The Hazardous Mission of Journalists

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Having survived an assassination attempt in my youth as a journalist, every case of violence against fellow journalists brings back painful memories.

There are two categories of journalists: palace journalists and mission journalists.

Palace journalists have safe and comfortable lives, since nobody wishes to interfere with them. They are hired by the authorities, whose policies they support. And therefore, their opinions have no impact on the public.

The second category of journalists comprises professionals with a sense of mission. They are committed to their vocation and the truth serves as their guiding post. These journalists realize how dangerous their paths are yet they persist.

In civilized countries, they are protected by law, but more often than not, civilization cannot offer enough protection for their lives. They are subjected to violence, they are tortured or murdered and sometimes higher authorities turn up to be behind their tragic deaths.

These days, almost simultaneously the media attention is caught by several high-profile cases of violence against journalists. One is that of 30-year-old Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova, whose lifeless, brutalized body was found in a park near a river. Marinova was a director of a small TV station in the Bulgarian city of Ruse, near the Romanian border. Apparently she was investigating the misuse of the European Union funds in Bulgaria and was after some incriminating evidence when her life was cut short.

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The other case is that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who entered a Saudi consulate in Turkey and has never came out. No hard evidence is being presented but the situation does not leave hope for a happy resolution.

The Director General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Audrey Azoulay routinely condemns the murder or disappearance of journalists. The statistics released by UNESCO present the following picture: “Local journalists killed from 2006-2016, 868; foreign journalists killed from 2006-2016, 62; female journalists in the same period, 60; male journalists in the same period: 870.

Sven Giegold, a German member of the Green Party in the European Parliament has said all of Europe should worry about Marinova’s slaying: “First Malta [Daphne Caruana Galizia], then Slovakia [Jan Kuciak] and then Sweden [Kim Wall],” referring to killings in EU countries.

The mystery continues about the disappearance of the Saudi journalist and it will have political ramifications as Turkey and Saudi Arabia were already in a political standoff, when Riyadh tried to blockade Qatar and Turkey sided with the latter.

Even the US is worried with the case; “I pray Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is alive,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, tweeted. “But if this deeply disturbing news report is confirmed, the United States and the civilized world must respond strongly and I will review all options in the Senate.”

It remains to be seen what a Senator can do, when the US has a special relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has become a virtual dictator in his country, recently put under house arrest almost all princes, extracting from them $100 billion in penalties before he released them. The next day, he signed a military contract with the US worth $110 billion. Of course, as the US military industrial complex churns up more sophistical military hardware every year, where else can it dump vintage armaments, if not in the Arabian desert.

Discussing the deal with the Saudi prince, President Trump, referring to one piece of equipment which is worth $500 million, jokingly said, “Of course, this is peanuts for you.” In that kind of relationship, one human life must be worth less than a peanut.

Turkey has taken a more serious stand and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to pursue the issue “personally.”

However, Ali Shahibi, head of the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in the US, has said, “If Jamal is still missing or God forbid, dead, then the judgement should be left to an independent investigation carried out by a credible international party. The Turks are not a neutral party.”

Erdogan already has the blood of journalists on his hand. He is one of the major torturers of journalists in the world and it is a most cynical stand for him to pretend to speak in defense of people in that profession.

Just last week, as Erdogan was visiting Germany, he warned that he would not attend a press conference if the prominent Turkish journalist Can Dundar were in attendance. The journalist, who lives in exile now in Germany, was the editor in chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, before Erdogan sacked all independent journalists and put them behind bars. Dundar himself was sentenced to more than five years in prison. The day that he was convicted, there was assassination attempt against him. In response, he quipped, “In the space of two hours, we have experienced two assassination attempts. One was done with a gun, the other was judicial. This confirms that journalism is on trial.”

Dundar was charged with betraying state secrets, because his newspaper had written about catching Erdogan red-handed as he was supplying arms to terrorists in Syria.

Erdogan’s government has its own deep state to persecute and assassinate journalists. Hrant Dink was one of the victims of that state-sponsored system of terrorism.

Supposedly, Erdogan had dismantled the deep state which was operating under the code name Ergenekon and he replaced that system with his own. During his attempt to rid the nation of Ergenekon, he arrested many high-level military officers and civil servants, in essence neutralizing a sector that could pose him a threat, rather than concern for values or rights.

The previous deep state, which was in collusion with the government security forces, used the Grey Wolves extremist group to commit political assassinations. One highly-publicized case was the murder of a prominent journalist, Abdi Ipekçi, who promoted minority rights in Turkey and advocated reconciliation with Greece. He was gunned down on February 1, 1979. Two members of the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves, Oral Celik and Mehmet Ali Agça, were apprehended. Agça received a life sentence but after serving six months, he escaped from the prison with the help of sympathetic military officers. Later on, he was sent to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981. How could this criminal escape from prison, cross borders, carrying guns, if he did not have government support?

Successive Turkish administrations not only have provided guns and protection to the murderers. They also have built up the hatred against independent journalists to make the crime even more palatable.

Accusing Erdogan and the pro-government media of whipping up a frenzy of hatred against him, Dundar said, “We know very well who showed me as a target. This is the result of provocation. If you turn someone into so much of a target, this is what happens.”

That targeted hatred is exactly what happened to the late journalist Hrant Dink, who was shot to death as he was standing trial for violating Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which addresses “denigrating Turkishness.”

This state persecution of the Turkish-Armenian journalist was coupled with a media campaign against him. He was assassinated on January 19, 2007. The murderer was identified as Ogun Samast, and he reportedly shouted, “I shot the infidel.”

Dink’s funeral was attended by many government officials, but Erdogan himself had an excuse to miss it because he said he had to attend the scheduled inauguration of the Mount Bolu Tunnel.

Dink’s assassination became the most celebrated such case after the death of Abdi Ipekçi. Huge crowds participated in the funeral and condemnation of the incident swept through Europe.

As Erdogan “personally pursues” the Khashoggi case, he has hundreds of journalists rotting in jail cells and many others murdered by his security forces.

Despite all adversities and dangers, professional journalists continue their dedication to their vocation to bring out the truth to hold governments accountable and to keep society sane.