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On Sept. 17, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) hand delivered its latest letter to Turkey’s Ministry of Justice, expressing the group’s deep concern over the “continued press freedom crisis in Turkey.”

The CPJ had previously published a long and detailed special report on media freedom in Turkey in October 2012, and this latest letter, addressed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, explains how the difficulties described in that report remain unresolved. It also discusses the increasingly oppressive environment in the aftermath of the summer’s anti-government Gezi Park protests, paying particular attention to the fact that open threats from officials have become worryingly commonplace, which “emboldens zealous prosecutors to go after critics.”

The letter doesn’t much dwell on the issue of ownership and conflict of interest – by no means the be all and end all, but certainly a crucial issue that must be addressed if improvements are to be made. Other than that, it makes for a good primer on the biggest challenges to freedom across all media in today’s Turkey: imprisoned journalists and associated legal irregularities, the inappropriate use of anti-terrorism laws, censorship and self-censorship, gag orders on sensitive issues, and the threats being issued by government figures with increasing brazenness. Below are some of the most salient points made in the CPJ’s letter:

“While the restrictive laws and prosecutions are central to the media crisis in Turkey, so too is the atmosphere fostered at the top levels of government. When top officials use the term ‘terrorists’ to describe critical journalists they send a disturbing message that could cause others to take action …

“With traditional media under pressure, the Internet, including social media, has become an important outlet for free expression in Turkey. But recent official comments, including threats to restrict the online flow of information, cause concern …

“Time and again, history has proven that, at times of unrest, a well-informed society has a better capacity to restore and heal itself. The government of Turkey ought to encourage a vibrant debate, a diversity of opinions, and independent reporting on news events crucial to the public …

“In mid-June, with tensions running high, you publicly accused the international media of biased coverage of the Gezi Park events, singling out CNN International, the BBC, and Reuters. Before a supporters’ rally, you said the foreign media ‘fabricated news,’ The New York Times reported. ‘You portrayed Turkey differently to the world,’ you reportedly said, referring to international media. ‘You are left alone with your lies.’ We find your suggestion that international coverage was part of a plot to subvert your government highly disturbing.

“In late June, Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek launched a spurious and inflammatory campaign on Twitter against local BBC reporter Selin Girit, labeling her a traitor and a spy in apparent disagreement with the BBC’s coverage of the protests.

“Gökçek created a critical hashtag ‘#ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit,’ which in English means ‘Don’t be a spy in the name of England, Selin Girit’ and urged his followers to popularize it on Twitter. Girit received ‘a large number of threatening messages’ in response to the mayor’s actions, the BBC said in a statement.

“CPJ is also alarmed by reports of numerous firings and forced resignations of critical columnists, editors, and reporters, and in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. According to our colleagues at the Turkish Union of Journalists, an independent media association that documents attacks on the press, at least 22 journalists were fired and another 37 were forced to quit their jobs over their coverage of the anti-government protests. As a result of direct or indirect government pressure, media owners have dismissed many popular journalists and the absence of their voices has been conspicuous.”

The letter can be read in full here.

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One of the saddest aspects of the Turkish government’s response to the Gezi Park protests has been its line that the demonstrations are all a part of a “foreign plot” to bring down Turkey. As with everything else, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fired the starting pistol, singling out the phantom international “interest rate lobby” as being behind the unrest. Since then, leading government figures have been falling over themselves to slander the protests as part of a “foreign conspiracy” by forces “jealous of Turkey’s economic success.” Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan said “foreign circles” were trying to “undermine the country’s progress” through the protests: “This is totally an attempt to create a foreign hegemony on Turkey, but we are no fools.” EU Minister Egemen Bağış stated: “It is interesting to have such incidents in Turkey when … economic and development figures are at their best levels. The interest rate lobby and several financial institutions are disturbed by the growth and development of Turkey.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said a deliberate propaganda operation was being conducted by the international media to tarnish Turkey’s image. Delusional? Yes. Seductive for a sizable portion of the Turkish electorate? Undoubtedly.

Overturning every stone only to find a nefarious foreign plot hidden underneath is one of Turkey’s less attractive national pastimes. Considering the past 200 years of the country’s history, it’s understandable, if not excusable.  The current government was supposed to have broken with this paradigm. It had opened the country out to its region – both Europe and the Middle East – and was open-minded about doing business abroad and attracting investment for domestic infrastructure projects. The old embattled Turkish borders seemed to be opening to the world. However, the government’s reaction to the Gezi protests has laid bare all its latent insecurity and resentment, which has been most clear in the verbal attacks on the international coverage of the events. While mainstream domestic media has been brought (almost) completely under the thumb of the authorities, one gets the impression that the AKP’s open anger at the international media is now a kind of reflex action, indicating its frustrated inability to control what is being reported. The BBC must have been exaggerating the scale of the protests, as it wasn’t showing a penguin documentary.

Pro-government news outlets have been keen to assist in framing this paranoid narrative. While it was certainly no secret before, the Gezi protests have exposed the full extent of AKP control over the state news agency, Anadolu Ajansı, which has carried some utterly ridiculous The Onion-like headlines about foreign plots and jealous foreign powers. Pro-government newspapers have also loyally joined in, here’s daily Sabah applauding the aforementioned Anatolia for “sending a missile” to Reuters and CNN, by tweeting that 3G services had been cut in London, preventing them from broadcasting coverage of the police operation on the anti-G8 protests. Which to believe: Reuters or Anadolu Ajansı?

I also feel that this embattled sense is probably compounded by the shock of having international media ask genuinely tough questions of Turkish government representatives. Not only does this surprise AKP figures conditioned to having it easy with domestic journalists, but it also reinforces the sense among many government supporters that the international media is now “out to get” it (and, by extension, bring Turkey down). CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour was criticised by many pro-government Turks, (and praised by many protesters), simply for asking (not unusually) tough questions of Erdoğan’s advisor İbrahim Kalın. In fact, she did nothing out of the ordinary, but it must have been striking for anyone accustomed to toothless “interviews” such as the one conducted by Fatih Altaylı with Erdoğan on June 2.

Still, although they may make no logical sense, countering conspiracy theories with rational facts is a fool’s errand. David Aaronovitch wrote in a recent book on the subject that conspiracists tend to be on the “losing side” and conspiracy theories are mostly an expression of their insecurity; it’s therefore both strange and sad that rumours of “foreign plots” behind Turkey’s protests are being spread by a government that won 50% in the last election.

By now, the basics are well known. The mainstream Turkish media was found to be woefully inadequate when it came to reporting the enormous anti-government protests that recently erupted across the country. As Turks took to the streets to confront ruthless security forces armed with gallons of tear gas, pressurized water, tanks and batons, those still at home turned to TV news stations only to find nature documentaries and panel shows discussing liposuction.

It’s fair to say that the protests still ongoing across Turkey have not been the Turkish media’s finest hour. In fact, these events – perhaps more than any previously – have exposed for domestic and international observers just how compromised the Turkish media has become. (As many have observed, this comes with a bitter taste for Kurds, who ask why many now protesting did little when the Kurds were complaining about scant media coverage of their own troubles.) Ironically enough, the lack of TV coverage appears only to have inspired more protests. According to a Bilgi University survey among 3,000 young Gezi Park protesters, 84% cited muted media coverage as one of the main reasons for taking to the streets. This also explains the graffiti around Istanbul lambasting the “sold-out” media, the satirical memes circulating like wildfire on the internet, and the NTV broadcast van trashed and overturned in the middle of Taksim Square.

As is now well documented, where mainstream media failed, social media stepped in. It is estimated that more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests after midnight on May 31; Twitter hashtags telling the Turkish media to do its job were trending worldwide, while CNN Türk was airing a documentary about penguins. This also resulted in large demonstrations being organised outside the Habertürk and NTV offices in the following days, which, in a grim irony, NTV ended up reporting on.

Indeed, Twitter became the only place to go to for information (and disinformation) as events unfolded; exposing the enormous chasm that now exists between independent new media and the toothless media corporations in Turkey. While this was no real revelation, (the same happened after the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, when live tweeters at the scene bypassed and shamed the established media groups), the scale of the awareness that the latest events stirred is unprecedented. Reflecting the government’s frustration at being unable to do much about what gets posted online, Erdoğan described social media as a “trouble” full of “unmitigated lies” (if he was referring to the deluded Twitter ramblings of Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek he may have had a point). One day later, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç declared that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but didn’t.” Still, there were other ways for the government to make its point, as 33 protesters were detained in the western city of İzmir for tweets they had posted.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

Turkey-watchers are familiar with the country’s chronic press freedom problems. One of the root causes is related to the ownership structures of Turkish media companies, which opens them up to political pressure, an issue that Yavuz Baydar repeatedly – and convincingly – returns to. One small example of this which I didn’t see anyone else pick up on came with a report, released in April, by respected think-tank the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), titled “Policy Suggestions for Free and Independent Media in Turkey.” The report was thorough and fair, particularly focusing on the crippling conflict of interest that comes when major media outlets are owned by large holding companies involved in other sectors. Although the report was covered by the Gülen-affiliated Zaman newspapers, no newspapers from the Doğan Media Group (owned by billionaire Aydın Doğan – perhaps Exhibit A of the above problem) – Hürriyet, its English language arm Hürriyet Daily News, or Radikal – mentioned it.

With the large media companies so obviously unfit to perform their Fourth Estate function, the focus is shifting to new online independent media. Along with the agenda-setting Twitter, the website T24 has also developed quite a reputation in providing brave, reliable, independent reporting. Veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, for example, after being controversially fired by daily Milliyet, was taken on by T24 and has since written a series of articles based on time spent with the retreating Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in southeast Turkey, including an interview with military head of the PKK, Murat Karayılan. The Demirören Holding-owned Milliyet would not touch such a daring project. Freely-available online and with little advertising, I’m not sure how T24 is actually funded (if anybody does, please do let me know), or whether it’s a viable long-term model for more serious journalism in Turkey, bypassing the established news organisations. Still, with mainstream media having so thoroughly discredited itself throughout the Gezi Park protests, the void will have to be filled by something if Turkey is to become more democratic.

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