News outlets close their foreign bureaus all the time – we’re living in a time of budget shortcuts. International coverage has been outsourced to news wires and 24-hour television coverage for far too long, and the Internet has both helped and hurt foreign correspondents. Sometimes newsrooms are able to get their stories from afar before their correspondents on the ground, but having foreign bureaus lends prestige to a publication. But apparently sometimes that kind of prestige isn’t seen as valuable.
On June 1, I received a brief e-mail informing me that Habertürk, the Turkish daily newspaper where I was a full staff member, decided to end to its “Washington representation” effective immediately. I’ve lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for the past 11 years, and worked for Habertürk for less than two years, and I knew that not having a prior professional or personal relationship with any of my colleagues in Turkey had surely complicated our relationship. My political views clearly differ from those of the higher-ups on the foreign news desk, which created obstacles to building a productive team. “This has to be personal,” I told myself. But I realized rapidly the trap that I was set in.
I received another brief e-mail on June 9, from my now-former chief foreign news editor. “I want you to be clear on this issue: at no point did I or the foreign news desk play a role in suspending your contract,” he wrote. “The deputy chief editor was also notified of the decision.”
At first I was offended that he hadn’t picked up to the phone to tell me what was going on. This was a business relationship, not a teenager breaking up with a girlfriend via text message; this should have been the least I could have expected. I was stunned at the level of insincerity. Then I realized that my former editor might be doing me a favor.
“I feel uncomfortable and sad concerning this development,” he wrote. “I believe this is related to the warning that you got from the prime minister’s spokesman. I have no other information on this.”
On April 12, I saw Turkish Prime Minister’s spokesman in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, where the Turkish delegation was staying. Mr. Erdogan was in Washington to attend President Obama’s nuclear summit. And I had my regular weekly column at the paper on that day, under the headline, “The Cost of Obsessing with Israel.”
“Today, you wrote an article that was strongly critical of the prime minister,” the spokesman said. “No Israeli journalist criticizes her prime minister like you do. Why did you do that? It won’t be good for you.” I was surprised at his reaction, and responded, “I have full respect for freedom of speech and respect yours as well.”
Habetürk is privately owned, which means that that e-mail doesn’t necessarily prove that political pressure led to my firing. It does, however, prove that even an Istanbul insider suspects that the prime minister’s office might have played a role. It also proves that despite his kind words, he chose to distance himself and take no responsibility for the decision. Since then, I received numerous calls and emails from colleagues and friends.
One called me to say, “You know, people just don’t want to get in trouble. If not in near future, AKP’s policies will soon lead to setbacks for the country. Until then people are just interested in making as much money as they can.”
Another one wrote, “The last couple of weeks I have been reading articles written by journalists who question the direction taken by AKP and each one of them start their article by bashing Israel. It is a kind of tax they pay their readers, a kind of verbal Vaseline to later make their points against Erdogan.”
Frankly, the more I got to think of it, the more I realize how precise I was on my deliberations on that specific article. It was the week after Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had compared Erdogan to Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. There was intense exchange between Turkey and Israel related to this comparison. Erdogan was also heavily criticizing the columnists who have been challenging his government’s policies. So I thought he is approaching the foreign authorities with the same philosophy that he has while trying to silence a number of columnists.
“It won’t be a mistake to assume that Erdogan wishes to see a new Israeli government in place,” I wrote, “just like he hopes to see some columnists get suspended.” In the larger context, though, I was critical of the prime minister’s dealing with the Iranian nuclear dilemma.
Erdogan is complaining about West’s double standards: he is questioning the ones that are taking a firm position against Iran’s nuclear program while Israel already has the capability. It’s, however, worth noting that he is not being critical of India’s or Pakistan’s capabilities. Just like Israel, they both have nuclear weapons and they are both none signatories to the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty.
(Seriously, when Erdogan said to Charlie Rose about two weeks ago, “at the moment the problem in Israel is the coalition government,” he was not bidding for their longevity, right?!)
I also wrote “Because of Erdogan’s strong rhetoric against Israel, the region is about to lose Turkey – a vital balancing country in that neighborhood.”
Interestingly, Habertürk published a piece online on the same day – without a byline – headlined, “Is the radical Israeli lobby stronger in Turkey than the U.S.?”
The consensus within the Turkish press corps was that my paper was publicly attacking me. The claims in the article were baseless, so at first I didn’t take it seriously.
“While Erdogan’s diplomatic consultations continue in Washington, the ones who are critical of Turkey each time it falls into a disagreement with Israel are again acting the same,” it read.
According to these people Israel has a right to have nuclear weapon but when it is about an Islamic country having nuclear weapon, it’s a crime…It’s a weirdness that belongs only to our country that some circles in Turkey criticize Prime Minister Erdogan’s policies derived from his strong personality.
The next day, a columnist at the paper continued the attack without naming me, more or less repeating the same accusations and declaring, “I’m ashamed of some members of the Turkish media.” Then another writer of the foreign news desk continued the attack at his column the following day in the same manner. I was described as a “neocon” in that article.
I wrote four additional columns since then, and for reasons still unknown to me, my May 17 column did not run. In an e-mail, my chief foreign news editor informed me that the paper’s chief editor/executive director would call to talk about the situation, though he assured me that my job was not at stake. But no call came, and I ended up calling the executive director several times. On June 1, the day after Israeli soldiers killed nine Turks on Mavi Marmara, I received a brief e-mail message informing me that my contract was suspended effective immediately.
Although I am confident that Turkish government denies any such responsibility and uses public pressure to question anyone’s patriotism that thinks differently, I’m still not sure as to whether my contract got suspended because of all of this. What I’m sure is that something doesn’t feel right. Many of my Turkish colleagues asked me to write publicly about this experience because there are many who yield to pressure and self-censorship as a survival tool. I’m sharing this story for them and am asking you to decide for yourself.
Based in Washington, D.C., Tülin Daloglu is a Turkish-born journalist.