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Respected Turkish journalist dies

By Ivan Watson, CNN
March 7, 2013 -- Updated 1639 GMT (0039 HKT)
Mehmet Ali Birand was one of Turkey's most influential journalists.
Mehmet Ali Birand was one of Turkey's most influential journalists.
  • Respected Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand dies after operation
  • During Turkey's recent history he often angered national leaders
  • "We don't have enough freedom in criticizing" powerbrokers, he said in 2010
  • His last published work included a plea for calm at a Kurdish demonstration

Diyarbakir, Turkey (CNN) -- The empty anchorman's chair in the small television studio said it all. Mehmet Ali Birand, Turkey's most charismatic broadcaster, writer and political commentator had passed away.

Birand was in his 70s. He had been battling cancer for years. But news of his death after undergoing gallbladder surgery in hospital still came as a shock. On Thursday night, a hush settled over a bustling restaurant in Diyarbakir when a waiter turned the TV up to hear the sad announcement.

Only two days before, Birand had been broadcasting from behind that same desk.

His eyes sparkled. He smiled as he spoke. He always performed in front of the camera with such energy. It looked like he was popping out of his chair.

It's tempting and lazy for me to describe Birand to foreigners as Turkey's own "Walter Cronkite." But Birand was so charming, elegant and vibrant, it's not fair to compare the veteran journalist to anyone else.

With Birand's passing, Turkey lost one of its most effective communicators -- not only to millions of Turks who watched his news broadcast on Kanal D every night, but also to foreigners like myself who struggle haplessly to explain this fascinating and sometimes frustrating country to the outside world.

Birand had a remarkable way with words, even when he wasn't conversing in his native Turkish or in French, which he insisted he spoke far better than English.

"Oh my God, the state has a very heavy hand!" he exclaimed once, during a radio interview with me in 2007. "Once you are pursued, once you are sent to trial, everything changes."

Kurdish killings spark tensions

We were discussing state persecution of journalists. It was something Birand knew intimately. In the 1990s, his reporting angered the army generals who once controlled so much of Turkey, and he says they sought to punish him for his disobedience.

Years later, the subject kept coming up in our conversations every time a reporter was thrown in jail, every time a journalist was murdered -- even as the government denied involvement.

"We don't have enough freedom in criticizing the government, criticizing the police, the security forces. That has to be changed, there is no way out," Birand told me in 2010.

After the Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink was gunned down on an Istanbul street in 2007, Birand told me he was now living with protection from a body guard.

"I'm self-censoring, I don't want to get into trouble, I don't want to get shot. Unfortunately there is this possibility. I'm afraid!" he said.

But Birand continued writing and broadcasting. Until about a year ago he was managing editor of CNN's joint venture in Turkey, CNN Turk.

Every week in his newspaper columns, he gently preached tolerance, urging his leaders and fellow citizens to approach disputes through dialogue rather than fury.

His final column published in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News urged hot-headed Kurdish militants and heavy-handed Turkish cops to show restraint at a demonstration Thursday in Diyarbakir for three Kurdish political activists murdered in Paris.

"I want to be hopeful," the veteran journalist wrote.

As it turned out, the potentially-explosive Diyarbakir gathering passed peacefully, with no tear gas, gunfire or Molotov cocktails.

Birand's message of fairness won him supporters, even within the ranks of Turkey's deeply alienated Kurdish youth.

As crowds of Kurdish demonstrators dispersed after the memorial gathering on Thursday, a young Kurdish man approached my camera crew.

"Is Mehmet Ali Birand OK?" he asked, with obvious concern. "I heard he was in hospital."

I have been a little awestruck by Birand, ever since I first met him a decade ago when I was a foreign correspondent in my 20s.

Last year I asked him what words of advice he might have for young Turkish journalists.

"One should not fear the government, especially the civilian government. We did not fear the military government. They should not fear the civilian government," said Birand.

"Continue writing. Continue insisting on your views. Don't panic."

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