Coal mine disaster in Soma, western Turkey

I have updated several radio shows about the mine disaster in Soma, Turkey. Listen back here:

13 May, Dichtbij Nederland, Radio5, Netherlands. The interview starts at 13.20 (scroll down for the podcast).

14 May, The Pat Kenny Show, Newstalk, Ireland. The interview starts at 17.51.

14 May, De Ochtend KRO/NCRV, Radio1, Netherlands.

I couldn’t find the interview for a London based radio station on 14 May.

Since I was not on the spot (I was shortly visiting the Netherlands when the disaster happened) I have not written about what happened at the mine. As you know, I usually try to find an angle that others in Turkey don’t write about, and it struck me how much the Soma disaster resembles the Roboski massacre: both lay bare state structures.

Read about it in this blog post:
The mine killed the people of Soma. Like the planes killed the people of Roboski.

And in this article on Beaconreader (you can subscribe for 5 USD per month, for which you get an exclusive story from me every week and on top of that access to all Beacon writers):
‘Soma mine disaster makes us re-live Roboski massacre’ 

Concentration bubble

My thoughts go back these days to a story I wrote in 1996. What it was about isn’t important. The state of mind I was in is. Pure concentration, no distraction, only that one story that I wanted to write as perfectly as possible. I worked for hours in what we would now call ‘flow’, and the result was commensurate. That, my dear readers, is the state of mind I need for the months, and possibly the year to come. And I need to force it to happen.

The story I was writing at the time was the kind of story I had never written before. I was working at a big magazine company in the Netherlands, and for five years I had been a cadet journalist at a monthly magazine. It was time for a new job. The editor in chief encouraged me to start writing for the magazines I wanted to work for in my own time, as a freelancer, so I could write myself into the picture.

I decided to write a 2,500 word full-quote interview for Marie Claire. You know, the ‘Confessions’ kind of story. I had never done such a long full-quote interview before. So, to do it properly, I neededdistraction-free time. Which was easy to create in those days. I don’t think I even had the internet at home yet, and if I did, it was that slow kind for which you only started up the lengthy access procedure with funny noises if it was really necessary, which it never was. In the morning, you read one or two papers, and that was it.

Millions of times

The 2,500 word story that I wrote back then has become a routine kind of thing. Any story I write these days can be considered a routine thing. Reportage, news, interview, narrative, background, analysis, blog post, I’ve done it all millions of times. No wonder it is once again time, just as it was then, to do something new. A book. That’s not 2,500 words, that’s about 80,000 words, divided into some 10 chapters.

I have never written 80,000 words. I have never written a chapter of 8,000 words. It requires a different kind of writing. A chapter requires a completely different approach  than a story. If I have to write 2,000 words, I know how to construct the story and it automatically all falls into place, just like when I have to write only 300 words. With 8,000 words, with, to be more specific, ten times 8,000 words that have to connect and make a whole, that is something quite different.

Not for one Saturday

It is impossible to accomplish this without making radical changes to how I work. I need to once again get into the same mood as when I worked with such deep concentration on that story in 1996. Not just for one Saturday, but for months at a time, possibly the whole year ahead of me.

I have to not only write, but research as well. With as few distractions as possible, I have to work on one chapter after another. No random travelling anymore, like before (and which has been essential toget to the point where I am now), but specific interviews and specific destinations for the information I need. Travel, talk, think, write write write.

This means I will have to cut back on blogging for this site. I have been posting here for more than five years at least once a week with hardly any exception. No longer possible. Tweeting: from an average of 44 tweets a day I will cut back dramatically. Facebook: luckily I hate FB so that won’t be difficult to ban from my life. Mail: I’m known for reacting ultra fast to my mail, which is in many cases not even necessary, so expect a change there.

Kick my own ass

The site KurdishMatters is closely related to the book, so I will keep blogging there, but no, in general not about news concerning the Kurdish issue. The book will not be about the news either, (that’s not possible in a ‘slow’ product like a book), so I will adjust the blogging on KurdishMatters to the pace of the book: slow, with human stories, and the bigger stories they reveal. I’m going to leave the news and analysis competition to others, and concentrate on what I do, what I’m good at and what nobody else does: slow journalism about the Kurdish issue.

