March 15, 2015

Report highlights gov’t crackdown on independent journalism in Turkey

A 113-page report prepared by renowned journalist Yavuz Baydar has revealed the course of the tightening government grip on independent media outlets in the country and how the government has created a partisan media over the years, also offering some recommendations to the relevant bodies on how to eliminate restrictions on freedom of the press.

Baydar prepared the report, titled “The Newsroom as an Open Air Prison: The Corruption and Self-Censorship in Turkish journalism,” for Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and its former leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have been receiving growing criticism from international media watchdogs and independent media circles in Turkey for the tightening restrictions on freedom of the press in the country.

The US-based watchdog Freedom House's “Freedom of the Press 2014” report downgraded Turkey from the category of “partly free” to “not free” because of what the institution called the “worsening media freedom situation.”

In the report, Baydar gives an accounting of how press freedom in Turkey has diminished more and more at the hands of the AK Party government and how journalists have faced sanctions just for performing their jobs.

According to the report, the government's restrictions on freedom of the press gained speed with the 2011 general election, as a result of which the AK Party came to power for the third time with a greater mandate and grew further with incidents such as the killing of 34 civilians near the Turkish-Iraqi border by Turkish military jets in late 2011, known as the Uludere tragedy, the Gezi Park protests which sparked in the summer of 2013 in protest of government plans to demolish Gezi Park in İstanbul's Taksim Square and a far-reaching corruption probe which became public on Dec. 17, 2013 in which senior government figures were implicated.

“[The] demonization of independent journalism from then on was on full display, with severe consequences. The government battled reporting and commenting that it saw as disturbing with a sophisticated insertion of ‘emergency rule' into Turkish law. Journalists who defended their professional dignity, resisted on behalf of independence, and defied pressures to harm their integrity started to be arbitrarily fired and alienated. Some of them, in despair, found jobs in partisan media. Others have been seeking new channels online to continue to fight for the survival of their profession,” wrote Baydar in his report.

Although Turkey was declared the “world's worst jailer of journalists,” followed closely by Iran and China, for two years in a row, the number of imprisonments has fallen to single digits in the country -- seven according to the Committee to Protect Journalists or 19 according to Reporters without Borders at the end of 2014, said the report, adding, however, that the number of firings has skyrocketed since late 2013.

The report said the number of journalists who lost their jobs, were fired or forced to resign following 2013's Gezi Park protests approached 1,000 by the end of November.

“What is even more hair-raising is that many of those who were fired were also labeled a ‘toxic human resource' -- because of their adherence to basic values of journalism -- and not recruited elsewhere,” said the report.

Baydar's report also examines problematic legislation in the country such as the Law on Public Procurement, the Competition Law, the Law on Trade Unions and Collective Bargaining, the Law on Public Advertising and the laws regulating banking, which allows the government to use public tenders as carrots to bring into line media bosses, most of whom have businesses in various sectors, in return for their concessions with regards to press freedom.

Recordings of phone conversations among some businessmen which were posted online following the revelation of the Dec. 17 probe revealed that some pro-government businessmen in return for lucrative public tenders transferred funds for the establishment of a pro-government media, known as the “pool media,” in order to protect the government's interests. These media outlets now act as the mouthpiece of the AK Party government.

“This has created an immense concentration of media outlets that report in favor of the AKP, making the mainstream media submissive and partisan,” says the report.

Contributors to current picture

According to the report, there are many factors leading to the current gloomy picture of press freedom in Turkey. It says Parliament has a share because it has never been an oasis for freedom and rights. “In many cases, opposition parties joined the yes vote and even contributed when the AKP passed laws restricting press freedom. At the moment, there is still no opposition party that carries a pro-freedom agenda for the press.”

Media owners also have a role in the current situation of journalism in Turkey, the report says, stressing that they value money and profit above all and despite the challenges and opportunities in the past decade, Turkey has not seen any media owner rising up to courageously defend the values of the profession, the integrity of the companies they own and the honor of their employees, the journalists.

“Instead, they joined forces with the government powers, and did whatever they were told by Erdoğan, or they felt they had to do,” says the report.

The judiciary, which traditionally ruled in favor of the notion of “protecting the state from the citizen” and has not taken sides with the principle of freedom of the press when journalists are being prosecuted, also has a share in the diminishing freedom of the press in the country, according to the report.

Baydar said journalists themselves are also responsible for the growing restrictions on them because they are divided, engaged in fighting and polarized.

“Most of them are enslaved by their unshakeable perception that journalism is only a means for a political mission instead of a social one, and they have been unable to build coalitions to fight for better conditions for the profession. Also, as some recent studies show, some do not believe that journalism has any value in Turkey at all.”

Recommendations to relevant parties

In Baydar's report, recommendations are made to relevant parties about the steps they should take in order to save press freedom from being destroyed at the hands of political authority and to create an environment where journalists can perform their jobs freely.

The report makes the following recommendation to the president: “Show respect for the integrity of journalism. It is a profession bound by strong ethics and honor, and it holds a crucial social role for the flourishing of democracy. The main responsibility of journalism is to cover power structures critically. Stop bullying and intimidating media institutions and their professionals. Their conduct is, and will continue to be, based on independent, free reporting and commentary. Critique is not equal to defamation of political leadership. Embrace the entire Turkish media, without any discrimination. Display the leadership required to bring all political parties and civil society groups together for a new, democratic constitution.”

