May 4, 2011

Journalists’ ‘real fear’ in Turkey

Yavuz Baydar

Nobody disputes the fact that free speech and media freedoms are worrisome issues in today’s Turkey. Yet, there is a disturbing cacophony among my local colleagues when it comes to detecting the sources of such problems, exposing the culprits and diagnosing the chronic maladies that affect the profession.

What is worse, the cacophony, which is aimed at creating confusion for foreign observers and decision makers, is deliberately spread. Cynicism and partisanship have been basic elements that pollute the conduct of journalists here. No wonder undue simplifications are common among them.

Whenever the topic of freedom is evoked, I feel compelled to interfere in order to set the record straight. As the first journalist who introduced the American concept of “news ombudsmanship” 10 years ago here, and as the only news ombudsman in the world who was fired by the proprietor (Aydın Doğan) in 2004 simply for criticizing a totally fabricated news story (i.e. for expressing an independent viewpoint) and as an “outside observer” of the media patterns that curb its freedoms, I object to distortions, biased narratives and the act of “living in lies” by many of my colleagues simply because I may have “memory overload.”

Let me take it point by point.

According to Freedom House, Turkey is “partly free.” The situation -- like that of Hungary, Mexico and South Korea -- has worsened considerably lately. Imprisonment has become a norm, and due to the Counterterrorism Law (TMK), our Kurdish and leftist colleagues have been targeted. This is shameful indeed.

Around 5,000 of our colleagues who try to cover politically sensitive trials and who publish critical stories about the judiciary itself face trial. The legislation is restrictive: There are more than four main laws that help make Turkey “partly free,” and the government remains indifferent to amending them. But my agreement with my colleagues ends here. So deep is the loyalty to ideology and fear of one’s superior among many of them that their shortsightedness becomes inevitable. The story is not only about the political pressure, but the fact that they distort.

One late example of such misrepresentation belongs to Amberin Zaman, a colleague who writes for Habertürk and The Economist. Until recently Zaman was rather sharp in her analytical skills, but no longer.

In an article for the German Marshall Fund (GMF), she outlines three categories of pressure: a) TMK (too narrow in scope), b) “Arm twisting by the prime minister” and c) Fethullah Gülen. What makes this categorization when it comes to points b and c so unfortunate is not only their shortsightedness, but the risk that it discredits the writer fully before her readers. The one on Gülen is nothing more than fiction. The fact that the authorities filed about 400 lawsuits against reporters of the Zaman daily (followed by Taraf) simply for news stories says enough about this claim. Amberin Zaman also deliberately forgets to mention the fact that Gülen recently called for tolerance and respect in the face of criticism of his person and the movement.

She also mentions the sacking of Andrew Finkel by Today’s Zaman, which was, true, an unfortunate, wrong act. It should never have happened. Yet, while mentioning the Finkel case, she ignores the recent sacking of columnist Cüneyt Ülsever and the discontinuing of the columns of Tufan Türenç by the owner of Hürriyet. Because she obviously does not want us to realize that media moguls are the threats to press freedoms here today.

So works selectiveness when analyzing problems. After all, the crucial question for us is this: Who is the journalist really afraid of today in Turkey? The law, the government, the judiciary or the police?

Journalists here have always fought boldly against the curbing of freedoms. Despite “arm twisting,” a fierce anti-government press -- Sözcü, Cumhuriyet, Yeniçağ, etc. -- is daily in action. Taraf does not mince its words, either.

The answer is simple: They are mostly afraid of being sacked by their bosses, of losing their job because of what they write and publish. This, today, is the number one cause of censorship and self-censorship in Turkey. It is our sad reality -- the heart of the matter that remains “unspoken” by my colleagues in the so-called mainstream media. It is much easier to blame the government for creating such “fear.”

Remzi Lani, executive director of Albanian Media Institute, was spot on when he, in the excellent article “Balkan Media: Lost in Translation,” described the real threats to journalism in the Balkans, which also apply fully to Turkey: “The media in the region are not faced any longer with government pressure to the extent that they were up until a few years ago. Now the media face capitalistic trends and financial pressures such as foreign capital, distribution, transparency, ownership, labor policy and corruption. Hence, a media proletariat is now a new emerging phenomenon in the Balkans. Nowadays bosses and editors pose more of a direct or immediate threat to journalists than governments do. Therefore, the hot issues in the region are now focused on the relations between media organizations and their employees, the labor market, professional unions and media ownership. This is an agenda that needs to be faced.”

Published on Today's Zaman, 03 May 2011, Tuesday