Not all my time will go into the book. I will have to keep on earning money in the meantime, because my funds are not sufficient to work only on the book for a year (click here if you want to donate!). So one or two days a week I will keep on working for my news agency ANP, for a magazine I do final editing jobs for, and for an English language website. Maybe an occasional extra story.

Why am I sharing this? I need it. This is a radical change in how I have worked for more than twenty years. It will be difficult at first, since I’m a news junky, since I love to speak out about what’s happening all the time, since I’m basically a twitter addict. With this blog I kick my own ass. And of course, I want my readers to know why I will be less visible this year. So if you wonder now and then: hey, where is Fréderike?, I hope you will remember this blog. I salute you from the huge and long-lasting concentration bubble.

The right to strike

Let’s go back in time 42 years, to 15 and 16 June 1970. Workers protested against a government plan to ban strikes. Around 75,000 people participated, mostly in Istanbul and Izmir. Many of the organizers of the strike were arrested and tried according to martial law. But in the end, the protest was successful: the proposed law was withdrawn.

Why is this significant today? Not only because it is exactly 42 years ago. The right to strike is still not respected in Turkey. Just over two weeks ago, this was shown by a strike at Turkish Airlines, a strike supported by the union. Turkish Airlines had to cancel more than 200 flights, affecting more than 100,000 passengers. They fired 305 employees who joined the strike by, oh gentle ways, sending them an SMS. Then parliament soon passed a bill to please Turkey’s national carrier: they officially canceled the right to strike for aviation workers.

Let’s go back in time. Not too far, only to 12 September 2010. A referendum was bing held about constitutional reforms. Workers rights were also part of the reform package, and restrictions on the right to strike were removed. Now, the government is re-introducing a ban on strikes for a special group of workers. Are there more to come?

International standards

It get even weirder when you know that Prime Minister Erdogan made comments about the parliamentary commission that is working on a new constitution: he said the constitutional changes of 2010 are approved by the people and can not be changed. Only his government has the right to do that all by themselves, I suppose.

Yesterday there was a protest march in Istiklal to commemorate the events of June 1970. Protests are being held almost continuously in Istiklal and often they are so small you hardly notice them, but this one was pretty big. Maybe it wouldn’t have been if the fight for workers rights was really in the past and there was only something to commemorate. If Turkey had managed to give workers rights that are in line with international standards, like the right to strike, the right to collective bargaining, and protection against being fired without any compensation, just to name a few. Becoming a member of a union is very hard in Turkey, and many groups of workers don’t even have a proper union. But after 42 years, Turkey still places economic growth above fundamental rights of weaker groups in society.

Swimming

I’m in south-east Turkey and I’m swimming. That sounds kind of funny because there’s not much sea around here, but what I mean is: I’m swimming work-wise. I have this huge project under my hands that has no deadline and no word limit (well, 80 to 90,000 words can’t be called a limit, right?), and no very specific work plan yet. That feels like being in the middle of the ocean with no sense of a direction to go to.

For more than twenty years I have been writing articles of between 300 and 3000 words, always with a very specific angle. Especially since I’ve been freelancing, which I started in 2000, I had to make all the ideas that popped up in my head as specific as possible to be able to interest a magazine in them. I even had to inform the magazine beforehand of which direction the article would take and what kind of people I would interview, all to whet their appetite. Then they’d set a deadline and we’d define the number of words, and that was that.

Profile

How different is it with the project I’m working on now! The project is actually a book and a website in several languages about the Kurdish issue. The great thing about it is that all the things I have been doing for twenty years are not necessary now. I don’t need to limit myself to usually 1200 to 2000 words, I don’t have to finish the whole thing within two days or maximum one month, I don’t need to find interview candidates that fit the profile of a magazine.

