For the past several months, CPJ staff has been researching pervasive press freedom problems in Turkey, including the criminal prosecution of journalists, the use of governmental pressure to engender self-censorship, and the presence of a repressive legal structure. This month, CPJ will release an in-depth report on Turkey’s press freedom crisis. In advance of our report, we are publishing this illuminating interview with Yavuz Baydar, ombudsman for the Turkish newspaper Sabah and columnist for Today’s Zaman. The interview was conducted via email.
Nina Ognianova: In recent years, under the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has been one of the world’s top jailers of journalists in various press freedom rankings. Compared to pressures on journalists in Turkey’s past, how does the current wave of arrests and other forms of pressure on the media fare? Is this an unprecedented crackdown?
Yavuz Baydar: First and foremost, this is not unprecedented, and it is not a crackdown on Turkish media in general. Let me explain.
Turkish media was not truly independent until the mid-1980s. The worst was experienced in the early ’70s and after the military coup in 1980, during which newspapers were strictly subordinated to the emergency rule commands and hundreds of journalists were in detention or frightened. So although I would describe the current situation as utterly worrisome and fully unacceptable, I would be cautious as not to overdramatize.
If there is a crackdown–and there is–it is much more about the Kurdish colleagues, activist-publishers, and Kurdish publications. Out of approximately 95 people whose cases constitute the base for domestic and international attention, around 75 to 80 are Kurds. Most of their cases fall under the category of crackdown, because Turkish authorities interpret the problematic Anti-Terror Law to obstruct freedom of expression. The law in its vagueness gives all the possibilities to arrest people with other accusations than the practice of freedom of opinion and information, which makes it tough for us all to distinguish whether or not accused people are militants or journalists. This is, of course, all linked to the bleeding Kurdish issue and PKK warfare in Turkey.
But regardless of all such, this makes the case of Turkey’s suppression of press freedom more of a case of freedom of expression–and almost entirely a Kurdish one.
Then we have a group of people, accused of co-conspiring for a coup with top officers and others against the elected government and parliament. Mustafa Balbay, Tuncay Özkan, and others in the context of Odatv fall into this category. This section is an entirely different category, where the accusations are so substantiated that almost all the applications of the suspected colleagues, claiming that they were indicted and jailed because they are journalists, were rejected by ECHR [the European Court of Human Rights] in Strasbourg. Do I agree with ECHR on this? Yes. Do I also agree with ECHR that they were held for far too long in jail? Absolutely.
But coup is a very serious crime.
I think, therefore, that these people–a dozen or so–should be tried while on free foot; there is far too strong evidence to keep the public suspicions alive that their cases be dropped altogether. Crime is a crime: If no colleagues of decency in Britain claim that their colleagues involved in phone-hacking case not stand trial at all, so would we claim that they should be given freedom until a fast and fair verdict.
NO: What has the effect of the recent pressures on the media been on the press corps in Turkey? Is coverage in Turkey chilled? Have journalists started to self-censor? Are there any taboo topics that journalists and their editors/media owners are afraid to touch?
YB: First, the Kurdish media feel enormous heat. They have been operating under the Sword of Damocles. But despite hardships, they continue to give voice to the debate. Their disturbing flaw being, of course, too tied to the PKK and praising its violence and glorifying its illegal existence. This will continue to cause problems.
Also, Turkish media’s coverage of the Kurdish issue and PKK’s acts and role have been increasingly limited. Here I refer to the mass-circulation dailies in the so-called “center,” be it pro-government or not. (There are, of course, others, such as daily Taraf, Yurt, Birgün, weekly Aksiyon, and minors.) I refer also to the private news channels such as CNN Turk, NTV, Bugün TV, TV24, and almost all others, which impose stiff editorial filtering.
It is all because of the media owners of these outlets acting as “the coalition of the willing” that openly act submissively to the government and security bureaucracy. I can only refer to a key meeting between the PM and all the media proprietors last autumn, during which media owners went as far as proposing themselves to the PM that they can build a “censor commission” among themselves, to be chaired by a cabinet minister. The PM declined the offer, but the message was taken well. In the case of Uludere, where 34 Kurdish smugglers were bombed to death due to a tragic mistake, there was a full blackout in that media for 17 hours while the news flow was instant and heavy in social media. This pattern of blocking is now the norm.
NO: What has motivated the government to go after journalists at this particular time? Why the mass arrests now?
YB: As I explained, the main cause is the bleeding Kurdish issue and terror. An overwhelming bulk of the detained are Kurds.
There are no mass arrests of journalists; have not been. If we speak about the KCK case (linked with PKK’s local-regional networks), we may use this term. Otherwise, it would be misleading.
NO: Some observers have connected the recent crackdown on the press with the prime minister’s personality, which they have described as confrontational. What is your take on that?
YB: One elderly colleague described the situation as the “tall shadow of the Prime Minister over the media, growing ever taller” type of metaphor, which explains it.
Yes, there is a character factor. Mr. Erdoğan has become increasingly tense, uneasy, defensive, and downright furious with dissent and criticism by the media and many columnists, also reporters. He has become louder, and gone into an “angry teacher” mode, mocking the “pupils” and telling them how to report or comment. This has led, he discovered, to his increased popularity in a country where the media have always ranked low due to past sins.
