November 1, 2015

TGS’s Kuleli: Government encirclement of the media has been getting tighter

This week's guest for Monday Talk has said that the government's clampdown on the media has been intensifying and might get even worse if current trends are anything to go by.

“Since the June 7 election, the Hürriyet daily's building was attacked by pro-AKP people; CNN Türk news program host Ahmet Hakan was attacked by four people, three of whom were AKP members; there was a broadcast ban following the Ankara massacre and then we had the seizure of İpek Media Group. There has been a trend of increased oppression of the media since the last election. Government encirclement of the media has been getting tighter,” said Mustafa Kuleli, general-secretary of the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS).

The latest move of oppression of the media was the seizure of İpek Media Group. Turkish police on Wednesday raided the headquarters of media outlets within the group after the Ankara 5th Criminal Court of Peace ruled on Monday for the takeover of the administration of the holding's companies, which includes critical media outlets, in a government-backed move.

Several trustees, most of them criticized for having links to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), were appointed to the group's administration after the ruling.

Police forcibly entered the corporate headquarters of Koza İpek Holding after being blocked from entering the building by lawyers of the group, who challenged the authenticity of the court document because it did not bear an original signature. However, backed by riot police in gas masks, the police officers broke down the gates, used pepper spray on the lawyers and made their way into the building by force.

Answering our questions, Kuleli elaborated on the events.

You were there with journalists at the İpek Media Group building right after its seizure. What did you see, can you tell us?

I was there, not only because I wanted to show solidarity with them in line with my job as a union representative, but also to support them as a human being. I witnessed their resolve in preparing the next day's newspaper, no matter what. It was really nice to see political party representatives there from the [main opposition Republican People's Party] CHP, the [pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party] HDP and the [Nationalist Movement Party] MHP to support the journalists. There were also representatives from P24, the Platform for Independent Journalism; the Turkish Journalists' Association [TGC] and the Press Council, etc. Well-known journalist Can Dündar and his team from the Cumhuriyet daily were there, too. Journalists from the pro-Kurdish and leftist press expressed their support as well. The level of solidarity among colleagues was quite good. Still, I don't think the level of support was high enough.”

Would you elaborate on this?

When the Zaman daily's former Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı was detained on Dec. 14, 2014 at the daily's building, I went there and signed the petition for his release. Some colleagues from the pro-Kurdish and leftist press at the time were critical, arguing that Zaman is not a member of the free press and so does not deserve support, etc. Since then, the situation has improved, when it comes to solidarity among journalists. Over time, pressure on the media in Turkey has grown immensely. In the meantime, we have had meetings among journalists from a variety of press organizations to gain a mutual understanding of each other. Journalists Ekrem Dumanlı, Abdülhamit Bilici [from the Zaman daily], Tarık Toros [from the İpek Media Group] have come to many of our meetings and they have been self-critical. All of that was important, but as I said there are still deficiencies.

Such as?

For example, I didn't see anyone from Doğan Media at İpek Media Group when it was seized. Ahmet Hakan, a well-known television journalist from Doğan Media's CNN Türk, went on air to comment on the situation and that was it. I hope people from Doğan Media do not think they will be immune to this. Following the seizure of İpek Media Group, the newly appointed trustees fired journalists and employees of the group and no other media organization but Gülen-inspired [Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen] media has given them a voice. This attitude should change, and instead of being critical of each other all the time, journalists should first be able to learn to listen to each other. Government encirclement of the media has been getting tighter and tighter. That's why it is so important to break the ice between all sides of the media.”

‘We need to stand side by side'

Do you have any plans in this regard?

We are planning to have meetings with the participation of journalists from various media organizations to discuss our problems, our problems in journalism.

You posted a tweet during the seizure of İpek Media Group that said, “This is a stance of principles.” What did you mean by that?

I wanted to give a message to our grassroots. I am doing my job as the head of the union and support my colleagues at İpek Media Group. However, I receive messages from some other colleagues asking me if I decided to become a member of “cemaat” [Gülen's movement, which inspires a number of media outlets, including those of İpek Media Group]. I've been trying to explain that there is no such crime of being a member of a religious community. Having an affinity for a religious movement is not contradictory with being a journalist and it is not illegal, either. The TGS has had the same stance with regard to such cases as Ergenekon and the KCK [Kurdistan Communities Union]. If journalists have been targeted only because they are doing their jobs -- like Ahmet Şık, Nedim Şener, Mustafa Balbay -- we support them. The TGS says the same thing with regard to Bülent Keneş, Ekrem Dumanlı, Gültekin Avcı and Hidayet Karaca. I do not become pro-coup if I support the detention of Ahmet Şık, Nedim Şener, Mustafa Balbay in relation to the Ergenekon case. And I do not become pro-PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party] if I oppose the illegal detention of journalists in relation to the KCK case. Similarly, I do not become pro-Gülen when I oppose the illegal detention of journalists from those media organizations. This is why the TGS stance is principled. However, journalists are talking only from their camps in Turkey. We need to show more solidarity with each other. When we face oppression from the government, we need to act together to protest it. We need to stand side by side against the police breaking into our media buildings. Unfortunately, some newspapers and television channels have not even done short news stories about the seizure of İpek Media Group.

‘Journalists or other critics have been highly intimidated'

What would you like to say about the trend regarding government pressures on the media? How is it getting tighter?

