After CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interviewed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Washington, D.C. last week, the untidy realities embodied by the Turkish President and his important nation played out at a capital think tank.
There, anti-government protesters and media were jostled and manhandled by Erdoğan security personnel. It was a mess and partly suggested why the Obama administration has kept its distance of late from Erdoğan, with the president relegating him to a sort of B-list meeting on the sidelines of a big nuclear conference he hosted (his only formal White House meeting was with Vice President Joe Biden).
Where Turkey was once seen as a “linchpin of stability, peace and prosperity in its neighborhood,” as the host Brookings Institution put it in a recent analysis, it’s in a different and trickier place today. Democratic gains have been reversed, an authoritarian streak has resurfaced, the fairness of its elections is doubted and suppression of the press has mounted.
That was in part the context in which Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, sat down at the Turkish Embassy with Erdoğan for a long and revealing chat. It ran on her daily “Amanpour” show on CNNi, the network’s international channel, and can also be found on Amanpour.com.
If it largely escaped attention in the U.S., that is no surprise. There remains the American audience’s natural aversion to international affairs — and assumptions by TV producers about the ratings’ perils of much international fare. And, in this case, there was also the media’s simultaneous obsession last week with Donald Trump’s controversial, clearly bungled abortion remarks during his MSNBC interview with Chris Matthews.
Amanpour is no stranger to such encounters with heads of state, having also once hosted “This Week” at ABC News and, for nine years, serving as a “60 Minutes” contributor for CBS. She’s long been a star in her own right and a journalist who’s on the radar screen of many important international figures, be they saints, sinners or a combination of the two.
What follows is an edited version of both a subsequent phone conversation after she’d gone to New York City from Washington and an email exchange after she’d returned home to London on Sunday.
Your interview with Erdoğan struck me in some ways as more notable than the interview that caught domestic U.S. attention a day or so earlier, namely Chris Matthews with Donald Trump. I guess I felt that way partly since this guy is, after all, head of a major nation and is taking rather onerous actions against the press. What did you think?
I have interviewed Erdoğan several times. Because I felt very passionate about the news, freedom of expression, safety of the press and about holding power accountable, all those things are in my mind when I sit down with someone like him. The first part was all about relations with the U.S., how to end the war in Syria, his continued desire for Turkey, America and its allies to create a safe zone in Syria with a no-fly zone over it. Then I addressed what everybody is talking about, namely Turkey’s increasingly autocratic and relentless pursuit of journalists who do so much as criticize the government.
I was determined to talk to him and get some answers. I have been more aggressive before. This time I was asking him from a different perspective, asking why he’s so thin-skinned. Does he understand that freedom of the press is a pillar of any democracy? I wanted to get to the fact that the E.U. (European Union) says that despite all the political and security help they need right now from Turkey, they are still making freedom of express a condition of entry to the E.U. I wanted to highlight the plight of the two newspaper journalists now on trial. And I wanted him to hear me push back against the notion that journalists are accused of aiding and abetting terrorists, or are accused of espionage. I told him people like you always say that when they don’t like what we’re doing, accusing us of being spies and terrorists. I specifically mentioned the two journalists on trial.
I make it a point, especially when in their country, to always stand up for the press and for the truth. And I am a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Press Safety but have been a longtime board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Women’s Media Foundation, the Daniel Pearl Foundation and continue standing up for freedom of the press.
In writing about Matthews performance with Trump, I felt that it was exactly Chris’ occasionally hectoring, frustrating, cut-people-off-in-mid-sentence modus operandi that, in this instance, actually had positive impact. I sensed that you had real frustration with Erdogan but also felt compelled to take a restrained if firm approach, especially since the guy is, after all, a head of state.
I have a daily interview program and am constantly interviewing and hectoring. In this case, I kept pursuing it. I just didn’t ask one question. I did 10 minutes on the press and decided to switch from way I did it the first time, to see whether using knowing glances, knowing smiles and gee whiz frustration, asking why do you care, don’t you just draw more attention to things you don’t like? If you think you are such a well-loved president, why do you care about this? You’re criticized by your own people, the E.U. and President Obama in ruling in an autocratic style.
Personally, I believe that, as far as Chris Matthews (and his Trump interview), it is about time that people start holding accountable candidates for the highest office on policy issues and things they do and say. His (Trump’s) commitment to a free press, women’s rights, foreign policy. As Billie Jean King said, he hasn’t thought out very important policies, with a massive pushback in his saying NATO is obsolete. A massive pushback on South Korea and Japan should be allowed to get nuclear weapons and on the U.S considering a a first use of nuclear weapons. The pushback on his either misspeaking or his desire for a different policy on abortion. It’s late (the tougher questioning) but is coming.
