Saturday, January 20, 2007

Lament for Hrant Dink, and for journalism

Yesterday I was talking to a student writing an honors thesis on the media coverage of last summer’s war in Lebanon. I was so impressed with what she was doing that I blurted out, “This is going to be great. You would make a great journalist,” adding as an after thought, “Only you would probably get killed.” Little did we know that only a few hours earlier a famous journalist had just been gunned down in Istanbul.

Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian and Turkish language weekly, Agos, had been in trouble with the Turkish government because of an article in the Armenian Diaspora in which he referred to the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-1917, an event that the Turkish government insists was part of a war in which killing took place on both sides, and in any case, they say, an attempt at genocide of Armenians never took place. [] Dink had been in court several times, his appearances often disrupted by hecklers supporting the government position. Even though his sentence of six-months in prison (on October 7, 2005) was suspended and he has been able to work, he received many death threats. Today’s New York Times says he recently wrote of the toll that those threats were taking on him: “I do not know how real these threats are, but what is really unbearable is the psychological torture that I’m living in, like a pigeon, turning my head up and down, left and right, my head quickly rotating.”

One of the problems with this murder is that besides the government, and presumably many people in the wider Turkish community, he has enemies in the Armenian community. They believed he should have insisted that Turkey acknowledge the genocide as a condition of entry into the European Union, whereas he argued for Turkey’s entrance into the European Union as a means of strengthening democracy in Turkey. It is fair to say that for the government the event was truly unfortunate: Prime Minister Recep Tyyip Erdogan expressed it well: “A bullet was fired at freedom of thought and democratic life in Turkey.” [NYTimes]

The problem for journalists – and anthropologists and other social scientists – is that they are supposed to represent the world as they find it, not as politicians want it or as the public imagines it. So there are risks, especially for journalists, because they are the individuals on the streets and in homes trying to report on events as they take place. (Anthropologists have a similar problem, but usually they take too long to get anything written; by the time they publish their results the world is no longer interested in the topic. When I first went to Afghanistan to do field work, the individual in the Foreign Ministry who was supposed to authorize my research stated the problem elegantly in one sentence: “We don’t like anthropologists because of the questions they ask, mainly about religion and politics.”) Governments don’t like folks who ask questions that reveal embarrassing details. It is journalists who are most of at risk these days because, as it happens (at least in the Middle East and Central Asia) asking questions, mainly about religion and politics, can be dangerous.

In the present world journalists are getting mauled because of their quest for specific and accurate information. For all the talk about a free press in the West, it is no less resented by those in power. The Bush administration has spent most of its time in office dismissing most reports on what was going on in the Middle East and Central Asia by claiming they were merely biased reports of a liberal press. Finally, in 2006, George W. Bush joined the “liberal press” in recognizing that the war that he had started was out of control. As is often said, those in power would prefer that journalists never remember what they said and did in the past: reporters should be stenographers with amnesia. We’ll see next summer how eager General George W. Casey Jr. is to be reminded of yesterday’s statement that, with the help of the additional troops President Bush will be sending him, the people in Baghdad “will feel safe in their neighborhoods” by late summer. Many such statements by American officials in the past have been made, and we would all so very much like to believe them, but even though we live in a world we have created, as Marx said, it is not the world that we would like it to be. Are such promises fabrications of reality to justify actions in the present? Always the question is, how well do our images of the world correspond with the world as it is? Often, it turns out, we get it wrong. The world as it is has its own properties and its own dynamics, whatever we presume it to be, and (as the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has famously put it) it need not correspond to our image of it.

That’s the problem for journalists. Often good journalists get in trouble with everyone, because they want to talk about the world as they find it, not as those in power would like to represent it and most of us would like to imagine it. And as it turns out, the closer to the ground folks are the more difficult it is to be sure of what is going on. Last year Dexter Filkins wrote a piece in the New York Times about how difficult it was to actually find out what happened in a specific situation. He had just gone to the location of an intense fire-fight, but when he began to ask what happened he got four different stories. The reporter on the ground could not be sure what actually had taken place, whereas in the mean time, there were folks in Washington quite certain about what was going on in Iraq. Politicians and radio talk show hosts (to name a few such folks) never lack certainty.

So the journalists that seek to expose the truth as they best can find it – knowing of course that certainty will elude them – are in danger of rejection by a public already sure of "the truth" and by officials who need to make sure the public gets only a certain view of it. We lament the loss of a courageous man who, doing a service of desperate importance to his world, could not be borne by those who regarded his reports as threatening. And because they took brutal means to silence him, concealing their identity, they again fulfilled the ancient judgement of the wicked: “Men loved darkness because their deeds were evil; they would not come into the light lest their deeds be exposed.”

In some places it is still dangerous to expose the world as it is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you have watched Kabul Express. It tells us things about the Hazaras of Afghanistan. I would like to know what do you think of it. thanx