Before I left Istanbul, Barçin Yinanç, the opinion editor of Turkey’s English-language Hürriyet Daily News wrote a column that deserves attention. I reproduce it here:
I was in elementary school when I decided to become a journalist; I later started to work as a reporter in 1990. I tremendously enjoyed my profession as a diplomatic reporter, as the end of the Cold War brought with it tremendous dynamism to Turkish foreign policy. By the end of 1990s, I sort of entered a midlife crisis triggered by the state of affairs in Turkish journalism.
Let me explain.
Despite a terrible cost, Turkey has made tremendous progress in the course of the past two decades. The Turkish economy boomed while rights and freedoms expanded. The wave of structural reforms undertaken by successive governments in the economic and political domain has unfortunately failed to reach the press neighborhood.
The press, which is supposed to be the fourth estate, has not played a leading role in the democratization of Turkey. It rather followed the government and civil society from behind. While the press was quick to adapt to technological novelties, the qualitative move forward witnessed in other sectors in Turkey were not matched as far as content/substance is concerned.
Successive governments, on the other hand, while they kept enacting endless legal amendments to freedom of the press and expression (even if they have not been a remedy to this day for journalists landing in jail), abstained from making any effort to regulate media ownership, which is at the core of the unhealthy relationship between the media and the power in government.
At the beginning of the 1990s, I had a 50-50 optimistic/pessimistic mood as I told myself that it «couldn’t get any worse,» but this attitude turned to despair as I realized that the hole could always get deeper.
But one period will go down in the history of Turkish journalism as exceptionally horrifying, and that’s the period surrounding the Feb. 28, 1997, process, when the military put tremendous pressure on the press to topple the Islamist government from power. I saw the editor-in-chief of the newspaper I worked for resign because he was asked to fire a prominent columnist which was critical of the military’s policies on the Kurdish issue. I can go on recalling numerous incidents. I would have thought nothing similar to that period would ever be experienced in Turkey.
Yet what we have been witnessing for the past year is unbelievably reminiscent of Feb. 28. Several columnists have been forced to quit because of their critical stance against the government’s policies. This wave of intolerance has not only taken its toll on the «secularist but no longer mainstream media,» but on the pro-government papers as well, since Yeni Şafak‘s Washington bureau chief lost his job for criticizing the government’s Kurdish policy.
But the sense of déjà vu made a reappearance recently when a number of journalists, among them prominent writer Cengiz Çandar, was subjected to a smear campaign nearly identical to the one he had experienced during Feb 28. Şemdin Sakık, the second man of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who was captured by security forces in 1988, was reported as saying that they paid journalists like Çandar to write in their favor. This conspiracy set up by the military has cost journalists their job.
A letter said to be from Sakık whose content appeared to discredit Çandar and other colleagues was published a couple of days ago. Ironically, it was published by a pro-government media outlet that has always claimed to be a victim of Feb. 28.
Now I wonder what all the pro-government/Islamist lobby groups in Brussels and Washington will say now after long having blamed everything on the Kemalist-secularist and military-political elites. As for me, it seems I won’t get out of my midlife crisis anytime in the near future.
I spoke to Barçin and I asked her to tell me in more detail about the way journalists in Turkey feel under pressure.
The pressure, she said, was most keenly felt in two ways. First, she said, through the climate created by the prime minister’s incessant attacks on journalists. «For example,» she said, «recently a columnist for the Daily Radikal, Cüneyt Özdemir, criticized Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit to Myanmar, saying it was normal for the wife of a prime minister to visit Myanmar, but why would Davutoğlu go there when there is so much trouble in our region—when there is a huge fire on our borders. The prime minister, at a dinner speech, mentioned the article indirectly, saying ‘how can a media owner keep such a columnist among his ranks?’ When these things happen, it puts pressure on the media owner, as well as the editor-in-chief of the papers, to put more scrutiny on the columnists, as well as the news stories. A few days later, Yildirim Turker wrote an article criticizing the government’s Kurdish policy. Radikal refused to publish it, so he quit in protest.» (As an aside, I note that the Indian press is full-to-bursting with this kind of criticism of the government. I doubt it would be if journalists worried about losing their jobs the next day.)
Another columnist for Radikal, Tarhan Erdem, then revealed that the paper had refused to publish his columns, too.
