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Once again, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to single-handedly dictate Turkey’s agenda, this time with comments made last weekend suggesting that ayran, rather than the alcoholic rakı, should be considered Turkey’s “national drink.” It was only the latest in the long list of examples demonstrating the same unfortunate point, which has become increasingly obvious throughout the current peace negotiations. Another little-mentioned illustration of the government’s authority over the media came early last month, when Erdoğan was asked at a press conference to comment on the sentencing of Fazıl Say, a day after the famous pianist was handed a 10-month jail term for tweeting anti-Islamic Omar Khayyam couplets. He simply brushed off the question, responding: “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” With hardly a voice of protest from those reporting the event, the prime minister was thus able to completely avoid answering a question on an awkward issue, despite the fact that it had grabbed headlines in both the domestic and international media. The episode chillingly highlighted not only the complacent mentality of the ruling authorities in Turkey, but also the necessary obsequiousness of the reporters attending the press conference. As fellow Turkey-watcher Aaron Stein has tweeted, Erdoğan “is the sun around which the Turkish media rotates.”

In a column written last December, the late Mehmet Ali Birand admonished his colleagues for asking genuflectory questions to elected officials. The examples he gave were as follows:

“Esteemed Prime Minister, you have an extremely correct Middle East policy. Are you going to take new steps in the next term?

“Esteemed Prime Minister, I also believe that the presidential system will solve Turkey’s problems. I know you also want this. Do you know why the opposition opposes it?

“You want to change the structure of the U.N. It’s true that the U.N. has a very anti-democratic structure. The vetoes of the five countries should be overcome. Do European leaders support you in this democratic demand of yours?”

As Birand went on to write, “Questions of this tone do not suit journalism. You are journalists. You do not need to butter up the PM. Your duty is to ask questions impartially and without losing your manners. Please don’t forget this.” Unfortunately, with a high-profile newspaper firing seeming to come every other week in Turkey, it’s hardly surprising that Birand’s words seem to have gone on deaf ears.

 

PM Erdoğan cuts a ‘Journalists’ Day’ cake with Turkish reporters aboard his official jet in January. (Photo credit: Anadolu Ajansı)

PM Erdoğan cuts a ‘Journalists’ Day’ cake with Turkish reporters aboard his official jet in January. (Photo credit: Anadolu Ajansı)

 

The situation in Turkey is worth comparing to the one prevailing these days in the U.K. Erdoğan’s casual batting away of the Fazıl Say question immediately contrasted in my mind with a now-infamous interview with London Mayor Boris Johnson that aired on BBC television last month. The interview coincided with the broadcast of an admiring Sunday evening documentary focusing on Johnson, but interviewer Eddie Mair pulled no punches, relentlessly posing uncomfortable questions about the London mayor’s integrity and previous professional misdemeanors. The exchange ended with Mair calling Johnson a “nasty piece of work,” while the latter simply squirmed in his seat opposite and offered barely a word of protest. He seemed to implicitly agree that this is what interviewers are there to do. 

Viewed from Turkey, where reporters at news conferences feel obliged to “go soft” on whichever government figure is presented to them, the U.K.’s no-nonsense approach naturally seems healthier. But I’m not sure that either is flattered by the comparison. I really don’t want to be witness for the defense for politicians, but I’m suspicious of the pseudo-robust questioning demonstrated by some in the British media whenever an elected official is placed in front of them. There’s a hysterical, arm-waving phoniness about it, something forced and artificial; as if holding power to account is about little more than treating elected officials with barely concealed contempt, asking reductive yes/no questions, and then not waiting for an answer. I’d suggest that this is simply one unhappy symptom of the dangerous cynicism felt by an increasing number of Brits about the entire political process.

Needless to say, a robust and properly-functioning fourth estate is crucial for the health of any democracy. While the situation in the U.K. on this issue is certainly preferable to that in Turkey, it’s fair to say that neither gets the balance exactly right.

