Reporter's Notebook: Turkish officials relent in media access to refugees

When you can't see and hear from refugees, the story becomes about why you can't see and hear from refugees. It's a policy that backfired badly on the Turkish government.
Syrian refugees sit in front of their tent in the Boynuyogun Turkish Red Crescent camp on June 18. About 10,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey to escape bloody unrest in their country. (Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)

The Turkish government is finally beginning to get it. Sort of. 

On Saturday, the media was granted its first access to a Syrian refugee camp. There are 600 white tents for 3,500 people who fled Syria at the camp in Boynuyogun, not far from the Syrian border.

Everyone we spoke to made a point of saying how grateful they were to the Turkish government and the Turkish Red Crescent for providing them with food, shelter and medicine. It’s too bad we had to sneak away from our orchestrated tour to hear most of that.

I’m not trying to look a gift horse in the mouth — I was surprised and happy to hear that somehow, seemingly out of the blue, the Turkish government had reversed its policy of no media or human rights groups anywhere near the refugees. Let’s face it, keeping traumatized refugees behind fences and not allowing them to tell their stories to anyone — even if they want to — is probably not the smartest PR move.

When you can’t see and hear from refugees, the story becomes about why you can’t see and hear from refugees. It’s a policy that backfired badly on the Turkish government.  

But now there has been a change of heart. Journalists were invited into the camp for a guided tour, but with a few rules. Still cameras were allowed, video cameras were not. Apparently, someone forgot to send the memo that these days, most still cameras also take video.

But the most important rule was that journalists were not allowed to talk to the refugees. Huh? No, Turkish officials would hand-pick the people we could talk to.

If you happen to know a reporter, you will probably guess how long that rule was followed. 

By my count, the ban on talking to refugees lasted about four minutes. That’s when a man sitting on a lawn chair outside his white tent approached the media.  I still don’t know what he said — he was speaking in Arabic, and an overheated government aide literally pushed his way between the refugee and the media.

I asked the aide, "Doesn’t this man have a right to speak to us if he chooses? He approached us."

The nameless government worker responded, "I refuse to answer that. We set the rules."

I almost felt sorry for the guy. He was just following very bad orders.

But trying to thwart a pack of journalists is like throwing a red cape in front of a bull. Dozens split off and started walking between the tents looking for refugees to talk to. I saw a lot of refugees being interviewed. I didn’t see a single one being disrespected or photographed without their permission.

I must say, the refugees who were chosen to speak with us were quite brilliantly selected. They were people who had all suffered directly from the government crackdowns in Syria and had something very important to say. A young woman spoke about her fear as she laid on the floor of her university hallway and government soldiers sprayed bullets at the building. A young man told us he was arrested for taking part in an anti-government protest; while in custody, he claims police hung him by his hands from the ceiling for hours on end.

Their stories will become part of the permanent record of the uprising in Syria. 

But had I not broken from the orchestrated tour of the camp, I wouldn’t have been invited into the tent of Ahmed, his wife, their three children and his disabled brother.

Ahmed pulled out his cell phone and showed me video of a protest he took part in in his hometown. He says he stopped recording before soldiers from his own government started shooting at him. After that, all he did was run. Ahmed wanted to tell his story to me, but he feared having his photo taken or being on video. He was afraid that if he was seen talking, it may bring harm to family left behind in Syria. So Ahmed set the parameters, and I followed his rules.

There is a lesson for the Turkish government in that. It was trying to set the rules for two weeks by denying access to the refugees. Then it was trying to set the rules on which refugees could tell their stories. But in the end, it was the refugees who set the rules and the rest of us who followed them. That is probably the way it should have been all along. After all, it is about them.