«So this is called self-censorship,» she said. An editor-in-chief sees the story, decides this will make the government upset, and therefore, he decides not to run it. Because most probably he had previous experiences when he got phone calls from government officials—maybe a minister, or a high-level AKP official—expressing displeasure with an article that was published before. As the editor-in-chief recalls previous phone calls about certain articles, he starts thinking, ‘I better not run this article if I don’t want to have headache.’ Because if the editor-in-chief ignores these warnings, there will probably be phone calls going to the owner—directly or indirectly—which will then jeopardize the relationship between the owner and his employee, who is the editor-in-chief.
«Why are the media bosses going along with this?» I asked.
«Because they are, after all, businessmen,» she said. «They have dealings with the government.»
«But surely they also feel some loyalty to the idea of journalism, to the idea that it might be important to have a free press?
«They try to stand up against government pressure as much as possible—but let’s not forget that most probably they didn’t go into the media business to sustain the ideals of journalism. They’re businessmen, after all, and they need to survive. Let’s not forget that tremendous tax fines were imposed upon the Doğan Group, aimed at nearly finishing them off financially.»
Hürriyet Daily News is part of the Doğan Group. These companies are part of Doğan Holdings, which are owned by Aydın Doğan, a Turkish billionaire. It has massive investments not only in the media, but in the energy, retail, tourism, industrial and financial sectors. It may be tempting to view her comments in light of this, but I’ve heard this from too many journalists in Turkey to think it is a view particular to those who work for Doğan.
«In Turkey,» she said, «if you’re doing business, and especially big business, it’s not only about the bids—every time you have to get a permit to do this or that from the authorities, who are under the government’s control, so these authorities can make your business life difficult by not giving you a specific permit or delaying it, or telling you all the time ‘you have to do this, and that, etcetera.'»
«Would a newspaper that printed news people can trust do well enough financially that it could survive independent of having other holdings?» I asked.
«My understanding is that the written press is suffering financially everywhere in the world. As far as Turkey is concerned, right now it seems that it is rather difficult for a newspaper to survive just on reporting.»
«Yes, it is,» I agreed, «which is why I’m wondering why this ground isn’t covered by digital media—there are models for making that work.» (I said this to cheer myself up as much as to encourage her, frankly. It’s not really working anywhere, as I’ve observed before.)
«Trust me, the Turkish media is also working on getting digital, but it seems that it won’t be enough to get digital to survive independently.»
«Would people pay a small subscription fee, do you think? Like they do for the Wall Street Journal?»
«I doubt it. When people criticize Turkish journalism and the business ownership, I tell them, ‘Yeah but you guys you don’t even buy newspapers. You read it online.’ What’s important is a mentality change in Turkey. And what I find ironic is this: In international forums, the AKP is presented as one of the governments that has done a lot to improve Turkey’s record on human rights and democracy. And indeed I believe they have had important accomplishments, like curbing the role of the military in the politics. That way we got rid of the military’s pressure upon the press. But this has now been replaced by the pressure of the new political elite—which is the AKP.»
«I share the belief that of course the military shouldn’t be involved in civilian politics, but are you happy about the way it was done?» I asked. «I’ve been enormously disturbed by the obvious problems with the evidence in, for example, the Balyoz case. [This is a mass trial of military officers accused of plotting a coup.] Do you think it advances democracy generally to get the military out of politics by using these methods? Or do you think that in this case, it was so important to get them out that the ends justifies the means?»
«I believe it was important to curb the power of the military, but I also have lots of doubts about the way this is being done, whether it’s democratic and within legal boundaries. I share the concern that there is a feeling of vengeance dominating all the legal cases that are going on.»
«And what about the OdaTV case [in which numerous journalists were arrested on highly dubious charges of coup-plotting]? Do you feel that the people targeted were prosecuted for a legitimate reason, or simply for writing critically of the government or Gülen?» Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish preacher and media mogul who lives in Pennsylvania.
«I believe OdaTV has done bad journalism—but they shouldn’t be tried for being part of a terror organization.»
«Do you think the tension between Gülen and Erdoğan could have some positive effect here? I notice [the Gülen media group] is covering stories they would never have covered before—at least it’s some kind of opposition.»
«Well, that’s one of the little pieces of hope that I have. At least there have been journalists working for the Gülen movement who have been critical of the government’s policies as well as its pressure on the press. This gives some small room for optimism … but it doesn’t change the outcome.»
«It’s hard to explain to a US audience why they [journalists who work for the Gülen media group] may be able to write about things that other journalists can’t. Can you help me find a way to explain this?»
«Because the Gülen movement is close to the government, which wouldn’t want to alienate the movement; so some journalists writing for papers close to the movement feel freer to write since they think there won’t be reprisals from the government.»
