Whose Truth Are We Telling?

By Ilgin Yorulmaz

Is it ethical to report a complex conflict from only one side under certain circumstances?

yorulmaz-photoFor an article published by the New York Times magazine in May, reporter Robert F. Worth traveled to Mardin in southeastern Turkey to report on the latest episode of violence in the decades long battle between Turkey and Kurdish separatists.

The main character in Worth’s story is a Kurdish militant named Ömer Aydın – a mature and confident P.K.K. commander with a sense of humor, according to Worth, a former Times Beirut bureau chief. On the face of it, there is hardly any Turkish source on the ground – official or otherwise – interviewed for Worth’s article, except an academic based in Washington D.C.

Denied access by the Turkish military, or not wanting to parrot the official line, Western journalists like Worth can’t help but bypass important stakeholders when reporting the story. One such stakeholder is the mother of the Turkish soldier whom Ömer Aydın had killed and whose face he couldn’t forget: “At the end, they are human, too,” he says.

Soon after that conversation, Ömer Aydın was dead, too.

In a conflict as complicated as Turkey trying to put down a Kurdish rebellion on the edge of the brutal Syrian civil war in which both sides are combatants or participants the questions about reporting on the conflict have gotten thornier.  The debate over how to cover the Turkey-Kurdish conflict is made even more combustible in the aftermath of the failed coup d’etat in Turkey on July 15,

Does the approach of reporting on whomever grants access (or is likely to grab the biggest headline) run the risk of inadvertently turning an otherwise excellent piece of reporting into a loudspeaker for one side?

There is no easy answer.

Dangers and obstacles in conflict reporting:

When reporting any news story, a basic rule of journalism calls for interviewing sources from all sides.

Yet, in practice, this is often impossible in conflict reporting. Conflicts, by their very nature, are complex and dangerous for reporters. Just look at the second Iraq war, the Syrian civil war, Egyptian protests and the aftermath, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where dozens of journalists have been killed, injured or jailed.

In my opinion, there are four common ethical questions raised for journalists in reporting each of these conflicts.

First, combatants vary widely in their definitions of basic concepts and labels, so that one side’s “terrorist” is the other side’s “freedom fighter.” This is what presents the journalist with the most basic quandary before they even set foot on the ground to report.

Since 1984, Kurdish insurgent groups headed by P.K.K, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, have been fighting with the Turkish military to have greater political rights in Turkey. The P.K.K’s ultimate goal is an independent Kurdish nation.  The Syrian civil war is now five years old and Kurds in Rojova in the northern part of the country have plans to declare an autonomous region within Syria, accelerating Kurdish nation-building efforts.

P.K.K. labels militants like Ömer Aydın as heroes fighting against an unjust, even fascist Turkish military — much like Palestinians see the occupying Israeli military, or Sunnis in Syria see Syrian army soldiers of Assad’s Alawite [similar to a Shi’a Muslim] government. Hard-liners in Turkey think that P.K.K. gives full accreditation to Western press and almost none to Turkish press, because this preference serves their media strategy of creating sympathy for the militants. Broad coverage of the lethal force used by the Turkish military shows the Kurdish side’s savvy in attempts to discredit Turkey’s war on terror, according to these critics. How is this different from, say, the U.S. military pursuing targets belonging to a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda? Or Israel against Hezbollah?  As many Turkish people see it, P.K.K. is able to get its message across loud and clear in Western media, despite the fact that it is firmly recognized as a terrorist organization in the West.

A veteran reporter on Syria told me that on a reporting trip to the region, those journalists who couldn’t embed with one group embedded with the opposite side. It was impossible to decide who was actually a freedom fighter or a terrorist member of Al-Nusrah or Free Syria Army. “They killed an Alawite in front of our eyes,” she said of her horrific experience of embedding with one of the insurgent groups fighting the Syrian Army.

Second, access to a great source is both highly desired, but presenting just that source’s version of events is troubling. Should the price of access be the dropping of the journalism rule of tell all sides?

When political developments in Turkey ended peace talks between two sides in June 2015, P.K.K.’s branch of patriotic youth started to barricade streets in Kurdish-majority towns in southeast Anatolia in what is regarded by Kurdish nationalists as “self-defense” efforts. Turkish security forces responded heavily to clear the streets and imposed a curfew. In February and March, two suicide bombings by Kurdish militants killed 66 people in Ankara, the Turkish capital. In the past year alone, the conflict cost the lives of hundreds of Turkish security forces, Turkish and Kurdish civilians, and P.K.K insurgents.

