Veteran journalist Mehmet Ali Birand made striking confessions about the contribution of the mainstream media to the military in anti-democratic practices over the years in May, triggering the debate on the role of the media during military coups.
Noting that most journalists and media channels acted in favor of the military to guarantee the hegemonic position of the secular and Kemalist establishment in the political landscape thus excluding important segments of society from the decision-making process, Birand said that democracy had not been as important as retaining political power by using any means, including supporting coups, for secular intellectuals and journalists.
His self-criticism was welcomed by liberals and democrats in the press, while some of his former colleagues blamed him for abandoning his position. In speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Birand maintained his earlier standpoint with regard to his previous confessions that caused a media storm when they were released and made further assessments on Turkish politics, on the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), his self-evaluation of journalism regarding his own experiences, relations between the media and the military, the role of the media in Turkish politics and in other areas.
He said that he was scared when he got the coup journals in 2007; he dismissed the opportunity to publish them, whereas Nokta magazine [which stopped publishing after 20 volumes due to pressure from the military] published and occupied the public agenda at that time by revealing the fact the some generals in the army had been planning to overthrow the ruling AK Party government when they came to power in 2003.
Although he admires the AK Party’s success in Turkish politics, he clearly reiterated his life-long involvement with the CHP by elaborating on the psychological roots of such engagement. According to Birand, there is an irreconcilable difference between him and the AK Party that prevents him from voting for the ruling party.
Birand noted that his self-criticism was not welcomed in secular circles. Additionally, he pointed out that some former secular intellectuals have become champions of democracy today. But, Birand has underlined that it is impossible to be a democrat without facing up to the past, referring to those in the media who turned their back on Birand when he faced great pressure from the army in 1998.
Birand’s relations with the army
You were one of the journalists that the military’s General Staff mentioned in their memorandum of 1998. A small number of people believed you had followed a zigzagging path when it came to military-civilian relations, leading to some self-criticism on your part.
Ever since 1983, I have opened my mouth on topics such as the Kurdish issue and military problems during periods when no one else was talking about these things. I have never been opposed to the military! Because to oppose the military is foolishness! But when it comes to the intervention by the military into politics, I have been opposed to this from the start. Personally, I never saw any zigzagging in my stance. Anyway, whatever has happened to me has happened as a result of the above. The TRT case, [in which Birand had been accused of forging documents when he was working at the TRT channel. The case was dropped recently due to the statute of limitations expiring.] The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) actually does not act institutionally; did you know that? They do whatever the General Staff leader and deputy leader say. When the head of the General Staff turns out to be anti-democratic, he simply folds up that which stands before him and sweeps it away. I felt that when I was mentioned in the memorandum. At the time, many commanders even came to me at book signings of mine and told me: “We are not of the same mind as that memorandum. But we will follow it.” One day, I even entered a soldier’s barracks. The commander on duty was pained when he told me, “Actually, we are forbidden from letting you in, but never mind, you go through that door over there.”
Turkish society is not democratic. It pays allegiance to the state!
Which of your aspects seemed worst to Çevik Bir and his team?
There were three things in 1996, 1997 and 1998 that really bothered them. The first was my firm opposition to official ideology on the whole Kurdish question. The second was my praise for the Fethullah Gülen schools. And the third was my opposition to the ban that was brought about at the time concerning headscarves in Turkish universities.
But there were other writers embracing the same stance at the time. Why you?
Because the foreign press was quoting from my articles. And this was making the General Staff extremely uncomfortable. “Why are you supporting Fethullah Gülen? Why are you backing his schools?” I would explain to them: “I went, I saw them, I toured some of them. And they are not at all like you say they are. And for another matter, your own officers are bringing their kids to those schools, so either you don’t know anything, or they don’t!”
The same Çevik Bir had to answer your questions on a television program when he was a candidate for the presidency!