The freedom that gives me as a journalist is absolutely wonderful, and it’s one of the reasons I am applying myself to doing this. The other reason is of course that I somehow feel connected to the Kurds in Turkey and that I find it utterly shameful how they have been treated in this country which is now trying to show itself to the outside world as a true defender of democracy and human rights. People outside (and inside, actually) Turkey may easily get the idea that the suppression of Kurds is over, and through this project I want to show how untrue that is.

Drown

But now that I am on my first long trip (5 weeks) to the south-east to find stories for my book, I am confronted with the difficult side of being able to work this freely. I really have nothing to cling to. What kind of stories am I actually looking for, and where to find them? I have some idea, of course, but the danger is that I might preconceive things too specifically, which might block the open view that I need. I had no idea, really, that working in a certain way for twenty years can make it so difficult to do something else. Luckily, I’m not the kind of person to panic easily. Panicking while swimming in the middle of the ocean would definitely make me drown.

Why I am in Istanbul and not in Van

I’ve been asked these days why I didn’t hurry to the earthquake area in the east of Turkey but stayed in Istanbul. In different tones of voice: angry, interested, surprised. I thought it might be interesting to answer this question in a blog post, to give some insight into the daily realities of a freelance correspondent.

The short answer is: I’m not in the earthquake area because I’m a freelance journalist hardly ever working for news media.

When the disaster hit the Van region on Sunday, I worked for Dutch news agency ANP, basically the only steady buyer of my work that I have. But I contributed only small news and some background information, and on Monday I went to an Istanbul municipality for a story about people collecting aid for the disaster area. ANP news agency doesn’t need me for the big news, for example on how the aid in the region is arranged, how many people died, how many people are wounded and missing, how many buildings collapsed, what the minister said, what the locals say and the mayors, etcetera. They work closely together with the huge agencies, Reuters and AP, and they get the hard news from them. From me, they get backgrounds and stories ‘beside the news’.

Small start

On Monday, the news journalist in me was getting eager to go. Then I did a short interview for Dutch radio, and they said: if you plan to go to Van, please let us know, then we can hire you again for an interview. They pay €125 for a news update, but they had no budget to contribute to any travel costs or other expenses, and might only buy one interview.

Still, it was a small start. So I mailed ANP: don’t you want me on the spot? No, they said, we get enough news from Reuters and AP, there’s no need for you to go. Then I mailed a paper I sometimes work for: if I go to the disaster area, would you buy stories from me and would you contribute to expenses? The answer came quick: ‘Thanks for your offer, but no, we follow it at the foreign news desk, we don’t need anybody there’.  It’s a paper that relies on agencies for the hard news, like the earthquake, and wants stories besides the news from their correspondents, preferably when they are somehow spicy (like this one) or related to Holland (like this one).

And the other news media I have worked for these last few days? I worked for American radio ABC and for Canadian TV Canada AM, but they only wanted updates on the first and second day of the disaster. After that, for those stations the news travels elsewhere again. That’s how it works, the world is a news-busy area, so to speak. So no way could I be paid by them again to give radio and TV interviews. That was it. I have no other news media to sell earth quake stories to.

Extra days

In the meantime, this week I have a deadline for a big background story about the increasing power of the Turkish judiciary. I have sold two stories to monthly magazines and I’m busy seeking interview candidates for those. I have a deadline for a final editing job (which was actually Monday, but they gave me a few extra days because of the earth quake work I needed to do). And I still follow the news for ANP, and wrote another besides the news-story for them on Tuesday which I was able to do just from my desk in Istanbul.

And the monthly and weekly magazines I work for? Forget it. The story about the judiciary is for a big weekly news magazine in the Netherlands. Especially today, there are developments that could be interesting do deeply dig in to, especially the tensions rising here and there between Kurds and Turks. But even if they wanted to publish about it,  they can do so only two weeks from now at the earliest, and by then the quake will no longer be in the news. By the way, they wouldn’t break into their planning for this anyway – like I said, the world is news busy, and natural disasters happen everywhere. They have another Turkey story planned. Mine, and if I deliver after deadline because I go to Van now, I have a problem.

