Our paths crossed for the first time in 1986. It was a year after his first news show called “32. Gün” (32nd Day) began airing on TRT, and a year before his groundbreaking article in the daily Milliyet titled “We cannot solve the Kurdish problem by military means.”
I was a young reporter and news presenter at Radio Sweden when he visited Stockholm. He knew my name because my chronicles from Scandinavia had been published in Cumhuriyet.
What made him completely different from the flock was the fact that he rightly did not identify himself with this or that ideology, nor did he engage as an activist in any political line, or as a twisted missionary. I liked that. He was a rare bird in a polluted professional environment where principles of Kemalism had a constant priority over the ethical codes of journalism.
Our paths crossed again some years later in 1992, when I was in the newsroom of Show TV. Mehmet Ali had then moved to the same channel.
It was a tough time. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) had escalated the warfare and reporting on the issue was a daily challenge. What made us proud was the fact that the news team in Paris and the ones in İstanbul defied the external pressures and used a language with high standards, using the K-word and all sorts of local Kurdish sources -- including ones affiliated with the PKK. The authorities didn't like it and tried to suppress it, but to no avail. It lasted three years.
Birand's magic throughout his career was in an enormous drive for the story, huge curiosity and, of course, luck. Had he not been stationed for a long time in Europe (he was in Brussels for years), and not had a command of other languages, he would not have been the same. He was a quick learner and, by following Western media, he knew immediately what standards would make a journalist truly a journalist. His sweet mischief was also very useful in shaping him into a fine interviewer. He could ask any question without intimidation and would often get answers.
He was ruthless with colleagues, but only for the sake of the story.
He was also lucky. When he stepped into the domain of TV, he chose the correct medium. Though strictly controlled by the state, public broadcaster TRT had a huge archive. He realized its value, and used it as nobody else would have dared or imagined. To this day, he is almost unique in being a true TV journalist here. He relied heavily on the power of images, old and new, while most of us can only do what amounts to radio in the domain of TV with low budget talk shows with “talking heads.”
In Turkey, where the authority always expects loyalty from a journalist, he proved to remain loyal only to his profession. He was the first to write about the mighty military, not long after the 1980 coup. He was deeply detested for it, and “marked” for life. Yet, he survived and continued to fight against taboos and broke them, in his own sweet way.
What made him a true journalist was also his openness to critique. He accepted his shortcomings. I remember a chat between us. When the apology campaign for 1915 took place, he had written a blurred opinion that had frustrated me. I called him and told him what he, as Birand, should be saying instead.
His article the next day was exactly that -- a correction of what he had written and much more, joining those with the view that “we must all accept the pain of the Armenians.”
He was also one of the few (four) colleagues who called to console me when I was fired as news ombudsman by the owner of the Doğan Media Group because of a column. He told me openly that I was completely right to defend my position and that he admired that.
We will always remember him as a groundbreaker. He managed to be unique, also, in the sense that he unified all segments of Turkey in mourning sincerely for him. Except, of course, those who hated his plea for peace, globalism and freedom. Some of them were shamelessly present at his funeral, including “colleagues” who in 1997 had sent him out into the cold due to their filthy loyalty to the military. It was that type of “journalists” Mehmet Ali always detested, though with a sweet smile -- and his work.