March 14, 2016

No way to run a country

The Tampa Tribune Editorial Board

It is not uncommon for Americans — including politicians advancing their own agenda — to heap scorn upon the press when what is reported doesn’t conform to their own beliefs.

But so far none of the critics of “the lamestream press” have dared embrace the examples set by some nations in their efforts to protect privileged figures from any reporting that conflicts with their priorities.

Nor, in a year that has been cluttered with absurdities expressed even by candidates for the dignified office of president of the United States, has anyone suggested government control of the press.

Americans are fortunate that their Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press, even when some would take advantage of such precious protections to abuse them rather than revere them.

But the people of Iran and Turkey are among those whose governments zealously guard their own interests at the expense of the general public and especially those — including the press — who would criticize their political leaders.

In Iran’s recent elections, political forces associated with moderate President Hassan Rouhani strengthened his position, and, perhaps encouraged by this, he has launched a drive to end a news media blackout against a former president, Mohammad Khatami.

According to The New York Times “the blackout is part of an effort by hard-liners to limit the influence of Mr. Khatami, who continues to be one of the most popular political figures in Iran.”

Khatami, a reformist, twice was elected by overwhelming margins and led Iran from 1997 to 2005. However, judiciary officials forbade press mentions of him so Iranian news organization must not mention his name or show his photograph.

Rouhani, in a live broadcast the other day, defied the judiciary’s ban when he recalled that he had entered the Iranian parliament alongside “my dear brother Seyyed Mohammad Khatami.” When his audience cheered, state-run television muted the sound.

And a day earlier, Rouhani criticized the ban as “illegal” and a “jest.”

The ban is just an example of how Iran’s hard-liners, who are closely associated with the nation’s conservative religious leadership, are unwilling to accept the fact that the country’s voters, most of whom are believed to be pro-Western and more open to change, don’t share their beliefs.

But if the situation in Iran is unfortunate, in Turkey it is downright infuriating to those who understand the logic that drives the very notion of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as expressed so elegantly in our nation’s Constitution. And the terribly sad part is that Turkey is very clearly turning away from the democratic values that had long made it one of the Muslim world’s most progressive states.

Here’s what has happened:

A panel of trustees appointed by Turkish authorities last week seized control of Cihan, the nation’s second largest news agency, announcing its takeover on the agency’s website. The previous week, the government obtained a court order that enabled it to seize control of the largest newspaper in the country, Zaman, as well as its English-language sister paper, Today’s Zaman. Before they forced their way into the Zaman building, police reportedly cracked down violently on protesters who had gathered outside.

“The seizure of the news agency following that of Zaman is another nail in the coffin of journalism in Turkey,” declared Yavuz Baydar, a founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism, a Turkish organization formed to promote a free press.
“[The news agency] was known for independently monitoring each and every election in Turkey.”
Turkish media reported that the trustees appointed to control Cihan were the same ones who took over management of Zaman.

The news agency is closely linked to a movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president. Gulen, who lives in [self-imposed] exile in Pennsylvania, has clashed with Erdogan over various issues, including Turkey’s handling of the long-standing conflict with the nation’s Kurds.

In fact, Gulen has been accused of conspiring against Erdogan and plotting his overthrow.

Americans may not have enough knowledge to take sides in the rivalry between Erdogan and Gulen, but they know that muffling the press and freedom of speech is no way to govern a country.

Published on The Tampa Tribune, 14 March 2016, Monday