Monday, May 16, 2011

Open letter to Ambassador Ricciardone

Dear Ambassador,Welcome (back) to Turkey, and welcome (back) to its mind-boggling, confusing complexities. Rest assured that most of us in the media often feel as perplexed and lost as you, as the layers of reality unfold before us.

I have a full understanding of the caution you exercised when you intended to share some concerns on press freedoms with my colleagues. As I also understand you need all the help you can get from us, to have an eye on what truly goes on.

As a keen observer of the past three decades of violations of human rights and unending problems with freedom of expression, allow me to walk you through the facts, lies, exaggerations and what lies between in the gray areas.

As I complained in my previous article, the media in Turkey is drawn to a polarization as the militancy stemming from the unprofessional tendency to belong to this or that camp rises to new heights every day. This inclination brings my colleagues closer to a blindness to the facts, distortions, fierce partisanship and conflicting narratives. Divisions are sharp, and there is still not a powerful center in the media for the defense of full-fledged democracy and professional freedom and rights.

Asymmetry in the media makes things more complicated. As I pointed out in my former article, disproportionally large segments of the media (a group controlling 65 percent of the ad revenues) continue to be on a crash course with the government and their news and column pages capitalize upon every opportunity to attack -- beyond just “criticizing” -- the government and the ruling party. The element of professional dishonesty has been dominant, but it has been exposed by other segments of the media.

As this large segment continues to elaborate on the “freedom of the press is in danger” narrative, others are opposing it. If you, for example, visit Hürriyet and Taraf, Zaman or Sözcü, you will hear completely different narratives. The more you do, the easier it will be to understand the true nature of the issue: While an increasingly larger part of the press is involved in pushing democracy agenda, lobbying for an enhancement of rights and freedoms, the other parts struggle to defend a position with the aim of delaying democracy, of blocking the steps for further reform, and covering up “dirty truths” of the past.

As you also said, the press here enjoys freedom. True, were it suppressed, we would not experience, for instance, a fiercely oppositional, loud newspaper, Sözcü, to double its circulation and become as powerfully vocal as they have. Diversity today is a fact no honest observer can deny.

In this milieu, there is great confusion about definitions, terms and figures. Many say that there are around 50 journalists in jail.

Is that true? The reputable Bianet website, an independent, leftist news source and human rights monitor largely sponsored by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) in Sweden, claims that there are only four. All of them Kurds and, of course, four too many.

Fifty-eight or four? The confusion is over the applied criteria. The high number refers to journalists who are jailed for alleged crimes that are not related to their professional activities.

It is a big problem, nevertheless. But the lengthy arrests that might turn into a de-facto punishment is a problem here that involves all citizens. Journalists are a loud bunch, and their voices are heard more. But, frankly, limiting the complaints only to jailed journalists is morally wrong because you are asking for privileged treatment for a specific profession, for allegations that have not much to do with our work.

Another moral dilemma is about the recent arrests in the Odatv case. If the reason for it is strictly related to publications, it must be condemned. But if not? Here, the Turkish press is again sharply divided. It is a well-known fact that the website is one of the symbols of the dark side of Turkish journalism, as it has been under fire for severe anti-Semitism, lies, character assassinations and systematic hate speech. As an American you would look at these things differently, but in a country where hate discourse on all levels is a problem for social stability, I truly hesitate to react in favor of such outlets.

Dear Ambassador, in today’s Turkey the real problem is with the 4,000 to 5,000 cases filed against journalists who try to cover politically sensitive legal cases and uncover the details of undemocratic activities. This should stop; it hinders the work we do.

Furthermore, there are around 30 articles in various laws that restrict the the field of journalism, the Law on the Internet being one of them. The judiciary implementing the laws in an illiberal manner is another grave issue. Some newspapers and reporters are bent to their knees under lawsuits. This is where the real issue is.

On a final note, let me humbly express two points: It is crucial that you talk to all parts of the media, collect their narratives in a pool and judge thereafter. Do keep in mind, too, that uninformed or ill-informed interventions by ambassadors of the US may feed anti-Americanism, as the Eric Edelman case proved. Let us keep a dialogue, to understand our complexities together.

18 February 2011

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