The symposium panel

Journalists Discuss Armenian Genocide, World Events, at Mirror-Spectator Symposium

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By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WELLESLEY, Mass. — The two-day celebrations marking the 85th anniversary of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator got off to a cracking start on Thursday, November 2, at a symposium on the lush campus of Wellesley College, at the Diana Chapman Walsh Alumnae Hall, featuring a panel of four exciting, world-famous journalists: Robert Fisk, David Barsamian, Philip Terzian and Amberin Zaman.

Armenian Mirror-Spectator assistant editor, Aram Arkun, also the executive director of the Tekeyan Cultural Association, served as moderator.

The theme of the evening was “Journalism and ‘Fake News,’” especially concerning the Armenian Genocide.

A standing-room capacity crowd of about 150 people was present for the program.

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Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, and a seven-time recipient of the British Press Awards’ Reporter of the Year, spoke at length about his experience documenting many atrocities, including the Armenian Genocide. He spoke about going to the Deir Zor desert in Syria in 1991, where bones, “skeletons of your ancestors,” as he called them, could be readily found packed in caves or poking out of the sand.

“We took some of the bones out of a hole and put them in the Deir Zor Memorial,” he said. “The bones are real. Your Armenian [ancestors’] dead bodies [speak] from the ground.”

The Deir Zor monument, which had been opened in 1990, was blown up by ISIS, on September 21, 2014.

 

 

Fisk said the connection between the events that have befallen Armenians in Syria and ISIS should be explored. He spoke at length about the various Christian members of the clergy who have been killed, the number of churches that have been blown up and the Armenians who have been taken hostage and killed by ISIS.

Going back further in history, Fisk proceeded to use sources from Britain, Australia and New Zealand to contradict what the Turkish government has presented in its denial of the Armenian Genocide.

He recounted the story of John Davidson, a First World War veteran of the Australian Light Horse, had witnessed the Armenian genocide and written about it. His grandson, Robert Davidson, had contacted Fisk.

Fisk had written in a column about Davidson’s account: “The Australian Light Horsemen were appalled at the brutality done to these people. In another instance his company came upon an Armenian woman and two children in skeletal condition. She signed to them that the Turks had cut the throats of her husband and two elder children.”

He then spoke about the account of a Persian writer, Mohammad-Ali Jamalzadeh Esfahani who had lived in Lebanon. He had gone to Istanbul, then Constantinople, in 1915, where he witnessed the Armenian Genocide and encountered many corpses during his journey. He wrote about what he had seen in books that were eventually published in 1963 and 1972.

Fisk also quoted Sarah Aaronsohn in her comments about the Armenian Genocide.

The group of witnesses is diverse, he said; “Persian, British, Australian, New Zealander and Jewish woman are all lying about the Armenian Genocide,” he asked incredulously.

He spoke at length about what Armenians should mark after the Genocide centennial.

“I asked [Armenians] what are you going to do at the 101st anniversary? You haven’t yet won recognition,” he said. “The British Foreign Office says ‘Denial is an option.’”

In order to battle the post-centennial slump, he suggested that Armenians mark other anniversaries connected with the Genocide. One of them, he said, is the centennial in 2018 of the death of Captain Robert Nichol, a New Zealander, who was killed as he fought to save the Armenians’ lives that their army had found in the Syrian desert.

A 2016 Fisk column details how in that battle, “Australian cavalrymen emptied their supplies and water bottles for the Armenians.”

“Descendants of that brave captain who died trying to save your people,” should be celebrated, he suggested.

Fisk added that the Armenian Genocide Museum and Memorial has a rich trove of photos that have not been seen by many. According to him, the Red Army looted German archives after World War II and took many boxes of photos, among which were those from the Armenian Genocide, to Russia.

“Keep the Genocide alive. Keep going and don’t stop your campaign,” he urged, noting that the Armenians should more loudly celebrate their Turkish allies.

He suggested Armenians submit a list of Turks whom they want to honor to the government of President Erdogan. “If he signs it, he is acknowledging the Genocide, and if he doesn’t sign it, he is acknowledging the Genocide.”

The next speaker was Amberin Zaman, a veteran journalist who is currently a columnist for the online portals Diken and Al Monitor. She was previously a correspondent for The Economist, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, among others. Zaman, who is half Turkish and half Bengali, has often written about the Armenian Genocide and the need for its recognition.

Zaman caught the audience off guard by greeting them in Armenian, saying hello and that she was very happy to be at the gathering.

“I find myself speechless when I am faced with Armenians,” she said. “I feel deep shame as a Turk. It is very personal to me.”

She then proceeded to tell the story of her great-grandfather, Mehmet Emin Kalmuk, who sent by the Sultan to study in Paris before returning home. “There were always stories about what a great patriot my great-grandfather was because he had burned all those documents,” she said to the shocked audience.

