Home

By now, the basics are well known. The mainstream Turkish media was found to be woefully inadequate when it came to reporting the enormous anti-government protests that recently erupted across the country. As Turks took to the streets to confront ruthless security forces armed with gallons of tear gas, pressurized water, tanks and batons, those still at home turned to TV news stations only to find nature documentaries and panel shows discussing liposuction.

It’s fair to say that the protests still ongoing across Turkey have not been the Turkish media’s finest hour. In fact, these events – perhaps more than any previously – have exposed for domestic and international observers just how compromised the Turkish media has become. (As many have observed, this comes with a bitter taste for Kurds, who ask why many now protesting did little when the Kurds were complaining about scant media coverage of their own troubles.) Ironically enough, the lack of TV coverage appears only to have inspired more protests. According to a Bilgi University survey among 3,000 young Gezi Park protesters, 84% cited muted media coverage as one of the main reasons for taking to the streets. This also explains the graffiti around Istanbul lambasting the “sold-out” media, the satirical memes circulating like wildfire on the internet, and the NTV broadcast van trashed and overturned in the middle of Taksim Square.

As is now well documented, where mainstream media failed, social media stepped in. It is estimated that more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests after midnight on May 31; Twitter hashtags telling the Turkish media to do its job were trending worldwide, while CNN Türk was airing a documentary about penguins. This also resulted in large demonstrations being organised outside the Habertürk and NTV offices in the following days, which, in a grim irony, NTV ended up reporting on.

Indeed, Twitter became the only place to go to for information (and disinformation) as events unfolded; exposing the enormous chasm that now exists between independent new media and the toothless media corporations in Turkey. While this was no real revelation, (the same happened after the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, when live tweeters at the scene bypassed and shamed the established media groups), the scale of the awareness that the latest events stirred is unprecedented. Reflecting the government’s frustration at being unable to do much about what gets posted online, Erdoğan described social media as a “trouble” full of “unmitigated lies” (if he was referring to the deluded Twitter ramblings of Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek he may have had a point). One day later, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç declared that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but didn’t.” Still, there were other ways for the government to make its point, as 33 protesters were detained in the western city of İzmir for tweets they had posted.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

Turkey-watchers are familiar with the country’s chronic press freedom problems. One of the root causes is related to the ownership structures of Turkish media companies, which opens them up to political pressure, an issue that Yavuz Baydar repeatedly – and convincingly – returns to. One small example of this which I didn’t see anyone else pick up on came with a report, released in April, by respected think-tank the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), titled “Policy Suggestions for Free and Independent Media in Turkey.” The report was thorough and fair, particularly focusing on the crippling conflict of interest that comes when major media outlets are owned by large holding companies involved in other sectors. Although the report was covered by the Gülen-affiliated Zaman newspapers, no newspapers from the Doğan Media Group (owned by billionaire Aydın Doğan – perhaps Exhibit A of the above problem) – Hürriyet, its English language arm Hürriyet Daily News, or Radikal – mentioned it.

With the large media companies so obviously unfit to perform their Fourth Estate function, the focus is shifting to new online independent media. Along with the agenda-setting Twitter, the website T24 has also developed quite a reputation in providing brave, reliable, independent reporting. Veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, for example, after being controversially fired by daily Milliyet, was taken on by T24 and has since written a series of articles based on time spent with the retreating Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in southeast Turkey, including an interview with military head of the PKK, Murat Karayılan. The Demirören Holding-owned Milliyet would not touch such a daring project. Freely-available online and with little advertising, I’m not sure how T24 is actually funded (if anybody does, please do let me know), or whether it’s a viable long-term model for more serious journalism in Turkey, bypassing the established news organisations. Still, with mainstream media having so thoroughly discredited itself throughout the Gezi Park protests, the void will have to be filled by something if Turkey is to become more democratic.

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.

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.

On Monday (Oct. 22), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a detailed report on the state of press freedom in Turkey, under the gloomy title: “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis – The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent.” Although it seems like reports on the subject are released every month, this one received a huge amount of attention, both domestically and internationally. It describes the numerous instances of restrictions on media freedom, citing the familiar examples of the Ergenekon case, the endless prosecutions of journalists writing on Kurdish matters, the increasingly widespread practices of intimidation and self-censorship, as well as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s rising intolerance of dissent.

