“The perception of Turkey as a role model in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region is related to its economic success and also political developments. Its ability to carry out this role will also depend on its success in democratization,” stated the final declaration of the meeting, organized by the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV) at the 27th Abant meeting, titled “Different Perspectives on Turkey,” on June 22-24 in the Turkish province of Bolu.
The five sessions at the Abant meeting -- democratization; foreign policy and the Middle East; EU accession; economic development; and media -- are designed to allow for open discussions, not expert panels, among participants about the issues at the top of Turkey's agenda.
In the last session on Sunday on the media, Jenny White of Boston University opened the debate by pointing out the media’s role and asking if the media is a force to encourage democratization or vice versa.
Freelance journalist Claire Berlinski said that in her seven years in Turkey she has yet to meet anyone who trusts that the news in the Turkish media tells the truth. Her words drew reactions from some of the participants. Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş said making broad generalizations like this would be a mistake. Fatih University’s İhsan Yılmaz said the trust issue is a concern all over the world and is not specific to the Turkish media, as countries that are champions of free speech in the media also have problems in that regard.
There were others who said the issue should be a concern for the Turkish media no matter how big or small the problem is because it would be wrong to think that if others do it, we can do it as well.
Another issue that was highlighted was the ownership and concentration of news outlets in the hands of businesspeople.
The issue of imprisoned journalists was also a matter of debate. Cafer Solgun of the Confrontation Association said the problem related to freedom of speech is not a new phenomenon in Turkey and that in the past journalists were imprisoned because of their perceived relation to communism. He also said government officials point out that there are no journalists imprisoned because of their journalistic practices but because of their ties with terrorist organizations. “If we believe this, there are no journalists in prison,” he said. The final declaration of the Abant meeting highlighted all the issues debated over the three days.
20-point declaration emerges from Abant meeting
1. Turkey’s culture is at present characterized by a susceptibility to in-group/out-group tension, the effects of which impede democratization. Authoritarianism and patriarchal hierarchy are aspects of group culture that are reflected at the family level and scaled up to the political level as majoritarian democracy and internally undemocratic institutions. Two basic institutions that reinforce these patterns are family and education.
2. The development of institutions is important for democratization, for instance, the judiciary, legislative and executive bodies with the appropriate separation of powers, but the culture of people in these institutions can also hinder democratization.
3. Individual rights cannot be ensured without rule of law because if people cannot rely on the state to act fairly and to protect their rights, they must turn to groups for this. Their rights are then dependent on the group. This is especially important for vulnerable groups such as women.
4. Turkey needs a liberal democratic constitution effectively protecting human rights. Turkey has made considerable progress in terms of democratization. It should be noted that the transition takes time.
Foreign Policy and the Middle East
5. The diversification of Turkish foreign policy is positive. The gap between Turkey’s ambitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and its capabilities to fulfill them should be narrowed.
6. The perception of Turkey as a role model in the MENA region is related to its economic success and also political developments. Its ability to carry out this role will also depend on its success in democratization.
7. Adding new dimensions to Turkey’s foreign policy, including advanced relations with Middle Eastern and other neighbors, does not replace the importance of full EU membership for Turkey.
8. The period preceding 2015 is a great opportunity not only for Turkey but also for Armenia to rethink how to deal with the events of 1915.
9. While Turkey’s EU accession process includes reciprocal economic benefits, it is mainly about reciprocal improvements in values, standards and democracy.
10. We welcome the visa-liberalization process, with the final aim of lifting the visa requirements. This will show that the EU matters in the daily life of the people and will hopefully revive enthusiasm for joining the EU.
11. The deadlock in Turkey’s accession process is a result of the Turkish government slowing down efforts towards accession and the EU and the EU member states blocking chapters.
12. Turkey’s economy has made remarkable progress during the past decade. However, success has brought with it serious problems, including the current account deficit. Diversification of trade while maintaining existing partnerships is necessary in order to minimize risk.
13. The government should continue investing in education and infrastructure, with a special emphasis on innovation, added value and inclusion.
14. Measuring developmental success with solely economic indicators can be misleading. Inclusive development strategies that emphasize independence, the environment, renewable energy, regional disparities and income distribution should be adopted.
15. The existing polarization in Turkey’s society has direct positive and negative effects on the media. On the one hand, it allows a rich variety of opinions being reflected in media outlets, strengthening the culture of pluralism and democracy. On the other hand it leads to biased reporting, which creates a lack of trust by the public in the media and a lack of empathy between media groups.
16. The criminal code and its values are still focused on protecting the interest of the state or organizations and groups rather than on freedom of speech and the rights of individuals, resulting in legal harassment, incarceration and general indifference to victims of harassment.
17. Problems in Turkey’s media relate to professionalism, work ethics, freedom of speech, corporate relations and political-cultural influences, which for example result in gender discrimination within the profession. However, these problems are not unique to Turkey and they manifest all over the world in different proportions.
18. Minority newspapers should not be ignored and they should be treated equitably.
19. Journalism curricula must include classes that relate to fundamental aspects of this profession such as ethics, reporting and responsible media.
20. Diminished income levels and labor rights in the media sector is making journalism less attractive and causing the loss of qualified people from the sector. It also makes journalists more vulnerable to influence.