Home

Commentary vs. Reporting

October 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to post about the imbalance between undervalued journalists and overvalued commentators in the Turkish media landscape for a while. The aftermath of the Gezi Park protests saw an unprecedented purging of critical columnists from various newspapers, but such bloodspilling tends to receive attention only when it is a recognisable, big name figure who has been fired. Although it’s less discussed, intense pressure is also being exerted on the few embattled investigative reporters working these days, and in the long run this pressure may prove even more damaging to the country’s fourth estate than the silencing of some columnists.

A recent controversy involving daily Radikal reporter İsmail Saymaz illustrated this pressure with particular clarity. Saymaz had written a series of pieces in the aftermath of the killing of Gezi protester Ali İsmail Korkmaz in the Central Anatolian city of Eskişehir, about which he received an extraordinary email from the provincial governor in the early hours of Oct. 2.  In the email, Governor Azim Tuna demanded that the “dishonourable” Saymaz stop his “vile and inglorious” reporting, adding that he “shouldn’t forget the underground” (after death), where they would both meet each other in the end.

Usually, pressure from the authorities doesn’t come so openly. Saymaz has done some excellent work in Radikal, but for him – like most others – there are plenty of untouchable subjects. He himself learnt that back in 2010, when he was charged with “interfering in the judicial process” over stories he had written on the notorious arrest of Erzincan’s chief prosecutor, İlhan Cihaner, an arrest that was widely seen as part of the government’s moves to combat the “deep state.” Shortly before being charged, Saymaz had published a book about the Gülen movement’s involvement in the prosecution of the Ergenekon coup plot case, and ended up facing charges that could have lead to 45 years in jail.  Such cases seem to have had the desired effect; the major news organisations’ reporting of issues such as Ergenekon, official corruption, and the Gülen movement, has become increasingly tame, if not non-existent. As Saymaz himself has said, “We, as reporters, both censor our minds and bite our tongues while we are reporting.” Without a rigorous media doing its bit to hold the authorities to account, can it be surprising when the government behaves with such impunity?

The lack of corruption exposure in the Turkish media was also recently indicated after Milliyet published an interview with Ateş Ünal Erzen, the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) mayor for the Istanbul district of Bakırköy. In the interview, Erzen indirectly admitted to systematic corruption in his municipality, which caused a tiny stir before dropping off the agenda completely. The fact that the revelation effectively came as a result of a slip of the tongue, the handwringing that followed it, and the lack of any deeper subsequent investigation, all point to the Turkish media’s ineffectiveness when it comes to investigating corruption. It’s probably also worth mentioning again here the much-cited example of Hürriyet halting its reporting on the Deniz Feneri charity embezzlement scandal, after being landed with a multi-billion dollar tax fine in 2009. Through such measures, the investigative potential of journalists at major Turkish news outlets has been steadily hollowed out.

The emphasis on commentary over proper reporting should be considered in this context. Columns are indeed cheap and easy to churn out, but the prioritising of columnists over reporters is not just an economic calculation; opinions are not only cheaper, they are also less dangerous than deep reporting, less threatening than labour-intensive original journalism. Everyone has an opinion, and almost anyone can write out their views in a few hundred words, (and looking at the standard on offer, almost anyone does). This range of columnists in the Turkish media allows pro-government voices to claim with a straight face that the continued existence of the popular and rabidly anti-AKP commentary-heavy Sözcü, for example, is proof of the healthy variety of journalism on offer. Not only does this argument ignore the countless cases of sackings and news manipulation based on direct pressure from the authorities, but it also fails to address the crippling government-imposed handicaps on serious investigative journalism.

Of course, (here’s the usual disclaimer), it’s important not to look back on an imagined halcyon age of journalism in Turkey. Things have often been much worse: Jenny White recently described a visit to the offices of Milliyet in the 1990s, when she found that the paper was surviving on a grant from the state, which was handing “black lists” to the paper’s owners about who should be fired and promoted from the editorial staff. But while it’s true that things have never been perfect, it’s alarming to see the heavy hand of the amorphous deep state simply replaced by a similarly overbearing civilian authority.

Concerns about the health of the Turkish media are well-justified, but many expressions of this concern fail to appreciate that infringements on press freedom don’t just involve restrictions on what ten-a-penny columnists can write about. Equally damaging, if not more so, are restrictions on what can be reported, and the depth to which journalists can probe sensitive issues. The cacophony of news commentary in Turkey, while indicative of a vibrant and energetic society, does not in itself make for a healthy fourth estate.

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.

milliyet_2013-02-28

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.

