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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.

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Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent comments that Turkey could give up its EU membership bid and instead pursue membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are still reverberating in much of the Turkish media. Speaking Jan. 25 on TV station 24TV, Erdoğan said: “The EU does not want to include a Muslim country … Of course, if things go so poorly then, as a prime minister of 75 million people, you seek other paths … The Shanghai Five is better, much stronger.” Last year, Erdoğan had said something similar after a diplomatic visit to Moscow: “I said to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, ‘You tease us, saying “What is Turkey doing in the EU?” Now I’m teasing you: include us in the Shanghai Five, and we’ll forget about the EU.’”

The “Shanghai Five” was created by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1996 in an attempt to counter U.S. influence in Asia, and was later joined by Uzbekistan and renamed the SCO in 2001. It has been described as “a vehicle for human rights violations” by the International Federation for Human Rights. Erdoğan’s latest pronouncements on the group were immediately picked up by much of the Turkish commentariat as significant indications of Turkey’s shifting priorities. In Radikal, columnist Cengiz Candar wrote that the prime minister had dropped a “geopolitical bomb.” Hürriyet’s Sedat Ergin has so far spent three days worrying over the remarks, writing that Erdoğan’s words amounted to “one of the most significant foreign policy moves since he took office 10 years ago, maybe the most important.”

For me, the way these latest statements were reported merely highlighted once again the unhealthy intensity with which the Turkish media hangs on every single word uttered by the prime minister. The smallest pronouncement can be seized upon to set the agenda and send the media into a tailspin. It’s a little discussed symptom of a wider (and more discussed) problem – the increasing concentration of power in one pair of hands.

This is the pattern of how an address or press conference given by Erdoğan is typically reflected in the Turkish media: it is broadcast uninterrupted by every major television news station; the words are transcribed and posted immediately on internet news portals, with the only journalistic interjection in each paragraph being “the prime minister said”; the next day’s newspapers feature prominent news stories on the speech, perhaps as the front page headline; finally, the chorus of daily columnists set to work dissecting whatever the prime minister has decided should be the subject of the moment. As Fehmi Koru wrote in Star on Jan. 29: “Erdoğan is a master at forcing an issue, bluffing and occupying others with his own agenda … We have not yet seen one of the opposition parties able to force the country to debate a single topic. They jump into the agendas set by the head or members of the ruling party.” The prime minister is a master at manipulating how news is covered, and the producers of that news coverage are often more than happy to be manipulated.

This week’s episode of the BBC’s Start the Week, where the discussion centred around George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” brought the issue into even sharper relief for me. In the programme, Phil Collins, one time speechwriter for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, spoke about how he was always acutely aware when writing speeches of the low level of coverage that any public address by a prime minister could today expect to receive in the U.K. press. “Once upon a time your whole speech would be printed verbatim in The Times the next day, but that’s not the case anymore … You’re talking into an atmosphere in which you’re only going to get six seconds on the evening news, whether you like it or not,” he said. This seems to be the inverse of the Turkish problem: symptomatic of a corrosively cynical British public, disengaged from the political process and instinctively suspicious about the public utterances of any elected official.

Of course, there are many such cynics in Turkey, but they are little represented in the conventional large media corporations.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just released its annual report on the number of journalists imprisoned globally – a gloomy read. This year, the global tally reached its highest point since the CPJ began surveys in 1990, with a total of 232 individuals counted as being behind bars, an increase of 53 since 2011. Unsurprising to most in the country, Turkey tops the list this year – followed by Iran and China – with the CPJ counting 49 currently in Turkish prisons for their journalistic activity, (still lower than its last count of 61). A complete list featuring detailed accounts of all imprisoned journalists worldwide is available to view via the CPJ here, while a “path forward” for Turkey, drawn by CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, can be read here. The CPJ recently focused on the situation in Turkey in a detailed report released in October, which I wrote about on this blog at the time.

In Turkey, most of the newspapers hostile to the government included pieces on the report, with the reliably bellicose Sözcü referring ironically to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in its Nov. 12 front page headline: “THE MASTER BREAKS THE RECORD: Turkey is the world champion in imprisoned journalists.” Also tongue-in-cheek, daily Taraf dolefully headlined its article on the report: “Again we’re the world’s first!” However, news of the CPJ report was conspicuous by its absence in the Pollyannaish pro-government press – nowhere to be found in Zaman, Sabah, Bugün, Türkiye, Yeni Asya, Yeni Şafak, or Star. Bearing in mind the Doğan Group’s history with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, it is also perhaps worth mentioning that neither of its remaining Turkish-language titles, Hürriyet and Radikal, mentioned the report in their print versions either (although both did feature online articles).

Of course, the October CPJ report on Turkey was far more detailed than this latest one, which focused only on the global numbers of journalists in jail. Indeed, the real question of press freedom in the country is rather more complicated than simply a headline figure alone, as I have written before, both here and here. Still, however hypocritical many of the protests on the issue coming from the direction of newspapers like Sözcü are, the situation is certainly deplorable. Complicated as the issue may be, comparing the coverage (or non-coverage) of the CPJ report in the Turkish press at least gives some impression of quite how polarized the media in Turkey really is. Looking at some of the newspapers here, it’s often hard to believe they can be describing the same country.

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