Monthly magazines?  Did you know they plan months ahead? Most of them are making their January issue now. No, seriously.

Peanuts

The funniest suggestion I got was that I could definitely sell stories to Kurdish media. I don’t work for Turkish or Kurdish media, I work for Dutch media. I publish about this country, not in this country. It would make me too much a part of the polarized society that Turkey is and I don’t want that. I don’t go further than publishing some of my blog posts in Turkish on this Turkish site.

Besides that, what do you think Kurdish (or Turkish) (online) media would pay? Nothing, or peanuts at the most. And since I’m a professional journalist trying to make a living, I don’t work for nothing or peanuts. Only for money. I’m running a business. Occupy me.

Talking in circles

I wrote an article (read it here) for a Dutch monthly feminist magazine about discrimination in the labour market in Turkey against women who wear a headscarf. Since the elections are coming up, I interviewed the only candidate with a headscarf who stands a chance of being elected, Aynur Bayram from Ankara. She was an example of the trouble that ‘closed’ women can have when they are educated and want to have a career. It seemed logical to ask a women’s NGO focussing on women in the workplace their opinion on the subject. What would they be doing to improve the situation? Unfortunately, that didn’t work out.

And it all started so well. I called Kagider, a women’s entrepreneur organisation. I was quickly called back by their Secretary-General Yesim Müftüler Seviğ. I had my questions prepared. I thought that they would have to deal with the issue for two groups. One, women wearing a headscarf who encounter difficulties in their entrepreneurship because of wearing the scarf. Two, women who might want to employ a woman with a headscarf in their business but who don’t because they are afraid of the possible reactions of their customers. I was amazed to hear that Kagider is doing nothing for either group. It’s just not an issue.

Policy

So there I sat with my list of questions. I quickly came up with new ones of course. Don’t they see discrimination of headscarfed women in the labour market as a problem? Don’t they get questions from women in both groups about this matter? Shouldn’t they develop some kind of policy about this?

In short, the answer was ‘No’. In a way, I could understand, because Yesim explained to me how Kagider works: they develop programmes and policies based on the questions they get from their members. And the fact is, they don’t get questions about this topic. She couldn’t really explain why. Is it because the matter doesn’t play a role in the lives of their members? Or don’t they have any members with a headscarf who need support?

Soon we were talking in circles. I said it’s obvious they don’t get any questions if they don’t make any policy or even statement on the matter. Then she said they can only do so if the members say they should. To which I replied that there is not much point for a woman with a headscarf to become a member of an organisation that doesn’t address the problems she might have. To which she replied… etcetera.

Priorities

It’s great that Kagider listens to their members. On the other hand, isn’t it also an NGO’s task to perceive new developments in society that are relevant to their (potential) members and give their perspective on it? I’m not just talking about women with a headscarf; it could be any topic relevant to women’s entrepreneurship that they haven’t yet picked up. Giving priority only to people you already represent, in the end makes you an inward-looking organisation.

Not that I think Kagider is doomed to be one, though. They just launched a project to ‘go national’ and aim at getting more established in all Turkish regions. Probably they’ll be confronted with other issues than those that are current in Turkey’s biggest cities. I can’t wait to see what new topics they will add to their list of priorities. And which new members that will attract!

A writing personality

At some point in my life, I will have to find out if I am a writing personality or not. That may sound weird for somebody who has been earning her income by writing for twenty years now, but believe me, in writing I’m more of a bouncing type. Bouncing from story to story, from deadline to deadline. It pays the bills, but it might not make me write the stories I want to write.

This whole weekend, I have been thinking about the conference ‘Narrative Journalism’ that I attended, last Friday in Amsterdam. With Pullitzer Prize winners Jacqui Banaszynski and Mark Kramer, and some Dutch journalists who have also earned their credits in narrative journalism. What that is? In short: writing stories using the techniques of fiction, while respecting the rules of journalism.

