Fo­rum

YAVUZ BAY­DAR, colum­nist, blog­ger and co-founder of the Plat­form for In­de­pen­dent Jour­nal­ism (P24)

Turkish Review - - CONTENTS - Learn more about the Plat­form for In­de­pen­dent Jour­nal­ism: www.plat­form24.org A longer ver­sion of this piece can be found on­line: www.turk­ishre­view.org

As a means of il­lus­trat­ing the grave state of Turkey’s me­dia, al­low me to sim­plify the nar­ra­tive by re­count­ing some tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions be­tween the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter and a top me­dia man­ager. These were posted on so­cial me­dia, re­played by the op­po­si­tion and, to the sur­prise of the pub­lic, con­firmed as au­then­tic by Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan him­self.

It is June 4, 2013. In the early days of the Gezi Park protests, Er­doğan is vis­it­ing Morocco and, while watch­ing Turk­ish tele­vi­sion, in fury grabs the tele­phone and calls a top man­ager at pri­vate news chan­nel HaberTürk TV (al­ready ex­posed as a prime cen­sor of the ur­ban un­rest), Fatih Saraç. The prime min­is­ter im­me­di­ately de­mands that the broad­cast of op­po­si­tion Na­tion­al­ist Move­ment Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli’s re­marks and the news ticker con­tain­ing them be taken off air. Saraç im­me­di­ately agreed to do so. Af­ter the tele­phone is hung up, he calls some­one at HaberTürk TV called Ab­dul­lah and passes on Er­doğan’s de­mands. Ab­dul­lah ap­par­ently com­plies.

A month passes. It is July. Still fum­ing af­ter the Gezi protests, Er­doğan again watches pri­vate tele­vi­sion chan­nels. He is sure about TRT, the state broad­caster, over which he has es­tab­lished full editorial con­trol, but wants to know whether the oth­ers are do­ing well. He is very keen to do so, be­cause he knows that over four-fifths of the Turk­ish au­di­ence re­ceives its “news” via tele­vi­sion.

As he watches HaberTürk TV, he goes bal­lis­tic. It is the dreaded Bahçeli. He is giv­ing a live press con­fer­ence, and is bash­ing Er­doğan, again. And HaberTürk TV is air­ing it live. Once more Er­doğan phones Saraç with the same de­mand: Take the MHP leader off air! In sheer panic, Saraç calls the news ed­i­tor and makes it very clear, that “our hon­or­able elder is very sad.” The ed­i­tor tries to re­sist, but the broad­cast is soon taken off air. Saraç is not fully re­laxed. Un­able to reach Er­doğan again, he calls his son, Bi­lal, and tells him, “I am sad to see dear sir sad -- please let him know.”

The lat­ter con­ver­sa­tion was not de­nied, and the first was bluntly con­firmed by Er­doğan, who added, “They [mean­ing the me­dia] must be taught -- when­ever it is needed.”

These ex­changes suf­fice to il­lus­trate that the Turk­ish me­dia is in the midst of a slow death, and that our pro­fes­sion, jour­nal­ism, is on the verge of com­plete suf­fo­ca­tion. Nor is this episode limited to HaberTürk TV -- as ev­ery­one who mon­i­tors Turk­ish me­dia now knows all too well. It is just one part of the im­mense dam­age in­flicted not only by a col­lec­tive of politi­cians and ad­vi­sors, headed by the prime min­is­ter him­self, but also by the me­dia pro­pri­etors -- their bosses and top-level em­ploy­ees act­ing like pup­pets in the ser­vice of govern­ment -- and a ju­di­ciary and par­lia­ment dom­i­nated by a cul­ture of in­tol­er­ance to pub­lic dis­sent or any form of crit­i­cism.

Much, if not all, has been said about the Turk­ish me­dia’s co­matose state; a paral­y­sis at its “cen­ter” or main­stream, which is fiercely con­trolled by its own­ers. But the prob­lems are multi-lay­ered.

Turkey, rated as “half free” in Free­dom House’s global in­dex, tops the league of jailed jour­nal­ists in the world -- 40 ac­cord­ing to the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists (CPJ). Over three-quar­ters of those im­pris­oned jour­nal­ists are Kurds, some of whom are also po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists on the Kur­dish is­sue. So, “bru­tal and un­ac­cept­able sup­pres­sion of dis­si­dents,” de­serv­ing con­dem­na­tion, does not suf­fice to ex­plain the sys­temic causes of the prob­lems in the Turk­ish me­dia.

