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May 21, 2012, Monday

A hothouse atmosphere

It hits me every time I return from a spell abroad. The moment I step foot on Turkish soil and catch up with the local news headlines, I feel plunged into a hot bath of domestic issues that sticks to the skin like the humidity of a hamam, somehow obscuring developments in the rest of the world.

There is of course no shortage of important events to cover in this country, particularly at a time when significant changes are taking place, good and bad, that are generating plenty of controversy. Nor is it unusual for national newspapers anywhere in the world to prioritize coverage of news items deemed of local interest.

Global uncertainty has accentuated this tendency all over the world. People tend to cling to what they know and the apparent security that a familiar environment offers. Budget cuts at media organizations worldwide have also limited coverage of international events and turned the focus to local news.

But, in Turkey, this trend seems to take on an added dimension. In spite of its raised international profile and the weight it now carries on the global scene, this country remains surprisingly insular. The front pages of Turkish newspapers reflect little of the momentous challenges the world is grappling with at the moment. Few items that are not directly linked to Turkish domestic issues make it to the headlines.

If you relied on Turkish front pages to get a broad idea of what was going on in the world, you wouldn’t really understand the extent of the turmoil in Greece, nor the fact that the euro is teetering on the brink, with possible dire consequences for the world economy. The rift rapidly developing in Europe between Germany’s Angela Merkel, determined to focus on austerity and increasingly isolated, and a rapidly growing camp, strengthened by François Hollande’s election to the French presidency, advocating a focus on growth and job creation, has also been underplayed.

Regarding the NATO summit in Chicago, where leaders discussed an exit strategy for Afghanistan against a backdrop of brutally repressed demonstrations, Turkish papers mainly reported the fact that several Turkish generals were given additional stars, which would increase their and their country’s influence within the western alliance. President Abdullah Gül’s meeting with Turkish basketball players and his wife Hayrünissa’s encounter with US First Lady Michelle Obama featured higher on the agenda than analyses of the international events world leaders had traveled to the US to attend, whether it was the G8 summit at Camp David or the NATO meeting in Chicago.

With football in turmoil, a chronic Kurdish problem, a dysfunctional judiciary and a new constitution in the making, domestic issues abound that keep news editors busy. Yet at what point does this heavy concentration on local news turn into unhealthy navel-gazing?

The reaction to a recent Wall Street Journal article on the Uludere tragedy is a case in point. The article used the accidental -- and so far unexplained -- killing of 34 smugglers on Dec. 28, 2011, as an illustration of the risks posed by a US policy that allows intelligence gathered by drones to be passed on to allies without control over the way it will be used.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan chose to deflect the debate by seeing the article as an attempt to thwart US President Barack Obama’s re-election. One editor accused journalists who had given ample play to the WSJ revelations of lacking “patriotism” on the grounds that the article could only have been planted by neo-cons to put pressure on Turkey. If people are still demanding answers about the egregious Uludere incident, it is not due to an international plot, but because the government has failed to provide explanations and call those responsible to account.

At times, one can’t help but wonder to what extent the inward focus and the temptation to view conspiracies around every corner contribute to creating the hothouse atmosphere in this country, which prevents issues from being voiced and allows them to fester. In the suffocating heat, too many events turn into damaging crises. A step back to gain global perspective and more emotional distance would put a different face on many of the issues that divide Turkish society. Sometimes it’s a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

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