The emotional issue of domestic violence in Turkey, where almost every day five women are killed by men, has engendered very heated debates recently due a newspaper photograph that displayed the half-naked body of a woman laying flat on a stretcher with a knife in her back, stabbed by her husband.
“We felt as if we were lying on that stretcher. We felt like we saw ourselves there,” said Sakine Günel from the İstanbul-based Feminist Kolektif, which has been campaigning against domestic violence.
“Presenting the news of violence against women in such ways makes women feel threatened and insecure,” Günel said in reference to the use of the photograph of domestic violence victim Şefika Etik, 38, who reportedly fled her physically abusive husband less than a month ago and took refuge in a women’s shelter. Her unemployed husband persuaded her to return home and allegedly attacked and stabbed her in the back.
In its Oct. 7 edition the Haber Türk daily ran a graphic, poster-sized photograph of Şefika Etik titled “At the last point of domestic violence” on its front page.
A large number of readers sent their reactions to various journalism associations complaining that this was “irresponsible journalism” that violated the victim’s rights and was disrespectful of readers. The newly established Media Ethics Platform on the same day issued a “Reaction against Haber Türk’s death pornography!” and referred to codes of ethics in journalism.
The Press Council issued its “condemnation” of Haber Türk on Oct. 12. Some news commentators called for the resignation of the daily’s chief editor, Fatih Altaylı, who despite several calls did not issue an apology. Instead, he wrote in his column that he will “not apologize” and would continue “to disturb” people because all he wants to do is to attract attention to the matter of violence against women.
“We don’t believe him,” Günel said. “It’s clear that he did it in order to increase the circulation of the paper.”
To protest, some women’s rights groups gathered in front of the daily last Sunday with placards bearing such slogans as “We don’t want media that are enemies of women” and “Media, do not be an accomplice to violence.”
“The issue is ethics in the media. The media ethics debate does not steer clear of the issue,” said Çiğdem Aydın, chairwoman of the Association for Education and Supporting Women Candidates (KA-DER).
“Altaylı’s explanation is not convincing. The biggest reaction to his use of the picture came from women’s rights organizations. It is a picture that uses pornography and violence to attract attention, and it did not attract attention to violence against women because its intention was not that,” she added.
Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal from the Capital City Women’s Platform, based in Ankara, shared this view and said that when violence becomes that “visual,” then people get used to it instead of reacting to it.
“There is a need for studies about how the media’s presentation of news related to violence against women influences the perpetrators of those crimes,” she said.
Meanwhile, some members of victim Şefika Etik’s family said they would pursue their legal rights over the use of the picture in the daily vis-à-vis the violation of Etik’s privacy.
Despite all the criticism, the daily’s circulation did not show a significant decline. By the end of last week, it was clear that a significant portion of society had reacted to the usage of that picture, but there was some approval too.
For example, Ruhat Mengi of the Vatan daily wrote that publishing that photograph was neither as offensive nor as wrong as people claim it to be. She quoted Serpil Sancar, head of the Ankara University Women’s Issues Center, who said: “This photograph illustrates the violence women have to face. I don’t think showing the truth is bad. Seeing blood sets the conscience in motion.” Mengi does, however, agree with concerns that the photograph of a woman stabbed in the back could be traumatizing to children, especially since it was on the front page.
“This is not an issue about a man and a photograph. This issue is part of a larger problem,” said lawyer and women’s rights activist Hülya Gülbahar in reference to a draft law she is currently working on to protect women and family members from violence.
The new amendments to Law No. 4320 on the Protection of Family, titled “Draft Law to Protect Women and Family Members from Violence,” will be introduced in Parliament by Fatma Şahin, the newly appointed minister of family and social policy, in a move to combat the increasing number of cases of domestic violence across Turkey where almost half of all women say they have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their husbands or partners.
Gülbahar is worried that it might be impossible for the media to present news of violence against women if the draft law includes an amendment restricting freedom of press in the name of protecting the privacy of victims of violence.
“The way Haber Türk presented the story hurt our cause. It has to be dealt within journalism ethics,” she said, and drew attention to the kind of measures needed to combat domestic violence.
She pointed out that that sometimes the problem is how the laws are implemented and that women need protection before they are subject to violence, as researchers found that restraining orders are usually given after a violent act has occurred, even though the law says that as soon as there is knowledge of a case of violence against women or if there is a suspicion that violence might occur, prompt action should be taken.
Another problem involves the neglect of duty by law enforcement officers as they tend to tell women who suffer from domestic violence and who ask them for help that they should solve the problem “inside the family.”
Activists say too often those women are not told that they have rights when they first turn to the police. They become aware of Law 4320 much later; they are not made aware of the fact that they can have access to a lawyer for free if they lack the resources to do so.
There are additional problems. Only 70 shelters exist in Turkey, a country with a population of more than 75 million. However, according to the Municipalities Law if an area under the jurisdiction of a municipality has a population of more than 50,000, that municipality is required to open a women’s shelter. If the law was enforced, there would be 3,800 women’s shelters in Turkey.
Gülbahar recalled that the former Ministry for Family and Women’s Affairs had asked for a proposal from women’s groups after the well-publicized case of Ayşe Paşalı, who became a symbol of domestic violence. Paşalı was stabbed to death in December of last year after her pleas for protection were ignored by authorities.
Minister Şahin rolled her sleeves up to better the draft law and received praise from women’s organizations for her hard work. Şahin told the media last week that she will also ask the chief of General Staff and the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate for their support in raising awareness among men to combat violence against women.
But Gülbahar said the job is not complete yet.
“We should continue to work together to perfect the draft law,” she said as some of their suggestions are in the law, some are not.