He had been the director of the postal and telegraph authority during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. When the British anchored their ships off the coast of Istanbul, he started burning the telegrams.

Later, she said, she realized what that meant and delved into the history. She went to Deir Zor with Khachig Mouradian, formerly the editor of the Armenian Weekly, and journalist David Barsamian, another guest at the panel.

The bones she found there haunted her, she said.

“We [the Turks] are the ones suffering paying the price, because we still haven’t faced the truth,” she said.

As for other fake news, she spoke about the current domestic situation in Turkey and their fight against Kurds, both in Turkey and in Syria, who are the top opponents of ISIS.

“Turkey has kept saying that people fighting ISIS are worse than ISIS,” she said.

She said she respects the Kurds for their “courage and sacrifice,” noting that the creation of the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) was the result of oppressive Turkish policies.

When she sent a Tweet in support of Kurds, she said she was “bombarded with hateful tweets.” She is often said, as an insult, to be “Kurdish, Jewish, Armenian,” she said.

It is impossible for her to return to Turkey, where she still has a family. “The justice system hardly deserves to be called that.” She addressed the recent arrest of Osman Kavala, someone who has often encouraged the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, but also is well-connected and wealthy. Again, the alleged crime is his involvement with Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric now in exile in the US.

“The story is completely insane. Turkey is the empire of fake news. Everything is the fault of outsiders,” she said.

Veteran journalist Philip Terzian, the senior editor at the Weekly Standard, who has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, offered brief and witty remarks.

Terzian chuckled at the “fake news” moniker. “Fake news is as old as antiquity,” he said. “Conjecture, folklore, mythology, world history,” all of them contain fake news.

During the past century, he said, the government of Turkey has peddled fake news, but he said, “we all have an Armenian story.” His is that his family on his father’s side was from Sepastia. He came to Philadelphia in 1907 by way of Marseille. His great-grandmother, however, was sent back to the Ottoman Empire from Ellis Island as she had contracted conjunctivitis on the trip over. “She was never heard from again,” he said somberly.

The Genocide, he said began long before 1915. It began with the initial deportation of the Armenians, Greeks and Bulgarians out of the Ottoman Empire. He recounted how many American leaders, including Henry Cabot Lodge and President Woodrow Wilson, were so sympathetic to the plight of the Armenians. He also praised the remarkable amount of money raised by people in the US to help the Armenians.

David Barsamian, the founder and director of the Colorado-based national program Alternative Radio, spoke from the heart regarding the family history of the Armenian Genocide.

“I grew up in the shadow of the Genocide. These were incredible characters that went through this experience,” he said.

He also spoke about his trips to Turkey and to Western Armenia, where he had met many Kurdish people, including a mayor “who apologized to me for what his grandparents and great-grandparents did to my mother’s village. He said ‘every time I meet an Armenian, I feel shame.’”

The experience shook him and he urged Armenians to celebrate their allies, be they Kurds or Turks.

He also addressed the need for worldwide empathy for the situation of the Rohingyas, Muslim people living in Myanmar, who have been the target of a sustained military attack, and forced to leave for Bangladesh. So far, around 600,000 have been uprooted by the actions of a government led by “the darling of the West,” Prime Minister and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

“We need to speak up,” he said, about this “genocide.”

The frequent critic of mainstream media criticized the state of journalism in the US and deferred to another Armenian-American, Ben Bagdikian, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, who had derided “the media monopoly” in the US. The number of entities that own major news outlets, Barsamian said, had diminished continuously even more than when Bagdikian had criticized the number, to the point now when about four or five corporations “control most of what Americans see and feel.”

Barsamian also spoke about other causes dear to him, the plight of the Palestinians in the century since the Treaty of Balfour was signed, and the current state of siege on journalism globally.

“Our profession is under attack. A journalist was almost beaten to death in Islamabad,” he said. Another, a 27-year-old, was just shot to death in India, while a third was just recently killed in a car bomb in Malta. The last case, that of Daphne Caruana Galizia, has connections to Armenians and Artsakh as one of the stars of the corruption stories she was working on based on the Panama Papers was the Aliyev family of Azerbaijan.

He then spoke about other causes dear to him, the attack on Iran by the Trump administration, which seems to imply that the nuclear accord is not working despite evidence to the contrary by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as Saudi Arabia, where Trump did a “sword mambo,” despite that country reportedly being behind “the jihadi movement” globally.

A brief question-and-answer period followed during which Fisk suggested that the problem with much of current journalism is its reliance on the Internet, instead of on-the-ground reporting.

Terzian, usually of a different stripe than Fisk politically, agreed that historical background was lacking in much of today’s reporting. That particularly applied to the question of Karabakh, as many journalists are unfamiliar with the history of the region in which Soviet dictator Stalin just amputated the region from Armenia and gave it to Armenia.

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