[email protected]

May 22, 2012, Tuesday

Leveson inquiry an inspiration for Turkey’s media

The media are at the center of attention in various spots around the world. Reasons vary, but the concerns converge. This has been once more powerfully underlined, revisited and analyzed in the annual gathering of news ombudsmen from all continents in Copenhagen, a meeting that ends today.

In the UK, for instance, the so-called “PhoneGate” scandal brought to the fore the issue of pollution in the media’s relations with politicians in power, intrusions into individual privacy by abusing the concept of public interest, the concentration of ownership and the spread of unlawful activities to gather information.

In violence-stricken countries such as Mexico, where the number of journalists killed by drug cartels increases week by week, the media in this fragile democracy feel the threatening breath of drug barons and their dark liaisons in the bureaucracy on their neck. The information often becomes a ticking bomb in the hands of journalists in newsrooms.

In countries such as India and Bangladesh where the media are under pressure from sectarian divides and religious sensitivities, basic issues such as accuracy and editorial persistence are being tested constantly.

In the US, economic hardship and declining readership figures keep the media’s mood down. Yet, the transition to online journalism paradoxically raises the stakes for American media vis-à-vis credibility.

In another reality, emerging democracies such as Turkey -- or various countries in the Balkans and the Caucasus -- enforce radical changes in the media sector. In Turkey’s case these involve ongoing issues around freedom of expression and the press. Legal restrictions and an increasing intolerance of power holders for a free flow of ideas, the media’s old habits of being either in the position of blackmailing cabinets to drive the interests of the media proprietor or being at in the service of governments also remain huge challenges to be addressed.

In other transitional democracies, relations between organized crime and media ownership as well as transparency pose serious questions.

In a vast area, the so-called Arab Awakening also highlights the vital importance of cellphones and social media, complete with pitfalls involved in providing credible information to the domestic and international public.

Globally, topics may vary from place to place, but wherever one goes, a common denominator is the need for efficient models of self-regulation.

In the case of emerging democracies, the speed of change is in many ways proportional to the nature of the media -- i.e., how much media proprietors respect editorial independence and the professional integrity of the staff; how diverse and fairly competitive the media landscape is allowed to be as well as the wisdom of parliaments to lift bans and restrictions concerning the media.

Turkey is a case study in many senses: where the dark shadow of the government looms over the media in terms of narrow tolerance, and the behavioral patterns of many media owners remain the same; both in clear disfavor of media as the Fourth Estate, which is being squeezed in between.

But the reality of the PhoneGate scandal in the UK is not too different, either. “It has everything, all the elements; it will be a book or a play,” Stephen Pritchard told 45 ombudsmen gathered in the Danish capital. In a detailed account, he delineated all the phases of developments around the hacking scandal and how it completely demolished the credibility of the self-regulator, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC).

In a sense, the Leveson inquiry in the UK [a current public inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British press that began after the News International phone-hacking scandal] also paves the way for an efficient house-cleaning even in Turkey’s media. Its methodology is inspiring. Not that we have been facing phone-hacking journalism here, but what happened in the 1990s -- in particular during the Feb. 28 “postmodern coup” process -- between military headquarters, politicians and the media owners could be scrutinized in a similar format by a commission of “wise men,” consisting of honest, decent journalists. It could be a parallel process with the ongoing legal investigation of that period.

Previous articles of the columnist