November 4, 2015

’Don’t bargain over media freedom’

Yavuz Baydar

I was a keynote speaker at the SpeakUp! forum at the EU headquarters. Below follows what I, in excerpts, told the audience about the state of journalism in Turkey.

After two years, here we are again, as the song goes, running over the same old ground that is more rugged.

Only days ago, 71 editors, reporters and columnists joined the jobless after an unlawful seizure of a media group. One after another they became persona non grata.

This deliberate sectoral purge is ongoing as of today. Sackings have become a widely applied punitive measure in Turkey and the regions around it. Much has happened in Turkey since the last time. Journalists in the country, numbering around 14,000, are working in a minefield.

The diversity and influence of the media has narrowed dramatically. Systematically applied pressures over already intimidated media proprietors has resulted in a model of the newsroom as an open-air prison in a large majority of so-called mainstream media outlets.

The Hürriyet daily was attacked last September, two nights in a row by a mob, shouting Justice and Development Party (AKP) slogans. The weekly Nokta was raided in September for a front page mocking President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan taking a selfie.

Only days before the election, we woke up on the morning of Oct. 28 to prime-time drama. An Ankara court had handed a trustee panel control of Koza İpek Holding, home to a handful of news outlets critical of the government.

As my colleague David Lepeska described it for Al Jazeera:

“In a surreal, slow-motion chronicle of a muzzling foretold, viewers watched a news channel broadcast its own silencing, live. … Hours later - during which reporters were able to interview a leading opposition politician about the media attack, as it continued - police cut the joint broadcast of Kanalturk and Bugun TV. Journalists were bloodied, and several arrested, in clashes with police outside the building.”

On a legal level, “insulting the president,” based on Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), giving up to four years of imprisonment and even more if the “crime” is committed through the media, has become a routine case for blocking all criticism, even the most gentle ones. The number of people who have faced a “criminal complaint” filed against them in the past 12 months is 236, out of which 105 have been indicted and eight of them have so far been sentenced to imprisonment.

All throughout the growing threats, TV as a medium has been the prime target. The harassment of the media groups that have TV channels explain the pattern and priorities of the power. State broadcaster the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) has been pushed beyond its bylaws, and has turned into a sheer mouthpiece for Erdoğan and the AKP.

An opposition deputy, a member of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), informed us through tweets that in the month preceding the elections, TRT had invited 37 AKP nominees to its programs. Those from the opposition was null.

The result endorses all the opposition claims of an unfair election.

According to Bianet, there are 24 journalists in prison, out of whom 13 are Kurdish. Nineteen are sentenced to prison while others such as Hidayet Karaca from Samanyolu and Mehmet Baransu from Taraf, have been held in detention since December and February, respectively, without any indictment in sight. Arrests have increased six-fold.

Two editors of the Nokta weekly were detained yesterday over a cover that says |Turkey on brink of civil war”; the charges were inciting an armed uprising. This is a new phase in criminalizing journalism, with the stakes raised to new highs.

This leaves me with the ''what to do now'' part. My hope is that the incredible cabin pressure will unite us all at home to defend our professional values. I call all my foreign colleagues to engage in intense solidarity with us. Do whatever you can.

I am utterly concerned that the EU is now sending all the wrong signals to Ankara, a willingness to trade, to bargain in the worst sort of realpolitik sense to “stem the refugee flow” with a swap of our freedom and rights.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent visit demonstrated this clearly.

All I will say to our friends in the EU is this:

Don't horsetrade with oppressors on our common values or core principles. If you lose Turks, Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslims, liberals, seculars and all the others, the EU will lose much of itself and much what made the EU a magnet for human rights.

Don't be a part of the destruction of our profession!

Published Today's Zaman, 4 November 2015, Wednesday