’Agos’, an Armenian-Turkish newspaper based in Istanbul, was rocked in January when its editor, Hrant Dink, was shot on its offices’ doorstep. Ian Herbert looks at the impact his death has had in the Muslim country Published : 30 April 2007 The security guard at the door of Agos newspaper in central Istanbul has become well accustomed to pointing out the spot where the editor-in-chief was murdered in broad daylight, by two shots to his head and two to his body, four months ago. "There," he says, identifying a place on the pavement, two steps from the door, where Hrant Dink was shot from behind.
But there is another more subtle clue to the threats facing those, like Dink, who want to talk about Armenian identity in Turkey and the way that hundreds of thousands of Christian Armenians were killed by the Turks in 1915. It is the utter absence on the nondescript premises of this Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper of a sign marking its presence. "Doing without a sign was a kind of a protection for Hrant," says Etyen Mahcupyan, the 57-year-old Armenian columnist who has succeeded his friend as editor. "I never asked Hrant why he didn’t have one, come to think of it. It was a form of hiding, which you do without thinking. It may have been related to him being a person from a minority ; a non-Muslim, not wanting to show off in a Muslim country."
There are currently more reasons than ever for those, like Dink, who criticise Turkey’s continuing denial that the events of 1915 amounted to genocide, to keep their whereabouts unknown. The EU’s frostiness about Turkey’s accession to the EU, despite the efforts of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to present a modernising face to Europe, is fuelling a new wave of nationalism in a country where images of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, stare out from most available public places and where any "insult to Turkishness" is a criminal offence. Dink’s murder at the age of 52, three months after Anna Politkovskaya’s in Russia, demonstrates the enduring danger facing those who, in pursuit of their profession, persistently challenge the state.
Dink, who described e-mail death threats against him in his last column for Agos ("I am just like a pigeon... I look to my left and right, in front and behind me as much as I can") retains his presence in the office which Mahcupyan never wanted to occupy. Testaments to Dink’s journalism line the walls : the Bjornson Prize, awarded by the Norwegian academy established to protect freedom of expression ; the Henri Nannen Prize ; the Oxfam Novib PEN Award for journalistic excellence.
Yet this office was no Armenian enclave. The 24-page newspaper, which Dink established 11 years ago in the belief that only dialogue could resolve the bitter memories left by the mass murder of Ottoman Armenians during the First World War, has three pages in Armenian with the rest, including the front, in Turkish. Around 25% of the 10,000 readership is Armenian-Turkish. The rest is Turkish.
"Hrant’s death has given rise to a different level of intensity about the issues he raised," says Mahcupyan, whose first issue as editor, devoted to Dink’s life and work, increased the paper’s sale to 25,000. "His death has created a sympathy for the issues he raised. But there’s also a backlash which [is] nationalistic." He details many threatening e-mails and letters received after the assassination, the thrust of which was : "You could be next."
Dink had become as much an ambassador for the Armenian cause as a journalist. His ability to remember, years later, the names of individuals he had met was legendary. But his belief in a secular Armenian identity did not win him too many friends within the Armenian church.
"You should remember he was brought up in an orphanage," says Patriarch Mesrob Mutafyan, the most senior Armenian cleric in Turkey, in reference to Dink’s 10 years growing up in an evangelical orphange after his parents had separated. "It turned him against the state, against the patriarch, against anyone."
The patriarch was speaking from the Church of St Mary in Istanbul, where it is easy to see why Dink felt his people were besieged. Such is the threat from Muslim extremists that visitors must enter through X-ray machines.
Across the road is Dink’s old Armenian primary school, where the current head teacher, Margrit Yesiltepe, unknowingly reveals much about the way that Armenian culture has been erased in Turkey. "We are a Turkish school and must teach what are in the history books," she insists from her seat behind a small Turkish flag in a room where Ataturk adorns the carpet and the walls. But the "history books", it transpires, deliver a curriculum set by the government which makes no mention of Armenian issues, or of the events of 1915. "This is how it was for me as a pupil and it was no problem," says the head.
Before Dink’s death, there were signs that Mr Erdogan wanted to put some things right. He has tried to establish a "joint history commission" of academics for a definitive examination of the genocide issue (though the Armenians have refused to join it) and the language of his influential special adviser, Egemen Bagis, reflects the government’s willingness to engage. "I don’t know if it was genocide or not," he says. "We asked the Armenians to join our commission two years ago and I say to them : I am ready to face my own history if you are yours." But in an election year, with the far-right MHP party doing well in opinion polls, Mr Erdogan dare not alienate the powerful, reactionary military and judiciary figures who don’t tend to go in for ethnic tolerance.
For now, the political ferment makes life as unsettling as ever for those who are carrying Dink’s torch, including Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Prize-winning novelist, who went into exile in New York after criminal charges against him over genocide references were dropped. "What power do the ultra-nationalists really have ?" asks Mahcupyan. "Not much, except the ability to scare people and to kill - and you only need a gun and a youngster to do that." As he spoke, Mahcupyan had no idea of the next story which was about to preoccupy him : the murder, last week, of two Turkish Christian converts and a German in a publishing house that prints bibles, in the eastern Turkish city of Malatya.
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