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February 23, 2012, Thursday

Turkey’s migraine: media freedom (3)

In a remarkable and worrisome manner, one column after another in the Turkish press has been discontinued and shut down. The latest “victim” is reported to be Nuray Mert, an academic known for her harsh criticism of the Justice and Development (AK Party) government and for her visible sympathies for the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).

Rumor has it that she was dismissed at the direct request of the proprietor of the Milliyet daily. And, in a rare and bold move, Hasan Cemal, a senior columnist at the same paper, yesterday defended Mert’s right to express a free opinion, maintaining the hope that the decision be reversed. It is highly unlikely.

I dedicated my columns this week to the most burdened, most bruised, most problematic sector of Turkey in 2012. “I think most of us no longer have any pride left. Though I see some brave work in the small, free newspapers, journalism in Turkey has simply become just a way of making a living, with obedience to the authorities as the rule,” complained a gloomy, elderly colleague recently.

“Authorities” is not as plain as it may seem to a foreign eye. What he meant and what we discussed were the root causes of censorship and a profoundly internalized culture of self-censorship. “Authorities” is a term that exposes a double-layered mechanism to keep the media on a leash. It is a ruthless combination of political power and proprietors, which in most cases operate in unison. Their interests overlap; media freedom and editorial independence certainly do not have anything to do with them. They have already been sacrificed, wasted.

For those familiar with the contact between the power holders (in the government and bureaucracy) in Ankara, cases like Mert come as no surprise. When Prime Minister Erdoğan invited some months ago all the major media proprietors to a meeting to discuss how to report the stories on “terror,” he was certain of what he was doing. He knew that none of them would miss the opportunity to shake hands with him, and to willingly declare that “my media group is at your service, just tell us what to report and what not.” They did. They even went so far as to propose him a joint (government-media) censorship committee to filter news and comment. This is verified stuff: There were those honest enough to record the meeting with their cell phones.

Understandably, the Turkish public was the last to know that a large group of Kurdish villagers were killed in an air raid by Turkish fighter jets. The story was “blacked out” for over 13 hours. Thanks to social media, what happened saw daylight.

As a long term observer and commentator of patterns in the sector, my fundamental argument has therefore remained unchanged. I agree, surely, that we have a very serious issue with journalists who are in or are facing jail, but it does also distract us from seeing the bigger picture; it leads us to the illusion that even if Parliament amended all the restrictive laws, we would have a sufficiently free and independent journalism industry in this country.

That is the reason why I time and again remind international observers that what keeps Turkey’s journalists on a leash -- either through fear of jail or anxiety over censorship -- is a mentality which sees the alliance between the government and media as controlling the free flow of information as normality. Consequently, both the government (and other actors in Parliament) and media proprietors should be given equal shares of the blame and condemnation.

In today’s Turkey, the proprietors (not the government) act as the primary censors by acting as regular “shadow editors” and they are the ones (not the government) who silence our colleagues. This has to do with their wide economic interests, including areas other than media, which are kept alive in a system which makes it possible for them to enter public tenders. They keep the media to use against the government in bad times, and at its service during good times. Media owners have so far successfully deterred all trade union activity in their offices; this adds hugely to the fear of being fired. As a result of all this, journalism is now on its knees; a monkey that is afraid to see, hear or speak.

Unless the media owners become sensitive to and protective of the universal values of journalism, the media will continue to suffer. Media freedom in today’s world has become so complicated that it can not be placed in a simple box of “state oppression;” all forms of it must together form a criteria. This is necessary to see a fair and real picture of an emerging, struggling democracy like Turkey.

Previous articles of the columnist