As journalists celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday here in Turkey another historic event in the sector also took place. The Milliyet and Vatan dailies changed proprietors in a ceremony that was attended by most of the staff of both newspapers.
Milliyet has been part of the strong tradition of journalism in Turkey, it was once led by the legendary editor Abdi İpekçi, a social-liberal intellectual who was murdered in 1979 by Mehmet Ali Ağca (who attempted to murder the Pope John Paul II some years later) in the center of İstanbul. Both newspapers, which belonged to the Doğan Media Group and have now been taken over by the Demirören-Karacan venture, have devoted professionals, but the ceremony had a somewhat bitter, uncertain air to it. Some of them felt sad that they were traded like serfs in the Middle Ages without being asked or consulted. None of them, not even those in the highest positions in the newsroom had been given any information about the sale. At the ceremony they were ignored, I was told by a colleague.
It is part of the sad reality of the already burdened profession, revealing a lot of clues about the respect for, and the editorial independence of, the Turkish media. Some of my readers may feel that focusing on ownership issues is an obsession. On the contrary, it is one of the key issues when one discusses the media sector. Sadly, the established corporate culture, which is heavily dependent on the powers that be in Ankara, deliberately hindered journalism over the past two decades from developing into a domain of rights and freedom and to remain loyal to its core values. One certainly hopes that the sale of Milliyet and Vatan, which weakens the unfairly strong domination of the Doğan Media Group in print, will encourage a return to the basics once emphasized by İpekçi, but it is a small hope.
Today, we -- many concerned journalists from Turkey -- will gather in Brussels to discuss media freedom issues together with colleagues from the Balkans at a big conference called “Speak up!”
Let me summarize my viewpoints on the current situation in Turkey. The latest report by Freedom House, which describes Turkey as “partly free,” is a serious indicator of a deviation from the Copenhagen Criteria. There are several factors that require an SOS signal when it comes to free speech issues and press freedoms.
1) The laws: Five legal codes that “cover” the area are all problematic. The Turkish Penal Code (TCK), the Internet Law, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) Law, the Press Law and the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) include more than 25 articles that curb freedom, and many of them are implemented in ways that are fiercely in disfavor of the media.
2) Legal precedents: The high judiciary continues to set precedents that consolidate a climate in which the media and individuals publish news and comment in fear and under threat of being prosecuted.
3) Arrests and prison sentences: Long arrest periods have become the norm. Because of the blurred formulations of restrictive articles, it is impossible to distinguish where free journalism ends and where “crime” begins. The TMK causes serious problems in that context. No journalist should be put under arrest for professional conduct.
4) The government: It must stop addressing the press in menacing terms and “encouraging” prosecutors to take action on exercises of free speech that it does not like. It lacks respect for the diversity and independence of the media.
5) Parliament and a culture of intolerance: In the past nine years of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule, there has been almost no example of either a stance or a push for pro-press freedom by the opposition as a whole. On the contrary, it was the Republican People’s Party (CHP) that added the “humiliation of Atatürk clause” to the Internet Law. Both the CHP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) remain indifferent to a change to Article 301 of the TCK, free speech rights in Kurdish and harassment of their Kurdish colleagues. Today, Parliament as a whole is part of the problem, not the solution.
6) The judiciary: Its role as a “pro-restrictive” force in cases related to journalists covering politically charged cases like Ergenekon and also stories about the judiciary itself leaves no doubt. There is also reason to believe that a part of the judiciary piles up thousands of cases to make life difficult for the government, simply because it is hostile to it.
7) Media proprietors: It is they who are fully responsible for sanctioning the firing of columnists for political reasons, in order to appease the powers that be in order to gain and expand economic favors granted by such powers. None of them seem to have understood that their role does not include daily interference by shaping the content and front pages of newspapers, or what is broadcast by the TV stations they own; a politically/economically corrupt media cannot in a credible manner cover corruption and monitor those in power. They are the cause of “primal fear” among journalists today here, the fear of being fired for what they write and publish.
8) Editors and journalists: They are too polarized to defend their freedom and independence, not only against political powers but also against financial ones. They must also set an example through respect for diverse opinions in their own institutions and not silence people because of their views. They need urgently to discuss ethical issues before politics.