October 18, 2014

True journalism fights for survival under gov't carrot-stick policy

Veteran Turkish journalists who have lost their jobs for basically trying to perform their profession have said they did not experience as much government pressure and intervention during the turbulent coup times of the past as they have under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government today.

As it stood, Turkey is not a country with a brilliant record on freedom of the press but developments in the country, particularly starting with the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and continuing with a graft probe on Dec. 17 in which senior government members were implicated, have culminated in heavy government scrutiny over the media.

Prominent journalists such as Nazlı Ilıcak, Yavuz Baydar, Mehmet Altan and many others were sacked either because they criticized the government, they called on the government to shed light on the graft allegations, they published content which the government did not like or because they did not criticize the faith-based Hizmet movement against which the government has launched a battle since last year.

The government accuses Hizmet of masterminding the graft investigation and claims that Hizmet's followers have established a “parallel structure” or “parallel state” within the state, an allegation Hizmet strongly denies. The AK Party government, which has launched a crackdown on Hizmet-affiliated institutions and organizations, also called for a boycott of the group's media outlets. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was the prime minister until his election to the top state post in August, has repeatedly called on people not to buy the group's papers.

Other journalists like pro-government Sabah daily's Yasemin Taşkın lost their jobs for other reasons. Taşkın was sacked because her husband, an Italian, conducted an interview with Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who inspired the Hizmet movement, for an Italian daily.

Recordings of phone conversations between Erdoğan and some media figures which were posted online following the graft investigation clearly show how Erdoğan resorts to either carrots or sticks to make journalists toe the line. Critical journalists were sacked from their jobs or faced criminal cases and media bosses were intimidated by tax fines upon Erdoğan's direct orders while others who praised the government's every act were being commended and reportedly received huge salaries.

Concerns over the deterioration of freedom of the press in Turkey have been raised by various international organizations such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), US-based watchdog Freedom House and the EU. Freedom House downgraded Turkey from “Partly Free” to “Not Free” in its “Freedom of the Press 2014” report in May.

In its annual progress report released early this month, the EU also highlighted its worries about freedom of the press in Turkey, noting that pressure on the press in Turkey leads to widespread self-censorship, reflecting a restrictive approach to freedom of expression. The government has so far opted to shrug off the reports of these organizations, with former Foreign Minister and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu even saying that if journalists can safely return to their homes, this is because of freedom of the press in Turkey.

President of Turkish Journalists Syndicate Uğur Güç: It has never been revealed this clearly before

We are living in an era when people in the opposition are actually losing their jobs. We've experienced this in the past, but once Gezi occurred, the whole situation became even worse. We have all sorts of examples before us; people who have been fired for the tweets they made, people forced out of jobs because of opposition expressed over Twitter.

The goal driving all this is ultimately to get journalists under control, allowing the government to control the media. It's never been this clear and out in the open before. In the wake of the 1990s, journalists would be given encouragement, and some media bosses would even change their publication policies accordingly. But the media world, even then, never experienced pressure so extreme as it does today. The point at which we have arrived is one where either the prime minister passes on the message of what he wants, or actually makes the phone call himself and has someone fired. Not only this, but once a journalist has been fired, there's a record on that person, and he or she can no longer find work anywhere else either.

Mehmet Altan: Even including the Sept. 12 regime, there's never been this much pressure

This whole period began with AK Party İstanbul bureau head Aziz Babuşcu saying, “We've parted paths with the liberals.” There has never been this much pressure on the media, not even during the Sept. 12 regime. Some 51 percent of Turkish people are not regularly connected to the internet. They learn of events and the news only from the television and sometimes the newspapers. And so, when the media is turned into a one-sided affair, what you are really controlling is the democratic right to obtain information. And so, when you have such a large faction of people without access to the internet, you can create the conditions you wish. You can bring about the substructure for a sort of fascism by destroying freedom of thought and expression. And when you prevent people from being properly informed, what you are really doing is damaging the essence of democracy.

During the Feb. 28 process, the pious and the conservatives of this country suffered much from this same sort of pressure we see today. But now a different group of people have taken over the helm, and an even worse tableau is being displayed for us to see. And of course, there is the whole situation with the pooled media. Gathering money in a fund to buy media -- newspapers in particular -- is a constitutional crime. Even during the times of the Sept. 12 regime, there were no newspapers that were forced into bankruptcy. But now we are seeing newspapers being directly taken over by those in power. This whole process began three years ago and we see it continuing today.

Nazlı Ilıcak: I lost my job because people were afraid I would ask, ‘How will our ministers account for what they have done?'