It is becoming harder to follow how many television channels have been banned from broadcasting since there are so many. The same goes for Internet sites. With a prosecutor's decision, a news page or pages from the Internet site of a media organization can be banned. You may not even be aware of it, since you are not given any notice. It is becoming more difficult to follow how many Twitter accounts have been blocked, again because there are so many of these incidents. Since the June 7 election, Hürriyet daily's building was attacked by pro-AKP people; CNN Türk's news program host Ahmet Hakan was attacked by four people, three of whom were AKP members; there was a broadcast ban following the Ankara massacre and then we had the seizure of İpek Media Group. There has been a trend of increased media oppression since the last election. Government encirclement of the media has been getting tighter.

We also have the intimidation of journalists and critics by other means, like punishing people on the basis of “insulting the president.” What would you tell us in this regard?

For example, in the three-month period of July-September, 61 people have been prosecuted for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey is the only country in the world where insulting the president is a crime to be punished with imprisonment. Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code [TCK] allows it. Journalists are harmed the most by Article 299. In the period when the Dec. 17-25 [2013] corruption files regarding the AK Party government were opened, more than 60 journalists faced more than 100 court cases. In their first court case, people have often been released, but if the same “crime” is committed again, you have to serve jail time. It is not right to think that the law has not been implemented. Journalists or other critics have been highly intimidated.

‘If the media is not free, society is not free either'

Would you tell us how the public's right to be well-informed in the election period has been harmed?

If the media is not free, society is not free either. The Nov. 1 election results will be handicapped. Citizens have not been given the chance to be exposed to different voices. We cannot talk about a free and fair election environment under these circumstances. Public television does not provide a fair chance for the opposition to express their opinions. Erdoğan and the interim government of the AKP are given much more air time than other parties. Public television has become the government's tool to disseminate the ideas of the palace of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, even though it is paid for with the taxes of all citizens.

Some private television channels offered air time for a debate of all political party leaders but this offer was not accepted by the AKP. What reasons do you think could be behind the AKP's rejection?

There is lack of self-confidence behind AKP's refusal. The AKP has shown that it is too far from democratic approaches and ideas by refusing debates with other political party leaders.

An international media rights group visited Turkey a short while ago. Would you summarize their observations?

I have to congratulate the AKP government for being successful in bringing together the seven biggest pro-press freedom organizations in the world to Turkey. Those organizations have never come together in the past but they did it for Turkey. This was because the government's pressure on the media has been immense and required urgent action. The representatives of those organizations were shocked about what they saw and heard. They had many contacts with people from various media organizations, politicians and civil society but the AKP and the “pool media” [AKP's mouthpieces] did not return our demands for meetings with them. No AKP official returned our calls. The visiting pro-press freedom organizations have also been critical of the European Union, which has been bargaining with the Turkish government on the issue of the refugee crisis and hasn't really been critical of the government's media clampdown.

Last year, you were physically attacked at night by a few people near your neighborhood. Do you think this was related to some threats that you received because of your activism as a union head?

It's possible; I am a jobless journalist who does not owe any money to anybody. I live modestly. I had to have five stiches on my head. Why was I attacked? The police were not able to solve it; on that busy street where I was attacked, no camera was working.

‘Only 6 percent of Turkish media workers are union members'

Do you expect even more pressure on the media after the Nov. 1 election?

It depends on the election results. In the last 13 years, there has been an increasing climate of fear.

There has been a psychological war. Even if the Justice and Development Party (AKP) loses some seats in Parliament, the pressure on the media will not be removed all of a sudden because it did not start all of a sudden; there has been a gradual increase. To get out of this climate, journalists need to support each other without any conditions. They don't have to like each other but they need to agree on the basic principles of journalism. Secondly, we need to strengthen our professional organizations but we cannot expect a big pro-freedom stance from a journalist who earns about 400 euros a month -- the average monthly amount that the average journalist earns in Turkey. Turkish journalists are fired on governmental orders. How can they defend press freedoms? Journalists should be able to feel strong economically in order to support a free press. And being a member of a union is directly related to that. Only 6 percent of all Turkish media workers are members of a professional union -- the lowest union membership rate compared to comparative rates in the European Union.

What are the union membership rates for journalists in other countries in the world?

I requested figures from our German colleagues, and it is 70 percent in Germany compared to 6 percent in Turkey. In Germany, the average working week for a journalist is 40 hours, but in Turkey it is 55 hours. This is self-explanatory. Of course, being union members would not solve all the problems. Currently, we give individual reactions to events and we need to organize those in order to be better heard. Yes, symbolic names -- journalists such as Hasan Cemal, Ahmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak, etc. -- have lent their support to journalists regarding the seizure of the İpek Media Group. However, if 500 journalists -- not only well-known names, but also working journalists -- from the Hürriyet, Milliyet and Birgün dailies had gone there to support their colleagues, this would have been even more valuable than the support that has been given individually.

PROFILE: General Secretary of the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) Mustafa Kuleli was elected two years ago as the youngest union head. He graduated from Bilgi University's School of Journalism in 2008. He has since worked in various media organizations including Evrensel, Hayat TV, TV8, NTVMSNBC and IMC TV. He is the editor-in-chief of Journo, the bi-monthly magazine written by the TGS, gives media training and is a communication consultant.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 1 November 2015, Sunday