‘It seems to me you are not totally objective’, an editor emails me. I nearly explode. She is right of course – the subject I propose to write about reveals what I find important – but she means it differently. She means I’m not being journalistic. That I’m not looking for balance in the article I want to write. That I’m being an activist instead of a journalist.
It concerned a story about Kurdish language classes. As of this school year, taking Kurdish language classes is possible at state schools in Turkey, as an elective course starting from fifth grade, whenchildren are eleven years old. The magazine I proposed the story to wanted to have quotes from children in the article too. Kurdish kids of course, but also Turkish ones, because ‘the other side’ had to be heard too. I thought that was not a good idea. What can a Turkish kid really say about this subject, indoctrinated as they are at school with Turkish nationalism? Also, I emailed back, this is not a matter of Kurds versus Turks, but a matter of human rights. After which the ‘not totally objective’ email rolled into my inbox.
As if I don’t know what I am talking about. After six years of journalism in Turkey, always focused on human rights and by now specialized in the Kurdish issue, I claim to know more than the average person about the issue. Especially since I moved to Diyarbakir, the biggest city in the predominantly Kurdish Southeast of Turkey. I talk to experts and read reports, but most of all I travel in Kurdish areas and talk to the people in even the smallest villages.
I have become so much wiser by doing so, that by now I feel secure enough to also speak out. I do that by writing human stories that counter the violent image the conflict evokes. By now and then publishing op-eds. By choosing certain angles, by taking up controversial subjects, and by blogging and tweeting my opinion.
An open, democratic society
In Dutch journalism, taking a stand is unusual. Columnists are hired for it, but journalists, they write their stories nicely following the rules. Which is not that hard in the Netherlands. The country has accessible state institutions, and civilians and politicians who don’t have to be afraid of ending up in jail after expressing a spicy, controversial or totally non-mainstream opinion. Newspapers and weekly news magazines have a political colour, but they separate facts and opinion, and show their colour mostly by their choice of the news and the angle. There are exceptions, of course.
Which is quite the opposite in the country where I work. Unlike in the Netherlands, where papers are published by newspaper companies, most of the Turkish media are owned by big multi-facetted corporations. Media conglomerates also own construction companies, mining companies, and even tea plantations. The paper doesn’t have a journalistic, but an economic goal.
Because in Turkey economic interests are directly related to political ones, it’s important to stay within the boundaries of the existing political reality. Result: nationalism and polarisation set the tone in the articles. Diverging from the government stance is not smart, because you will for example miss out on government tenders. One of the most controversial issues is the Kurdish issue. Prime Minister Erdogan threatens papers openly and shamelessly: whoever ‘supports terrorism’ can count on measures being taken. And ‘support’ means writing about the issue from a Kurdish perspective. Kurdish media and journalists know what it means to colour outside the lines: huge fines, publication bans and prison sentences.
Giving a voice
But for me as a foreign journalist, Erdogan’s threats do not apply. He is not going to make serious trouble for a journalist from an EU country, of course. So, much as my opinion about the Kurdish issue is disliked by the Turkish government, I can express it freely.
And I can do the basic journalistic work that is not appreciated when it’s done by Turkish or Kurdish journalists, or in which the average newspaper-reading Turk is not interested: writing down the stories of ordinary Kurds. Their daily lives, their past, their choices, their losses, their pain. And yes, in the book that I will write about the Kurdish issue, the Turkish pain will also have a place – but doesn’t that get a lot of attention already? Isn’t it the task of a journalist to try to give a voice to the people who are in general not heard?
Of course I want to put those stories to paper as balanced as possible. But Turkey is not an open, democratic society like the one I grew up in and in which I learned all the journalism ethics and rules. That lack of democracy makes it hard sometimes to find balance and to strictly follow journalistic principles. Controversial subjects that nobody wants to talk about with their name used as source for fear of reprisals from the state. A government which almost by definition doesn’t answer repeated requests to give their side of the story.
When you can’t follow these journalism rules, it often means you can’t publish. Frustrating, because that’s how stories remain untold and that’s of course exactly how the Turkish government sometimes wants it. What is balanced about that? Let me give an extreme example: what if you could work as freely as a foreign freelance journalist in Turkey, but then in North-Korea, would you keep stories unpublished because people only want to share their experiences of human rights violations anonymously, and because the government refuses to react? Would that be a defendable journalistic choice?
Human rights glasses
I look for balance, for nuance, for the full story, and try to do that with as much journalistic integrity as possible. But of course, I’m pushed into boxes anyway. The ‘terrorist whore’ that was recently expressed towards me, I could easily dismiss because it’s just too pathetic, just like the often heard simplistic accusation that I am ‘anti-Turkish’. Also the Turkish friend who told me I was becoming pretty ‘pro-Kurdish’ judges me through black and white Turkish glasses. I am not anti-Turkish, but also not pro-Kurdish. I am not a part of the conflict; neither Turkish nor Kurdish blood is running through my veins, so you cannot define me in those terms. I am an outsider. A journalist wearing human rights glasses, specialized in the Kurdish issue.
And in Dutch media, that’s okay. Because there does exist Dutch journalists who speak out, and they are not shoved aside because they are ‘activist’. Karin Spaink for example, who speaks out about privacy and the Iinternet. Linda Polman, who is eager to express her strong opinion about the UN and the international aid industry. And Hassnae Bouazza, who speaks about the Arabic world with all the knowledge she has of it. They know what they are talking about, and that’s why they are being asked their opinion.
And my view is not clouded and activist. Even though, because of my concerns for human rights, I feel connected to the faith of Kurds and Turkish society as a whole, I do guard my profession. I am still a journalist.
Fréderike Geerdink, who works for several Dutch and international media, is the only foreign correspondent based in Diyarbakir. Currently she is holding a crowd funding campaign to finance her book about the Kurdish issue. Step 1: watch the video!
This blog post was published on a big journalism website in the Netherlands, De Nieuwe Reporter (The New Reporter).