Peace talks are still ongoing between the Turkish state, representatives of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. It is likely that for any kind of peace to be secured they will have to go on for quite a while longer. Looking at the attitudes adopted by the Turkish media over the course of the “İmralı process” has been illuminating, particularly the reporting of the Jan. 17 funeral ceremonies in Diyarbakır of the three female Kurdish activists who were recently shot dead in Paris.

The government’s previous “Kurdish Opening” in 2009 came to an abrupt end after the controversy that followed the release of a group of PKK militants at the Habur border crossing and their welcoming back by huge crowds in Diyarbakır. Any comparable scenes carried the danger of enflaming Turkish nationalist sentiments and posed a risk to the latest dialogue process. Thus, in the lead up to the funerals most in the mainstream media were in agreement that they represented a significant test. On the morning of the ceremonies, dailies Vatan, Yeni Şafak, and Yeni Asya all featured front page headlines quoting the words of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying that the day would be a “Samimiyet sınavı,” or “Sincerity test.”

The ongoing process is extremely delicate. It’s easy to forget that although public support for the current PKK talks is significantly higher than it was in 2009, suspicion of the talks is still widespread. It was therefore interesting to observe how none of the major TV stations covered the ceremonies live in any detail on the day, despite the fact that they were attended by tens of thousands of people. As with much coverage of the Kurdish issue, (the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, for example), it is likely that this low key coverage had been “suggested” to the major media organizations by the government, acutely aware of the need to avoid scenes similar to those in Habur in 2009. Tellingly, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç had the following to say at a media event on Thursday: “The media’s support is so pleasing for us. I know and I see this support. … Eighty percent of media groups are lending their support. They are conducting positive broadcasts and contributing to the process. I hope this continues.” Still, in a column the next day titled “Peace is difficult with this media,” daily Vatan’s Rüşen Çakır had some critical things to say about this mentality:

“Television stations who didn’t show the ceremony yesterday failed the ‘sincerity test.’ In fact, they didn’t even sit the test … In the name of not making mistakes, or avoiding possible crises, or not annoying the government, they chose not to do anything at all … During the latest İmralı process, our media sees only one side as having to take steps – and all of these steps set according to what the government wishes – which itself sabotages the road to peace.”

In the event, Jan. 18’s newspapers exhaled an audible sigh of relief that the day passed without “provocation or sabotage” from either the mourners or the Turkish security forces. In contrast to the relative silence of the TV stations, the majority of the next day’s papers featured the funerals as front page headline stories, showing pictures of the crowds gathered in Diyarbakır and striking a noticeably optimistic tone. Many focused on a makeshift sign that one man was carrying at the ceremonies: “There is no winner from war; there is no loser from peace.

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

The front page of Milliyet on Jan. 18: ‘Diyarbakır said peace’

That the funerals passed peacefully was a relief not only for the government but also for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which shares grassroots with the PKK. At the moment, both the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the BDP have a common interest in continuing the talks. For the process to come to a successful conclusion – still a long way off – this shared interest will need to persist for a while yet.

On Friday Dec. 14, news of resignations from daily Taraf filtered out, with editor-in-chief Ahmet Altan, assistant editor Yasemin Çongar, and columnists Murat Belge and Neşe Tüzel resigning from their posts at the paper.

Founded in 2007, Taraf has become one of the most controversial and agenda-setting newspapers over the last five years. Originally set up by a group of like-minded liberals and leftists, the paper became renowned for its anti-military stance, publishing a series of highly-controversial stories that revealed the extent of the Turkish military’s involvement in daily political affairs. Taking on the once-mighty Turkish military saw Taraf regularly prefixed with adjectives like “plucky” and “brave,” and even lead to its accreditation from military press releases being cancelled. However, as question marks have steadily increased over the inconsistencies and judicial irregularities of anti-military crusades such as the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, differences of opinion within Taraf have become increasingly evident. Altan’s editorials became increasingly critical of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, creating friction within the paper that I previously wrote about here and here. This divergence of opinion appears to be the main reason behind the latest resignations, with the more critical, anti-AKP voices having been purged, (it is strongly rumoured that they have gone – like many in other newspapers – following government pressure).

Front page banner on Dec. 15, showing a picture of Altan and Çongar. The headline reads "We are grateful"

Taraf’s front page banner on Dec. 15, showing Altan and Çongar. The headline reads: “We are grateful”

Most have assumed that the resignations bring about the effective the end of the paper. Nevertheless, Taraf patron Başar Arslan apparently intends to continue publication, announcing to the Istanbul Stock Exchange on Monday that former managing editor Markar Esayan had “temporarily” taken over its editorial chair. Nevertheless, a number of important names from Taraf’s Ankara bureau signed an open letter addressed to Arslan, stating:

“If Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar go, it means that we go too … We are sure that Altan’s removal from the newspaper was a political decision … Our last word is this: We are waiting for Altan and Çongar to be returned to their previous positions as soon as possible.”