The past prac­tice of jail­ing or su­ing jour­nal­ists has been aug­mented by a more cun­ning,

TURKEY TOPS THE LEAGUE OF JAILED JOUR­NAL­ISTS IN THE WORLD -- 40 AC­CORD­ING TO THE CPJ

so­phis­ti­cated man­ner of sup­press­ing, si­lenc­ing, in­tim­i­dat­ing and re­strict­ing Turkey’s “cen­tral” me­dia: Pro­fes­sion­als de­fend­ing their in­tegrity, be­yond po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal lines and af­fil­i­a­tions, are sys­tem­at­i­cally be­ing sacked, and their re-em­ploy­ment pre­vented by scare tac­tics. Only last year, those fired within a broad spec­trum of the me­dia at mid and top lev­els num­bered close to 200, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from BIA. These in­clude edi­tors-in-chief and desk edi­tors, as well as se­nior colum­nists and re­porters.

Added to which, there is no au­ton­o­mous or in­de­pen­dent, pro­fes­sion­ally run pub­lic broad­caster. State broad­caster TRT, de­spite its pledges, is even more pro-state than it was be­fore the takeover by Er­doğan’s rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AK Party). Mean­while the state-run Anatolian Agency is headed by a for­mer press spokesman to the prime min­is­ter. These two in­sti­tu­tions, and their vast net­work, are now at the full ser­vice of the ex­ec­u­tive pow­ers. Serv­ing pub­lic in­ter­est ap­pears not to be on their agenda. As ex­pected, since they are run strictly by bu­reau­crats and not by me­dia pro­fes­sion­als, self-cen­sor­ship has be­come part of their in­sti­tu­tional cul­ture.

The grow­ing threat to Turk­ish me­dia is more about the meth­ods and mea­sures that suf­fo­cate its in­de­pen­dence than any puni­tive le­gal mea­sures. Editorial in­de­pen­dence, which has been at the mercy of me­dia pro­pri­etors since the late 1980s, has now reached the point of full sup­pres­sion, as the tele­phone con­ver­sa­tions above re­veal. We now have a me­dia sec­tor in which ap­prox­i­mately 85 per­cent is con­trolled by pro­pri­etors whose qual­i­fi­ca­tions are sheer ig­no­rance of or in­sen­si­tiv­ity to the in­tegrity of jour­nal­ism and its so­cial role, mea­sur­able by their level of greed and sub­mis­sion to pow­ers feed­ing their hunger for money and eco­nomic in­flu­ence.

More clearly, most of the own­ers are -- by con­tract, pub­lic ten­der or even murky deals ex­posed by re­cent al­le­ga­tions -- sub­servient to the will of the prime min­is­ter. Their pri­or­i­ties are their own busi­ness deals and eco­nomic in­ter­ests; when the au­thor­i­tar­ian poli­cies of the prime min­is­ter con­verge with such in­ter­ests the role of jour­nal­ism as pub­lic ser­vice dies.

PRO­FES­SION­ALS DE­FEND­ING THEIR IN­TEGRITY ARE SYS­TEM­AT­I­CALLY BE­ING SACKED, AND THEIR RE-EM­PLOY­MENT PRE­VENTED

This is where we are now; the prod­uct of an un­holy al­liance forged be­tween govern­ment and me­dia moguls. This al­liance of over­lap­ping in­ter­ests has gone a long way to cor­rupt­ing the ge­net­ics of Turk­ish me­dia; it has de­stroyed parts of its DNA and the dam­age is go­ing to be far longer last­ing than the any in­di­vid­ual jail term.

Given the scope and depth of ac­cu­sa­tions stem­ming from the Dec. 17, 2013, graft probe -and oth­ers -- one could ar­gue that if the me­dia own­ers are also part of the mas­sive cor­rup­tion, which in it­self would leave us with a de­bris of a rot­ten “cen­tral” me­dia, the pic­ture be­comes also dan­ger­ous: In or­der to avoid pun­ish­ment in the face of ac­cu­sa­tions pro­pri­etors re­sort to abuse of their me­dia out­lets. Such a sce­nario is not un­likely. With the Sword of Damo­cles hang­ing above free­dom of ex­pres­sion in gen­eral; with its lim­i­ta­tion in the pub­lic do­main through re­stric­tive laws and reg­u­la­tory bod­ies; with editorial in­de­pen­dence curbed se­verely to the point of wide­spread self-cen­sor­ship, is it pos­si­ble to pre­vent the demise of Turkey’s me­dia?

Need­less to say, Turkey needs a new civil­ian con­sti­tu­tion that must guar­an­tee free­dom of ex­pres­sion and of the me­dia. The laws that re­strict free speech and press free­dom must then be amended ac­cord­ingly. As noted in the Free­dom House re­port “Democ­racy in Cri­sis: Cor­rup­tion, Me­dia and Power in Turkey,” Ankara must stop in­tim­i­da­tion of the me­dia, and cease open­ing

defama­tion and in­junc­tion suits without due, proper ju­di­cial scru­tiny. Par­lia­ment must abol­ish clauses that re­strict press free­dom in the Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Law, to­gether with ar­ti­cles 125, 220 and 301 of the Turk­ish Pe­nal Code (TCK). The TRT Law, In­ter­net Law and Ra­dio and Tele­vi­sion Supreme Coun­cil (RTÜK) Law must also be re­vis­ited and amended ac­cord­ing to the Copen­hagen Cri­te­ria and the Euro­pean Treaty of Hu­man Rights.

