A Reporting Coup and Its Critics

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 16, 2008

A hard-to-get Page 1 story and photos from the mountains of northern Iraq, near the Turkish border, gave Post readers a rare and valuable inside look at the guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). The March 8 package also brought strong criticism from the Turkish Embassy and angry e-mail from Turks and Turkish Americans, some of it driven by a Turkish newspaper.

Burak Akcapar, deputy chief of mission at the Turkish Embassy, said the story "was sympathetic and glorified an infamous and deadly terrorist organization. The PKK was portrayed as humane fighters in an epic struggle despite the fact they have been engaging in brutal terrorism. They are indiscriminate in who they kill, including anyone trying to bring services to the region -- teachers, engineers, doctors. They are criminals, heavily involved in drug trafficking, arms, extortion and money laundering." Akcapar and others criticized a picture of a guerrilla feeding an orphaned bear cub with a baby bottle. "I don't understand why a terrorist is carrying a baby milk bottle."

Some experts who study Turkey and the Kurds found the story interesting and useful; others thought it romanticized the PKK. One reader, Coralie Farlee of the District, called it "a wonderful sociological analysis."

Aliza Marcus, who wrote "Blood and Belief," a recent book about the Kurds and the PKK, said the Post story was "exactly the kind of story any journalist would like to have had." The portrayal of the guerrillas sounded spot on to Marcus, who has spent time with the PKK. "You get propaganda statements. That is the way they talk." She said the story would have been helped by reporting that the PKK has a "mixed reputation" among Kurds.

Mark Parris, U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 1997 to 2000 and now at the Brookings Institution, said the story "surprised me, to tell you the truth. It was totally without context. It was awfully like the sort of stuff written about Fidel Castro in the hills" of Cuba during the revolution. "It tended to romanticize people who have done some pretty awful things."

When Turkish expert Henri Barkey, chairman of the International Relations Department at Lehigh University, first saw the story, he thought, "Wow. Good for you guys for doing it. The reporter was describing what he sees. I took it as such." Barkey, who has lived in Turkey and visits every year, also said that the story didn't explain the origins of the PKK or its place among the Kurds. "There was no context. But not every piece is going to go through a litany of charges. For someone like me who is well versed, we don't get to see much about how these guys operate, how they bury their dead, why they're so difficult to defeat. . . . Purely for information that I hadn't seen for a long, long time, it was a very useful piece."

Omer Taspinar, a Turk who teaches national security studies at the National War College, said, "I don't think the piece is biased. It obviously has some sympathy for the guerrillas but also gives background enough to balance." Taspinar wrote his doctoral dissertation on Turkey and the Kurds at Johns Hopkins University and is a visiting fellow at Brookings.

Svante Cornell is the research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. He thought that the story needed disclaimers about the PKK. "What does not come through is the PKK has a very nasty past of killing schoolteachers and tourists . . . and anyone who tries to leave the PKK."

Cornell, who went to school in Turkey, has done a study of the PKK's financing and said that there is no doubt that it is heavily involved in drug trafficking; it plays a "key role in heroin traffic into Europe."

Reporter Joshua Partlow and photographer Andrea Bruce, stationed in the Baghdad bureau, undertook a brave, arduous and dangerous assignment to report on the PKK, going into the mountains with a guide and interpreters to spend five days with the guerrillas. Partlow's recent reporting has mostly drawn on Turkish sources, especially on Turkey's eight-day incursion into Iraq to strike the PKK. Turkey has been criticized for its treatment of the Kurds and for the damage caused by the recent incursion, which started after PKK attacks on Turkish soldiers and civilians.

Partlow's story and Bruce's pictures gave readers a glimpse into how PKK fighters look, talk and live. The story also said that the PKK is considered a terrorist organization; that "their tactics can be ruthless"; that PKK guerrillas "slip over the border to blow up Turkish soldiers"; and that the fighting has cost the lives of 35,000 people, mostly Kurds. As to the bear cub photo, Bruce and Partlow said they just happened on the scene and did not ask where the baby bottle came from.

But the story needed still more history and context. Many readers don't know who the Kurds are, how the PKK started or how it fits into the aspirations of 25 million Kurds spread across several countries. They may be unaware that the PKK kills civilians and earns money by drug trafficking.

Foreign Editor Scott Wilson disagreed: "I believe the story had the appropriate degree of historical perspective for what it was designed to do, as well as fresh context derived from our rare visit and firsthand look at this group. It's also important to remember that this piece was just one chapter in a running story about the PKK, Turkey and Iraqi Kurds that we had been covering extensively in the prior weeks and will be in the months ahead."

The story was shortened considerably; top editors wanted to hold the package to one inside page. A few more background paragraphs wouldn't have made a difference to the Turkish government, but Post readers would have had a fuller picture of the PKK.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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