It also includes recommendations for the Turkish Parliament, one of the most urgent being the recommendation to seek and reach a consensus for a democratic constitution that guarantees free and independent media in Turkey without any conditions. Prior to the 2011 general election, all parties promised to change Turkey's current Constitution, a legacy of the 1980 military coup, but they have been unable to reach consensus on a joint text.

For the Turkish government, the report advised, among many other things, that it should press ahead with a comprehensive reform package in order to abolish around 20-30 articles in various laws that are used to ban, restrict or punish journalism.

In addition, it recommended that, through legislation, media owners must be banned from participating in public tenders. “Cross-ownership must be sharply restricted in order to establish diversity and fair competition in the media sector. Laws endorsing alternative models to current ownership structures must be developed, particularly in order to support local media,” the report stated.

The report also included recommendations for the Turkish judiciary, media proprietors, journalists, the US, the EU and international media monitoring organizations to take steps to promote press freedom in Turkey.

The report has a section highlighting complex methods the government employs to oppress and subordinate significant portions of the media. These elements include firings and stigmatization, imprisonment, legal investigations, prosecutions, publicity bans, blocking of websites, physical attacks, demonization, deportations, wiretaps, accreditation bans and barring from coverage, intimidation and threats, mobbing and other tools of authoritarian control.

Since the corruption scandal, the government's tolerance for criticism has hit a new low in Turkey and an increasing number of journalists have faced legal action, even for posting tweets critical of the government or of Erdoğan.

Last year, Turkey also saw a government-backed operation against critical media outlets such as the Zaman newspaper and Samanyolu TV, which are affiliated with the faith-based Gülen movement. The operation led to the arrest of Samanyolu TV top executive Hidayet Karaca based on a TV series aired by the station years ago. Zaman Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı was also detained in the same operation. He was later released pending trial.

The government and Erdoğan have launched a battle against the Gülen movement and affiliated individuals and organizations following the Dec. 17 corruption probe. They accuse the Gülen movement of masterminding the probe with the aim of toppling the government. The movement strongly denies these accusations.

Accounts of pressure

In Baydar's report there are accounts of key incidents of pressure from Erdoğan and the AK Party on media proprietors and managers, journalists and news outlets.

One concerns the pressure and censorship imposed on the media concerning the Uludere tragedy and how veteran journalist Ayşenur Arslan, then the host of the morning news show on the CNN Türk TV station -- a joint venture between Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and the Doğan Media Group -- was told “from above” that the incident was not to be reported on or mentioned.

Yet Arslan decided to discuss the story with a guest, a highly respected columnist, Can Dündar. As the two of them entered the studio, she had a fresh official statement from the governor of the province, published just minutes ago by the Anadolu news agency.

The communiqué mentioned at least 20 dead, and that a local crisis desk had been established to find out what really happened.

When the two journalists start discussing the issue, Arslan was told through her earpiece, “This incident is not to be mentioned, so stop it!” But her guest, Dündar, continued to mention the details he had gathered over the Internet. Arslan would later recall that she “at that very moment wanted to walk out of the studio.”

When they left the studio, a fierce row broke out with the program manager. Arslan argued that she had the governor's statement as an official confirmation, but was told in response: “What does the governor know? We will not go into the story until the top military command issues a statement.”

CNN Türk had to wait until noon, several hours later, when the General Staff in Ankara issued a communiqué. Only then was the story allowed on air.

The embargo was respected by all the other “mainstream” channels as well as the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), which is a state broadcaster.

In the days following the incident, there were strong voices of dissent in the media and it was soon apparent that employers would not tolerate critical voices in the outlets they owned.

First in line to be fired was the popular, leftist columnist Ece Temelkuran, who was told by the management of the Habertürk daily that her column would be discontinued.

“Including my emotionless ‘thank you,' the phone conversation lasted less than a minute. ‘The newspaper's owner has decided… Er… not to… renew your contract… I am sorry'," she later wrote for the Guardian.

In a related incident, another columnist, Nuray Mert, was fired from the Milliyet daily on Feb. 13, 2012.

According to reports, the reason was her critical stance regarding government policies vis-à-vis the Kurds. Soon after, the political talk show on the NTV channel she participated in was also canceled.

Another incident cited in Baydar's report shows how Erdoğan's pressure on businessman and media mogul Erdoğan Demirören over a story published in one of his dailies reduced Demirören to tears.

An audio clip which was posted online following the December 2013 graft probe becoming public allegedly included the voices of Erdoğan giving Demirören a dressing-down about the publication of the minutes of a meeting between Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and a delegation from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Öcalan's prison cell on the island of İmralı. Demirören is heard explaining despairingly to Erdoğan that he was also shocked to see it on the page and that he would do what is necessary to fix the situation. However, after failing to cool a fuming Erdoğan down, Demirören was finally heard crying.

The Milliyet daily's main headline on Feb. 28, 2013 was “İmralı minutes” and the article gave all the details of what the PKK leader discussed with the BDP representatives. Erdoğan called Demirören directly and started to reprimand him, Editor-In-Chief Derya Sazak and correspondent Namık Durukan for the story, using words like “shameful,” “immoral,” “vile” and “lowbred.”

The incident forced veteran journalist Hasan Cemal to part ways with the daily because he was also directly singled out by Erdoğan and the paper refused to publish his columns.

Prominent journalists such as Nazlı Ilıcak, Mehmet Altan, Baydar himself and many others were also sacked either because they criticized the government, called on the government to shed light on the graft allegations, published content which the government did not like, or because they did not criticize the Gülen movement.

Other journalists, like the 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 Gülen movement, for an Italian daily, as cited in Baydar's report.

Published on Today's Zaman, 14 March 2015, Saturday