I would love to get involved in narrative journalism. Turkey inspires me so much: the stories that are everywhere, the rich and turbulent (recent) history and present, the landscape and the cities that tickle all your senses. Writing a narrative journalism book about Turkey would be a dream come true. But to be honest: I can’t even get a proper idea for a book on paper. I’ve been trying for years now, and I’ve still got nothing to show. That would be okay if I knew that all the plans I put on paper and judged unfit were just part of the process to get somewhere, but I’m not sure that it is. I’m not sure if I’m heading in any direction. Like a swimmer in the ocean.

Of course, that has to do with the bouncing too. I need to produce, to keep the treadmill of freelance journalism going. I can’t just step out for a few months, unless somebody gives me a bag of money, and that problem will only be solved after I’ve written that first bestseller. But that’s in the end an excuse. Imagine if somebody actually gave me a bag of money, would the narrative journalism dream instantly turn into reality?

And that’s where we get to the real issue of narrative journalism. It’s an approach to the profession, meaning that it can come in all forms: in books and lengthy reportages in several episodes, but also in articles, even in short ones of 400 words. What you basically need to do, is go to the heart of the matter, be intimate. I have learned that much through working for magazines for years. I’ve had editors in chief who really pushed me to go further in interviews, to make people tell their real story, even (or of course: especially) about things that seem trivial. I have learned also to see what a story is really about, on a deeper level than you would think at first glance.

The problem for me is in the writing. I always write soberly. Whether it’s a moving personal story or a news article with mostly facts, I never make anything more dramatic than it is. Or, more precisely: I never use anything literary to make a story more compelling, more beautiful, more catchy – well, besides writing soberly, which is of course in itself also a technique. And I know why: I’m afraid to. Because to do that in a plausible way, it has to be real. You have to not only go to the heart of the matter, but you also have to get intimate. And being intimite is one step further than being able to let people tell their story, like I have done for 20 years now. You have to show yourself too. Not by using ‘I’ or making yourself explicit in the story, but by reporting with all your senses, emotions and perceptions. ‘Dare to care’, Banaszynski said, and: ‘Be emotional.’

I don’t do that. Even though I deeply want to. Not only in writing, but in every aspect of life. I want to give more space to the parts of me that are not sober, not kind of rough, not factual, not strong and independent, but soft, emotional and fragile. I have all that in me, but you only see it, I only show it, between the lines. Only if I dare to make it more visible, can I let go of the bouncing and be a writing personality.

 

The cleaner I deserved

‘Now please, stop talking and listen to me!’ I can hardly believe this is me talking. To my cleaning lady! But I have reached a limit. The paintings are still very dusty, she didn’t take the hair out of the shower drain, the windows haven’t been cleaned properly, there is still a huge stain on the small table and she forgot again to clean the lamp stand. She hardly lets me talk, keeps pointing out things she did clean: ‘Look, the book shelves are clean! Look, I did the chairs! Look, there is no dust here!’ ‘Doesn’t matter’, I say. ‘You forgot many things. And I want you to come back tomorrow and fix it.’

I’ve never been the cleanest, tidiest woman in the world, to say the least. That’s of course exactly why I hire somebody to do the cleaning for me. Fatma is in her fifties, she really needs the money, and she’s very flexible: whenever I need her, she comes. Practical, since my days never look the same. I’ve been happy with her, but my happiness is decreasing. She doesn’t clean properly. Not anymore.

My own fault of course. I have been too nice. Several Turks told me not to be too nice to her but to behave like a boss. Order her around, criticize her when she doesn’t do things the way they should be done, don’t be friendly. I didn’t listen. I thought: if I am just nice and patient to her, she will appreciate that and work well. But now it seems it has turned out exactly as my Turkish friends predicted: she doesn’t take me very seriously and makes a mess of her work. I don’t know if it’s deliberate or not, but frankly, that’s besides the point. I pay her, and she needs to do the job.