I spoke to Worth about his decisionmaking process and the ethical challenges he faced while reporting the story. He told me that from the beginning, his deliberate focus was on finding young P.K.K. militants behind the barricades. “My goal is to try to make these characters come alive.  Who are they? What’s motivating them?” Worth says.

Third, there’s the audience that the story targets. When CNN shows up in a conflict zone, its reporters cater to a multinational audience that is different from that of a local paper, say, in Tel Aviv, Karachi, or Istanbul. A story like Worth’s about the underreported Kurdish conflict was most certainly likely to touch upon ISIS, Worth told me.  It’s not just because it is an extension of the overpowering ISIS conflict, but it shows that the editor made a deliberate decision to present an aspect of the issue (ISIS in this case) most likely to engage the average American.  On the other hand, had this story been written for a Turkish audience, ISIS would probably get very little mention, if any, because the Kurdish conflict reported by both sides is an everyday reality more than ISIS is. A Turkish audience would also find it unacceptable that there are no Turkish sources interviewed for the article.

In a digital age, the audience holds enormous influence over a story’s popularity and newsworthiness. During my visit to Turkey this summer, I was asked several times in my meetings with Turkish professionals, industrialists and business owners why the news from Turkey in international media was always negative. Referring to the rise of Taha Akgül, a Turkish wrestler and gold medalist in 2016 Rio Olympics “Why doesn’t anyone write about the phenomenal story of that wrestling medalist boy?”  one businessman asked me. The answer is that it has little newsworthiness or context outside Turkey.

Fourth and final issue is how to overcome government restrictions and censorship, or even self-censorship. Worth says despite his efforts, he failed to get permission to embed with the Turkish military and chose not to approach local Turkish government bodies. “One would like to sit down with [and interview President] Erdoğan. He personally is the decision maker of all that, so why talk to the second or third person in command?” he told me. I disagree with this approach and believe he should have insisted on talking to a source, whether a public official or a civilian.

You might ask: What if Worth had decided to reach out to the governor of, say, Mardin province for an interview?  Resentment against the Kurdish insurgency is so high in most Turkish-majority provinces that even if Worth had managed to secure an interview with the governor, he may not have wanted to be included in his story. A senior press adviser to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has told me recently: “I notice that many government officials refrain from appearing in the same article with P.K.K. commanders. They think it’s an insult.”  This official, who advises Erdoğan on which reporters to speak to, thinks this works against Turkey’s image. When a foreign reporter cannot (or chooses not to) talk to the governor and when the governor chooses not to grant an interview so as not be seen sharing the same platform with a Kurdish militant, then the result is incomplete, even biased reporting, if not handled correctly.

Moises Saman, who accompanied Worth as the photographer in this project, accepts that a journalist should try to interview both sides of a conflict and make an effort to reach the other side. “”But when you know that’s not going to happen, what do you do?” he asks. He advises to be practical: “If you wait, no story would ever get done. Just because one side blocked access shouldn’t be a reason to kill a story.”

After the failed coup d’etat on July 15 against Turkish government and an alleged assassination attempt on President Erdoğan, government imposed a three-month state of emergency, beginning July 21. Accordingly, Turkey temporarily suspended The European Convention on Human Rights, a move similar to France’s derogation from the convention after November 2015 Paris attacks. This means temporary restrictions on publishing, photocopying and distribution of any newspapers, books, magazines, brochures and the printed matter deemed illegal within the confines of the state of emergency — another step toward a less free press. This will almost certainly impede reporting of regional conflicts.

The Turkish media landscape is indeed conducive to restrictions on certain stories. There was an immediate ban on publication of events such as terror attacks or Turkish military operations for the purpose of national security. Even if there are no apparent restrictions on a story, editors in Turkey choose to self-censor to avoid risk of prosecution. For example, CNN Türk ran an abstract of Worth’s article soon after its publication. But they cut out certain parts and only published the sections where a civilian from Cizre criticizes P.K.K. for the terrible mess they created in the town by getting into a war with the Turkish government forces, and where a female sniper regrets taking part in a conflict she no longer sees the point of.

CNN Türk example is interesting to point to a fifth obstacle specific to Turkish media in reporting a conflict: nationalism. The nationalistic stance taken by the mainstream Turkish media on sensitive issues related to Kurds, Armenians and Alewites in Turkey is an historic problem. For a speech he gave to a conference in May on the coverage of Turkish military campaign against Kurdish riots in 1930s in what is today Tunceli (Dersim) in eastern Anatolia region, prominent Turkish media critic Ragıp Duran analyzed hundreds of newspaper clippings. Duran found a systematic lack of information and news, one-sided reporting and a lot of official agitation (like calling the local public “primitive”) and propaganda. “Much like in 1930s, today’s pro-government media uses phrases like ‘War on Terror,’ ‘PKK is finished,’ and in an effort to link Kurdish issue to external forces, ‘Armenian progeny,’” said  Duran in his written statement from the conference.

