Accreditation seen as hidden form of censorship in Turkey

Accreditation seen as 
   hidden form of censorship 
   in Turkey

February 12, 2007, Monday/ 20:20:00/ ZAFER ÖZCAN

The Hrant Dink murder will be remembered not only for its shocking impact but also for the imprint it left on the press. Apart from debates on polluted information and manipulative reporting, the largely abhorred murder caused a chronic problem of the Turkish media to resurface: accreditation.
The accreditation of TGRT TV, which broadcast camera footage of the suspect Ogün Samast -- who was taped with the Turkish flag in hand -- and claimed that the footage was taken at a gendarmerie station, was revoked by the Turkish General Staff. Unless the TV station is re-granted accreditation, its reporters will not be allowed in military facilities.

Accreditation is, in fact, a fairly recent phenomenon that has only spread after diversification in the media. With the influence of the opening up during Prime Minister Turgut Özal's governance, the number of media organizations operating in various areas has dramatically increased. Private TV stations, which began broadcasting in the 1990s, became the turning point for the transformation from the single-channel era to the diverse broadcasting world. The diversification created the need for accreditation. Today, a number of state institutions, including the General Staff, resort to accreditation and restrict the access of the disliked media organizations into the institution concerned.

While accreditation is announced publicly for some occasions, sometimes only certain reporters and organizations are invited to official events, where the undesired are left out through non-invitation. Perhaps for this reason, the invitation of Vakit daily columnist Hasan Karakaya by the prime minister on his flights attracted a great deal of attention because Vakit has so far been excluded from these kinds of trips due to its bitter opposition to previous governments and severe criticism of the leading figures of public institutions.

Prime Minister Erdoğan's latest Lebanon trip was interesting in the sense that it demonstrated the military's accreditation practice was a concern to be addressed in politicians' programs. Two journalists on Erdoğan's trip, Mustafa Ünal from Zaman daily and Mehmet Ocaktan from Yeni Şafak daily, were not General Staff accredited. It was argued even before the trip that this situation would cause serious problems. Eventually, a formula that would not cause a crisis and damage the accreditation list was created, and only the Anatolia news agency was admitted on the trip as the press representative.

This preserved the accreditation practice, yet it also prevented General Staff-accredited journalists from stepping into the military unit in Lebanon. The Anatolia news agency formula is actually a fairly common practice in Turkey. Institutions free of ideological concerns and eager to escape from press inquiries got rid of media pressure by relying upon the state's official news agency. Only Anatolia and the official Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) were admitted to the wedding ceremonies of the prime minister's son and of famous soccer player Hakan Şükür.The fundamental problem with accreditation practices in Turkey is vagueness. The institutions relying upon this practice are often reluctant to publicize their rationale behind their specific preferences. Member of the Press Council Supreme Board and communication specialist Professor Haluk Şahin stressed that accreditation should be based on objective criteria. But what can this objective criteria be? For instance, only allowing newspapers that exceed a certain level of circulation, the visual press or only domestic or international press representatives would be few newspapers. Professor Şahin contends that nobody would object to such a clearly defined accreditation practice. "But discrimination based on ideological concerns or other similar reasons may have negative repercussions. You do not know what to do in order to be entitled to accreditation. The institutions that comply with the preset rules should be given accreditation. Today, each eminent institution should also restructure itself as a communications organization. This is the only way to manage the communication processes in the information age. We are no longer a closed society."

The Press Council made an attempt in May 2003 to ensure the adoption of objective accreditation criteria. Chairman Oktay Ekşi invited the General Staff to announce their accreditation criteria. In a statement made after the meeting held by the General Staff to address the representatives of the accredited papers, the council underlined that the meeting was right but the invitee list was short. Recalling that the eagerness of the General Staff to inform the public via the media was a good indication for the operation of democratic system, the council also stressed that the best thing to ensure fair and objective dissemination of information was the invitation of the press representatives on a non-discriminatory basis.

The council noted that some leading media bodies, including Kanal 7, Samanyolu TV, Zaman daily, Yeni Şafak daily, Vakit daily and Dünden Bügüne Tercüman daily were left out in the General Staff's accreditation list. Asserting that this situation caused doubts to arise about the objectivity of the accreditation criteria of the General Staff, the council called on the General Staff to announce its criteria. In an unsurprising reply, the General Staff said there was no change in its accreditation criteria.

Four years have passed since this response. The accreditation list still remains the same, except with one exception: TGRT television station is now included among the non-accredited media organizations.

Galatasaray University faculty member and media critic Ragıp Duran describes the treatment of TGRT by the General Staff as institutional censorship rather than an accreditation practice. Duran holds that every public or private institution should be able to rely upon the accreditation practice to better publicize its media events. But he also underlines that the cancellation of credentials should be invoked only in the presence of serious, persistent and deliberate mistake of the correspondent. In such cases, the institution and the media organization should take joint action and probably assign a new correspondent who won't make the same mistake.

However, in a recent incident, the entire media organization was subjected to punishment because of a mistake committed by one correspondent. Duran describes the attitude of the General Staff, which cut its ties with TGRT rather than requesting a different correspondent, as censorship.

Accreditation at a funeral?

The most interesting example of the accreditation practice in Turkey was the funeral ceremony held for Güven Erkaya, a commander involved in the Feb. 28, 1997 coup, known as the post-modern coup. For the first time, religion became a factor in accreditation. The restriction imposed on the fairly conservative dailies was justified on the grounds that those papers had published harsh criticism after the death of the commander. Another interesting example was found at Istanbul University under the rectorship of Kemal Alemdaroğlu. Even though the "religious press" was affected by the practice the most, almost all press was left out of the accreditation process. The only way to get into the campus was to schedule an appointment with a faculty member and pretend to be a visitor. With the election of Professor Mesut Parlak as rector, Turkey's oldest university abandoned this practice.

Another interesting dimension of the accreditation practice reveals itself in the positions of the columnists who change newspaper affiliation. Switching from an accredited paper to a non-accredited one is risky for a columnist.

Columnist Cengiz Çandar who was non-accredited when working for Yeni Şafak daily, is now accredited as a columnist of Referans daily. However, he is not interested in the accreditation practice in general. As a victim of the notorious Feb. 28 process, Çandar opts to question the practice: "If there are press organizations that the General Staff maintains cannot be admitted into official events, then why are they allowed to be in operation, anyway? If these non-accredited institutions are not allowed to follow even the briefings released for public use, then should they not be banned from the broadcasting world?"

Accreditation starts at the top

The accreditation process starts at the top of the state in Turkey. Turkey was in the near past accustomed to the discrimination of the president, who made statements to the journalists he felt close to. The stance of President Sezer is different, but it is also compatible with the basic logic of accreditation. The attendance of the president, who had never attended any event held by press organizations, at the inauguration ceremony of Kanal Türk, drew attention as well as criticism. Many press representatives viewed the president's attitude as discriminatory. The presidency has been the focal point of public debate during Sezer's term. For the last seven years, citizens with different worldviews, including those wearing a headscarf, were denied admission to the presidential building on grounds that their situation was contrary to accreditation rules. Even some Justice and Development Party (AK Party) deputies were not invited to receptions because of their veiled spouses.

Today, the combined circulation of papers not accredited by the General Staff is 1,040,000, which constitutes one-fifth of Turkey's total national circulation. Considering that this would also mean that the readers of the non-accredited papers are also non-accredited, with the buyers and their families about 4-5 million readers are viewed unfavorable. And if the 12 million veiled citizens who are virtually denied admission by the president are included in this figure, then almost half of the country falls into this category.

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