The interview that Utku Cakirozer, an Ankara-based reporter for the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet, conducted with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus was not “propaganda,” as it has been described by certain spokesmen of our ruling Justice and Development party. It was outright top-class news.
Thanks to its high newsworthiness, the interview was carried by international wire services and used by leading newspapers across the world — it was international-grade journalism. Some tried to besmirch the interview as “Assad’s propaganda efforts via Cumhuriyet.” If those blabbing about had the minimum mental capacity required to differentiate between journalism and propaganda, they wouldn’t have put themselves in this absurd position.
A journalist interviews anyone, even a terrorist, a mafia don or a dictator with blood on his hands. Keeping the interview from being “propaganda” are the well prepared, professional questions posed by the journalist to his subject. If the interviewee tries to dodge these questions with evasive answers and fairy tales, this is not propaganda, it is an exhibition of what he really is. This is what happened during Utku Cakirozer’s interview with Assad.
Do you know what makes propaganda? When the interviewer asks the right questions to the prime minister or the foreign minister in order to help them make their points. When the media serves the public relations and publicity efforts of the rulers by asking them predetermined, planted questions under the guise of an interview, this is propaganda.
If some in Ankara counsel a journalist not to interview someone, then it is the duty of that journalist to insist on an interview. Utku Cakirozer did his job by ignoring such prohibitive advice. Although the request for an interview was granted to three of his colleagues, they were unable to overcome the impediments placed before them and head to Damascus and were thus unable to share in the honor of this journalistic event.
The case of Cakirozer’s interview should be noted in the history of the media.
The pressures and punitive actions on the part of the ruling authority have unfortunately created a dominant reflex of self-censorship in the Turkish media. When editors have a report they feel that might not be to the liking of the authority, they ask themselves if the government will be upset with it. Sometimes if they feel it might, they scrap the report. This is not journalism; it is as simple as that.
However, when it came to the interview with Assad, self-censorship was not enough. The journalist forced Turkey’s rulers to “decide for us whether we run [the press] or not.”
We thus learned how a structurally sound media can best defend the notion of freedom of press from the threats of an authoritarian and oppressive ruling authority. To be persistent in journalism is a condition of defending freedom of the press — that is, the right of the people to know.
And we also learned that a non-mainstream newspaper with low circulation could perform well in world-scale conventional journalism, primarily thanks to its independence.
Now, let us go back to the beginning. Was it really bad for the interview with Assad to be published in a Turkish newspaper?
For me, it was entirely appropriate. For one, the Turkish reader learned of the views of Ankara’s new enemy and was able to compare what he said to what was being said in his own capital. This is a plus for democratic and free public opinion.
For example, as a reader, using my own knowledge and judgment, I can now say that Assad’s version of the shooting down of our plane is incorrect. Syrian antiaircraft guns could not have shot down the Turkish Phantom because they confused it with an Israeli Phantom. It was fired upon intentionally.
Even if we accept that our plane was shot down with antiaircraft fire, the probability that an antiaircraft gun — which is guided by radar and computers — would make such a mistake in identifying the target is close to zero. If the system is not radar controlled, then targets have to be identified by the naked eye. In that case, it is not possible for the man on the trigger to mistake a Phantom, with its easily identifiable silhouette, for an Israeli target. There are only two countries that still use Phantoms in the eastern Mediterranean: Turkey and Greece.
See, we are disproving the Syrian leader’s lies with his own words. Is that really so bad? The last part of the interview is to be published on July 7. Perhaps after that we can analyze it in its full context.