Nothing else can describe the current state of journalism than the scene witnessed during Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s final rally for the presidential election in Konya.
As the euphoric crowds cheered endlessly, Erdoğan announced that now it was time to invite “our journalist friends” to the stage.
And one after the other they entered from the back door, showered by loud applause. There were some 15 of them, lining up as if this was a rock band ending a long tour.
Many seemed happy, full of smiles, looking delighted that “The Master” had thought of them so highly. A few showed signs of unease.
Taking his place in the middle, Erdoğan asked the question, not to the audience, but to them, pointing to the filled arena:
“How do you like this, then?”
Upon which, one of them responded: “Magnificent, magnificent!”
I watched the footage of all this in sadness, and reflected for a while. My colleagues on the stage were all affiliated with media either strictly controlled by the government, or owned by businessmen who had submitted their outlets for the services of The Master.
I felt empathy for a few of them, about whose professional commitment I have no doubts. Most probably, they felt so intimidated that they had, in fear of being branded a dissenter or troublemaker, no way of refusing to pose onstage. They must have felt helpless.
The Konya episode symbolizes the damage Erdoğan has inflicted on the very integrity of journalism. As with much else, he has also managed to carve deep divisions within the media, feeding an intra-sectoral warfare, the consequences of which will take a long time to repair. He not only refused to meet with the real, serious, critical journalists to answer all the relevant questions — and there are hundreds of them — but also rejected the conditions of a fair coverage for any media not agreeing to be his propaganda mouthpiece.
In its latest report, Ankara-based “Press for Freedom” platform once more underlines the miserable state of the Turkish media, stating that “that a very limited number of media outlets are free from government interference, yet try with limited resources to make an effort to cover the news truthfully in their reports,” indicating severe restrictions in press freedom.
“The majority of media outlets pursue a policy of praising everything the government does, resulting in suspicions that they are financed by the government. Media outlets that adopt a more pro-government stance are rewarded through government-backed advertisements and, allegedly, with state funds. Similarly, while the heads and staff members of the pro-government media are invited to cover trips and events the government organizes, the other, more objective outlets are often excluded from these invitations,” it says.
Nothing seems to stop Erdoğan taking his demonization of journalism beyond all limits. Before inviting “his journalists” to the stage, he once more attacked Der Spiegel for “fomenting chaos” (it had published a long analysis, including critical viewpoints), and twice targeted a well-known colleague, Amberin Zaman, correspondent with The Economist, by calling her a “shameless woman,” “skunk” and a “militant in disguise,” only because she had inserted “Muslims in Turkey” in a question she posed to the main opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
Erdoğan knows very well that targeting journalists serves well in his quest for absolute power and full control over the media.
Each time he manages to have the public boo a colleague, he comes closer to his goals: Fear is now contagious, and the media owners, who remain somewhat distanced from him, find it harder to resist the pressure.
The recent resignation of daily Hürriyet’s chief editor is seen in this context, no matter how much Doğan Media attempts to downplay the suspicions. The word is out that also three of the daily’s critical columnists are under threat of being sacked.
How Erdoğan has approached the media, and the professional conduct of journalism, is without doubt a harbinger of what is to come, if he is elected president. When he kills the free media, the real nightmare will start.