Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Refocusing on press freedom

In his analysis on Monday, Ömer Taşpınar highlighted two main points on how Turkey in the post-referendum period is perceived in the US capital. The positive part is, Taşpınar wrote, that there is no doubt across the ocean that Turkey is consolidating its democracy by a resounding “yes.”
But, he underlined, “There is a perception among important segments of the US punditry and more importantly the US government that the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party is becoming more authoritarian. The reason for this perception is primarily the tax penalty exerted on the Doğan Media Group.”

He went on: “It was a bad idea to exert such a heavy and irrational tax penalty on the Doğan Media Group. In addition to the ethical problem and the ‘freedom of the press’ dimension of the penalty, it was also bad politics, mainly because this tax penalty constantly overshadows democratic developments in Turkey. The penalty allows the Doğan group to argue that media freedom had never been more endangered in Turkish history. Such exaggerated allegations are of course baseless and false but they still resonate in Washington because of the pervasive negative image of the AK Party.”

I read Ömer’s column as I entered a meeting with prominent colleagues representing a wide range of Turkish media to discuss “Media, Democratization and Self-Regulation in Turkey” under the auspices of UNESCO, the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Present were outlets such as Hürriyet, Sabah, ATV, NTV and some voluntary “media watch” organizations.

After intense and profoundly frank talks, I decided to comment on US perceptions on the “Turkey and press freedom” issue, revisiting some key points, which obviously misled some segments in Washington, D.C., either due to severe exaggerations, as Ömer emphasized, or spin.

Let us begin with a fresh and developing story. Bekir Coşkun, an outspoken and very popular columnist, was fired on Monday from the Habertürk daily, a newspaper owned by the Ciner Group. Coşkun told Internet news sites that he was fired because of “his opposition to the government.”

A couple of weeks ago another columnist, also known for her ultra-secularist views, was shown the door. Mine Kırıkkanat, an (ex-)columnist with the Vatan daily wrote that the motive was political. Her editor claimed in a letter to her that what she wrote was “unethical.”

Kırıkkanat had called for not sending any aid at all to Pakistan’s flood victims, implying that they as Muslims did not deserve that.

It is very simple to deduce that in both cases the owners decided to fire them, not the government.

Is it that easy to fire people working for news outlets? It happens almost every day. The very media owners who act this way are the ones who dismantled every trade union structure from their media companies, leaving job security constantly vulnerable in Turkey.

It is no wonder, then, that all my colleagues within such outlets put the blame entirely on the government, pushing forward the argument that “press freedom is in danger,” simply because they have been stripped of their right to unionize and do not dare raise their voices in unity against the owners.

The very fact that not even a single journalist with a conscience has declared his or her solidarity with big media conglomerates and their owners is telling enough: Ownership structures and abuses of journalists’ integrity exercised by media moguls are remembered with experiences of pain and harassment in the collective professional memory.

The simplistic view among American pundits and power circles, based on raw linkages between punitive measures on media and its freedom, must be nuanced, because it perpetuates chronic and fundamental problems in Turkey’s troubled and bruised media sector.

Those who cling to the view on Doğan tax evasion case must first clarify: Are they concerned because a media company has become a target of tax scrutiny or because the penalty figures are too high? This is not clear. Nor enough.

The fundamental problem has to do with the behavior of media proprietors. As experience shows, the same criteria for “quality” do not apply to, say, an owner of an energy company and a media company. The latter works mainly on principles and trust, and for this it needs something called editorial independence.

Those who draw an equation between tax evasion and press freedom must talk to the entire press corps of Turkey, including a vocal critique of the government, Emin Çölaşan, who wrote a book about his experiences in a censoring corporate culture.

They must also solve the following puzzle: If the press freedom is really in danger, how come a newspaper like “Sözcü”, a ruthless oppositionalş paper, not only survives but also constantly increases its circulation.

If they do, they will find the right way:

The path to press freedom will be opened if the government in Ankara regulates the shares in media property area, blocks loopholes to monopolization, bans cross ownership, stops by law media owners entering public tenders and passes the Trade Unions’ Law in the parliament.

This is the logical way to create a diverse, more independent and free press that competes freely, and invalidates cheap arguments based on corporate self-interest.

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