Peace journalism ASAP!
At a time when elected chairpersons and members of Turkey’s Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are locked in jail without indictments, at a time when almost all Kurdish newspapers and TV stations are shut down, at a time when anybody who spells the word “peace” is automatically named and shamed for harboring terrorists, intellectual efforts in the opposite direction might seem absurd. But as Einstein once said, “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”
I spent last weekend with a group of “peace romantics” consisting of Turks and Kurds who came together to discuss the positive role media can play at deep-seated conflicts like the Kurdish question. The round table, which was organized by the London-based Democratic Progress Institute (DPI) at a chateau on the outskirts of Geneva, was the first of its kind since the Gülenist coup attempt of July 15.
It is worth remembering that only three months before the coup attempt, it came to light that DPI’s executives were put under surveillance, their phones wiretapped and emails monitored on the orders of now-runaway Turkish prosecutor Muammer Akkaş. Basically, the DPI’s executives and experts like the former U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs Sir Kieran Prendergast, as well as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff and chief negotiator on Northern Ireland Jonathan Powell, were all wiretapped on suspicion of being members of the PKK. The case was later dropped in March 2014 due to lack of evidence.
As an independent NGO, the DPI is a clear example of how everyone who tried to assist the peace process, authorized by then Prime Minister Erdoğan himself, became natural enemies of the Gülenists, who were embedded in state institutions. Gülenists worked like a spoiler against the peace process, to say the least.
Today, as the relentless purge against the Gülenists in the bureaucracy continues, ironically the peace camp in Turkish politics continues to lose ground. This week, the detention of Ahmet Türk - the elected mayor of Mardin, regarded as one of the wisest and most moderate figures of the Kurdish political movement - brought pessimism to another peak.
However, the DPI’s experiences from other conflict zones around the world show that periods of suspension of peace efforts - like the one in Turkey now - should be used as an opportunity to fix misperceptions and prepare civil society for future peace attempts.
“The first question should be how, not what,” said one of the mediation advisers of the Swiss Foreign Ministry present at the welcome dinner of the roundtable in Geneva, while listening to the mistakes made in Turkey’s collapsed peace process. “Perhaps you were all too hooked up in the content from day one, rather than the framework and methodology.”
On the “how” dimension, Tom Kelly - the former spokesman of Tony Blair during the negotiations in the peace process in Northern Ireland - had a lot to share. He reminded us of numerous failed peace attempts by the British governments during the 1970s and 80s. “A peace process is a battle and the battleground is the media. By humanizing the real loss, the media increased pressure for a ceasefire,” Kelly said. He added that local journalists on the ground covering the conflict witnessed the events first hand, so they were the ones able to ask the most difficult questions to Tony Blair. That makes you wonder why so many Kurdish journalists are behind the bars in today’s Turkey!
Kelly argued that no peace process can be delivered through secrets. That is why one has to do the mental preparation each and every day of the talks to be ready for certain disguised aspects to come out to the public.
In some cases, governments might be lucky enough that no hefty secret is revealed until the peace accord is sealed, just as happened in El Salvador. At a very critical phase of peace negotiations, FMLN guerillas kidnapped the government’s chief negotiator’s son and asked for $10 million in ransom money in order to raise funds to enter the upcoming election race in the country. The ransom was eventually paid to not jeopardize the talks, without the media sniffing anything.
After hearing these astonishing stories from the recent history of other countries in conflict, a veteran Turkish journalist at the meeting murmured “Spare us these Bond movies!” In fact, Turkey has indeed recently looked like the site of a sensational political thriller. But it is high time to stop using past mistakes as a weapon to stop any future progress from happening. In order to demand a change of heart from political actors, the Turkish media needs to revisit its language and question whether it is ready to revert to peace journalism, despite all the hardship.