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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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I’ve written about “liberal disillusionment” in Turkey through the example of Taraf newspaper before. At that time, (as now), there was much talk about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government moving away from its reformist impulses and regressing into an increasingly authoritarian conservative nationalism. Taraf had previously been known as a supporter of the government’s anti-military crusade during its first two terms in office, but this support has evidently been waning in recent times, with increasingly strident criticism sent in the direction of the government by editor Ahmet Altan.

Apparently, not everybody at the newspaper is pleased with this new tone, and a heated discussion has recently broken out on its pages. The debate is essentially between those who believe that the AKP government can be redirected back to its previous reformist zeal, and those who think it is beyond saving. Taraf is often seen – by both its critics and its supporters – as being somehow “different” to other Turkish newspapers. However, as Altan writes ironically, there is another difference that has distinguished it of late: “In other newspapers, editors tell their writers: ‘Don’t criticise the government too harshly.’ In our newspaper, the writers tell the editor ‘Don’t criticise the government too harshly.’ I must confess that I don’t enjoy this difference.”

The three main players in the dispute are editor Altan, sub-editor Yıldıray Oğur, and columnist Alper Görmüş. In his criticism of Altan, Görmüş drew a distinction between “critical” and “opposition” journalism, suggesting that what makes Taraf ethically distinct from other newspapers critical of the government was its measured and reasoned criticism, which never veered into automatic “opposition for the sake of opposition.”

Meanwhile, in his own column, Oğur shared Görmüş’s criticisms of Altan, but emphasized a longer view. Mostly focusing on the Kurdish question, Oğur made quite an interesting argument, essentially saying that a bit of tough authoritarianism was necessary in the current situation, and that in the long term a more democratic and palatable system would hopefully emerge. A few eggs have got to be cracked to make an omelette, etc:

“The problem can only be solved by a party like the AK Party, which enjoys the support of 50 percent of society, and by a leader like Erdoğan, who has the broad support of the masses …

“It’s difficult to accept, but the Kurdish question cannot be solved by the Norwegian social democrat prime minister of our dreams. This problem can be solved by a leader who enjoys the support of 50 percent of the population, who Turks still trust even when a new funeral comes every day, and even when he mentions opening new talks with İmralı [referring to Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK].”

There is a certain amount of onanism to all of this; but, of course, there is a fair amount of onanism to the whole institution of “köşe yazarlık” (column writing) that fills up every Turkish newspaper. Unfortunately, as  Justin Vela pointed out recently on Eurasia.org, for many in Turkey: “Having an opinion that you express regularly in a media outlet is enough to make you a journalist.” As I have previously written in a piece on press freedom, although newspaper columnists do perform a certain important function, many in Turkey mistakenly believe that they alone make for an effective forth estate.

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