I never took the whole Çevik Bir memorandum situation seriously at all! I was very saddened because they come at you like tanks here. When the state turns against you in Turkey, no matter who is running the administration, everybody turns on you! The people of this country are very interested in the state. Never mind! With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in power these days, let the voice of the military come out differently. Just take a look around you, around 80-90 percent of the people have begun to change their tune. I never believed to begin with that Turkish society was a democratic one! Turkish society is one which, when forced some, can appear to be democratic, but it stills pays its main allegiance to the state. Thank Allah we are at the breaking point. If this period goes on for one more term, it will really take root. Otherwise, you’d begin hearing people raising their voices: “Hey commander, where are you?”
When you say “one more term” what do you mean?
We have 10 more years. From then onwards though, society will find its own path.
Approach to AK Party and lifelong involvement with CHP
Do you think that the 50 percent vote [for the AK Party] is enough and meaningful for the course of social and political change in the country?
I don’t think it’s meaningful. Half of that same 50 percent could just as easily drop Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the halfway mark and turn back. Our history is full of situations like this. I voted for the CHP, but I wanted the Justice and Development Party to win.
You received a lot of reaction for an interview you did with Erdoğan in the run up to the election. Especially for your question, “Will we see you on the balcony?” [where Erdoğan traditionally delivers a speech to the public to celebrate his victory on the night of elections as happened in the 2007 and 2011 elections and gives messages promising more democracy, especially to those who didn’t support Erdoğan in the elections] Also, when you asked candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on a TV program, “We will win, right?”
For some reason, whenever a journalist interviews someone in Turkey, people expect us to fight or something. People criticize, saying, “You didn’t ask this…” What was I supposed to ask? Was I supposed to say, “You are incapable of leading this country”? The role of a journalist is to ask as many questions as possible and to be able to repeat the answers accurately. I did say, “The prime minister of Turkey needs a bigger, [luxurious and comfortable] airplane [He refers to a trip which he took with the prime minister on an official visit to the US. He flew on the PM’s plane, and he said on Twitter that it wasn’t comfortable when he returned to Turkey. “Its time to buy a bigger and comfortable one,” he said.].” So there’s really nothing I didn’t say [laughs]. But before the election, I did say something very clear.
What was it?
I said, “I am going to vote for the CHP, but I want the AK Party to come to power.”
Gülay Göktürk wrote that intellectuals who maintained they were voting for the CHP but wanted to see the AK Party come to power were deeply rooted within the state itself.
It has nothing to do with that [what she said]. That was actually a criticism of the CHP that I leveled. What I meant was that “my heart is filled with your ideals, your social democracy. But when you come to power, I have no sense of trust that you [CHP] can run this government.”
What was it that kept Birand from voting for the AK Party?
[He thinks] Perhaps the fact that we come from such different worlds. My world, the way I was brought up, the way I think. But would I vote for the AK Party today? I don’t know! The AK Party is still difficult for me to choose.
In which sense [do you have difficulty with the AK Party]? Do you have worries about secularism?
No, I don’t worry about that anymore. The AK Party has not transformed this country into a religious state in the course of nine years; so if that had been their aim, they would have been very capable of imposing a religious state. They have proved in these nine years that that is not their aim. What they have also shown is that this country needs a different definition of secularism.
Are they right [in this case]?
They are right. Why do I keep my distance from the AK Party? I am very opposed to ruling parties in general. I am against the state. The arrogance of the state has always prevented me from choosing the AK Party.
But isn’t the CHP you voted for more engaged with the state mechanism?
But my pro-CHP stance is something that derives from childhood, which is why I cast my vote for the CHP — perhaps for the last time. I want to see a real social democracy, an order in which people will live equally. But it’s ridiculous at the same time because what we have seen is that the AK Party is actually headed more towards creating a more equal order.
‘I faced pressure from my own environment’
The fact that you say “we are from different worlds” regarding the AK Party brings up the image of a man from a specific class?
No, no, it’s not about class. “They wear hasema. [Muslim clothing for swimming when swimming in the sea] I wear a swim suit [when I go swimming].”[He refers to a debate in Turkey in which seculars criticized Muslim men and women for their choice of clothing when they go swimming, labeling these clothes backward, out of fashion, as a sign of fundamentalism, etc.] It doesn’t matter at all for me. The job of a journalist is to supervise the work of an administration, not be entangled with the ruling party. When [Bülent] Ecevit was in power, I was opposed to him too.
Cüneyt Özdemir said that he faced pressure and exclusion from his environment because of his visit to Fethullah Gülen. Additionally, writer Ahmet Altan said that his friends have urged him to “go back to writing novels” when he became editor-in-chief of the Taraf daily. Did you experience any similar pressure after you said, “Supporting coups is rooted in our [secular intellectuals and journalists] genes?”
[I faced] A lot of pressure. There were those who made comments from nearby tables in restaurants or even close friends who called and yelled over the phone. I got thousands of emails and Twitter messages, things like “How could you do this? You handed the other side [conservatives, the AK Party, democrats, etc.] a trump card.” That was the comment that angered me the most actually. What does that mean, handing them a trump card? What are they going to say now? “See, the secular side has begun to collapse?” Let them say it though. Didn’t we support all those other coups? We did. Didn’t we say “bravo” regarding Sept. 12. [military coup in 1980] We did. But at the same time, I have come across some people who criticize the military and who make me sick to my stomach when I hear them.
Well, they are the same people who didn’t even know where to place the military in their lives: “My commander, my commander, my commander. … Yes, sir.” [I do whatever you order me to.] This is how they would go around, talking like this. I get angry at the writers who ruined my life not so long ago, and who are now trying to give lessons on democracy. At least tell me “I think more now these days.” But don’t come to me without facing up to your past and accepting your own mistakes. This would just make a mockery of me!
Birand’s secret story with coup journals in 2007
Did the coup journals come to you before they were published in Nokta?
And why didn’t you publish them?
We were afraid.
It wasn’t clear what would happen during that period.
Did you doubt the authenticity of those journals?
No. When I read them, it was clear that they were true. But I didn’t know how the administration would have taken them. We could have been in danger.
What did you think when Nokta published them?
Of course, it was incredible that Nokta published them. Beyond that it was a disaster that the police conducted a search in the office of the magazine. When it happened, I raised my voice [in my office] and asked: “Why did we leave this man by himself? Why didn’t we back him?”
Why didn’t you write about this?
Because just as we didn’t publish those journals, we also didn’t really know what the ruling party would think or what they would do. This business is not powered by pangs of conscience.
But does journalism really need the backing of the ruling party? Is that what journalism is?
It has always been a need in Turkey!
Is the media then an actor for change?
The media has just begun to change. If the AK Party were to fall from power tomorrow, you would see all sorts of new changes in the media. As I said, Turkish society generally pays allegiance to the state, especially in the past. The situation with Nokta magazine was actually the greatest embarrassment for the media in recent years. I include myself in that.
I am losing my hope on [the solution of] the Kurdish issue
How strong are your hopes when it comes to solving the Kurdish issue?
I have begun to lose hope. If we carry on with this reciprocal stubbornness, we will separate and enter into civil war. Is a human life worth that? I wonder if any improvement can be made in the conditions at İmralı prison [in which Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), stays in solitary confinement] for Öcalan; could they be relaxed a bit? Can you measure a person’s life this way?
Is that the whole story? [improvement of conditions for Öcalan]
No. It’s not so important. If you, as the Turkish Republic, wish to make peace, this is not the way. Especially if the only leader capable is Erdoğan and the only party capable is the AK Party. We are really missing out on a lot of opportunities.
What did you feel when you read the part in the Oda TV indictment that includes a dialogue between Sirin Payzın and Soner Yalçın about you?
I was really saddened. I didn’t expect it at all. What can I do? I am used to these sorts of things now. And Sirin [CNN Türk correspondent] was someone I really respected. Too bad. I guess I ought not to have.
After the sale of Star TV, there is speculation that Uğur Dündar will head the Kanal D TV channel. Will you continue to hold your previous position of editor-in-chief of the main news program?
I will continue for as long as I am standing. One day though, the doorbell will ring, and a letter will come from the boss saying such and such. And then it all ends.
23 October 2011, Sunday / FATIH VURAL, İSTANBUL