Press freedom in Turkey under serious threat

Because coverage of most Turkish media outlets are far from being close to professional journalism, there is no clear-cut line between reporting and commentary

Mahir Zeynalov

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If there is one politician who is deeply obsessed with the way media works in Turkey, it is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The primary reason behind this are the concerted campaigns of defamation and attacks the media orchestrated against him before and after he became the prime minister in 2003.

With a series of provocative and incendiary front page reporting in 1997, Turkish media could successfully help the military undermine the civilian elected government of National View, from which Erdoğan hails. In the decades before the so-called 1997 post-modern coup, when the military forced the Turkish government to resign, the media has largely been the guardian of the Kemalist regime, who had done everything to preserve secularism, Turkish and Sunni identities at the expense of democracy.

Because coverage of most Turkish media outlets are far from being close to professional journalism, there is no clear-cut line between reporting and commentary, making it much more vulnerable to political manipulation.

While the government is working to silence outspoken journalists, it also slowly co-opts media outlets through public tender offerings and business deals. Only in the past few years, nearly a dozen mainstream Turkish newspapers, previously very critical of the current government, have become the government’s mouthpiece. Other critical newspapers are either systematically marginalized or sued for their reporting.

A 51 year prison sentence demanded for three journalists

Only on Friday, for instance, prosecutors and the government filed complaints against Taraf journalists Mehmet Baransu and Hüseyin Özkaya and former Türkiye daily correspondent Arzu Yıldız. Baransu is accused of publishing secret state documents, in which the National Security Council advises the government in 2004 to curb activities of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Prosecutors pressed charges against Yıldız for writing about a wiretapping scandal within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Finally, Özkaya is accused of “provoking [Germany] to start a war” against Turkey. Prosecutors demand 26 years in prison for the journalist.

A good media constantly keeps politicians accountable and does not approve of whatever the country’s leaders say

Mahir Zeynalov

Ironically, Baransu and Yıldız are key investigative journalists who played a role in exposing coup plans of the military against Erdoğan’s government in almost the same way they exposed secret plots and profiling of citizens by the current government. Speaking to a crowd of his supporters on Saturday, Erdoğan dismissed that published the secret document is protected under the freedom of media, describing the leaks as “treason.” Instead of explaining why the government profiled citizens for years, Erdoğan blamed the journalist for publishing the secret document.

International press bodies also noticed a troubling trend in the Turkish media in the past few years. U.S. human rights watchdog Freedom House described Turkey a “partly free” country in their Freedom of the Press 2013 report and ranked Turkey 120th out of 197 nations on the press freedom list.

In the 2003 report released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Turkey was ranked among the 25 worst countries in terms of press freedom - coming in 154th place among 179 nations.

Media glorifying politicians

Politicians may like to see newspapers are glorifying their policies while the columnists give a round of applause to their speeches, especially ahead of the elections. But history has shown time and again that governments that silence the dissent are most likely commit grave mistakes, simply because there is no one to show them that they’re headed in a wrong direction. In Turkey, sadly, the feedback mechanism that is supposed to warn the authorities in areas where they fail, is stalled.

In his book about man-made disasters, “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” James Scott claims that failures crop up when non-democratic governments commence gigantic projects that are based on “scientific” intelligence in a bid to make societies more “modern.” He argues that revolutionary leaders usually embrace such large-scale transformations because they will seemingly result in “progress” and “modernity.”

Despite a tremendous amount of money and energy spent on these ventures, these far-reaching makeovers usually become a ruinous failure because leaders make themselves blind to their blunders as a result of misguided policies by not allowing nonconformist opinions to mark out ailing sides of the sweeping changes.

One stark example is the government’s intention to shut down prep schools, an unpopular move that caused significant friction within the ruling party and nearly 80 percent of the Turkish people oppose. Despite being only several months away from the elections, Erdoğan ignored the public opposition because of a simple fact that the media keeps repeating the government’s narrative instead of pointing out negative outcomes of such a policy.

A good media constantly keeps politicians accountable and does not approve of whatever the country’s leaders say.


Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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