Monday, May 16, 2011

How to defend media freedom?

Starting tomorrow, I will be in Paris for a few days to engage in a media debate on two crucial topics: Freedom of expression and self-regulation in journalism. Both events will take place at UNESCO’s headquarters with people from all around the world attending.

The issues are interrelated and will never go away. Freedom of expression is a holy arena for democracies -- more so for emerging ones -- but requires a great deal of common sense and professional responsibility. That is why media accountability is a necessity: The more open and transparent the press, the easier it is to fight all sorts of despotism attempting to curb the media’s freedom.

The case of the Hungarian government versus the media was made fully visible in a growing debate that made it to the European Parliament. The new media law in Hungary paves the way for governmental control over all media activity. The content of news and commentary is under the risk of being examined by the very politicians who are the subject of the news and commentary. No matter how much the new Hungarian law contradicts the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), Viktor Orban’s government seems to be indifferent.

If the media does not defend its traditional values and its role as an independent Fourth Estate, then nobody will. The examples of France and Italy show that it may even be tough for the media in established democracies to resist attempts from above to intervene in editorial content and push for censorship.

The Turkish example is also under constant supervision. It should be. The case of Turkey is problematic and complicated.

The problem arises with the applied criteria, which can be misleading.

All the international organizations monitor measures by the state apparatus, government and political power circles against the media and prepare the judgments therein. But in (South) Eastern Europe and Russia there is a phenomenon that is almost always out of the monitors’ radar: In the privately owned media landscape, the role of greedy, militant, corrupt proprietors in terms of applying censorship and causing self-censorship is proven with many examples.

“If the media owners were not involved in the thievery that went on for years here, our colleagues in those places would feel much bolder to report on the corruption and to inform the public properly. They became by the pressure of the corrupt owners part of the machinery of lying,” complained a Greek colleague of mine.

The debate on media freedom here goes in several directions. First, there are those colleagues (pundits, not reporters) affiliated with the Doğan Media Group who “confess” that they apply self-censorship because of the “fear of the government.”

They are deceiving themselves. It has been, in all cases, not the government but the owner who dismissed the columnists. They should blame their bosses because some of those dismissed columnists continue to write -- without fear -- in other anti-government outlets, such as the Sözcü daily, which is constantly growing in circulation, and Cumhuriyet.

So, the “I fear the government” discourse is a lie, a manipulation.

In a nutshell, there are two main problems that keep Turkey’s media freedom on shaky ground. The first one has to do with the legislation and the second has to with the ownership concentration in the sector. They are inseparable.

By any measure, the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s suing Ahmet Altan, a bold, award-winning columnist who has helped break many taboos and revealed many stories from behind the armor of the military, is unacceptable. It follows the pattern that each time a politician or a bureaucrat feels insulted, he or she goes to court. This should stop. Simply because it will not stop people from continuing to write critically about those in power, as Turkish experience has shown for decades.

The government has to amend articles in the Penal Code, the Press Law and the Anti-Terror Law that have caused almost 5,000 criminal investigations and lawsuits, mainly against reporters. These articles seriously paralyze the professional actions informing the public. Hate speech must be banned.

Further on, the government should remove the part about “insulting Atatürk’s memory” from the Internet Law, and replace the term “obscenity” with “pornography.” If it does these simple things, 90 percent of the problems will vanish.

Finally, in order to enhance freedom of the media, the government should pay attention to recommendations by the Council of Europe and put an end to ownership concentration, which is still in place. Currently a single media group controls 65 percent of all advertisement revenues, with 45 percent in print. Limitations are crucial for a pluralist, competitive market. To complete the job, the government should ban media owners from public tenders, restrict cross-ownership and allow more than a 50 percent share of foreign capital in the audiovisual media.

24 January 2011

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