YAVUZ BAYDAR, columnist, blogger and co-founder of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24)
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
Members of the Turkish Journalists Syndicate march in Ankara in protest of limitations of press freedom.
CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu plays
a wiretapped tape of the prime minister at his party’s group