Bloomberg published a sensible commentary on the same day that the CPJ report was released:

“The committee had come under fire for reporting lower estimates of the number of jailed journalists than other human rights organizations. Turkey’s government has long maintained that only a handful of the journalists were charged with offenses related to their jobs, and because the CPJ hadn’t read all the indictments, it had erred on the side of caution.

“Now it has read the indictments and determined that 61 of the reporters and editors in detention are there because of things they wrote or said in the course of their work. In letters accompanying the report, the Turkish government disputes that characterization and asserts that it is striving to balance the need to prevent ‘the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech.’

“What’s becoming all too clear during the Justice and Development Party’s third term in office is that despite its claims that the government is now liberalizing press laws and continuing the country’s march toward a European-style democracy, the opposite is happening. …

“Instead of fixing the legal system, the government has used it to repress opponents and intimidate the media. The “insult” laws, as well as the special anti-terrorism courts and laws, should be repealed. They are not worthy of a modern democracy, and they shouldn’t be a model for anyone.”

The report was widely covered in the Turkish media. The Oct. 23 edition of daily Taraf featured the report as its front page headline. It included an interview with Ragıp Zarakolu, a legendary figure in Turkish publishing, who has long written and published bravely on subjects that many others wouldn’t touch. He has spent a significant amount of time in prison over the years for things written or published, and he had some predictably doleful things to say:

“The fact that Turkey is found on these kinds of lists saddens me greatly. Turkey has to go beyond this, but in order to do this a change in mentality is necessary … In the existing system the state’s interests are always seen as more important than the citizen’s interests. For this reason, I don’t believe any changes can come in the end without a process of change in mentality. …

“I’ve been writing in the Kurdish press for 20 years. I witnessed the killing of a 72-year-old editor. Such things aren’t experienced any more. But should we be thankful simply for the fact that we’re not killed, or like Uğur Mumcu we’re not assassinated? Turkey is currently at the end of a 10 year process. But despite constant reforms and improvements being spoken of for 10 years, journalists are still in jail for political reasons, and there are still people who have been in prison for 30 years for political reasons. We have to examine this.”

While it’s imperative to identify the areas in which the current government has attacked press freedom, it’s also important to identify the deeper structural problems undermining freedom of expression in Turkey, too. (I touched on the issue a couple of months ago on this blog.) Also included in the CPJ report is an interview with journalist Yavuz Baydar, in which he discusses some of these problems:

“While the rules of the game in the media landscape remain unchanged, unreformed, what changes are the actors, new proprietors. Turkey’s media owners are – like drug addicts – dependent on the powers in Ankara because they are in all sorts of businesses, need approvals for growth and investments, etc., and therefore keep their media outlets either as weapons for extortion or, at best, at the service of governments. …

“The media owners of these outlets acting as ‘the coalition of the willing’ that openly act submissively to the government and security bureaucracy. I can only refer to a key meeting between the PM and all the media proprietors last autumn, during which media owners went as far as proposing themselves to the PM that they can build a “censor commission” among themselves, to be chaired by a cabinet minister. The PM declined the offer, but the message was taken well. In the case of Uludere, where 34 Kurdish smugglers were bombed to death due to a tragic mistake, there was a full blackout in that media for 17 hours while the news flow was instant and heavy in social media. This pattern of blocking is now the norm.”

A related piece by Baydar, called “Another Gloomy Report,” was published in Today’s Zaman on Oct. 21:

“The greatest source of censorship and increasing self-censorship today [is] the ‘unholy alliance’ between the proprietors of big media groups and the powers in Ankara – a deal that connects mutual greed in terms of money and propaganda. This [will] continue to pollute the climate of good journalism, and even if the government resolved the issue of ‘jailed journalists’ it would leave journalism under huge pressure …

“Turkey’s media, vibrant, diverse, still bold, keen on struggling for its independence, will remain easy prey for those with money and political power.”

Nevertheless, the most immediate threat to freedom of expression still comes directly from the government. Ali Özkaya, a lawyer for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted in daily Akşam on Oct. 23, and his words should be alarming to any sentient observer:

“We have to underline that cases we’ve opened against press have been quite a deterrent; the wording of columnists has noticeably changed especially since 2003. Reporters and columnists do not exceed the dose when making criticisms anymore; insulting comments or columns have been reduced to minimum.”

%d bloggers like this: