Rock bottom for Turkish media?

I had never thought it would come to this. I must say that I was prepared for most of it, but was caught completely off guard by the rest.

It took place during the 2014 World Press Freedom Awards’ Gala, which has traditionally been organized by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Towards the end of every year the CPJ gathers some 900 guests, and journalists, to honor the heroes who suffered while conducting their job.

As I said, I was prepared for all sorts of questions, because that day, which was last Tuesday, was the day President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had declared that men and women were born not equal, were not equal and would never be.

That was also the day when the “utterly liberal” chairman of Parliament’s Corruption Investigation Commission, Hakkı Köylü, from the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), managed to secure a gag order from a court for all the stories related to the interrogation of the AK Party deputies accused of corruption.

I was machine-gunned by questions as the evening proceeded to the award ceremonies. I was stunned, I must say, by the overall reactions in such a sense that I soon found myself having déjà-vu recalling the time after the 1980 military coup when it was common practice to target and ban newspapers and arrest journalists.

The overall perception of Turkey and concerns among my distinguished colleagues from Britain, Latin America, Europe and the US were, to say the least, striking.

Then came the “death blow”: As I proceeded to my table, I was stopped by a colleague from (mainland) China.

“Isn’t it terrible?” she asked me.

“What is?” I answered.

“The situation for journalists and press freedom in your country?”

I must have been blank for some seconds. Then I collected myself and mumbled politely something like, “It is, although it must not be terribly uplifting in China either…”

That was the end of the conversation.

No other words were necessary.

Perhaps this conversation says something about the perception, now so widespread, that it circles endlessly around the globe, but beyond that lies the ugly reality: We as journalists have never had it so bad. This sense is partly due to our own belief that our profession is not far from its last breath; it is walking on its last legs.

The gag order — the latest in a total of 149 since 2010, and 24th this year so far — is just one symptom of the situation. Another is the number of journalists charged since Dec. 17 of last year, after the publication of stories on corruption: 16.

Two reporters from daily Yurt were handed five months in prison each for their coverage of the corruption investigations, as was another one from the Ulusal channel. Aysun Yazıcı, a reporter with the daily Taraf was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in prison for the same activity.

And so on and so forth.

The CPJ declared in New York that the number of jailed journalists in Turkey is as low as seven. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders disagrees slightly and says that the number is 19, of whom 12 are Kurdish journalists.

There seems to be a downhill trend, but even if the AK Party manages to nullify the jailed journalists, the question of whether “Turkish media is on its last legs” will not lose anything of its validity.

Indeed, there is no reason for optimism. The number of jailed journalists in Turkey — as elsewhere — has never been the ultimate criteria in measuring the demise of journalism.

As more and more at home and abroad start realizing, the ruling AK Party under Erdoğan has mastered a cunning way of bringing the media under maximum control by cooperating with the shrewd and greedy media proprietors, who are busy firing the journalists who defend their professional role.

Firing has replaced jailing as a method of punishment. The trend is making resistant journalists unemployed and unemployable. Fear is so widespread that only the journalists who self-censor can find jobs. This applies to pro-government media as well as conglomerate media groups, such as Doğan, Ciner and Doğuş.

The glimmer of hope is that 12 independent news outlets, in print and online, including Today’s Zaman, declared that they will defy the gag order on the corruption inquiries. Turkish media is still resisting; that is the good news.

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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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