Following the resignations, veteran Turkish media observer Yavuz Baydar described the events at Taraf as “a new wound for journalism.” In a similar tone, Taraf columnist Emre Uslu wrote in Today’s Zaman:

“This crisis is a benchmark by which to understand the standards of Turkish democracy because Taraf was the last bastion of refuge for democrats and civilian opposition, who fought alongside the AK Party government against the military but turned against this government as it moves away from democratic standards … Taraf was criticizing the government for not bringing about and not institutionalizing democratic standards, yet ironically the paper became the victim of the system it has been criticizing for a long time.”

Milliyet columnist Kadri Gürsel wrote what was effectively an obituary for Taraf, describing it as a “zombie paper” that had now outlived its original purpose:

“With the ‘spirit of Taraf’ Ahmet Altan having left, the paper will from now on be a zombie … Taraf was established as a newspaper with a mission … Its aim was to purge the military from politics, ‘demilitarisation.’ But it has become clear that democratisation does not necessarily follow demilitarisation and civilianisation.”

Meanwhile, Dani Rodrik, (who moonlights as the leading name writing in English on the contradictions and irregularities of the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases – found on his blog here), conspicuously used the past tense to describe Taraf on Twitter:

Taraf’s journalistic standards were absolutely the pits. Calling the publication ‘liberal’ is a great insult to liberals … Taraf published countless bogus ‘exposes’ fed to it by the police. Its motto was ‘we will publish any trash as long as its anti-military’ … In the name of democracy, Taraf voluntarily cooperated with a gang and together violated the rules of media ethics.”

Still, correct as Rodrik is, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the recent resignations don’t also represent “prime evidence of how much Turkey is slipping backwards,” as written by Yigil Schleifer – both can be true. If the past tense can really now be used to discuss Taraf, perhaps it can also finally be used to talk about any remnants of liberal Turkish sympathy for the AKP. With the passing of Taraf perhaps a chapter in Turkish politics also passes, and the last (much belated) nail can finally be hammered into the coffin of the 10-year-long flirtation between liberals and the AKP.

Recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly expressed his opinion that Turkey should consider reinstating capital punishment “in certain situations.” He first brought the issue up at a meeting of his Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) deputies on Nov. 3, in reference to Abdullah Öcalan, the convicted leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and has returned to it on a number of occasions since. “Right now a lot of people in public surveys say that capital punishment should be reintroduced … It is legitimate in certain situations,” Erdoğan said. “Yes, the death penalty was removed from Europe, but has it left America, Japan and China? Then there is a justified cause for the death penalty to remain.”

Capital punishment was abolished by Turkey in 2002, just prior to the AKP’s accession to power in the general elections of that year. Although no execution had been carried out by the Turkish state since 1984, an official end to the practice on the Turkish law books was seen as one of the key steps in Turkey’s EU accession process, which was then entering its most energetic period. The decision was fairly controversial at the time, as PKK leader Öcalan was captured and sentenced to death by the Turkish authorities in 1999. With the abolition of capital punishment, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Öcalan has since been held in a remote prison on İmralı Island in the Marmara Sea. With the recent spike in clashes between the Turkish security forces and the PKK, Erdoğan’s words on capital punishment should be interpreted in terms of the government’s failure to solve the Kurdish question – populist sentiments aiming to deflect nationalist criticism that he has made too many concessions to Kurdish rights with little to show in return.

The most striking newspaper coverage of the issue I saw came from popular pro-government daily Sabah, the newspaper with the fourth highest circulation nationally. Its Nov. 13 front page carried the bold headline “Bring back capital punishment, end this business.” These were the words of Fatma Çınar, the mother of one of the 17 soldiers killed in the recent helicopter crash in the southeastern province of Siirt, speaking at her son’s funeral. The crash was not a result of direct clashes with the PKK, but it was enough for PM Erdoğan to frame it as taking place within “much intensified, multi-dimensional” military operations in the region.

