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The title will be familiar to any follower of news in Turkish. Every day, “news” stories consisting of unedited transcripts of words spoken by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are published online under that headline by the major newspapers. The recent storm over Erdoğan’s opposition to mixed-sex student accommodation was only the latest example showing that Turkey’s entire news agenda is increasingly becoming subject to the whims of his unpredictable tongue. He opens his mouth and whichever subject he has chosen then dictates the national conversation. When the media is so completely dependent on politicians, how can be expected to hold those same politicians to account?

This problem cuts across the internet, the television, and the printed press. It almost feels like an act of rebellion when a TV station chooses not to cut to a live broadcast of any public utterances from “The Master.” I only came to Turkey in 2009, so I can’t say whether this has always been the case, but I suspect that the situation has only deteriorated of late. The fact is that you can’t get much safer than a “news” story simply providing a transcript of words spoken by the prime minister. What’s more, depressingly, I’ve been told that these articles usually get the most “hits” for websites. This fixation on Erdoğan’s every word is not only extremely distorting, but also exacerbates the bizarre cult of personality that has developed around him amongst his supporters.

 

Habertürk parroting the prime minister on Nov. 9. With unintended irony, the headline quotes Erdoğan’s response to Deputy PM Bülent Arınç’s criticism of the mixed-sex student housing debate: ‘I don’t discuss these things in front of the media’.

Habertürk parroting the prime minister on Nov. 9. With unintended irony, the headline quotes Erdoğan’s response to Deputy PM Bülent Arınç’s criticism of the mixed-sex student housing debate: ‘I don’t discuss these things in front of the media.’

 

But while this obsequiousness is lamentable, those official pronouncements in fact are very important. The centralization of decision making is so chronic that Erdoğan’s words, whatever they are, really do have the power to shape the agenda of the country, decide the laws that then get passed, and at what speed. As Adana Governor Hüseyin Avni Coş said shortly after Erdoğan’s utterances on co-ed housing: “We see the prime minister’s words as orders.” Policy is increasingly being shaped on an ad-hoc basis around Erdoğan’s statements; the centralization of power around him now is such that there is a genuine justification for reporters broadcasting and publishing every single thing he says. The vicious cycle is thus reinforced.

That’s why the controversy that is periodically caused by the firing of prominent critical columnists from newspapers often misses the point. Many people’s understanding of news seems to be little deeper than a “who said what?”  bish-bash-bosh, responded to by a flood of commentary. As I wrote in my last post, few seem to value deeper investigative reporting, and none ever mention the inherent problem with “stories” consisting of nothing more than an indiscriminate transcript of a minister’s speech. Editors who are encouraging “Important statements from the prime minister” articles are contributing to this dangerous imbalance. Far from the media being a check on power, PM Erdoğan’s tongue is the driving force behind the media.

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The dust has almost settled after the fallout from daily Milliyet’s controversial publication of the “İmralı leaks.” The paper’s reporting of leaked details of the meeting between imprisoned PKK head Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation shook the media agenda two weeks ago, and was widely condemned by government officials as an attempt to “sabotage” the ongoing peace process. In fact, the episode has not had this effect, but it has managed to expose the fragile state of media freedom in Turkey once again – it’s regretful that such bold government criticism of the media has become increasingly familiar of late.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led the reactions from the front, repeatedly singling out Milliyet in the days following the leaks. “If that’s how you’re doing your journalism, shame on you! The media will say [the same thing] again: The prime minister is attacking us. But whoever tries to spoil the process in the media is against me and my government. There cannot be limitless freedom,” he said, before calling on the media only to report “in the national interest.” Of course, given Erdoğan’s past record on such matters it’s not surprising to hear him once again hitting out at media coverage that he considers inconvenient. However, the apparent emotion behind the outbursts on this occasion is probably related to the fact that his personal political destiny depends to a large extent on the success of the current peace talks.

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Milliyet’s front page on Feb. 28, announcing the leaked details of the İmralı island prison meeting between Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation from the BDP.

Rumours circulated that sackings and resignations from Milliyet would follow the leaks, but editor-in-chief Derya Sazak wrote a robust defense on the Monday following Erdoğan’s words: “If the story is accurate, which it is, we print it. We do not take the prime minister’s words upon us.” Nevertheless, the criticism evidently had an effect, as veteran writer Hasan Pulur’s column did not appear on the same day, and it was also widely reported that the paper’s owner wanted government critics Can Dündar and Hasan Cemal to be removed on the prime minister’s order. Indeed, Cemal has not appeared in Milliyet for two weeks since the İmralı leaks, although no official announcement has been made. Dündar and Cemal are perhaps surprising names for Erdoğan to target, as – despite often being critical of the ruling AKP – both have expressed their support for its current peace process.

Although many government-supporting voices in the media unsurprisingly joined Erdoğan in condemning Milliyet’s “sabotage” attempts, there were many others defending the principle of media independence. In her daily Habertürk column, The Economist’s Turkey correspondent Amberin Zaman described Milliyet’s responsibility to print the İmralı meeting details as being a journalistic duty in the public interest:

“A journalist’s job is to find the truth and then inform the public; to protect the citizen from the state … By publishing the İmralı minutes, did Milliyet give Turkey’s enemies advantageous operational information? No. Did it put the sources’ lives at risk? No. Was sharing the talks between Öcalan and the BDP something that would injure the national interest? No. In the end, Milliyet was only doing journalism.”

In an interview with daily Akşam, Alper Görmüş – the editor-in-chief of political journal Nokta when it was closed down under military pressure in 2007 – also said Milliyet was right to print the leaked minutes, stating that he too would have published them if he was in the same situation.

Meanwhile, the International Press Institute issued a statement condemning Erdoğan’s comments and warning about the troubled state of media freedom in Turkey:

“The principle criterion of journalism is honest reporting. The fact that no party has refuted Milliyet’s story on the ‘Imrali transcripts’ and that almost all of Turkey’s newspapers quoted the story the following day show that it was true … The public has been informed truthfully about a process that it has an interest in learning about. This is honest and proper journalism …

“The media has no mission to side with the political power. It should stand by the truth. A contribution to the process of a solution can only be realized by writing the truth and the facts, not by hiding them or by exercising self-censorship.

“Indeed, governing a country and practicing journalism are different things. In a country where those who govern try to teach journalists how to do their job and where journalists attempt to govern, it cannot be possible for democracy to stand on its feet.”

A thoughtful response to the events also came from Today’s Zaman’s Yavuz Baydar, who again returned to the effect of media ownership structures on press freedom in Turkey – one of the most crucial (but less discussed) aspects of the issue:

“Jail and detention have been the focus with regards to Turkey, but the real threat to the media remains (under an old, well-known dark shadow of the power) owner-induced censorship and self-censorship, including being banned from writing on specific subjects.

“Whether one denies it or not, ownership issues dominate the freedom and independence of our media today. If we in emerging democracies need to defend both of these issues, we need new ownership models.”

In the same paper, Orhan Kemal Cengiz bemoaned the more immediate issue of direct government pressure on the media with respect to Milliyet’s İmralı leaks:

“Yes, it is true; the publishing of these leaked notes has damaged the peace process … But it is a level of damage which is absolutely nothing when compared to the damage that would occur to our democracy and freedoms if our media suddenly starts censuring itself out of fear from ‘what will the government say?’ every time it encounters a newsworthy and important document it wants to print.”

Actually, the situation is rather more urgent than Cengiz suggests. The fact is that the damage that “would” come from self-censorship has already been occurring for quite some time.

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