[email protected]

December 11, 2012, Tuesday

Where Preston has it wrong and where he falls short

This is a subject which I cannot seem to get away from. As a journalist and a news ombudsman operating in a poisonous, threatening, risky and profoundly polarized professional environment, all I wish in such gloomy days is for our foreign colleagues to put to right the real problems behind Turkey’s increasingly troublesome media sector.

I am again prompted to make some comments and corrections to an article by a respected British colleague whom I have known for over a decade. Peter Preston, the former editor of the Guardian and columnist with The Observer, visited Turkey recently. He shared in a recent column in the weekly Observer his impressions and views about a fact-finding mission in Turkey as part of the International Press Institute (IPI) delegation.

First, it must be brought to Preston’s attention that the IPI still enjoys a somewhat murky reputation for the “too warm” relations it once had with the owners of the Doğan Group a decade or so ago when the IPI was struggling to survive economically.

This very unusual “closeness,” which made the earlier IPI management rather “source-dependent” and therefore “insensitive” to the big problems in Turkish media such as unfair market domination, sectoral corruption and non-transparency and arbitrary sackings of columnists and editors (whose views were disliked or found to be against the interests of the proprietor) by the Doğan Group, and even its news ombudsman for criticizing a fabricated story. The IPI at the time sadly was not at all interested in those issues of freedom of the media.

That is the reason why some Turkish journalists, and certainly those who today do not sympathize with any higher powers, including the Justice and Development Party (AKP), still have not shaken off their suspicions of the organization.

Nevertheless, this is merely about the IPI’s murky past. One hopes that lessons have been learned and distinguished people like Preston and others will be fair and open-minded to all the problems that we have here. Now, a few crucial points on Preston’s article. I agree with him when he describes a vast media landscape. It indeed is impossible to fully suppress.

“And one paper, Hurriyet, lies just behind the Guardian when you count worldwide reach online,” Preston writes, but forgets to add that this newspaper controls almost half of all ad revenues of the entire print (more than 40 national dailies) segment. It should explain how unfair media competition is and remains so.

Preston continues: “Every country in the world has its corruption problems and Turkey is sliding down the global league tables of dodgy dealing compiled by Transparency International. But you won’t read about that in a newspaper.”

Not quite. Such data are constantly published by independent papers such as the Zaman, Taraf, Dünya and Cumhuriyet dailies. Somebody must have misinformed Preston on that. Yet he is right when he states that “corruption coverage doesn’t seem to exist these days.” Tiny independent papers cannot afford to operate. “Much too often, it [Turkey] locks journalists up and loses the key; so fear stalks the newsrooms, an apprehension that one article out of place will fall foul of some terror law, or bring the tax inspectors running, crawling over every pound you ever earned or spent,” continues Preston.

This needs very much to be clarified: The terror law applies exclusively to Kurdish publications. And no dailies whose owners are not into businesses other than media have been really subjected to tax harassment.

The “tax treatment” on a big group (Doğan) which Preston later mentions also lacks very crucial nuances: It was also about other types of serious accusations on fraud (paper import, etc.) and it ended with a mutual settlement, which raised eyebrows among many decent journalists, who have been deeply weary of corrupt media in Turkey.

We have had our own Rupert Murdochs, with far more bitter results. All that corrected or dissented to, I agree with the many other points that Preston raised. Yet his article shows, as many others do, the flaws in identifying the parallel problems here: Alongside legal punishment, it is about the Kurdish issue, corruption in the media, the blind greed of media owners and journalists who act like angry puppets of politics in oppositional camps.

Ours is a profession lost in transition.

Previous articles of the columnist