The Independent’s Coverage of the Hrant Dink Trial

Today’s coverage in the UK newspaper The Independent of the trial concerning the murder of Hrant Dink marks a return to the worst kind of coverage of Turkey. It used to be that stories on Turkey, particularly in The Guardian and the Independent, would accept every accusation against Turkey as fact and as the end of the story. Things reached a particularly farcical level when Helena Smith was reporting regularly on Turkey for The Guardian. She combined this with reporting from Athens and clearly had strong affinities with Greece. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but it does suggest a duty to strive for objectivity when reporting on Turkey. A duty she ignored and in a manner which involved absurd mangling of facts. In one story she appeared to think that the whole of eastern Turkey had a majority of ethnic Kurds, of course this is true only of the South-East. Her reporting of state links with nationalist violence in Greece and Turkey sweepingly assumed that the Greek state was innocent and the Turkish state was guilty, which sums up her attitude.

Robert Fisk of the Independent is an even more extreme advocate of this kind of attitude but as he mostly writes about the Middle East rather than Turkey it’s not such an issue. Justin Huggler used to file reports similar to Helena Smith but I have not seen his name there for a long time. Recent coverage in The Independent has looked at the positive and negative aspects of Turkey in a more fair minded way; and his risen above the attitude that every accusation made by radical Kurdish groups and the Armenian and Greek lobbies should be taken as unchallenged truth. Of course it is equally important to avoid accepting a line inspired by the Turkish state or nationalist groups.

Todays report Turkey on Trial as suspects claim state collusion in writer’s killing is a return to the bad old days, as the headline suggests. Turkey is not on trial, the murderer, and his associates, are and so far the court has shown every sign that it will investigate possible collusion in the murder of Hrant Dink.

I posted a blog on the murder of Hrant Dink the day it happened. For those who have forgot, he was an Istanbul Armenian-Turkish journalist who was convicted of insulting Turkishness because he was accused of insulting Turkishness under article 301 of the Penal Code. The conviction seems to have been based on a misreading of articles in which he said Armenians needed to clean their blood of hatred for Turks. The ultra-nationalist lawyers who brought the case, and the judges, agreed that Dink was saying that Turkish blood was dirty. Clearly none of these people should have had careers as literary critics looking at the interpretative ambiguities of Shakespeare or Joyce. That also means they are of limited quality as members of the legal profession. Many comparisons have been made between the two fields. Dink was murdered after receiving many death threats and informing the Istanbul police of his fears for his security. I predicted that the murderer would be apathetic character manipulated by nationalist godfathers. Indeed, the suspect on trial is a 17 year old adolescent from Trabzon who was caught very easily and was clearly manipulated by an ultra-nationalist network in Trabzon. I condemned all the major actors in Turkish politics for their moral guilt in supporting intolerant nationalism, particularly article 301 of the Penal Code which criminalises insults to Turkishness. I condemned the leader of ultra-nationalist Turkish lawyers for his role in provoking prosecutions under 301 and aggressive provocative demonstrations against defendants. I stand by all those criticisms. I strongly wish for the Turkish political actors to repeal 301, to allow free discussion of the massacres and deportations of Anatolian Armenians in 1915 with no restriction on opinions or on words used. I wish for the state to end its tolerance of ultra-nationalism and to crack down on links between state employees, including members of the police and security forces, and ultra-nationalist criminals.

Having made those points clear, I must condemn the way in which Nouritza Matossian and Daniel Howden are reporting on the trial. Neither are Istanbul based people. It’s quite extraordinary that The Independent should give coverage of the trial to people who are not resident in Istanbul and who do not regularly write on Turkey. In such a situation, it’s not surprising that personal assumptions should trump balanced coverage. Matossian is an Armenian writer and artist. She is someone of many admirable accomplishments. Her parents were murdered during the 1915 atrocities and one must sympathise with the pain of that family memory. She is not a fit person to report objectively on this trial or these issues in Turkey. Her level of objectivity can be checked by examining this article for the Observer. The article includes this phrase

In London, a thinly veiled propaganda exercise at the Royal Academy trumpets Turkish empires, making far-reaching claims about the origins of the ‘Turkic peoples’. Echoes of master-race ideology.

In Matossian’s view a widely praised exhibition at the Royal Academy, ‘Turks’ could be dismissed as master race propaganda. Apparently, she thinks it intrinsically racist to have an exhibition about the art of ethnic Turks in various states created by Turks in central Asia and the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Apparently there should have been more art by Armenians and Greeks. Somehow I don’t see Matossian condemning an exhibition of art by the Armenians of the world which did not include non-Armenians who have lived within the Armenian state at any stage in history. The exhibition had absolutely nothing to say about the Turkish race it simply grouped together work created by ethnic Turks in a broad geographical and historical spread, allowing for important aesthetic comparisons, and showing the ways that Turkish art drew on non-Turkish influences. It’s true that many Armenians and Greeks lived in the Ottoman Empire, naturally their different historical heritage puts them outside an exhibition tracing an undoubted historical reality, the movement of Turks from Central Asia to Anatolia. Well established realities including the kinship between Turks and Mongols are presented by Matossian as near Nazi racial supremacist mythology. She does not bother about non-Turkic groups in central Asia. Her own chauvinistic mentality is extremely evident. At that time The Independent and the Guardian (which publishes the Observer) were all too ready to accept this kind of stuff. Unfortunately she’s back.

The co-author of the trial article is Daniel Howden, deputy foreign editor of the Indepedent. He has little previous record on writing about Turkey. For the purposes of this article , I guess he relied on Matossian’s rantings, and possibly toned them down to create a semblance of objectivity. The article reports offensive behaviour by nationalist lawyers and complaints by the family of evidence disappearing and inadequate investigation of state collusion. Family complaints of state obstruction may well have some merit. However, what the article fails to mention is that the court has investigated a large number of people suspected of planning the murder and general involvement in ultra-nationalist criminality. Those investigated include retired army officers and the court is demanding access to police officers. Members of the police conducting the investigation appear to have done an admirably thorough job. Those linked with the case appear to to be linked with ultra-nationalist demonstration, the murder of a judge who upheld restrictions on religious dress in Turkish schools, attempts to manipulate the funerals of soldiers killed by the PKK (terrorist Kurdish separatist group), attempts to defraud at least one widow of a martyred soldier, attempts to manipulate secularist anti-government demonstrations. The last area of work included contacts with an official in the social democratic Republican People’s Party. The very complexity and ideological ambiguity of these conspiracies suggest that the there is no unified conspiracy directed by high members of the state. ıt suggests weakness in the state in opposing the activities of criminal networks which have an extraordinary range of political, economic and criminal gaols. These ambiguities are not remotely captured by the Independent report.

One final point. The report refers to Dink’s home town as inthe south-east of Turkey as ‘the former heartland of Turkish Armenia’. Malatya is Dink’s home town and most inhabitants are ethnic Kurds. Armenian states from classical to Medieval times include parts of what is now south-east Turkey, but Kurds have been in the south-east since classical times and the insinuation in the article that the south-east of Turkey used to be clearly Armenian is an absurd piece of Armenian ultra-nationalism.