July 29, 2015

The press freedom issue

Ali Yurttagül

It is a farce to discuss freedom of the press in Turkey.

Some unrestrained criticisms can place Turkey in the same category as North Korea, China and Iran. The ongoing debate that focuses on imprisoned journalists falls short of handling the matter in all respects. While the issue is discussed along this scope, the magnitude of the pressure on the press is pushed aside. Even government ministers do not deny the fact that Hidayet Karaca and Mehmet Baransu were imprisoned for their journalistic activities in the same way journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener were imprisoned in the past.

Thousands of ongoing lawsuits against newspapers and journalists can hardly be seen as a coincidence. Rather, this is the very proof of the government's policy of exerting pressure on the press. There is widespread agreement that the country is performing very poorly with regards to freedom of the press and freedom of thought. Of course, not everyone believes this is the case. Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argues Turkey is way ahead of Europe in terms of media freedom.

Karaca was arrested on charges of terrorism in connection with a movie script that aired on a TV channel five years ago. Ekrem Dumanlı was arrested because of two articles which he didn't write but appeared in his newspaper, though he was later released pending trial. Looking at the picture from a distance, we can see that the arrest of Dumanlı and Karaca as well as the confiscation of private bank Bank Asya attempted to silence the Zaman group ahead of the election. It is a pressure policy that is typical of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Such pressure policies are nothing new for Turkey. It is not the AKP that invented them, but it certainly improved on them. With the AKP, the policy of keeping the entire media under duress has acquired new dimensions. Let us read a journalist's comments on the matter:

"Today, we are living in such a strained atmosphere that some people have become blind cheerleaders who don't want to hear or see the truth. When you speak the truth, they treat you as the enemy. In the final analysis, you cannot remain alienated from society. If society has shut down its perceptions of a matter, you cannot do more than just try to open those perceptions with small touches. You cannot make radical moves. Otherwise, you are isolated. You are blamed. You are treated unfairly, even if you are right. You cannot withstand those pressures all the time. Thus, you end up with self-censorship."

These comments do not belong to a leftist or pro-opposition journalist, but are quotes from an interview with Faruk Köse, a columnist with the pro-government Akit newspaper, to Hazal Özvarış of news portal T24 (June 24, 2015). Köse doesn't hide the fact that he is afraid. "I don't think I work in a safe environment because numerous people are being tried in connection with their tweets."

The tableau reveals a shocking pressure structure. The government is waging war on all writers and columnists who voice any dissident view. It employs methods such as arresting them, urging their employers to dismiss them or launching dozens of lawsuits against them. The country's senior journalists are either jobless or work at small circulating papers or Internet portals. The Zaman media group has been made the target of a witch-hunt and unlawful charges of terrorism are being hurled at it in an effort to silence it. Pressures are inflicted not only on the opposition, but also on pro-government papers. Numerous journalists have been dismissed from Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Star and other pro-government newspapers. Attracting the wrath of a small group of people banded together around the president is enough to be dismissed. Köse dramatically voices the sentiments of the journalists in this camp.

The most striking forms of pressures are exerted on social media. The Gezi Park protests taught the government that it cannot maintain its control over perception solely by controlling the press as the resulting gap was filled via social media. By passing bills geared toward controlling the Internet, the government sought to ban and control social media with a Don Quixotic fervor. Thousands of bans were imposed on the Internet and numerous lawsuits were launched. The new pressure regime targets everyone, not only journalists. Even those journalists working for the pro-government Akit newspaper are aware of this. There is no freedom of the press in Turkey; there is fear. Let this fear go away so that we can have some relief...

Published on Today's Zaman, 29 July 2015, Wednesday