It was the day where 28 people including Çevik Bir were arrested in connection with the Feb. 28, 1997 coup attempt investigation. Everybody was discussing this matter.
As agreed beforehand, I would join the “32. Gün” (32nd Day) TV show, hosted by Mehmet Ali Birand, that night to discuss foreign policy and Syria. When I went to the TV studio, the program assistants were making their routine preparations. I was surprised when I heard that the other guests were Mehmet Altan and Ümit Zileli. I was even more surprised when I was told about the subject of discussion, because they were there to talk about the Feb. 28 process.
It turned out that when the prosecutor started arrests for the Feb. 28 investigation, Birand decided to change the subject to be discussed during the program. Those who were invited to discuss the Syrian issue were politely notified of the change and new guests were invited.
This was a huge surprise. As a journalist, I had covered the Feb. 28 process. But still, I had not made any preparation for the subject. I had been on many TV programs but I was terrified by the possibility that I would talk on Birand's show without any prior preparations. Besides, I did not have any information about the other guests. I was familiar with Zileli, a columnist in the Cumhuriyet daily who I knew as an aggressive person. There could be a Zaman-Cumhuriyet feud during the program, I thought.
I wanted to leave immediately. But Birand's assistants took me to his room which reflected his colorful personality. Birand was assigning jobs to the editors for the evening news, directing his secretary about appointments and working like a machine. When I told him my concerns, as usual, he first apologized with a smile. He had made this decision considering the bond between us and asked me to understand. Like an elder brother, he tried to address my concerns, noting that we would talk about what happened as journalists. He referred to the importance of my contribution for the sake of balance in the program. I was mad actually but I also realized that it was not reasonable to talk about Syria at a time when Bir had been arrested and further appreciated Birand's efforts to take the pulse of current events.
After a short while, I found myself in the 32. Gün studio, which has been a part of our life for a long time. We would discuss the Feb. 28 process instead of Syria. Birand communicated with his staff in excitement. During the program, he also politely apologized for the sudden change in content of the program. The video of this most stressful TV show of my life can be viewed on Birand's personal website http://www.mehmetalibirand.com.tr/videogoster.asp?id=173.
I have not worked directly with Birand, whose death had shocked the entire country, but we had a bond between us. Because of our common interest in foreign policy, we had similar experiences in many international meetings and gatherings, feeling the same professional joy and excitement. We sat around the same desks at meetings where high-level state officials including the president, prime minister and foreign minister shared confidential information. We had also traveled together during trips of political leaders. We also sat next to each other in events held with the participation of foreign envoys and leaders.
When we ran into each other in a meeting a while ago, he made a joke, saying: “Wherever I go, I see you. Who is running this agency?” I told him that I was taking him as an example and that despite being over 70, he did not miss any meetings and produced documentary films and wrote columns at the same. He smiled at me upon this response.
Despite the fact that he had extensive professional experience, he always treated me as a friend. He appreciated others' success and listened to others carefully. When it came to news reporting, he had the excitement of a young journalist. Most of the senior envoys and ambassadors were his friends from the initial years of his profession. During the meetings attended by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the conversation would become pretty colorful if Birand was there; the leaders were eager to win his heart. In international meetings, he was the most renowned name and face of Turkey by the foreign media and foreign statesmen.
No doubt that Birand was one of the deans of our profession. It is also true that he was a legend because he was industrious, loved his job, trained talented journalists and held interviews with global leaders during the Cold War era, including Yasser Arafat and Mikhail Gorbachev. But the secret love that everyone, including seculars, religious people, Kurds, Turks and Armenians, had for him should be attributed to his sincerity and democratic stance. This was the emphasis of the condolence message by Fethullah Gülen for whom Birand showed respect, even during times when he was subjected to merciless and grave criticisms and accusations, “A journalist who never wavered in his democratic stance despite hardening conditions and pressures and who polished this stance by showing respect for the beliefs of the people.”
This is a great lesson for those who would like to be remembered well after their deaths. I offer my condolences to Turkey and to his family. May God bless him.