I began to criticize the government more and more intensely after 2011. I guess we could look at the Gezi events as a real cornerstone in all of this. I was regularly getting warnings from the heads of the newspaper... But when the whole Dec. 17 bribery and corruption situation emerged, everything changed. In fact, on the very first day, I said, “Hey, Tayyip Erdoğan is not involved with these guys.” When I heard the names of the four government ministers implicated in all of this, I thought to myself, “Tayyip Erdoğan will come out now and talk about the independence of justice, saying, ‘You see? You said that the justice system was tied to us, but look at how our ministers are accounting for what they have done'.” This is how I guessed he would behave. But one day later, publicly, the prime minister said, “The parallel state set a trap for us.” Of course, right at that moment I realized that he was trying to hide something, and I wrote a column about this, criticizing it. That column never made its way into the paper, and right after that, I got a call from the newspaper's editorial board, basically saying “We can no longer work with you.” I have no idea whether a phone call from on high was made to the newspaper about my no longer working there, but the owner of the newspaper was the older brother of the prime minister's son-in-law. There was probably not even any need for a phone call; these people have telepathic means of communication!

Murat Aksoy lost his job when he criticized the AK Party on his TV program

“I said that the AK Party needed to investigate all the corruption, and they terminated my job,” says Murat Aksoy, who worked on CNN Türk's “5N1K” program, and who lost his job for openly expressed criticism of the AK Party. Here is how Aksoy describes his parting of the ways with the newspaper he worked for, the Yeni Şafak daily. “Prior to Gezi, I wrote about the negative reactions I got from conservatives about AK Party projects involving youth. I wrote about the missed opportunities right before Gezi; I wrote about how the AK Party was not successfully representing the majority of society. When Gezi happened, these criticisms hit a peak. In a post-Dec. 17 column, I wrote something like, “All these steps are being taken so that the AK Party can protect itself.” And this is the summation of what I said on a television program after the Dec. 25 operation, the second one of its kind. I said something like: “This is a state crisis. What the AK Party needs to do is follow up on this.” The next day, I wrote a column, but was told they wouldn't be using it. Then I went on a break, and when I returned, I was told I no longer had a job there.”

Husband's interview with Gülen causes Rome correspondent for Sabah newspaper to lose her job

The Rome correspondent for the Sabah newspaper, Yasemin Taşkın, wound up losing her job because of an interview with Fethullah Gülen that her husband did for an Italian newspaper. Taşkın said, “They punished my husband through me.” She goes on: “There was no problem between the newspaper and me. My husband is also a journalist. He is both a Vatican expert as well as a Turkey expert. Like any foreign correspondent would, my husband tried to get an interview with one of the important names in all the events taking place here. And in doing so, he definitely never thought any harm would come to my career or me. At least, ordinarily, no one would expect such a thing. So he went ahead and did the interview, and the day it came out, our foreign news head sent me an email, embarrassed, saying that the newspaper's editorial board had decided to bring an end to our working relationship. In the email, our foreign news head was careful to stress that he did not know the reason behind this decision, and that no one had told him anything. But whoever had called him had mentioned the interview that my husband had done with Gülen as the reason. It was said, “It would have been better if Marco had not done that interview.”

Professor Özsoy: Never has there been such disgrace in the history of the Turkish press

After the Dec. 17 corruption investigation operation, I spoke with the newspaper's general publications director. He said to me, “You are one of my most widely read writers; if there is a problem, we'll stand behind you.” But then, on Dec. 30, I was one of the first journalists to lose his job. It is, of course, not difficult to guess that the will behind this was something above and beyond the actual directors of my newspaper. There was nothing in particular that pointed to this at the time, but a person can guess. I even made some jokes at the time about whether it was the prime minister or his aide Yalçın Akdoğan who had made the call with the orders. These days, simply not criticizing the Gülen group [the Hizmet movement] is enough to get you thrown out of a job. Unfortunately, this era of shamefulness has truly begun.”

Süleyman Yaşar fired for not writing what they wanted

Economist Süleyman Yaşar, who refused to write negative things about certain people and organizations which he was ordered to by those directing the Sabah newspaper, also lost his job. Yaşar had been known as the journalist who kept former Prime Minister Erdoğan from signing off on an agreement with the IMF. In the wake of the Dec. 17 operation, the Sabah newspaper asked Yaşar to write negative stories about certain names and organizations in Turkey. As an academic writer, Yaşar made it clear to the newspaper's directorship that he would only write stories based on hard facts, underscoring that he was, first and foremost, an economist. Before the March elections this year, he was told by those in charge of Sabah: “The parallel structure wants to bring down the country's economy. This needs to be shown in numbers so that readers can see this.” Recalling the situation, Yaşar says: “I am an economist and they were simply trying to give me material. But what I do is to analyze real data. I cannot write stories that aim to undermine others.”

