Respected Turkish journalist dies

Mehmet Ali Birand was one of Turkey's most influential journalists.

Story highlights

  • 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

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."

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.

Kurdish killings spark tensions

    Just Watched

    Kurdish killings spark tensions

Kurdish killings spark tensions 02:15
PLAY VIDEO

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."

People we lost in 2013: The lives they lived

      People we lost in 2013

    • James Avery during 2005 BET Awards - Red Carpet at Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage)

      Actor James Avery, who played the beloved Uncle Phil on the hit 1990s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," has died. He was 67.
    • John Cordice

      Dr. John W.V. Cordice, the surgeon who operated on Dr. Martin Luther King after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, died in Iowa. Cordice was 95.
    • Joseph Ruskin, who acted in 25 films and 124 television shows, died of natural causes in a Santa Monica, California, hospital Saturday, December 28, according to  SAG-AFTRA. Ruskin was 89.

      Joseph Ruskin died of natural causes in a Santa Monica, California, hospital. He was 89.
    • Jeff Pollack

      Jeffrey Ian Pollack, who directed the popular 1990s films "Booty Call" and "Above the Rim" and produced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" has died. He was 54.
    • FILE - In this July 26, 2002 file photo, Russian weapon designer Mikhail Kalashnikov presents his legendary assault rifle to the media while opening the exhibition "Kalashnikov - legend and curse of a weapon" at a weapons museum in Suhl, Germany. Mikhail Kalashnikov, whose work as a weapons designer for the Soviet Union is immortalized in the name of the world's most popular firearm, has died at the age of 94, Monday Dec. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer, File)

      Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian gun designer whose AK-47 rifle became the weapon of choice for many national armies and guerrillas around the world, died.
    • Ned Vizzini, who shot to fame at a young age for his teenage novels focusing on youth depression and anxieties, committed suicide at age 32.
    • single use image -- do not reuse

      Actor Daniel Escobar, who played a teacher in "Lizzie McGuire," died from complications of diabetes in Los Angeles. He was 49.
    • Ronnie Biggs poses for a photo

      "Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs -- one of the most notorious British criminals of the 20th century -- has died, his publisher told CNN. He was 84.
    •  UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Ray Price Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

      Ray Price, the Nashville star whose trademark "shuffle" beat became a country music staple, has died at age 87, his agent said.
    • HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 30: Peter O'Toole poses as his hand and footprints are enshrined in concrete at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre on April 30, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/PictureGroup)

      Actor Peter O'Toole died peacefully in a hospital at 81 years old.
    • Jim Hall performs during the Newport Jazz Festival 2013 at Fort Adams State Park on August 4, 2013.

      Jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who played with the jazz greats of the 20th century and influenced the younger ones, has died, his family said. He was 83.
    • (FILE PHOTO) Former South African President Nelson Mandela Has Died LONDON - JUNE 26: Nelson Mandela leaves the InterContinental Hotel after a photoshoot with celebrity photographer Terry O'Neil on June 26, 2008 in London, England. Mandela is in London in advance of the 46664 concert being held at Hyde Park on Friday the 27th June to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

      Freedom fighter, statesman, moral compass and South Africa's symbol of the struggle against racial oppression.
    • Actor Paul Walker, who shot to fame as star of the high-octane street racing franchise "Fast & Furious," died in a car crash in Southern California. He was 40.
    • sot jane kean honymooners larry king live archive 2003_00002127.jpg

      Jane Kean, who played diverse roles during a long career but was best known as Trixie on the TV revival of "The Honeymooners," has died. She was 90.