When it comes to the press, I am literally horrified that a candidate for the highest office in the land of the free, home of the First Amendment, would even suggest they would revisit the idea of libel laws, and create hostile environments against reporters at rallies. That he would set supporters against the press and that aides to the candidate, including his campaign manager, allegedly manhandled — I will used ‘allegedly’ even though the tape makes clear what happened — a reporter. These are the things we are supposed to take autocratic leaders elsewhere to task for.
I have used my programs and platform to report on how the press is treated all over the world, including during Trump’s campaign. And how women are treated all over the world, including during Trump’s campaign. I am expected to keep everybody honest on foreign policy issues, like nuclear policy. I am doing my professional duty.
I obviously was captive of the English translation that perhaps didn’t fully convey various rhetorical nuances or how what kind of speaker Erdogan really is. Who was the guy who was speaking to you? Is he a fellow with Obama-like articulation, or a fellow with more blunt Trump-like manner of speaking, or something totally different?
You would have to know who he was from the beginning. He’s a very talented, effective politician and somebody who brought a huge measure of democracy and reform to what was essentially a military style of government. He was not from the military-engendered hierarchy of Turkey. He began in the AKP Party. And, yes, it’s an Islamist party, but he brought secular democratic and judicial and military and police reform to the country.
That started to turn around the last few years after he’d been in office for more than ten years and he wanted to run for president. And with the Gezi Park (anti-government protest) demonstrations and the Syrian war, he started to change. Like other leaders who have been in power a long time, such as Putin, they manifest their change by a crackdown on the press. That’s the person whom you are talking to now. But you’re also talking to a person frustrated by the U.S. and President Obama’s take on the Syrian war. He had long ago intimated that Turkey might provide ground troops if the U.S. provided a different type of contribution and that it would provide a no fly zone.
He tells me he has spent $10 billion in Turkish government funds on refugees. And despite promises of billions from the E.U., he says it’s only $450 million in help so far. His country is overwhelmed, as are other front line states. He knows that unless the war in Syria is stopped, and unless Assad is stopped, that the territory the terrorists have in Syria will allow ISIS to train and send operatives around the world, including to Turkey, which has suffered numerous bomb attacks. He believes it is imperative to end that war and stop Assad.
People were shocked with the scuffles at Brookings (where Erdogan security guards were seemingly out of control before and during an Erdogan appearance at the Washington think tank). And Obama gave him a bit of a lecture on press freedom so he has heard from all sides.
Put on your UNESCO hat now and speak about the general state of freedom of the press elsewhere. And then put the U.S. and say mainstream European press cultures — be it British, French, German — in some sort of context. What as a UNESCO ambassador are you distinctly conscious of and tend to speak out about?
As a foreign correspondent since 1990, I have witnessed and suffered from assaults in all the places I have covered: Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda. I’ve had so many colleagues wounded and killed and imprisoned and put on trial on utterly false, politically motivated charges. There are increasingly darks days for freedom of the the press and independent information because not just war lords but governments and the apparatuses of government believe we are easy, soft targets and are there to be shut down at all costs, including death, which is murder, to stop our criticism.
Look at figures of the Committee To Protect Journalists as more and more journalists are killed. The leading cause of journalist death is deliberate, it’s murder. This is out of sync with the leading cause of death for most people, which is disease. For our tribe, it’s mostly murder. We are unarmed, not political, telling the truth and holding power accountable and uncovering deeds and misdeeds that need to be in the spotlight. But we are being increasingly pushed into a politically partisan space, so we will piss somebody off. It’s a very troubling development. Many are not aware of the deep and steep price we pay, and the chilling impact on thoughtful, accurate nonpartisan without which a free society cannot exist. If you twist the truth, you will have a twisted society.
Final question. For somebody who admires your work and would crave to work overseas, what would you suggest?
My counsel is to do what I did. Work your way up through the profession. Know it inside and out, know what it means to stand up to the truth. Know it takes a certain amount of balls and willingness to take knocks and be shut out of cocktail parties and golf clubs as the price for asking tough questions. Especially in the U.S. There’s a much more robust tradition in Britain to just go at it and not want to be in anybody’s fraternity.
For me, interviewing world leaders and other big shots didn’t come until I had been a correspondent in the field for years. I would also advise that don’t expect you can go from college to the interview chair and speak to people without yourself having a large body of knowledge and experience.
When talking to really important people, or those with whom I need to have all the facts at my fingers, it’s a lot of homework to know who you are up against and what to ask and have the knowledge at your fingertips and not be deflected, until you either get an answer, or it’s clear you’re not going to get an answer.
Just get out in the field and learn the job of reporting, a job that’s massively important and rewarding, but also getting more physically and intellectually dangerous.