The tone of the meeting in İstanbul was immediately set by the words of Brankica Petkovic, director of the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, who coordinates the large-scale media integrity projects of the South East European Media Observatory (SEEMO) in the Balkans and Turkey.
One issue, among many other grave ones in our troubled region, is the waning public trust for the media, and what lies behind it: concerted efforts by powers to strip the public interest dimension from journalism.
“The obstructions and disrespect for public interest in the media are the result of corrupt relations and practices that are integrated in our media systems,” Petkovic said. “These corrupt relations and practices, including political clientelism, have been evolving and interplaying to the point [where they have become] a system of [their] own.”
Then, sweeping through the entire southeastern flank of Europe, with Turkey one of the focal points, she added: “Media ownership is not transparent. Even when formal owners are known, data on real owners and/or on the source of investments are hidden. Media ownership is not gained for and driven by strategic business interests in the media market, but by political interests to control, and use media for the promotion of [self-interest] and disqualification of the opposing political agenda, or by particular business groups that use the media in clientelist relations with political groups — seeking to achieve various ‘rents’ and concessions.
“Media [outlets] that do not serve the interests of the public are corrupt. Corrupt media [outlets] spell the death of democracy. They are deeply antidemocratic institutions that transform the state into a private company.”
How then, would it be ever be possible to set realist objectives to break this harmful pattern of media dependent on private centers of power and make it dependent on the public itself?
This is not an easy question to answer.
Gloom dominated the meeting in İstanbul yesterday, organized by SEEMO and the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), as the journalists wrestled with the increasingly alarming picture of the Turkish media. One after another, news outlets are falling prey to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government through the seizure of media groups, which then metamorphose into privately owned “information bureaus” that are used for power and which are suddenly occupied by a new breed of employees who are untrained in journalism and who nevertheless head up key positions in newsrooms and write columns as propagandists.
As some speakers pointed out that since the national broadcaster, TRT, and the Anatolian agency are now more tightly tied to the AKP government, the seizure of Koza Media outlets, the soon-to-fall mentality surrounding the Zaman media, now thought to be about to face a similar measure, and with the daily Cumhuriyet shortly to be subjected to a large-scale financial inspection, there will not soon be much left of an independent public service media in Turkey.
Some at the meeting agreed that this pattern, with different undertones, has taken root in the region, as the EU has failed to offer a free space to let independent journalism flourish.
This led to a criticism over what they believed to be a grave shortcoming of the EU dynamic, in Turkey and the Balkans; principally that it failed to strengthen the public service broadcasters and that by only seeing the media sector as yet another private sector in a ‘lassez-faire’ spirit, did not do much for public interest-oriented journalism at all.
Although there was an overall consensus on transparency of ownership being an absolute necessity, and that the public had a right to know who owns what in the media sector, one participant disagreed and used some interesting arguments.
“In areas where power takes control, directly or indirectly, of media companies and outlets, it may be necessary for some critical proprietors to challenge such power through non-transparency,” he said.
“Non-transparent structures may have benefited those who fell prey to the power holders, they will have had cover and protection through [such structures]; but a transparent, critical media group or company may be very vulnerable to takeovers in countries where respect for the law ceases to exist. This is what happened to the Koza media group. It was flawless in its paperwork, but that led to its downfall. It is not pleasant to say so, but hiding behind second-hand ownership helps the critical media to remain in operation.”