But “heavy presence” is not equal to crackdown. Jailed journalists are mainly Kurds, and the rest accused of coup plotting; the real consequences of his “long shadow” are felt on media outlets through volunteering media owners acting as lackeys/sycophants day by day imposing censorship in the newsrooms. So what the Turkish journalist (as opposed to the Kurdish one) today fears is not jail, but being unemployed.
Some examples of this were seen in cases where a popular columnist or a TV anchor suddenly, with no apparent reason, was told to go.
The problem is there is no voice that stands up to the PM, to make sense, that it is self-destructive to try to create a monolithic press landscape in a country where a tradition of diversity and pluralism and competition is far too strong; fear of jail is far too little.
No government in Turkey could control a media with 40 daily national newspapers, 250-plus private TV channels, 1,300 radio stations, and Internet where at least 11 news portals are operative.
In conclusion, there is no crackdown on the media here, but growing control, decreasing (if any left) editorial independence in the center, and a climate of self-censorship not imposed by the political power but by the economic power (owners) who act in their own financial interests.
The worst and critical part is that, at the moment, there is no media owner in the “center” who cares or stands up for the decent conduct of the profession. Not long ago, lashing out at some columnists, the PM addressed the media owners as “shopkeepers.” Not a single word of protest came from those humiliated; yet abroad they were very keen on repeating that “media freedom in Turkey is in danger.” Instead, they hire and fire people, with attention to the “sensitivities in Ankara.” (None of the media outlets allow trade union activities in their territory.)
NO: Turkey’s press is quite partisan. Why is that? Where does this partisan nature come from? Could you give a little context to that?
YB: It is true. You could say the press was, for decades, under the spell of Kemalism, the official ideology, rather than Journalism. This was comparable–to an extent–to Soviet press practices. Although the climate changed after World War II, as Turkey entered NATO and applied pluralism, Kemalism remained an internalized guide in journalism. It respected all its taboos, acted as parrots in nationally sensitive issues, and remained as an extended part of the regime based on a military-led tutelage.
This also meant that as much as it glorified the military, it was as cynical and disrespectful of democratic mechanisms, free vote, etc. Overall, it backed all the undemocratic moves by the army, coups, or undue interventions into civilian politics. The state traditionally penetrated into the newsrooms, with people linked with secret services, and there are very strong rumors that some key opinion writers were even on the state’s payroll.
Kemalism is still internalized in the center, Atatürk remaining a taboo. Even the Islamist/post-Islamist press has Kemalist features, as it publishes front pages full of Soviet-style pictures and clichés on national holidays and commemorations year after year.
Yet partisanship has other faces, too: There is a strong press tradition in the left and in the conservative right. This has played out to the extreme when the AKP unleashed a reform process, which meant breaking one taboo after another, and the Kemalist core of the press is now in either retreat or dissolution.
This has been very painful. Also, the cases of journalists jailed in the Ergenekon type of contexts are interesting, because they showed through evidence presented to courts (such as genuine diaries, etc.) how far some people in the Turkish media could go to battle a party they did not like.
NO: How long can media diversity and vibrancy last if the pressure on the media in Turkey continues with its current pace?
YB: This is a very important question. The future of independent, efficient, strong press for Turkey looks bleak at the moment. The gloom has some reasons: The continuation of AKP (which has done, doubtlessly, a lot of good things for keeping Turkish perestroika alive) as a single, massive, unchallenged force leads to a media that is forced to increasing submission because of the lack of a strong main opposition. The CHP, in main opposition, cares even less about media freedom and free speech than the AKP, which poisons the climate.
Then the worrisome pattern goes on: While the rules of the game in the media landscape remain unchanged, unreformed, what changes are the actors, new proprietors. Turkey’s media owners are–like drug addicts–dependent on the powers in Ankara because they are in all sorts of businesses, need approvals for growth and investments, etc., and therefore keep their media outlets either as weapons for extortion or, at best, at the service of governments.
For any progress, we need steps in several dimensions:
- Around 40 articles in various laws (Anti-Terror Law, Internet Law, the Penal Code, Radio-TV Law, and Press Law) must be amended in favor of freedoms.
- New rules on limitations of media ownership must be brought in.
- Media owners who are in other businesses than publishing must be banned from entering public tenders.
- Cross-ownership must be severely restricted or banned.
- New Trade Union Law must be passed to enhance job security (thus editorial independence) in the media.
- The public broadcaster, TRT, still goes on in Cold War style, strictly controlled by the government. It must be reformed to be given autonomy or independence.
- Media proprietors must be made aware of the specific nature and social role of journalism, and act as bravely as their employees.
NO: The Turkish authorities have recently proposed amendments to legislation that affect the press, including amendments to Turkey’s anti-terror and criminal laws. But many domestic and international critics consider those amendments only cosmetic. How do you assess the amendments? What has prompted the government to propose them?
YB: We still have not seen any progress on the issue. It will remain to be seen whether the so-called Fourth Package will ease the tensions. I remain skeptical until it happens. Until it happens, we will be operating in a suffocating atmosphere. In conclusion, let me say this: The outside observers tend to make believe that this is all about jailed journalists. While the urgency and priority of the issue is clear, no one should ever believe that once all of them are released, Turkey’s media freedom issues will be resolved. No. They will all remain, in effect, as threatened and frustrated as they are.