US-based watchdog Freedom House’s “Freedom of the Press 2014” report, which downgraded Turkey from the category of “Partly Free” to “Not Free,” has sparked a strong debate about press freedoms in Turkey while attracting harsh criticism from top Turkish government officials.
Erdoğan dismissed the criticism leveled against his government over the poor state of press freedom in Turkey on Tuesday, arguing that the Turkish media are freer than the media of most European countries.
The prime minister struck a defiant tone, lambasting those who complain about what they claim is the deteriorating press situation in Turkey.
Critics say the government has a tight grip on the media through pressure on the owners and editors of media outlets, while Erdoğan has countered with a disputable claim that the Turkish media are freer than the media in most advanced Western countries including the US and Germany.
Following the release of the report on May 1, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that press freedoms in Turkey are much better than in North Korea, which is in the “Not Free” category of the Freedom House report along with Turkey.
Several government media outlets, which usually produce the same headlines, vigorously attacked the head of Freedom House, David Kramer, using the fact that he is Jewish in an attempt to discredit the report. The Turkish government uses anti-Western and anti-Semitic rhetoric when faced any criticism, especially after the graft probe that erupted in December of last year, and the prime minister explains such criticism as a “foreign plot” by people who envy Turkey’s success around the world.
Davutoğlu complained publicly about Turkey being in the same category as a country such as North Korea, where there are no free elections. He even asked Turkish journalists to unite and stand up against the premise of this “unjust” report, as it insults Turkish journalists, according to Davutoğlu.
Freedom House’s project director of Freedom of the Press, Karin Karlekar, said on Tuesday that the “Freedom of the Press 2014” report reflects the worsening conditions of media freedom in Turkey. Making a statement after the strong criticism from Turkish officials, Karlekar said: “Instead of being questioned about the content, we are attacked for our supposed motives. We prepare this report every year, and judge Turkey according to the same criteria that we use for every other country in the world. Turkey was downgraded to Not Free because of the worsening media freedom situation.”
A worrying exchange between a Zaman correspondent and Davutoğlu has revealed the differences between the media and the government over press freedoms.
Sounding like a threat to journalists rather than an attempt to reassure the public about press freedoms, the foreign minister avoided a question from Zaman correspondent Servet Yanatma last week at a press conference by suggesting that if a journalist can go home without any repercussions after asking highly critical questions that implicitly insult government ministers, then this is an obvious indication of the degree of press freedoms in Turkey.
Yanatma, later that day, posted the message “Thank God, I got home” on his personal Twitter account.
“I don’t think a member of the press has the freedom to ask such a question, which implies an insult to that country’s prime minister or minister, anywhere in the world [except Turkey]. Being able to ask such a question in this room is a clear indication that the Freedom House report is baseless and that one can ask any question at any platform [in Turkey],” Davutoğlu said.
“If a member of the press has the freedom to ask a question directly or indirectly insulting that country’s prime minister at a press conference held by the foreign minister and that the journalist can easily go home, if he can continue to do his work tomorrow, if he can ask such a question at another press conference, then there is no need to say more. This is an obvious indication of the freedoms in Turkey. I don’t need to say more,” he added.
Zaman correspondent Yanatma, addressing Davutoğlu at Monday’s press conference, said: “There is lively discussion on press freedoms in Turkey. You have expressed your views on this before. But I see that there is confusion about the definition of press freedoms. According to your definition and understanding of press freedoms, is it normal for a prime minister to call the top manager of a media group and interfere with the ticker tape on the TV channel’s broadcast? Moreover, is it normal for the same prime minister to call another official at a media group, question the source of a story and threaten the media official? And lastly, is it normal to take a journalist into custody just because he took photos at a rally?”
Mehmet Fatih Saraç, an executive at the Habertürk daily and TV station made the headlines in early February when a phone call between he and Prime Minister Erdoğan was leaked onto the Internet, revealing that Erdoğan had instructed Saraç to censor the broadcasts of opposition leaders.
In a leaked phone conversation claimed to be between Erdoğan and Saraç, the prime minister is heard instructing Saraç to remove a Habertürk news ticker quoting Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli, who called for President Abdullah Gül to step in and ease the tensions during the Gezi Park protests of last June.
Apart from not being able to get a chance to ask a question, a journalist who dares to ask a critical question is often the target of personal criticism. Davutoğlu, despite his claim that the Turkish press is free, almost never reveals his foreign visits in advance or until it is too late for journalists to work on the subject.
Usually the trips are announced on the same day that he travels.
According to Turkish diplomats, Davutoğlu prefers to work with only a small group of people around him, and most of the time even the ministry spokesperson has no idea about recent developments on any issue, let alone being able to answer questions from journalists.
Turkish diplomats are instructed not to speak to the press. Davutoğlu, who used to take journalists with him on his foreign visits, opts not to take journalists anymore, except members of the government media.
During a May 9 “press conference” with four ministers, including Davutoğlu, at Ankara Palas, only two journalists had the chance to ask questions. Both were working for the state-run Anadolu News Agency.
The other journalists attending the press conference raised their voices, protesting that they could not ask any questions, but to no avail. EU Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Interior Minister Efkan Ala and Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ, along with Davutoğlu, came together for the 29th meeting of the traditional European Union reform assessment program, which was developed with the aim of supervising the work being done to meet the EU political criteria and tackling bureaucratic obstacles to encourage faster and more effective implementation of reforms.
“It is not understandable for some EU member states and EU officials to make statements about the democratization package, basic rights and freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, the press and the freedom to organize, which are improving every day with the [government] reforms, that encourage certain circles that exploit the [EU] process,” said a written statement from the EU Affairs Ministry after a meeting of the Reform Monitoring Group (RİG).
Tanju Bilgiç, Foreign Ministry spokesperson, was appointed to this post in mid-January and began work in February. There has not been a single press conference from him so far. Most of the time, he is not available to give even factual information, let alone a quote. According to diplomatic sources who spoke with Sunday’s Zaman on condition of anonymity, there is not much for Bilgiç to do, as not providing information to the press is the Foreign Ministry’s policy.