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Travel diary: Murder by tabloid TV

By CNN's Hala Gorani

Yasemin Bozkurt speaking to CNN's Hala Gorani.


ISTANBUL, Turkey (CNN) -- When I landed in Istanbul to host this month's edition of "Inside the Middle East," I certainly didn't expect to end up in the Turkish Internet gossip pages.

We were shooting a story on the increasing popularity of U.S.-style talk shows in Turkey. The shows rely heavily on emotional testimonials and are mainly aimed at a female audience. They discuss painful taboo topics, such as domestic abuse and forced marriages.

The programs are broadcast live and take phone calls from viewers. But for some shows, the combination of tears, live testimonials and accusations of wife beating have led to tragedy off the air: A guest on one of the popular shows, "Women's Voice," was gunned down upon her return home.

Birgul Izik complained on "Women's Voice" that her husband abused her. She was shot five times by her own son: A punishment for having "shamed" the family by discussing private issues in public. She eventually died of her wounds.

The network that aired "Women's Voice" immediately cancelled the show.

The shooting shook Turkey -- a country that in many ways is torn between the influences of the East and those of the West - to the core.

On the one hand, there is a desire to remain true to Turkish tradition by not "airing a family's dirty laundry." On the other hand, there is among the elite and in the corridors of power, a yearning to be included in the select club of Western nations, by joining the European Union; or by remaining a relatively close political ally of the United States.

We asked the host of "Women's Voice" for a private interview. When we arrive at the swanky restaurant "Gazebo" on the Bosphorous, we find three different national television camera crews and a photographer waiting.

We learn that Bozkurt's PR company had announced on an Internet blog that CNN was interviewing the television presenter, and that she would "tell her true story" to the world via our network: That was news to us!

We allowed the other networks to film my chat with Bozkurt, as it was, after all, part of the story that we had become a platform from publicity. This was the world of tabloid TV after all!

Yasemin Blozkurt, a tall, statuesque woman in her forties, wearing a shimmery pink caftan, heavy pastel make-up and jewelry, told us that she did not feel responsible in any way for the shooting of the woman who appeared on her program.

She insisted that she was sorry, but that she felt she had helped thousands of women by discussing their problems on her show, and that one tragedy did not negate all the good work she said her show had done.

Aysenur Yacizi was a news anchor for 20 years before launching her own daytime talk show 5 months ago. Her program, "You are not alone," was cancelled on the same day Bozkurt's show was taken off the air.

She said she was unceremoniously fired during a commercial break, sent back on the air live -- and in tears - to tell her viewers they would not be seeing her the next day.

"I don't know who," she told me with a smile, "but someone wants me to shut up."

Yacizi's show was also live and relied entirely on heart-wrenching stories of women abused and neglected. Sensationalistic television, say some -- a platform to discuss real problems too often ignored, say others.

Yacizi insisted that she was on a mission: To highlight the plight of victimized women and, she told me, her work made some at the highest levels of power uncomfortable.

Media professor Haluk Sahin said he believed the networks that cancelled the two shows (two other similar programs remain on the air) got scared after the shooting and felt pressure from Turkish media authorities to take the chat shows off the air.

"The Turkish regulatory board started giving rather ominous signals that they would hand out rather heavy penalties," he told me.

So we spoke to the chairman of the Turkish television regulatory board about the accusations that his organization was, in effect, censoring "tabloid talk" by threatening networks with fines. He rejected the accusations vehemently, stating that the move to remove the shows from the air came entirely from the networks themselves.

It was difficult to imagine that networks would cancel such highly rated shows, though, without any kind of pressure. Channel D, which aired "Women's Voice," issued a statement, saying that the "difficulties of controlling a program that is live broadcast" led to "sad events" that led them to cancel the show.

The question for Turkey is a crucial one, as it tries to modernize itself and as important elements of Western television culture clash with Turkish tradition.

Is it better to air female stories of abuse and rape in a live forum with little or no control or is it wiser to ignore these painful issues altogether?

The presenter of "You Are Not Alone," Aycenur Yacizi, had this answer: "If you do not talk about these problems, they think there is no problem. But these shows show people and the government that the reality of Turkey is this."

The killing on "women's Voice" certainly won't halt the spread of western-style talk show in Turkey.

At most, it will slow an unstoppable wave of westernization in that country's media landscape, for better or for worse. The host whose show some blamed for the honor killing say she will be back with a similar program on another network this autumn.

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