«Do you think it helps at all when the US Ambassador speaks out about this? Or is this a problem Turkey has to solve for itself, without outside interference?
«This is a problem that Turkey will have to solve for itself, but in a globalized world it’s only natural for outsiders to speak about it when universal values are violated.»
«What do you wish the United States and foreign journalists and NGOs were saying?»
«Nothing but an objective assessment of the situation in Turkey. If outside observers were critical of the violations, this would certainly be a factor weakening the hands of the government. But when the outside world remains silent, then they get the feeling that they’re doing the right thing. So they get the wrong message. They need to realize that human rights and democracy should not come a la carte. It’s an integrated package.»
«What, specifically, do you think the outside world should criticize? Do you think this is a problem that can be solved by legislative change, and if so, what would that change be?»
«We need to applaud when Turkey takes action according to universal standards and criticize when it doesn’t. More than legislative change, we need a change in mentality. I truly believe that Turkey has a role to play in regional as well as international problems. And I also believe Turkey can play a benevolent role. It can really contribute to regional peace and stability. But in order to do that it needs to strengthen its democracy and you can’t do it without freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The government should be told that it needs to be tolerant of every idea, view, argument that isn’t calling for violence.»
«Do you think Turkish journalists are doing their part to explain what ‘freedom of expression’ means?» I asked. «I keep seeing so-called ‘liberal’ journalists calling for other people to be in jail for expressing ideas they don’t agree with. This seems like part of the problem to me.»
«Unfortunately, some Turkish journalists have failed, themselves, to uphold the principle of freedom of speech.»
«How would you design legislation, specifically, to exclude calls for violence? Because it seems to me the government has taken legislation that’s already designed to exclude calls for violence—legislation banning «terrorist propaganda»—and just interpreted it incredibly broadly.»
«This is a question to be answered by legal experts. But right now the problem is not so much about legislation it is about mentality. You can’t regulate self-censorship with legal amendments in the constitution.»
«Well, except for the journalists who are in jail—»
«Again, the problem is less about the legislation and more about the mentality of those applying that legislation. In Turkey the reflex is like this: When there’s a law that brings freedoms as well as restrictions, the authorities need to apply the restrictions in the minimum way and the freedoms in the maximum way. But what happens is the contrary, when they find a tiny sentence restricting the freedom, they use it to the maximum. The right of these business owners to criticize is violated—just because they do business with the government doesn’t give the government the right to tell them what to think and how to express it. And the government in power can one day become the opposition. It will need the press on its side as well.»
«I think the answer to that would be that there are positive and negative rights—you don’t have a right to a job, but you do have the right to speak your mind. I’m not sure that you can say that business owners who give in to the government because they like the lucrative contracts in other sectors are having their rights violated. But how much of this problem could be solved by getting the government out of business? In other words, why is there such a need to be on the government’s side to do business?»
«I guess Turkey is still not a fully liberal economy and the government still plays an important role in regulating the economy. That’s why we need to keep anchored to the EU reforms, one of which is to have an autonomous bidding authority.»
«I think this may be something of the heart of the problem—»
«But the government wants to hold its ability to distribute the bids.»
«Do you think this could happen without EU pressure?»
«Not in the foreseeable future. But as of now, the EU can’t put on any pressure, since it’s lost its leverage.»
«Why is there so much bidding to begin with? What’s stopping people from just opening their own businesses?
«Some are—think of all Turkish small-to-medium enterprises, and all the other significant companies in Russia or other countries. But in certain sectors like energy, construction—»
«It always comes down to that, doesn’t it—»
«—which are big business, the government still plays an important role. This is actually being discussed all over the world. More government in the economy or less. Some blame the absence of government in the recent global financial crisis—»
«And obviously, if you know anything about my political views, you know that I believe in less—for reasons that are abundantly clear given this conversation.»
«I think we need a hybrid structure government to regulate, but through a totally independent authority that thinks about nothing but the good of the public–but this isn’t my area of expertise. I won’t enter a discussion on that since I don’t feel I’m qualified to make scientifically proven or supported arguments.» (Readers may note how well she has nonetheless made one.)
«But the tendency here,» I said, «has been for every authority to be centralized under the AKP—precisely the opposite.»
«That’s correct. I was told by a person very close to the AKP that if you have a superb idea and go talk to a minister about it, he’ll tell you, ‘This is a very good idea but go tell the prime minister.’ We need more local administration. For example, that could be part of the remedy to the Kurdish problem.»