The return of the issue to the national debate has predictably raised eyebrows among those parts of the media who retain forlorn hopes that Turkey’s EU accession process can still be revived from its current moribund state. Opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Rıza Türmen, who worked for 10 years at the European Court of Human Rights, wrote in Milliyet on Nov. 13: “Capital punishment is banned according to the third section of the European Union’s founding principles, and the lifting of capital punishment is a precondition for membership of the EU and the European Council … Is leaving the EU process what the prime minister actually wants?” Meanwhile, Taraf editor Ahmet Altan’s disillusionment continued on the same day: “We’ve gone from a country that celebrated with enthusiasm the opening of ‘full EU membership negotiations,’ to one with a prime minister – like a funeral undertaker – shouting ‘hang them, hang them’ at every opportunity.” A response even came from the murky corridors of the EU itself, with Peter Stano, the spokesman for Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, stating: “Our position on this is quite clear. Countries wishing to be a member of the EU cannot practice capital punishment. If capital punishment comes, the EU goes.”

Meanwhile, the hunger strikes of 700 Kurdish prisoners today entered their 64th day. Despite the increasing urgency of the situation, Erdoğan has so far ignored calls to directly engage in finding a solution. He even spent Nov. 12 in his hometown of Rize, receiving an honorary doctorate from the newly-established “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University” (it’s sometimes difficult to tell in Turkey that you’re not reading The Onion). His words on capital punishment have certainly been an effective tactic distracting some attention away from the critical situation of the strikers. However, like the Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) recent remarks about erecting a statue of Öcalan, they have hardly done much to help create an atmosphere congenial to a solution.

The European Commission published the 15th(!) annual “progress report” on Turkey’s EU accession bid on Oct. 10. It makes for depressing reading – not only because it is 87 more pages of EU bureaucracy, but because it comes at such an inauspicious time, with Turkey’s EU accession process having slid into something worse than just abeyance.

It has been widely interpreted as the harshest report on Turkey issued by the EU yet, criticising familiar enough failures: the lack of further steps towards a political solution to the Kurdish conflict, concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression and press self-censorship, judicial deficiencies, gender inequality, and worrying signs of rising discrimination against Alevis.

Once upon a time, these progress reports would dominate the Turkish media’s agenda, but no longer. Numerous dailies had no coverage at all of the report on their Oct. 11 front pages. Daily Milliyet, a newspaper that has always tended to show more interest than most in Turkey’s EU accession process, was the only major newspaper to focus on the issue for its main front page story. Under a headline titled “From the EU to its members: Don’t block Turkey,” Milliyet emphasised the words of the European commissioner in charge of enlargement, Stefan Füle, commenting after the release of the report. Füle laid most responsibility for the lack of progress squarely at the door of those EU members opposed to Turkish membership, such as France and South Cyprus. He described Turkey as a “key country” for the union and said that its future membership was ultimately “in the interest of all members.”

I was not surprised to see that newspapers known to be friendly to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) generally responded to the report with government-sanctioned indifference. Zaman included a low-key article on page 18 under the headline, “What kind of progress report is this?” listing the criticisms levelled and particularly focussing on the words of EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee member Helene Flautre, who said:

“It is deceptive to describe this report as a ‘progress report’ on Turkey’s EU accession process when there is no progress …  With Turkey in the process of discussing a new constitution, the EU could hardly have picked a worse time to abdicate its influence on reforms in the country.”

While it no doubt feels some resentment about Turkey being lectured to by the European Union, nationalist anti-AKP daily Sözcü seized the opportunity to once again slam the government, a banner on its front page declaring: “Sledgehammer from Europe to the AKP” (clearly referencing the controversial “Balyoz,” or Sledgehammer case). “The EU hasn’t swallowed Tayyip’s ‘advanced democracy’ tale,” it said.

Meanwhile, the EU report caused barely a ripple among the army of Turkish newspaper columnists, who are generally all preoccupied with the ongoing Syrian crisis. Still, Taraf’s Ahmet Altan addressed the issue and struck a faintly desperate note on Oct. 11, writing one of his characteristic editorials – somehow pulling off the miraculous trick of combining onanism with self-flagellation:

 “I don’t think it’s very complicated. In Turkey, all disagreements return to two basic questions: Do we want European standards of democracy, or not? In Turkey, do we believe we are worthy of European standards of democracy, or not?

“… This is a time when Albania can be recommended for EU membership ahead of us. If you’re not uncomfortable with our own distance from EU standards then you’re welcome to continue with demagoguery, nonsense, and humming and hawing.”

In response to the report, Turkish Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bağış described it as “disappointing,” and “unbalanced.” “The EU’s broken mirror is far away from reflecting the truth. The report is only a reflection of efforts to delay Turkey’s EU membership, since the EU is in an economic and political crisis,” he said.

Anyway, two weeks before the official unveiling of the report, Bağış had announced that he “no longer took [the progress reports] seriously.” Somewhat alarmingly, he said that he gave more importance to the government’s own self-produced assessment: “At the end of the year we will prepare our own progress report.  For us, the progress report we prepare for ourselves is the most important one.”

%d bloggers like this: