GEGHAM MANUKIAN: “THIS HAD TO SOUND IN ISTANBUL AT LEAST ONCE”
On November 2-3, 2006 in Istanbul the Fifth News Xchange conference was held. In this major international event that annually brings together broadcasters from the whole world two media representatives from Armenia took part – Harutiun Harutiunian, the Deputy Executive Director of Public Television of Armenia, and Gegham Manukian, Consultant for News and Current Affairs Programs of “Yerkir-Media” TV company (he previously was the Executive Director, Director for News and Current Affairs Programs of “Yerkir-Media” before becoming a member of the RA National Assembly in May 2006). One of the key events at Istanbul conference was the speech of the Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayiip Erdogan on November 3. After this an incident occurred that attracted the attention of both Turkish and Armenian media. We asked Gegham MANUKIAN to tell us about it.
– The speech by Recep Tayiip Erdogan was made on the eve of November 8 (the day when European Commission was to release a progress report on Turkey joining European Union – E.P.), so it was a certain address to the European Union. Thus, Erdogan spoke at length about the Cyprus problem. After the speech by the Prime Minister the well-known Turkish writer Elif Safak asked how Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (stipulating imprisonment for public denigration of Turkishness, the state and state institutes – E.P.) correlated with freedom of expression. Recep Tayiip Erdogan noted: if Elif Safak is here at this event today, it means the Article is not enforced. (Criminal proceedings had been instituted against Elif Safak on Article 301 for mentioning the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in her novel; in September 2006 she was acquitted by court – E.P.) Answering the subsequent questions on the same Article, Erdogan said that the so-called Armenian Genocide was an invention of Armenian Diaspora, the border with Armenia was not blocked, there were 70 thousand Armenians living in Turkey, the Genocide was a lie, what had happened in 1915 was a deportation, and this was proved by historical evidence. I was the last to ask the question to the Prime Minister. Extending a vote of thanks to Erdogan in Turkish (Gegham Manukian’s background is in Turkish studies – E.P.), I continued my remark in English. Having introduced myself, I said this was my first visit to Istanbul – a city where Armenians had lived for centuries and which became the symbol of the beginning of 1915 Genocide. I said that not very far from the place we were in now was the house where the member of Ottoman Parliament, Armenian writer Grigor Zohrap lived. On April 24, 1915 he was seized and killed. Why, Mr. Prime Minister? Why was it at the same time the member of Ottoman Parliament Ruben Sardarian, poet Ruben Sevak were killed? Why was this done, Mr. Prime Minister? Because they were Armenians. Was this genocide or deportation?
Erdogan answered to this: you apparently have read too much of Diaspora literature, tell your Robert Kocharian (President of Armenia – E.P.) to declassify the archives, we have opened ours. At this point the chairwoman started taking the microphone away from me, but I managed to appeal to my colleagues to study history, to say that the Turkish society must recognize the Armenian Genocide. I had a poster, saying in English: “Turkey must have the courage to recognize the Armenian Genocide”. I unfolded it, keeping on my knees, but could not raise it – the representatives of law enforcement bodies who came to sit next to me would not let me do that.
– Where did you take the poster from?
– I had made it in Yerevan. I printed pages and then glued them together.
– So you had planned the action in advance.
– I did.
– Once, at least once, this had to sound in Istanbul in the presence of an official.
– What happened next?
– Then the break started, a journalist from a Turkish TV company came up to me and ask to unfold the poster for shooting. I started unfolding it, but the policemen interfered, took the poster and suggested that I should follow them for a talk. Colleagues present said they would not let me go alone. The policemen said “OK, OK” and left. I stayed in Istanbul for two more days after that but did not notice any surveillance. Things were calm.
– How did the conference participants react?
– An impromptu press-conference was held during the break. I was asked why I had done that, many people wondered who Grigor Zohrap was. Many colleagues, some strangers were inspired by my action; some people approved, gave me a pat on the shoulder, someone said he was coming to Yerevan and it would be good to meet. The support of my colleagues was not purely emotional; they fully understood how difficult the moment was. After the break the moderator of the concluding session asked me to come in and, as I entered, announced into the mike: everything is fine, our colleague is with us. This was actually followed by a very serious, interesting discussion with representatives of Al Jazeera TV company.
– What do you think of the freedom of expression in Turkey in the context of what happened?
– At that moment Turkish journalists displayed lively interest to the incident. But when I looked through the press the next day, they all wrote by the same scheme: Gegham Manukian spoke about the Genocide, and Erdogan answered… with the same quote, “tell your Robert Kocharian to declassify the archives, we have opened ours”. Some of the newspapers even misinformed their readers: some wrote I allegedly said I did not unfold the poster because I was scared of the police; some wrote I had said three Armenians were killed in 1915 and inquired whether this could be called genocide. The TV coverage was pure information. The speech of Prime Minister went on live air of four Turkish TV channels. The next day the press published a statement by a member of Turkish Meclis Turhan Comez. We had met during his recent visit to Yerevan, he was interviewed by “Yerkir-Media”. In his statement Comez remembered telling me in Yerevan that the Turkish society was open and could safely be visited, and now Turks must not discredit themselves by some actions.
– What was the coverage of Armenian media like?
– Mostly normal. Only some newspapers put irony in their comments, hinting at my “fictitious heroism”: one of them wrote that I was eager to be seized and arrested, to appear on TV screens, improving my rating; the other said I was met at the airport with much hustle and went for a celebration at a restaurant. Whereas in reality I went to the TV company and stayed there till 5 o’clock in the morning.