At the same conference, Duran also listened to the accounts of women from Cizre, the Kurdish town in the east, which bore the brunt of the latest military operation and which Worth also visited for his story. Duran offers a three-way solution to ethical reporting of the issue: official documents (especially reports by foreign diplomats and organizations); academic papers on sociology, psychology and demography of the issue; and interviews with witnesses like the women Duran met, using oral history methodology.

Any coverage of the Kurdish conflict in mainstream Turkish media has always been from a nationalist angle. Earlier in 2016, Nazlı Çelik, a reporter for pro-government Star TV station, embedded with the Turkish military during operations in southeast Turkey. She filed a video report showing her next to Turkish forces blowing up a suspected militant hideout, as well as sharing meals with her at a makeshift dinner table. The reactions were mixed – some hailed her as a hero, while others thought she was a show-off. Partisan reporters in a fact-challenged political landscape hardly do any service to the ethical reporting of the news.  On top of that, when developments in technology allow users of social platforms to become publishers, people tend to become more polarized after reading reports from their “own side.”

In his new book titled “A Rage for Order: Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS,” Worth tells the story of two women who were childhood friends, one Alawite, the other Sunni, whose friendship falls apart during the Syrian war. With years spent living in the region and extensive reporting time with both of the women, Worth was able to report extensively and give an accurate account of the conflict as seen by both sides – a luxury, understandably, he didn’t have in his New York Times Magazine piece on the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. Part of the difficulty with reporting conflicts around the world lies in the fact that working in danger zones, foreign reporters have limited time to spend in the region, are bound by deadlines and have very specific reporting goals. This reality and the distrust by Turkish public officials in a foreign publication to be biased towards them prevent a balanced approach to sourcing a story.

Even when a veteran reporter like Worth genuinely made the effort to engage with pro-government stakeholders or people outside the region, it was not possible to get the other side’s view. The closest Worth got to it was when his team was detained briefly by the Turkish police during their time in Mardin. He told me he meant to ask the detaining officers how they felt about the Kurdish conflict. In the end, he refrained from asking this question, thinking it would jeopardize not just the story but perhaps even the team’s safety. “I just think we journalists should adapt ourselves to the story and the situation,” Worth told me.

One solution to the single source problem may be to employ local reporters who speak the language and know the culture. Furkan Temir, a young Turkish photographer who accompanied Worth and Saman in reporting this story, says that as a Turkish journalist, even he has trouble getting access to the government and military sources “unless one embeds with [the government’s] own media organizations like Anatolian Agency, A News or TRT (state-owned Turkish Radio Television).” Temir points out that the aforementioned distrust in media of the “opposite side” is present on the Kurdish side as well. He says the Kurds hesitate to accredit a journalist if a Turkish military member appears in one of his or her photographs.

In fact, there was one short-lived glimpse of hope in reaching out to the other side. Özgür Gündem is a Turkish-language Kurdish newspaper reporting on the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and is regarded by the Turkish authorities as a PKK propaganda outlet. Özgür Gündem had recently started a guest editor program whereby prominent journalists would edit the paper for one day. However, of the 34 or so editors who have done so, 17 have been detained by Turkish security forces on charges of terrorism propaganda. In August, Özgür Gündem was accused of being the media arm of P.K.K and was closed down.

Sometimes reporting both sides of a conflict as a responsible journalist isn’t just enough as Andrew E. Kramer, who reports on Ukraine’s two-year-old war, has recently found out. Kramer wrote in New York Times about how he ended up being blacklisted as a terrorist by a Ukranian pro-government website for “simply doing our jobs: reporting both sides of the war, including the pro-Russian rebel side.”

What do we owe to our readers?

A recent article in Columbia Journalism Review reports the findings of research conducted last spring by the magazine and the George T. Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism.

Researchers found that sometimes the content of a well-narrated story matters more than its source — whether that source is based on one side or the other in a conflict – even to politically polarized readers. Despite the lack of Turkish voices in his story, with the historical context of the conflict explained extensively and with full disclosure of obstacles like the lack of access to critical sources, I believe Robert F. Worth’s narration is in that rare category.

In today’s highly populist and polarized media landscape, without a Turkish source’s comments, polarized readers are more likely to see any coverage of the P.K.K. militants from their home base by a Western journalist tipping the balance of the scale dangerously towards one side. As photographer Moises Saman put it to me, “Truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Leave a Reply