Mehmet Ali Birand and press freedom

Mehmet Ali Birand and press freedom

This coming Wednesday in Brussels, I will present my report on press freedom in Turkey at a public event hosted by the Carnegie Europe and Open Society Turkey. I will start with these words: “Before we say anything about the press in Turkey, I want to dedicate this meeting to the memory of Mehmet Ali Birand, who was a legend of Turkish journalism and who taught me a lot about his country”.

The day after I took up my duties in Ankara in November 2006, I asked my press officer who were the “big names” in Turkish journalism. Mehmet Ali was of course at the top of the list, so within a couple of weeks I went to visit him at the Doğan Media Complex in Istanbul. Aware that in the few years before the relationship between the EU Delegation and him wasn’t intense, I started up with a smile: “I am here to fill a gap and to benefit from your expertise in the EU-Turkey relationship” (of which he was a major expert, as everybody knows). He replied with his legendary laughter and we became instant friends. Ever so after, I was able to see him regularly, either one-on-one in his office overlooking one of Istanbul’s busiest highways or in my press lunches with a small group of “regulars” whom I was so fond of.

What struck me with Mehmet Ali was his even-tempered approach to all things and, when confronted with hot pieces of news, his way of stepping back, pausing and coming up with a naturally “mature” analysis. Never bowing to influence, never excessive in his comments, always honest to his interviewee (for an ambassador, this is a defining characteristic), he was a star for the diplomatic corps and an example for Turkish journalists, as can be seen in the many tributes paid to him since his demise.

Why is Mehmet Ali Birand’s example important in the current debate about advancing press freedom in Turkey? Why should he inspire all those concerned, in the media world and in the political sphere? As a keen foreign observer of Turkey, I would simply answer this: contrary to Turkish political habits, Mehmet Ali never focused his analyses on personalities but rather on subject matters. In so doing, he avoided excessive polarization and opted to look at the future with hope.

Read again his last column about the funerals in Diyarbakır and the Halki Seminary. On both subjects, Mehmet Ali drew attention to the core issues. In Diyarbakır, both the Kurdish side and the state should avoid provocation, he said, and give a chance to the ongoing process of discussion (which they actually did). In Halki, the return of the land to the Monastery Foundation is a great step taken by the government, yet another step is still to come, the opening of the seminary. What is the common thread here? Turkey is rich in its diversity and should patiently organize coexistence and tolerance among all its citizens.

This is exactly what a free press is all about: uninhibited debate that is aimed at making society better and attaining consensus, not fueling hatred. This is exactly Mehmet Ali’s great legacy.

Thank you, friend, and rest in peace.