«When you say you’re sending out an SOS, I want to respond. I want to help. But I want to know what the best way to do it is. What stories do you wish foreign journalists covered more here, given that we’re not under the same kinds of pressures Turkish journalists are? If you felt unafraid of losing your job or going to jail, what stories would you cover?»
«Well, just write the truth.»
«You can answer that off-the-record—I’m looking for things I should be covering.»
«Look how the bombing in Şemdinli was covered. Some papers put it big on front page, some small, some didn’t even mention it. This tells you a lot about the state of affairs.»
«Look, there’s so much that’s not covered—not even mentioned. Not discussed. What I feel frustrated about is that I don’t see my ambassador speaking out loudly enough about this. But I also know that Turks don’t like being told what to do, and that it can backfire greatly to be critical.»
«There’s a way to talk, and I believe some diplomats are very good at fine tuning. The problem isn’t about how to do it. There is always a way to address the issues.»
«Do you feel [US Ambassador] Riccardione has struck the right note?»
«I’m supposed to answer that on the record I guess.»
«On or off. If you want it off, I’m still curious and it still helps me shape my own opinions.»
«Let me tell you this: When I compare the reactions of former administrations, I believe this administration has been overly cautious in voicing its criticism. That can go on the record.»
«Off the record, why do you think they’ve been so cautious?»
«I can answer this on the record, too. I believe the United States is trying to withdraw from the Middle East and sees a good ally in Turkey. So strategic interests outweigh Turkey’s general track on human rights. But what I don’t understand is this. Turkey won’t stop cooperating with the US if the Obama Administration—rightly—
«Do you think it’s possible that the United States is thinking exactly the same way? That it can’t handle this region, and is deluding itself into thinking that Turkey can?»
«I don’t think it’s deluding itself by thinking Turkey can handle everything. But it’s thinking, ‘Turkey is one of the best allies it can rely on in the region to keep things under control as much as possible, so we’d better not open a separate front with Turkey.’ I’m sure they don’t see eye-to-eye on every subject in the region.»
«But the problem is that in the long run, it is not in the US interest to have Turkey go down a path that isn’t democratic. It is not necessarily going to be benign if it does.»
«This is exactly what I think—in contrast to people who hate the US.» By this, she means the many people in Turkey who believe the United States supported the military coups, and then actively supported the rise of the AKP and Gülen to serve its own strategic interests, rather than the development of democracy in Turkey—of whom there are a great many in Turkey.
«I always believed that the US wants a stable democracy in Turkey because that’s what suits US interests. If, as a friend, you keep patting Turkey’s shoulder saying, ‘You’re great, you’re doing wonderfully,’ while not saying the whole truth, that will lead to an over -confidence that can get dangerous. See the Mavi Marmara crisis. Actually, at this point we also need to see the weaknesses of the US in general. With the Iraq issue and Guantanamo, it would have backfired to lecture Turkey on fundamental freedoms. But I think Obama and Erdoğan, Hillary and Davutoğlu have struck up a good chemistry that allows for genuine and frank conversation about how a strong press is important if Turkey wants to be a global actor like the US—how can we lecture Arab spring countries on democracy when we have journalists in jail? In addition, as a former diplomatic reporter, I’m aware that not everything needs to be said in front of the press. You can always have genuine conversations behind the scenes. That’s why I say there is the right framework and chemistry for that.»
«Do you think Erdoğan and Davutoğlu understand the philosophical idea behind this? The idea that the press is supposed to be critical of the government, to make it accountable to citizens, to create a marketplace of ideas? That this ultimately is a source of power to the country?
«From their statements and body language I have not seen signs of such an understanding.»
«Do you think—on or off the record—that they’re capable of understanding it?»
«Unfortunately, I’ve lost hope with Erdoğan. I think he believes in one man rule, no opposition to the leader.
As for Davutoğlu, he’s been a disappointment, especially when he remained silent about the imprisonment of a fellow academician, Büşra Ersanlı. He didn’t come out openly for her.»
«So why would good chemistry and frank discussions help?»
«Because right now there’s a better degree of trust, and also a better understanding on Turkey’s part that they can’t operate solo in the region in the absence of US support.»
«So you think they would be open to influence because they have to be—not because they’re persuaded it’s the right thing to do?»
Her response, and the rest of the interview, was off the record.
Intervjuet er fra august 2012, men er fortsatt aktuelt og relevant.
An SOS From a Turkish Journalist
by Claire Berlinski
August 30, 2012 at 2:45 am