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Handing its 10-month jail sentence to Turkish pianist Fazıl Say on April 15, the Istanbul court stated that Say was guilty of “denigrating the religious beliefs held by a section of society” and had thus violated Article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). Although “blasphemy laws” still officially remain in many states, they are now almost completely dormant in most democracies. The rare prosecutions that are attempted based on them almost always fail, either because of sensible legal interpretation or the fact that a guilty verdict would clash with legally enshrined principles of freedom of expression.

Say’s prosecution was based on his retweeting of couplets attributed to medieval Persian poet Omar Khayyam last year, including lines such as: “You say its rivers will flow with wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?” He also posted a personal tweet, stating: “I don’t know whether you have noticed or not, but wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?” However misguided Article 216 may be, there can be little doubt that Say deliberately intended to “denigrate the religious beliefs held by a section of society.” Of course, deliberate insult should never be criminalized, but as it is considered legitimate grounds for prosecution in Turkey it’s worth asking why cases aren’t regularly opened against material published in certain Turkish newspapers. The fact is that there are a number of Turkish dailies with considerable reputations for directing abuse at religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

Yeni Akit has a considerable track record of targeting respected journalists for aggressive and persistent smear campaigns, including Cengiz Çandar, Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Altan, and Amberin Zaman. It has even recently been waging a bizarre campaign against the “deviant spirituality” of yoga. Although it and fellow hard-line Islamist newspaper Milli Gazete (affiliated to the minor Felicity Party) have both been fined on numerous occasions for slander and libel, they have never to my knowledge been prosecuted for “insulting a section of society.” That may seem odd after considering the following examples, dredged up on their websites by a simple search of the words “Christian,” “Jew,” “Alevi,” and “homosexual”:

– Milli Gazete’s April 18 front page headline focused on the “scandal” that the EU was “making the Turkish state pay” the costs for lighting non-Muslim places of worship “such as churches and synagogues.”

– On the same front page, it was also disbelievingly reported that New Zealand had become the latest country to legalise gay marriage. The article was headlined, “Your destruction is near,” and was accompanied on the printed page by a picture of two fossilised victims from Pompeii.

– The same paper also carried a headline story in January warning about the dangers of “Zoroastrian missionaries” spreading “terrorist propaganda” in Turkey’s southeast.

– Again Milli Gazete, this time declaring as its Jan. 8 front page: “Here’s the Jewish mind.” The story was about Jewish religious jewellery being sold by a U.S.-based company, which donated some of its profits to the Israeli army.

Milli Gazete, Jan. 1, 2013: 'Here's the Jewish mind'

Milli Gazete, Jan. 8, 2013: ‘Here’s the Jewish mind’

– On the same day that Milli Gazete was warning about “the Jewish mind,” Yeni Akit reported news of an old church in the Black Sea province of Giresun making “Christian propaganda.” Despite the fact that the church had been converted into a library in 2001, the article bemoaned that crosses and Stars of David were still to be found inside the building, “blurring young minds.”

– Yeni Akit on Feb. 3: “Support for perverts from the CHP and BDP,” regarding attempts in January by opposition deputies to reform the law stating that “dirty” and “deviant” homosexuality is legitimate justification for expulsion from the Turkish military.

– Yeni Akit:The 19 Year Lie,” in which a host of slanderous claims were made about the massacre of over 30 Alevis in the central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993.

On any given day you can open either Milli Gazete or Yeni Akit and be sure to find similar stories, written in the most unpleasant, insulting language. Should it really be surprising that Article 216 isn’t extended to these cases?

Even if the necessary sections of the Turkish penal code were reformed, they would still undoubtedly be liable to misuse through selective interpretation. However decent a country’s set of laws may be, and however enshrined they are in decent-sounding constitutions, problems generally come from the interpretation of those laws. If Article 216 was always applied as rigorously as it was against Say, then all the above examples would be investigated. In the end, the most important factor behind scandals such as the Say case is the mentality behind them, which is not something that can be transformed by a simple change in legal language.

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