Yavuz Baydar: We are experiencing a situation never seen before in Turkish press history

In the Turkey of 2014, court cases and prison sentences have been replaced by the trend of firings from jobs in a sort of sly turn of events that leads to no one taking the blame, with the ball being thrown by the ruling party to media bosses, and then tossed back again to Ankara. It has spread throughout the system and whatever editorial independence is even left is slowly draining away. To put it another way, the very DNA of our media is being destroyed before our very eyes. And fear is the main reason behind the growing pattern of auto-censorship and editorial dependence we see everywhere.

Derya Sazak: They told me to throw out Can Dündar. When I refused, they said I would then have to go

It all began with the “İmralı journals.” That day, I received a phone call from the [former] prime minister's head political consultant, Yalçın Akdoğan. Speaking sharply, he said: “You are sabotaging our peace process, how is this possible? You will have to account for your actions.” His words were nothing if not full of threats. I told him that, to the contrary, the process was being normalized but he kept on insisting, “No, this is sabotage.” The next day, Milliyet owner Erdoğan Demirören was really panicked. He made me feel the full weight of the pressure on Milliyet from the government. In fact, he told me, “Do you know, I cried for the first time in my life.”

Before March 30, I had no idea that that the crying episode was directly related to a telephone call that had taken place between him and former Prime Minister Erdoğan. That phone call, which was broadcasted from a recording, was made by Demirören to the prime minister to soften him a little. How embarrassing in the name of journalism though! Just think: your newspaper signs off on such big success, with headlines that make it into all the big news sources, the Internet and on TV and radio. And in the middle of such journalistic success, the owner of your paper calls the ruling party head to apologize, saying: “Just give me half an hour. I'll find out who's responsible for all this, fire them and then get back to you on this.”

And the prime minister mentions my name directly in connection with what he asserts is “dishonorable journalism,” then asking Demirören, “How do you even employ people like this?!” In short, he says, “Fire these folks.” The story that brought everything to an end for me was the İmralı journals. It was the beginning of the end for me.

In the wake of Gezi, they told me to fire Can Dündar. I didn't agree, and so they told me I would be fired. We had already lost writer Hasan Cemal because of the İmralı story and I didn't want to pave the way for a second blow to the paper, so I agreed to leave. The bosses in charge of the paper were quite relieved to hear this, telling me, “Well, the government was forcing us to make you go anyway.” They told me this quite openly.

The prime minister makes his target clear, Hasan Cemal loses his job

After the big news story about the İmralı minutes, Milliyet newspaper journalist Hasan Cemal wrote a column celebrating the reporter who had broken this important story. Later, on March 2, Cemal addressed his words to those critical of the decision to publish the İmralı minutes. He wrote: “Turning out a newspaper is one thing, and directing a country is another thing entirely. No one should get these jobs confused. No one should try to intervene in other people's jobs.”

In a speech made that same day in Balıkesir, Prime Minister Erdoğan made sharp and direct reference to Cemal's column, making it clear how displeased he was with this kind of journalism. It was later revealed that following this speech by the prime minister, the owner of the Milliyet newspaper, Erdoğan Demirören, had called the then-editorial director of the paper, Derya Sazak, to relay this displeasure from Ankara. The next column to be penned by Hasan Cemal was never even published by Milliyet.

Can Dündar fired for writing columns that might ‘disturb' the prime minister

Can Dündar is yet another journalist to lose his job as a result of ruffled political feathers. He was first warned about “writing too sharply” by his paper's owners. Then he was forced to take a break from his work. After some series pieces on the Gezi protests and Egypt, Milliyet owner Erdoğan Demirören called him to tell him he had lost his job. Dündar notes, “I actually miss the sort of censorship from the Sept. 12 era.” He goes on to say: “It was said to me, ‘We do not wish to see stories that will displease the prime minister in this paper. Everything displeases them, and after they are displeased, they go after us'.” Speaking at the Turkish-German Literature Festival in the German city of Essen, Dündar said: “If you are known, as a writer, as being someone who writes things that upset the prime minister, it then becomes more difficult to find work in other places, because of the fear that you will do the same thing again. In the meantime, those who write obediently are given great privileges, those who don't find themselves in all sorts of trouble.”

Published on Today's Zaman, 18 October 2014, Saturday