But there is much more to be done, be­yond the as­pects of free­dom, to se­cure the in­de­pen­dence of the me­dia. It is es­sen­tial that Par­lia­ment es­tab­lish trans­parency in me­dia own­er­ship. It is the pub­lic’s con­sti­tu­tional right to know who owns what me­dia. Proper guide­lines ex­ist: The Coun­cil of Europe is­sued a set of rec­om­men­da­tions in Novem­ber 2013 -- af­ter de­lib­er­at­ing on the sub­ject -which calls for steps to al­low the pub­lic “to dis­cuss and even pre­vent abuses of me­dia power.” This dec­la­ra­tion fol­lowed rec­om­men­da­tions by the coun­cil at the min­is­te­rial level in 1994, two re­lated doc­u­ments in 2007 (one on “plu­ral­ism and di­ver­sity” and the other on “me­dia con­cen­tra­tion”), and an­other in 2011 -- all on me­dia and democ­racy.

Turkey’s pres­i­dent, govern­ment and par­lia­ment should be re­minded con­stantly of all of these.

Sim­i­lar rec­om­men­da­tions ad­dress the root causes in this con­text: As elab­o­rated by Dr. Şahin Al­pay re­cently in his col­umn with Today’s Za­man, the govern­ment must: “Ban me­dia own­ers from par­tic­i­pat­ing in pub­lic ten­ders so that they don’t seek fa­vors from gov­ern­ments. […] Ban cross- own­er­ship -- that is own­er­ship of both print and broad­cast me­dia -- to avoid own­er­ship con­cen­tra­tion and to se­cure com­pe­ti­tion in the me­dia.”

In­deed, the cut­ting of ties be­tween the ex­ec­u­tive power and me­dia pro­pri­etors is an is­sue that is dealt with rig­or­ously in Free­dom House’s re­cent re­port: “The govern­ment must ad­dress the wide­spread per­cep­tion of cor­rup­tion in the pub­lic pro­cure­ment and pri­va­ti­za­tion pro­cesses […] [It] can­not dic­tate that me­dia own­ers will place jour­nal­is­tic mis­sion and ethics above the profit mo­tive. With more trans­parency and fewer con­flicts of in­ter­est, the ca­pac­ity for Turk­ish gov­ern­ments to con­trol me­dia con­tent will di­min­ish.”

To im­prove the trans­parency of pub­lic pro­cure­ment, Free­dom House calls for the Turk­ish govern­ment “to com­mence ac­ces­sion to the World Trade Or­ga­ni­za­tion Govern­ment Pro­cure­ment Agree­ment (WTO GPA) in or­der to im­prove trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity in the bid­ding process.” I would add that the EU must urge Turkey to open chapter 5 on Pub­lic Pro­cure­ment in its EU ac­ces­sion ne­go­ti­a­tions, which it has so far been un­will­ing to do.

There are two more cru­cial steps: Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from the Turk­ish Jour­nal­ists’ Union (TGS) and BIA, only 1 per­cent of the coun­try’s ap­prox­i­mately 15,000 jour­nal­ist are mem­bers of a trade union -- mostly due to in­tim­i­da­tion and de­ter­rence. The EU must pri­or­i­tize Ankara’s open­ing chapter 19 on So­cial Pol­icy and Em­ploy­ment, which it re­mains re­luc­tant to do. Fi­nally, in or­der to suc­cess­fully com­plete the now stalled re­form process and re­solve its in­ner con­flicts, Turkey ur­gently needs to re­form TRT, which op­er­ates as a “state” and not “pub­lic” broad­caster, act­ing as a mouth­piece for the govern­ment. It is run by bu­reau­crats, not me­dia pro­fes­sion­als, and is a lo­cus of vast self-cen­sor­ship. This has to change. Without a prop­erly func­tion­ing, au­ton­o­mous pub­lic ser­vice broad­cast­ing sys­tem, no progress in Turk­ish jour­nal­ism or de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of the coun­try should re­al­is­ti­cally be ex­pected.

TURKEY NEEDS A NEW CIVIL­IAN CON­STI­TU­TION THAT MUST GUAR­AN­TEE FREE­DOM OF EX­PRES­SION AND OF THE ME­DIA

MARCH 4, 2011 PHOTO: CİHAN, ALİ ÜNAL

Mem­bers of the Turk­ish Jour­nal­ists Syn­di­cate march in Ankara in protest of lim­i­ta­tions of press free­dom.

FEB. 18, 2014 PHOTO: CİHAN, MUSTAFA KİRAZLI

CHP leader Ke­mal Kılıç­daroğlu plays

a wire­tapped tape of the prime min­is­ter at his party’s group

meet­ing.

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