Date: Thursday 22 October, 2015
Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Fréderike Geerdink
Chair: Ara Sarafian (Gomidas Institute)
Until recently Frederike Geerdink worked as an investigative journalist in south-east Turkey covering key political issues in the region. She was the only foreign journalist based in the region. However, in October 2015, she was expelled because of her probing work, most notably on Kurdish issues. It was the Roboski massacre in 2011, when 34 of Kurdish smugglers were murdered by Turkish armed forces, that originally raised the profile of her work. Her investigations led to the broader plight of Kurds in Turkey. These investigations led to her book, originally written in Dutch and now available in English, The Boys Are Dead: The Roboski Massacre and the Kurdish Question in Turkey (Gomidas Institute, 2015).
Geerdink recalls how she went to work as a journalist in Turkey for the first time in 2006, at which point she did not have deep insight into the politics and history of that complicated country. Her experiences and background in Dutch journalism gave her a sturdy footing for working in Turkey, though the somewhat different political context gave new meanings to words and their journalistic nuances.
Regarding the domestic press in Turkey, Geerdink commented on significant restrictions, especially given the links between the domestic media and the large corporations that own them. She explained how, in order to remain on friendly terms with the Turkish government – and enjoy lucrative business contracts – the parent corporations pressured their newspapers to remain within limits set by the state when reporting (or not reporting) developments. Otherwise, journalists got into serious trouble. She asserted that domestic journalism in Turkey had little to do with genuine journalism and more to do with political economics. The independence of the press, therefore, was extremely limited.
With regards non-mainstream media outlets, Geerdink noted that those outlets were only watched or read by those who already supported the stance such outlet expressed. Thus, the mainstream audience were divorced from marginal narratives. She gave the examples of the impromptu Gezi channel, which was set up during the Gezi protests, and, with regard to broadcasting developments linked with the Roboski massacre, Star TV, a Kurdish television channel, never reached the general Turkish population. Geerdink stated that she very rarely caught the Kurdish press lying, which was far from the case with regards to the mainstream Turkish press.
As for the international press, it also did not do itself justice when referring to the Roboski massacre. It continuously formulated this phrase: “the Roboski massacre – in which smugglers were mistaken for PKK fighters,” claiming that the killings were an accident which, according to Geerdink, was not the case. This demonstrated the influence that the domestic state narrative could have on foreign media outlets that sometimes reported on events at which they were physically present, or that they simply ceded to the Turkish state. Due to the unaccountability of the Turkish state, Geerdink stated that she regarded public statements made by such government authorities as hardly trustworthy.
Geerdink discussed the advantages of social media in reporting on events in Turkey. This gave journalists a sense of independence and autonomy to express their thoughts and opinions. This allowed them to engage in what Geerdink called ‘slow journalism’, in which news stories were thoroughly researched, investigated and deliberated. Geerdink’s interest in honest journalism led her to delve deep into the Roboski massacre. Her conclusion was that that event was not an accident, but a consequence of the actions of the Turkish state. The massacre bore traces of the larger Dersim massacre in 1938.
In order to highlight the strenuous relationship between journalists and the Turkish state regarding the Kurdish issue, Geerdink mentioned that she had gone to interview Cemil Bayık, one of the founders and heads of the PKK, and had published her story, sharing a photo of her with Bayık, and the PKK flag in the background. The Turkish state responded with the accusation that she was making propaganda for a terrorist organization. However, Geerdink stated that she has no qualms in writing about different perspectives on an issue. She thus sent a request to have an interview with Yalçın Akdoğan who had had a significant role in the peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK. Geerdink was completely ignored and received no reply. She said that she would have gone to interview the Turkish minister, shaken his hand, and posted the picture online, just as she did with the PKK head. Her efforts to provide a full picture of the Kurdish issue, involving all parties of the conflict and their opinions, have proven futile. The only party willing to cooperate has been Qandil, the main base of the PKK.
Geerdink’s motivation to provide sincere accounts of current events in Turkey, while framing them within the modern historical context of the country are commendable. The fact that she is a journalist who works and investigates on the ground, and one that strives to be as independent as possible, renders her views on Turkey invaluable.