Someone—we still do not know who—affixed a plastic bomb to my father’s car, which exploded, killing him. The day was January 24, 1993, and this assassination took a life dedicated to investigative journalism.
It also ignited an outpouring of grief as hundreds of thousands of people marched in his funeral procession. After being trained as a lawyer and spending a few years practicing law, Ugur Mumcu switched to journalism in 1974. In the 25 books he wrote and in his articles published in Cumhuriyet (“The Republic”), the newspaper he worked for, he explored and examined some of the toughest—and most dangerous—issues of his day. Regarded worldwide as an expert on international terrorism, my father, with his pen alone, took on the topics of corruption, mob rule, imperialism, reactionary ideology, and terror.
He believed that remaining silent or indifferent was “the crime of our age,” and he received many awards for his willingness to speak out in defense of democracy and human rights. He was killed, it is believed, by the powerful interests whose crimes he exposed.
Resources for Investigative ReportersMy father adhered to one basic principle: “A murderer is a murderer, no matter if from the right or left.” He pressed for the investigation of many murders regardless of the political affiliation of the victim or whether a person was murdered for his convictions or in an act of terror. He dug for evidence about terrorist groups and their connections with weapons traffickers and he examined how these relationships played out in local and international politics. And he shared with the public the results of his investigations, involving the Kurds, arms trafficking, corruption, foreign intelligence services, the mafia, and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II.
Here are words my father wrote in May 1992:
… the journalist must write articles based on news, events, concepts, documents and information, which requires the journalist to be a reliable person. The journalist has to keep secrets … know how to keep the sources of news and information confidential, and should dare to dispute with the government and powers when necessary.
Training Young Journalists
The year after my father was murdered, our family founded the Ugur Mumcu Investigative Journalism Foundation in Ankara, Turkey. The aim of the foundation is to spread the ideas and principles my father lived by and to encourage young people who are concerned about social problems and have ideals of hard work and humanity to enter the field of journalism. Its guiding principle is the promotion of freedom of expression as it carries forth my father’s understanding of the role and value of journalism.
Each year the foundation trains young people, who apply to be fellows, to become investigative journalists with a three and a half month course of study. (The largest number of fellows we’ve had at one time is nine.) In the 360 hours of intensive courses—taught by about 50 academics and active journalists—the fellows learn how to:
- Write a news story, especially one with investigative elements
- Tell the difference between what “can claim to be news” and what is not
- Do investigative reporting.
The last of the how-to lessons is the most important so it is emphasized during the training. Other core lessons involve local politics, climate change, diplomacy, law, economics, and the principles of human rights. In the most recent program we paid more attention to digital media and editorial work in TV than we have in the past. To demonstrate what has been learned, each student prepares a report—covering a news story with in-depth information and interviews. After their coursework is complete, they must pass an examination to gain access to internships at national newspapers and TV channels.
While there are a number of journalism schools in Turkey, young people usually learn on the job and not through a training program. No such training is offered in the private sector due to the long hours that employees work and media owners’ lack of interest in supporting such efforts. The gap we are hoping to fill in the future is finding ways to unite our young fellows with foreign reporters so that we can encourage and support cross-border reporting on the many investigative stories that now demand such an effort.
Funding for the foundation comes from a variety of sources, including what we earn from giving seminars on creative writing, philosophy, photography and political thought as well as workshops on documentary filmmaking. We also publish books, primarily my father’s works, but children’s books as well, and we teach courses for children. Some of our money comes from independent donations.
Our hope is that we instill in these fellows the courage to write on forbidden topics and give them skills so their research and reporting will be grounded in intellectual argument and documentation. In Turkey, maintaining editorial independence is the key to determining what will be reported as news. Looking to the United States, we see digital publications like ProPublica—which describes itself as “journalism in the public interest”—and we realize how digital media can emphasize investigative reporting and be seen as the exit strategy from the mainstream news organizations, which sometimes won’t take on those kinds of stories. At our foundation we are using digital tools to research and publish information (on our “Social Memory Platform“) about victims of assassination in Turkey, including the unsolved case of my father.
To do this kind of reporting in Turkey, digital media are essential. The country’s political atmosphere still oppresses those who advocate freedom, including freedom of the press, and Turkey has not reconciled with its military past. Those journalists, for example, who set out to investigate unsolved murder cases in which political motives are suspected of being in play often find themselves under pressure from political parties and government bureaucrats.
Reporters Nedim Sener and Kemal Göktas experienced this when they researched their books about Hrant Dink, the Armenian editor in chief of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos, who was assassinated in Istanbul in January 2007 by a Turkish nationalist. Also seen as “inconvenient” is the coverage of topics that involve corruption, such as reporting about the Deniz Feneri (“Lighthouse”) case involving the transfer of donations from the Germany-based charity to officials in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government or the Kurdish situation, as it relates to the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish Hizbullah.
Pressure on investigative reporters also comes from media owners because of close relationships the owners develop with those who serve in government. These owners often run other businesses as well and face pressures from the ruling party. The connections result in self-censorship being practiced by those who work in the media—from reporters to top-level managers.
What we achieve at the foundation honors my father’s life and work as it constructs a continuum between the principles he died upholding and the ones we, as journalists in Turkey, need to abide by even in what remain difficult times.
Özge Mumcu is coordinator and a board member of the Ugur Mumcu Investigative Journalism Foundation and a writer for the independent news portal t24.com.tr. In writing this article, she received invaluable assistance from Mehmet Ayfer Kanci, who volunteers at the foundation and is an editor at the TV channel TRT Turk. With his 16 years of journalism experience, Kanci provided essential information about recent news media practices in Turkey.