Turkish media a punch bag, Internet next battleground

Bugün, Evrensel, Yurt, Birgün, Zaman, Yeni Çağ, the Cihan news agency, Samanyolu Haber TV, Aydınlık, Ulusal TV, Kanaltürk and Today’s Zaman.


Those are the names of the 12 news outlets that were banned from covering a key event in Turkish politics on Thursday, when the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) said farewell to its leader, President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in what was termed the turning point for a “regime shift.”

The apparent marginalization of parts of the press is a reminder of how little — if anything at all — has changed in terms of (dis)respect for media freedom. In earlier times, when the tutelage was “owned” by the military, the format was the same; any newspaper or TV channel that was seen as an “adversary” — i.e., critical — was systematically banned from accreditation.

Now that the AKP under Erdoğan has chosen to take over the tutelage — instead of burying it forever — the punch bag will continue to be this profession of ours.

The measures show how all the congress talk about a “new Turkey” equipped with freedom and respect is illusory. The reality is ugly, and it may sound ostentatious but it will be much, much uglier in the domain of freedom of expression and the media.

The recent incident in Çanakkale illustrates where things are heading.

In an underreported development, İlhan Kaya, the publisher a local newspaper, Demokrat, was arrested simply because he talked critically of Erdoğan over the phone when he was in the Çanakkale Teachers’ House. Some representatives of the house intervened, threatening Kaya, while attempting to block him from what they called “demeaning the high people of the state.” Police were called in and Kaya was arrested and, in his words, “forced to give a statement” without a prosecutor’s order.

Over the recent years, event after event has caused grave concern, and it has now come to this. Do not talk critically of “our masters” or you face trouble. If the scandal inspires outrage, then worse is yet to come.

After their speeches, it is now apparent that both President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu read the term “new Turkey” as the one whose main criteria will be measured by how subservient and uncritical the media (and how subordinate the judiciary) will be.

This means that the integrity and honor of journalism will be the defining battleground, where the resiliency of journalists will be tested under disproportionate siege conditions.

In terms of resistance, conventional media (newspapers and TV) fight the “small pockets.” It is only the Zaman and İpek Media, and to a certain extent the Doğan Media, groups that are facing growing financial pressure. Likewise, independent dailies Cumhuriyet, Taraf and Sözcü are under similar stress.

Three large media groups — Demirören (Milliyet and Vatan), Ciner (Habertürk) and Doğuş (NTV) — have resorted to a non-critical, heavily self-censored “production.”

The rest is what can be termed “partisan press” like what Birgün does, focusing more and more on reporting rather than opinion, but their readership is small.

This means that roughly more than 80 percent of the conventional media in Turkey is either under government — meaning Erdoğan — control or strictly submissive.

Nobody should be surprised if, in a year from now, we have an immense pro-government press and a tiny and largely partisan press, both of which lack quality reporting.

This has already resulted in a large shift of independent news operations onto the Internet. The most recent, rather gloomy Freedom House report, titled “The struggle for Turkey’s Internet,” astutely predicts that the Internet will be the next battleground between authoritarianism and decent journalism.

The recent successful “experiments” in banning YouTube and Twitter illustrate that the prospects are not good. The country’s chief telecommunications provider, Türk Telekom, continues to hold a monopoly over Internet infrastructure and broadband services, despite its privatization in 2005. “With Türk Telekom still 30 percent state-owned, the independence of the country’s dominant Internet provider is a matter of serious concern,” Freedom House said.

Note: It has been an intense summer. Some time off is much needed. I will be back writing this column on Sept. 12.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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