Monday, May 16, 2011

Journalists as defense lawyers

Turkey’s media -- the most problematic sector in the country -- has become further polarized with the arrest warrants issued by the judge of the spectacular “Sledgehammer” case. The uniqueness of the trial is beyond question, and so is its political nature. Ten or so years ago no one could have imagined that a large chunk of high-ranking officers could even be prosecuted for crimes of this nature, let alone be put under arrest by civilian courts. Its shockwaves shattered, more than anything else, the media.

It should come as no surprise. Until a decade ago, an overwhelming part of the media was operational as an accomplice for what many today see as the “old order.” It was openly instrumentalized by the various segments of the military tutelage and, while deliberately maintaining an uncritical and obedient stand vis-à-vis the military, neglected the element of public interest in its conduct.

Every time human rights abuses of different segments of the citizenry reached new peaks during the 1980s and the 1990s, they were largely censored or (as in the case of prison riots at the end of the 1990s) watered down by official lies and sheer state propaganda.

The remnants of the professionally bankrupt and ideologically polluted media now face a huge litmus test, and a hardening struggle for survival.

The Sledgehammer case exposed most of it. Ever since a tiny, independent paper called Taraf published massive leaks on alleged subversive activities within the army between 2003 and 2004, the dilemma of journalists became apparent. Where do they stand? How should they react to the revelations, which are explosive in content? What should they do?

Whose side we should be on is a question raised by any journalist, but it comes up on rare occasions. One example is the case of the Spanish newspaper El Pais. When the Spanish parliament was stormed by mid-rank officers, the editors of the paper showed no hesitation to stand on the side of democracy. The conditions necessitate that the press take a stand because it does not survive under repression or tyranny.

There is an interesting asymmetry in Turkey now. When the society in general is supportive of legal efforts to expose anti-democratic activity (as the polls show), a disproportionately large part of the so-called mainstream media is pulled in a hysterical mood to “acquit” all those who stand accused in critical trials such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer.

The more the editors and pundits (mainly from the powerful Doğan outlets) leave their professional roles and turn into the defense lawyers of the suspects -- which they now openly do -- some others in rival media outlets tend to adopt the role of prosecutors. Hence, we are witnessing a sharpening use of language, increased enmity and open ground for revenge.

Is there a middle ground?

The question is that of conscience and honesty. The fact of the matter is that many of our colleagues who are now willing to be identified as defense lawyers for Sledgehammer suspects know that there has been constant anti-democratic activity in the past eight years, led by certain groups of high-ranking officers, which also encompassed sympathizers from various sectors. What united them was the deep contempt, even enmity, of the elected AK Party. The number of journalists who never concealed sympathies for such projects was rather high; many of them were in key positions to “help out.”

But the issue was this: In our private conversations, we knew that they knew what was going on. There was not the slightest doubt over their intentions. Their cruel, visible signs (assassinations, acts of terror, threats, misinformation, etc.) left little room for doubt and much room for fear and uncertainty.

This is the disturbing part. It is not that many of those colleagues shrugged their shoulders when in the 1990s, for example, the local reporters sent wires on summary executions, murders by dirty warriors and “disappearances” of dissidents, this at a time when many of our colleagues were sent to jail for their courage to cover human rights abuses. It is something much more disturbing when a large group of suspects are put on trial for demolishing a democratic order and our colleagues conceal what they have actually “known” and, instead of conveying the people’s expectations of a swift and fair trial for all of them, dishonestly spread the lies that the “judiciary is being politicized.” They waste what little is left of their credibility.

The fact is that Turkey needs answers on who was involved, and to what degree, in coup plotting and junta formations. The answers will depend on the evidence and arguments and court verdicts. Do not believe media figures who act like lawyers.

16 February 2011

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