So I’ve changed my attitude. With an angry face I point out to her what is still dirty. When she makes stupid excuses (‘I couldn’t do the windows properly because it’s cold outside’, or ‘You didn’t get new Cif’) I tell her to stop talking and listen to what I am saying. And I refuse to pay her until she finishes the whole job properly. Boss Fréderike has to take back control, and there seems to be only one way to do it. I got the cleaner I deserved. Now Fatma gets the boss she asked for.

Bye bye home office!

This is the first blog post that I have put online working from an office. It was weird this morning, after my morning run: I showered, got completely dressed, put my computer in a bag along with the files of stories I’m working on at the moment, and closed the door of my apartment behind me.

I’ve been working from home for ten years: seven years in the Netherlands, more than three years now in Turkey. I love it for many reasons: you can work in just underwear if it’s hot like it has been lately, you can lie down on the bed with a book when you need a break, you are never bothered by traffic when going to the office, well, the list is long.
But the disadvantages were getting on my nerves. No colleagues to have a coffee and chat with, no other journalists nearby to talk about the events of the day, no encouragement to work because others around you are working too. In short: I needed people around me.

I found the office I dreamed of on the European side of town. Around ten journalist colleagues from several different countries, working all together in a big open and light space, air conditioned and with a view over the Golden Horn and the Marmara Sea. And for a very reasonable price.

Isn’t it a bother to go to the other side of town every day? people ask me. Not at all: the traffic still doesn’t bother me, because I only have to walk, take a boat and walk a bit further. The only thing I really need to think of is always taking all my note pads and files with me to where I need them. I predict that I’m going to often fail on that one. I’ll find a way to deal with it, I’m sure. For now, I’m happy: bye bye home office!

All-in journalism package

Let me explain something about my work. Some people who react to my websites, both here and in the Dutch version, don’t understand that there are actually opinions published here. ‘You are a journalist aren’t you, so you have to be neutral and objective!’ The thing is that,  as a journalist, you can’t do more than try to be objective and you will never succeed, and second, one of the tasks of journalism is to analyse the news, put it in perspective and comment on it.

Objectivity doesn’t exist. In a simple short news article, you can seemingly stick to the facts easily. Still, even when you write about the smallest news item, there are choices to be made: what to put in the article and what not, which details are relevant, which words to chose, which sources to check. The art of the profession is to choose which things are relevant to mention and how to give the best description of what’s happening. And always limited by the space you have.

There’s another reason why even a news article can’t be objective: for a start the choice of what to write about and about what not to write about, is subjective. What’s relevant news, for whom? In background stories this is even more so: which big stories are worth telling, which are not? That’s based on what magazines want to buy, but also on what you find interesting and important subjects as a journalist, and of course also by the news and current affairs. I love writing about politics, human rights, minorities and women’s lives and less about, for example, economy, tourism and showbiz. Totally subjective, even more so as I chose Turkey to work in, because I think these themes are important issues here. For Turks that’s sometimes hard to get: their definition of the term ‘minorities’ for example is already different than mine, let alone the consideration of how much importance the subject needs to be given. A similar story can be told about human rights subjects, and for women’s issues too.

So what am I going to do? Quit writing about these subjects because every choice I make in it is so subjective? No, of course not. I came to Turkey because I want to let people know what’s going on here, I want to share the views of different groups and individuals with my readers, I want my readers to get to know Turkey better. All based on information that I bring to you as honestly and professionally as possible. While doing that, I get to know the country better and better – and of course, all this knowledge raises new questions again, only complicating matters ;-). I develop my opinions, and feel so lucky I’m a journalist in an era in which it is so easy to create my own platform. I publish my stories on old fashioned paper and here, but anything I can’t sell, all the opinions I cannot publish in paper form, I can express in the blog posts on this website.

You could see this site as an all-in journalism package: news in short articles, backgrounds in long reports, opinions and observations in blog posts, and if you follow me on twitter, you also get news flashes, tweets about some private things, and snap shot pictures about the news and life in Turkey. It all reflects on how I practice journalism in Turkey. Developing and expressing opinions is not a lack of professionalism, it’s an inevitable and inalienable part of it.