Lost in whose translation?
Saturday was a hectic day, as Istanbul hosted the 4th Meeting of the Contact Group on Libya in the confined surroundings of Çırağan Palace.
Of course the big story was the presence of Hillary Clinton, her meetings with Turkey’s leadership and especially what she was going to say at the press conference with her Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu.
My professional duties, though, sent me early in the morning to the premises of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate at the ancient neighborhood of Fener in Istanbul where, Clinton was expected with great anticipation.
One of the most problematic aspects of covering stories involving world leaders is that you can never be sure of their schedule – it is usually secret, and worse – the program changes at the last moment often with you being the last to be informed about it.
Something of that sort happened on Saturday when the visit of the head of State Department to the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos was suddenly put forward by a few hours, probably in order for her to fit with the last hours of her busy schedule in Istanbul, before she headed for Athens. Only a few of us managed to reach the Patriarchate on time, others did not, among the unlucky ones were most of Turkey’s TV media.
Clinton arrived at Fener heading an impressive delegation of U.S. dignitaries and had a private audience with the Ecumenical Patriarch for about three quarters of an hour. No statements were made to the few members of the press after the meeting; we had to be content with the warm handshakes of Clinton in her impressive turquoise suit and the Patriarch.
The absence of public statement, of course, does not necessarily mean there was no information about what was deliberated in that private meeting. “Well informed sources” as the well known professional jargon goes, briefed us that “Hillary Clinton expressed the full support of her government towards the demands of the Patriarchate among which the reopening of the Halki Seminary, was the dominant issue.” “Halki should open after 40 years of silence,” the same sources told us quoting Clinton and adding that “inter-religious dialogue and environment” were also among the discussed topics. We also learnt that Clinton addressed Bartholomeos by saying “after all you are known as the Green Patriarch.” Of course, we could not verify all these by a third “independent source” – a good old professional principle – but we could not fail to observe that the presence of the U.S. delegation in Fener generated a noticeable cordial atmosphere for everybody involved. There was a feeling of hope and anticipation that the Americans could use their weight on the Turkey’s new government to find, at last, a solution on Halki.
But it was what followed that challenged our journalistic skills somewhat. After her visit to the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Clinton went for a meeting with Davutoğlu and the customary joint press conference followed. The press conference was broadcast live by some Turkish TV channels one of which was private NTV. At around the tenth minute of the conference, Clinton on her part said she had the opportunity to address concerns about restrictions of freedom of expression in Turkey, and then she said the following in English, “And of course, I hope that sometime soon we can see the reopening of the Halki Seminary that highlights Turkey’s strength of democracy and its leadership in a changing region.” The NTV interpreter could only start her sentence by saying “Fener….” but missed the rest of the sentence.
What we heard from the NTV translator in Turkish was not the official translation and most probably not what the official translator appointed by the responsible ministry, was sending through the earphones to the Turkish participants attending the conference. However part of the Greek media gave the story as “censorship by Ankara on the Halki issue.”
We were not present at Clinton-Davutoğlu press conference and we could not verify whether the Turkish participants heard the reference on Halki. However, both NTV and the state TRT websites quoted Clinton’s statement about Halki in full.
On such delicate issues and during such critical times, perhaps we, as part of the media, should be more cautious in jumping to hasty conclusions