Monday
Jul222013

The Sorry State of Turkish Media

We are still optimistic that what started as peaceful protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in Taksim Square and then turned into widespread protests against the Justice and Development Party’s increasingly authoritarian rule can strengthen Turkish democracy. But before this part protest part political movement can achieve this, it has to overcome a huge barrier: the Turkish media.

Much more than the government’s intransigence, it is the Turkish media’s silence and often complicity that stands in the way of the demands for a more representative and accountable government style turning into reality.

As Daron’s op-ed in the New York Times noted, at the height of the protests while CNN International was reporting live from Taksim Square, the local channel, CNN Turk, was airing programs on penguins and cooking shows. And CNN Turk wasn’t alone. All of Turkish media has been strangely, depressingly silent, or worse, misleading.

This is because most media outlets have been toeing the party line, particularly on topics to which they think the government will pay attention.

The media’s silence has consequences. For example, police brutality towards protesters has been much greater in Ankara and several other cities than in Istanbul (though of course as the international media has been reporting, the disproportionate use of force, indiscriminate use of tear gas and arrests of peaceful protesters have been commonplace in Istanbul too). We first thought this might be because left-wing extremist groups, which have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to hijack the protests in Istanbul, may have been more active and provoking more violent clashes in Ankara and some other cities. But talking to a few people involved with or informed about the protests made it clear that the reason was likely quite different: some have hypothesized that foreign media was in Istanbul, so police brutality there would be reported, whereas vigilance outside Istanbul was up to Turkish media, and their vigilance was no vigilance. So the police could do what they wanted with impunity.

There are reasons why Turkish media is choosing silence or even lies rather than speaking truth to power. Most of the media is owned by companies beholden to the government for their lucrative contracts in other lines of business.

Moreover, the government is willing to use the legal system to go after its critics. As we noted a couple of months ago, Turkey now has more journalists in jail than even China. Just a few days ago, the outspoken journalist Ahmet Altan has been convicted of insulting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (his crime: he wrote a strongly worded , critical column).

But this sorry status quo is showing cracks, as we previously noted here.

 

First, it has become impossible for all of Turkish media to ignore the human side of the protests. So  some journalists have recently started covering the protests and even recounting stories from the viewpoint of the protesters.

Second, the foreign media’s attention has created an opening, perhaps even incentives, for some journalists to jump ship. Last weekend, for example, Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for one of the newspapers most loyal to the government, Sabah, wrote a fairly accurate critique of Turkish media’s complicity in the increasingly repressive atmosphere in Turkey and the role therein of the media bosses. (One disagreement with his otherwise excellent article: the comparison of the role of the media in Turkey to that in countries such as Argentina is misplaced; many journalists and leading newspapers in Argentina, for example, have courageously challenged the power of their president in a way that has so far had no parallel in Turkey).

Third, there are of course always some brave souls such as Ahmet Altan, Yavuz Baydar or the veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, recently forced from his position in another daily because of his bold columns, who are willing to follow their nose and express their opinions (even if they are sometimes wrong). We should pin our hopes as much to their courage and integrity as to the changing circumstances to perhaps one day save Turkish media from its sorry state.

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