More and more, Turkish journalists feel they are unable to work freely and that they face the risk of losing their jobs at any moment due to growing pressure on the media to conform to a certain viewpoint, prominent journalists have said, warning that democratic development cannot take place in a country where the media is tamed and kept under close government scrutiny.
Last week Yavuz Baydar, a longtime columnist and ombudsman for the Sabah daily, joined the ranks of journalists who have lost their jobs due to opinions differing from those of the government.
He was fired from his post at the Sabah daily due to his anti-government stance in his articles regarding the Gezi Park protests. Before he was fired, Sabah's editorial board had refused to publish two of his columns related to the Gezi protests and media-government relations.
According to figures that the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) announced last week, Baydar was not the only journalist who was fired because of his stance on the Gezi protests, which began in late May in protest of government plans to demolish Gezi Park in İstanbul's Taksim Square. It says that at least 22 other journalists have been fired and 37 others were forced to resign from their posts since May because of the Gezi protests.
Baydar's dismissal came several days after he wrote an article for The New York Times that revealed the deepening ties between media owners and the government at the expense of freedom of expression, including editorial freedom.
“The problem with regard to press freedom is getting worse and worse with every passing day in Turkey,” he told Sunday's Zaman in a phone interview.
The columnist acknowledged that there is no problem with the diversity of Turkish media but that there are grave problems when it comes to its independence and freedom.
“Journalism is becoming like a field planted with mines. The government's failure to make the necessary laws and reforms to maintain press freedom and amend the Counterterrorism Law [TMK] [used as grounds to take legal action against journalists] undermines the freedom of the media, leading to long detention periods and punitive measures taken against journalists,” he said.
Some articles of the Press Law, the TMK and the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) are frequently used to prosecute journalists in Turkey.
A report prepared by the Republican People's Party (CHP) and released last weeek has shown that 71 people are currently in prison on account of their activities as journalists, with 20 of them having been convicted on terrorism related charges, while the cases of the remaining 51 people are still being heard.
The problematic relationship between media owners -- who run businesses in many different fields and take part in public tenders -- and the government is also another factor that greatly weakens the media's independence.
“Turkey's rapidly growing economy has caused such greed that media owners regularly counteract the judgment of professional journalists who are trying to do their jobs on behalf of the public. Editorial content is strictly controlled by media bosses who have other business interests and are submissive to the government. With, or more often without, any direct government intervention, they impose self-censorship on a daily basis and silence colleagues who defend basic journalistic ethics,” Baydar said.
According to the 2013 World Press Freedom Index from the Paris-based Reporters without Borders, Turkey ranks 154th on a list of 179 countries when it comes to its performance on press freedom.
With such a poor record on press freedom and crippled editorial independence, Baydar said it is not possible for the Turkish press to perform true journalism in the slightest way possible, let alone take the process of democratization in the country a step further.
He explained that in countries like Turkey that are going through a process of confrontation with their past mistakes and are trying to normalize and achieve domestic peace, an independent and free media plays a key role.
“Despite a varied and lively media, Turkey lies in an unworthy position as the regional model which it aspires to be. In the name of the fight against terrorism, democratic Turkey is, today, the world's biggest prison for journalists. The state's paranoia about security, which has a tendency to see every criticism as a plot hatched by a variety of illegal organizations, intensified even more during a year marked by rising tension over the Kurdish question. Will the announcement of reform of the antiterrorist laws, promised many times but always rejected, and the resumption of talks between the authorities and rebels of the Kurdish PKK [Kurdistan Workers' Party], lead to a genuine change in approach?” Reporters without Borders queried in its report.
Journalist Hasan Cemal shared the same fate as Baydar after attracting the government's displeasure with an issue of the Milliyet daily, where he published the minutes of a meeting between imprisoned terrorist PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and Kurdish politicians. The daily's publication of the minutes drew an angry reaction from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who condemned Milliyet and Cemal in public. Cemal was forced to resign after an article he wrote on media freedom and independence was rejected by the daily's owner, the Demirören Group, which is very active in various business fields.
Commenting on the bleak picture of Turkey's press freedom, Cemal told Sunday's Zaman that the situation of the media in Turkey is “desperate” and that this desperation can be seen in the situation of democracy in the country as well.
“Freedom of expression is a sine qua non for a democracy, and this can only be possible through the freedom of the press and the media,” he said.
According to Cemal, if there is a sincere wish to have political stability in Turkey, which he said is the viewed as the number one priority in the country, the way to achieve this is to have a first-class democracy, first-class laws and the supremacy of law.
“Those who fail to understand this simple reality will not only lead Turkey to isolation in the world, but they will also chip away at the peace and calm in the country over time,” he said.
With regards to Baydar's dismissal from the Sabah daily, Cemal said it was a very terrible development in the desperate course of the Turkish democracy, adding that he thinks Baydar will not be the last victim of a lack of press freedom.
Baydar was surely not the first nor the last victim, as Gürsel Göncü, editor-in-chief of the recently shut down history magazine NTV Tarih, was forced to resign from his post early this month after a decision was made by the Doğuş Group to shut down the magazine due to its cover story on the Gezi Park protests.
The majority of the Turkish press performed poor journalistic work during the Gezi Park protests, which went nationwide due to the police's use of excessive force against demonstrators. They turned a blind eye to the demonstrations that had turned Taksim Square into a battlefield. The indifference of these media outlets to such a massive public incident was, according to many, due to their owners' fears about infuriating the government, thus placing their commercial interests at risk.