Monday, May 16, 2011

Journalists arrested, media taken hostage

It would have sufficed to write that the recent arrests of two of my colleagues, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, is a misstep that shows how much press freedoms are in danger in Turkey and that the threat against journalists have reached despotic dimensions. It would have eased my conscience.

As a matter of fact, I do certainly share serious concerns over the development in various aspects. The arrests add to the increasing problems regarding the conditions in journalism, and they strengthen the perception that the grip of the authorities tightens over the fourth estate.

The way the Şener/Şık case is being handled caused deep puzzlement, raised more questions than answers and led to furious reactions. The complete lack of transparency in critical trials such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer has begun to damage the public trust in justice -- for exposure and punishment of those responsible for acts of terror, politically organized crime and disruption of democratic order -- and opinion may turn against those cases.

The government’s attempts to refer everything to the “independence of the judiciary” and unwillingness to push for transparency has not been convincing. Some Western capitals are alarmed, consequently, not without reason.

But, knowledge is pain.

Insiders (of our profession) like me -- and some others -- see a bigger picture when discussing the state of press freedoms in Turkey. It is, in other words, impossible to approach the issue without including the nature of journalism some of our colleagues are involved in, and the role of media owners in the professional misery of the sector.

Ahmet Şık is an old friend of mine. I do not have the slightest doubt about his commitment to good journalism, which was proven by his bold work in the weekly Nokta some years ago. Ahmet did continue to work in daily Radikal, and was fired. He fought legally and won his case, but was not allowed to come back. His case was one of the many unjust treatments in our sector, where good journalists were sacked with no reason.

Many of those who today protest Şık’s arrest are the ones who never reacted then.

In a fresh development, we heard by word of mouth (three days ago) that the management of the Hürriyet daily had banned a columnist (Tufan Türenç) from writing, and reduced the frequency of the articles of four others to only once a week. Three of the columnists are well known for their anti-government views.

Whose decision was this act of censorship? Certainly not the government’s. It could never have happened without the direct “orders” of the proprietor of the Doğan Media Group. Some may argue that “government pressure” is behind it, but it will neither be convincing, nor conceal the profound hypocrisy that has spread among the majority of my colleagues like a disease. If (underline if) their fight is about press freedoms, they should have raised hell and asked the proprietor why he refused to take sides with them. They do not and will not. The insincere game of “struggle” ends there: While shrewd media owners do anything to give priority to their commercial interests and fully ignore editorial independence (as they have done for decades), their employees want us to believe that as soon as “political pressure” ends “press freedoms” (in their narrow definition) will be restored.

This is written in order not to legitimize the arrests of Şener and Şık. It is told to present a reality that has much more to it than meets the eye. The media sector in Turkey lost, long ago, its compass and spirit of solidarity. It is now ruled by deep polarization and mutual mistrust. It was a massive pro-militarism hand-in-hand with “owner loyalty” that destroyed what remained of good journalism in the ‘90s.

It left a dirty legacy of a “journalism” which became instrumental in “behind closed doors” conspiracies, disinformation and manipulation. Journalists -- some of them naively -- became tools of power struggles in a sharply complex milieu; others, disguised as “journalists,” were in the service of (secret parts of) the state, bureaucracy and proprietors.

It made all of us personally vulnerable, professionally fragile and in desperate need of independence. This state leaves us with a press that is losing its grip on a crucial role in Turkey’s delicate process of transformation into a full democracy. We may continue to discuss only the victims of the recent process, but it is time for the media to confront itself with the root causes of the condition that it is in.

09 March 2011

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