It is the job of newspapers to embarrass government. The reaction of politicians caught with their proverbial trousers around their ankles should be to resign or at the very least promise to behave. It should not – as was the case recently— attempt to put an outspoken media on trial for terrorism.
Yet in the run-up to Turkey’s June 7 election the nation’s press is being strong-armed to the extent that we now ask ourselves whether a substantial victory for the ruling Justice and Development (AK Party) will not mean the further elimination of the right and ability of journalists to report the news.
Take the recent front page
story on Cumhuriyet
newspaper which provided hard evidence of a cover-up of official smuggling of heaven weaponry to Syria. After a series of initial denials, the government now stutters, claiming the weapons were intended for Turkmens not Islamist radicals in Syria and that besides it is nobody’s business but their own. The public prosecutor is demanding that any news or images of the gun running be censored on grounds that the news “harms the national security of Turkey and taints the international reputation of Turkish government.” Can Dundar
’s editor-in-chief may face charges paramount to treason. The Turkish president publicly warned
Dundar would pay “a heavy price.”
Another example: When a radical group takes hostage a public prosecutor investigating the death of a young boy killed by police – in most countries that would be considered news. Yet when a handful of Turkey’s best-known journalists tweeted about the event, they found themselves in court charged with “spreading terrorist propaganda.”
The instances of a government desperate to cling onto office by bullying journalists, issuing legal threats, shouting down criticism, dominating the air waves, getting the headline writers to work in synch are far too numerous to list. Again, shortly before the poll the Islamic lending house, Bank Asya was taken into public receivership. It is hard to rule as mere coincidence that this participation bank is associated with Gülen movement, which also runs newspapers and television stations now deeply opposed to AKP rule.
Indeed, it his hard to see how Turkey can even begin to think itself democratic until it manages to secure basic rights and prerogatives for a critical media. That a free press is a basic condition for democracy is not a point we should have too labour.
So it is painful to see that the policy discussions most countries have at election time has turned into a monologue of the deaf. State-owned TRT, which has a statuary obligation to provide coverage of all parties during election times, now makes no secret of its partisanship. That the broadcasting regulator RTÜK – despite its own government bias – has found it necessary to fine TRT for its one-side coverage in the previous two elections is sad proof of this dereliction of duty.
Gone and almost forgotten are the national debates between party leaders, which used to be a feature of a Turkish poll. Perhaps the saddest dimension to this all is the lack of democratic expectations among the electorate themselves. No one even suggests that they might actually want to view leaders confront one another face to face.
Both during his prime ministry and now during his presidency, Erdoğan refuses to confront independent-minded journalists. The “journalists” invited to accompany him on his plane trips are guaranteed not to upset the “Sir” with awkward questions. They are selected from media organizations known to be completely obedient to the ruling party.
Some of the “family photos” of these journalists posing with Erdoğan are reminiscent of the images of the infamous “VIP” journalists who posed with the September 12 junta leaders back in 1980. The copy that results from these trips is little more an exercise in dictation. It is entirely fanciful to expect the newspaper these stenographers represent to show concern for the 25 journalists now in prison in Turkey and others who have court cases pending against them. Among those unjustly accused are Mehmet Baransu
, who lingers in prison on remand still uncharged. Even the editor of Hürriyet
, Sedat Ergin
could face charges for a headline that former Egyptian leader Morsi faced the gallows despite being elected with 52% of the vote if the prosecutor decides that there is a treasonous sub-text since Erdoğan was elected by a similar margin.
The loyalist press instead of defending this assault on their industry cry treason. The sad truth is that a large portion of the pro-government press cheerlead the cutting back of media rights and freedoms.
Some four-fifths of Turkish society—as in Russia—relies solely on TV as its only source of news. The president and his entourage focus on TV channels within the larger framework of their media strategy. At the root of the inordinate pressures being placed on TV channels these days is the desire to stop viewers from seeing or hearing anything about the corruption allegations against the AKP, and to prevent them from viewing anyone who might question some of the ruling party’s actions and mistakes. Critical commentators, local and foreign academics are de facto banned from these programs. Television pundits now come from an approved list.
In Turkey, interviews are less “soft ball” than sponge ball. We saw a recent example of this on a program featuring a loyalist journalist Mehmet Barlas. The President, who of course refuses to answer any questions to which society might actually want to hear a response, listened with a smile to Barlas describe him as “just so human, so warm-blooded, so tender towards your family, you are just a honey-like man when one is with you.”
Such sycophancy appears only to increase the level of intolerance to those media not entirely committed to the president’s cause. Erdoğan seems now determined to nip protest in the bud and there is every reason to believe that if he comes out of the present election stronger he will feel unrestrained in moving against those media organizations not totally under his control.
A recent attempt to prevent Gülen television from accessing the TÜRKSAT telecommunication satellite is one such example – a move that was ultimately unsuccessful (many ministers baulked at the clear anti-constitutionality of this order).
The second faction of the media that lies squarely in AKP targets is that of the Doğan Media Group, which boasts two TV channels, Kanal D and CNN Turk, which left to their own devices would provide more balanced election news. Loyalist media have howled their protest in recent weeks, with the goal of either getting the Doğan Group’s key channels to become more obedient or to be silenced altogether.
As P24, we are dismayed by these developments. Which is why we support a project called the “election bus”; the goal of this project is to boost observation of the elections, make sure some independent journalists get to cover the campaign issues and get to keep journalism alive.
We realise that this is not enough. We are pledged to continue to monitor the conduct of the Turkish press. No matter what the election brings we will support quality and journalistic independence and to wrestle with those who bring our profession into disrepute. And we will ourselves remain not just critical but self-critical. Self-criticism, after all, is first step towards a media that defends rather than undermines democracy.
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