in 2009. He didn’t get the chance to speak his mind to Israeli President Shimon Perez about the Israeli treatment of the Palestines, and tried to interfere saying ‘One minute, one minute’ (in very bad English). He walked away angry from the discussion, vowing never to come to Davos again. So now he must have thought: If I can’t go to Davos, then Davos will have to come to me.
But the real world leaders didn’t follow mr. Erdogan to Istanbul. Davos is the yearly place to be for every world leader, like last January: Angela Merkel was there, Dmirty Medvedev, Jean-Claude Trichet, Aung San Suu Kyi (on video), Felipe Calderon, David Cameron, Abhisit Vejjajiva (Thailand), Susilo Yudhoyono, George Papandreou, Ban Ki-Moon, Bill Gates, Nicolas Sarkozy. To name a few. None of them, and I mean none, came to Istanbul. And if the Leaders of Change Summit will stay as Turkey and AKP-focused as it was now, they will never consider to come either. Istanbul is a lot, but definitely not the new Davos.