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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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The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its key congress on Sunday (Sept. 30), the slogan of which was “Büyük Millet, Büyük Güç, Hedef 2023” (Great Nation, Great Strength, Target 2023). Throughout his emotional two-and-a-half hour speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in full neo-Ottoman mode. He told the 10,000 delegates packed into the Ankara arena that the government was following the same path as Sultan Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) and Selim I (“The Grim,” who expanded Ottoman territories to the east during the 16th century). He even went so far as to declare – tongue only half in cheek – that the AKP’s new target was 2071, linking the party back to the first Turkish Anatolian state-builders of the 11th century, 2071 being the 1,000th anniversary of Seljuk Turkish leader Alp Arslan’s entry into Anatolia.

It was a speech high in stirring rhetoric. The day after, government supporting newspapers fawned over the “renewal” and “refreshing” emphasis of a new “ustalık” (mastership) era. Daily Sabah focused on what it called the embracing, inclusive nature of Erdoğan’s speech and his words on the Kurdish issue: “Let’s draw a new roadmap together.” Zaman’s front page headline enthusiastically quoted a line from Erdoğan’s speech: “Come, let’s open a new page, let’s say ‘no to terror.’”

The contentious presence of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional leader Massoud Barzani at the congress was rather less trumpeted by Sabah and Zaman. He even gave a speech to the delegates, but the announcer in the arena refrained from using the word “Kurdistan” when introducing him. Indeed, rather than Barzani, it was Erdoğan’s words on the Kurds that received most attention in the pro-government press. This reminded me of one of Nuray Mert’s recent columns in the Hürriyet Daily News:

“The idea of the Ottoman Empire has induced a nostalgic longing for the days when Turkish sultans ruled diverse people in vast lands. For Ottomanists, the idea of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic haven for diverse cultures and populations is rather misleading, since the basic idea has always been to recall the times when diverse populations lived under ‘Turkish rule.’”

The conspicuously Islamic nature of the congress was also much discussed in the Turkish press – both by those approving and those dissenting. Beside its headline declaring “Great Strength Manifesto,” Islamist daily Yeni Şafak featured an admiring front page box quoting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, controversially (or perhaps not) invited to speak at the event: “‘You are not just the leader of Turkey, but also the leader of the Islamic world,’ Meshaal said, receiving extended applause from the crowd.” Indeed, when announced to the audience Mashaal received some of the loudest cheers of the day, (the EU dignitary who was introduced after him didn’t stand a chance!)

Liberal daily Taraf agreed that the congress constituted a Turkish-Islamic “minifesto,” but struck a rather more sceptical tone: “There was a strong Turkish and Muslim emphasis, a mouse with its face turned to the East was born,” (in Turkish, “a mouse was born” means that something underwhelming took place). The paper also noted plaintively that Erdoğan had failed to mention the European Union even once during his speech.

Meanwhile, seven national newspapers were refused accreditation to attend: Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel, Birgün, Aydınlık, Yeniçağ, and Özgür Gündem. These publications have diverse sympathies: from left to right wing, from Turkish to Kurdish nationalism. The only thing shared by all is antipathy towards the government.

In response, Monday’s Cumhuriyet included a front page editorial titled “From Cumhuriyet to Public Opinion,” which said some unsurprisingly harsh things:

“Established six months after the founding of the Turkish Republic, our newspaper has been published for 88 years. During periods in the past when democracy has been suspended by the ruling powers our newspaper has been closed down, but outside of this we have always published under the principles of freedom of the press, in the name of people’s right to know. In 21st century Turkey, our newspaper is now exposed to censorship by the ruling powers.

“We will not stay quiet in the face of the anti-democratic implementations applied against us that violate both the constitution and the law.”

The piece went on to detail two constitutional and legal articles that it alleges the congress ban violated: Article no. 69 of the Turkish constitution, which states that internal political party activities, arrangements, and workings must not run counter to the principles of democracy; and Article no. 93 of the Law on Political Parties, which states that decisions taken and actions performed by party central administrations and affiliated groups must not run counter to the principles of democracy.

The International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee issued a statement about the issue on the day of the AKP Congress, on behalf of the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella group representing local and national media organisations in Turkey:

“The news that reporters and journalists from some press organs are not allowed to enter the AK Party’s Congress is very worrying.

“Monitoring this historical event of the ruling government party on the spot and transferring it to its readers and viewers are primary duties of news media.

“We have previously protested the accreditation limitations at other institutions. But now, it is very disappointing that the same accreditation is being applied by a political party whose existence depends on democracy.”

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