A journalist's dangerous mission

January 20, 2007
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Stephen Kinzer

THE LAST TIME I met Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who was murdered in Istanbul yesterday, I felt a sudden need to do more than just exchange pleasantries. This was several months ago, and we were sampling one of Turkey's great delights, dinner aboard a boat cruising the Bosphorus. Life for Dink, however, had become less than delightful. He was being fiercely denounced by the ultra nationalist press, and seemed subdued and preoccupied.

I pulled him aside and told him how important his work was, how much support he had in Turkey and beyond, and what a journalistic hero he had become. "I understand," he replied simply. "I do not stop."

Dink was in the forefront of a growing number of Turks who want their government to admit that leaders of the crumbling Ottoman Empire directed a mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915. These are the same Turks who want their country to break away from its authoritarian past and complete its march toward full democracy.

Some Turkish nationalists, however, feel deeply threatened by their country's progress toward modernity. During the 1980s, they gunned down the country's leading journalists. In the 1990s they concentrated their fire on Kurdish nationalists, hundreds of whom were killed by death squads that acted with absolute impunity.

In recent years, many Turks had allowed themselves to believe those bad days were over. But with an election campaign approaching, nationalist rhetoric is again surfacing in political speeches and militant newspapers. Much of it contains ugly insinuations that Armenians, Kurds, and members of other minority groups threaten Turkey's national unity and its very survival.

Rare is the government official or military officer who condemns this rhetoric. Some not only encourage it but protect accused killers from prosecution. That has emboldened radicals and led them to believe that the state tacitly supports them.

By their silence, and by failing to condemn attacks like a bombing evidently staged by army officers in the Kurdish town of Semdinli 14 months ago, Turkish political leaders and military commanders helped set the stage for yesterday's murder. In his weekly newspaper, Agos, which was published in both Turkish and Armenian, Dink wrote as he pleased, refusing to observe unwritten taboos that shackle the Turkish press. He was charged several times with the Orwellian crime of "insulting Turkishness." On one occasion he was convicted, although his six-month sentence was suspended. Each time he appeared in court, a crowd of ultra nationalists staged a violent scene, showering him with abuse and trying to assault him.

This was the same gang that screamed insults at the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk when he was brought to trial last year. Dink attended Pamuk's trial in a show of solidarity, driving the militants to new heights of fury.

Turkish nationalists believed they won a great victory when, at the end of last year, the European Union suspended talks aimed at making Turkey an EU member. They still hope to turn back the democratic tide that is engulfing their country. Some apparently believe that if they cannot do it by indicting free thinkers, they can do it through murder. This attack has generated revulsion across Turkey. It will undoubtedly galvanize the country's large and increasingly bold corps of human rights advocates.

Their first step may be to intensify their campaign for repeal of the notorious Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which places a series of restrictions on free press. To achieve that, and to finish reshaping Turkey's political system, will not be easy. Turkey is being torn by an epochal crisis of identity. The old and oppressive political tradition is dying, but its death throes are becoming disturbingly violent.

Political leaders, and their colleagues in uniform, seem to believe they can tolerate and even make use of ultranationalist ideologues. Yesterday's murder shows how dangerous that course is. Reports from Istanbul suggest that the man who committed the murder was very young, perhaps a teenager. His arrest will not calm outraged Turks. Their anger is directed not simply against the man who pulled the trigger, but also against those who created the venomous climate that made this crime possible.

Turkey's violent ultra nationalist fringe, long supported by elements in the police and military, aims not only to kill journalists but also to stop the progress of Turkish history. No government has tried seriously to crush it. Yesterday's murder, and the wave of anger it has set off, gives Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a chance to do so.

Stephen Kinzer is a former chief of the New York Times bureau in Istanbul and author of "Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds."