Thursday, 10 January 2013

Intimidation Of A Profession In Turkey


Turkey is a very dangerous and depressing place to practice journalism these days. Not that there is any lack of fascinating things to write about. Far from it. There is more than enough to fill several newspapers and hours of television time. It’s just that if you do write about any of the really interesting and controversial developments you have a very good chance of winding up out of a job or, worse, in jail. Besides leading the world in the number of journalists behind bars the country also suffers from stifling self-censorship where intimidated media owners are quick to fire anyone who dares to criticize the government too effectively.

None of this should be surprising in a country where the prime minister recently admitted We have a problem with the media. It is their mission to announce the good things to my people.” So much for the principle of independent media acting as a check on government abuses. But, then again, this disregard of checks and balances should be no surprise either because the same prime minister has also railed against the separation of powers – a concept fundamental to any half-way functioning democracy.

The most recent sacrifices to government’s narrow, restrictive view of the press include a columnist for the daily Milliyet and a team of editors from the once-irreverent daily Taraf. Metin Munir, formerly a columnist for Milliyet, is one of  Turkey’s rare independent-thinking journalists. He is one of the very few who actually reads turgid documents and then points out the glaring absurdities and contradictions in those documents. Very few in the government wanted to talk with him because he could, and did, make them look extremely foolish. One day this independent streak became too much for the paper and he was fired with no comment. Now we are back to the writers whose real pleasure is being photographed with the prime minister during one of his travels.

Protest Against Imprisonment of Turkish Journalists
AndrewFinkel wrote a telling piece about the emasculation of Taraf in his blog Latitudes for The New York Times.

“I had watched with pride Taraf’s battle against the odds. Now, my optimism is gone. . .Taraf changed the face of Turkey for the better on a shoe-string budget simply by trying to do the right thing. What would Turkey be like today if Taraf’s better-heeled cousins in the media had done the same?”

Finkel himself was the victim of the media’s self-censorship when he was summarily fired from the pro-government paper Today’s Zaman after a mildly sceptical piece he wrote.

There are a few brave people still writing sharply critical pieces, but it remains to be seen how long they can survive. Also, some of their pieces appear only in the English language paper which the government doesn’t really care about because very few of its supporters can read that paper.

So far the rest of the world has given Prime Minister Tayyip Erdo─čan pretty much a free pass on the restrictive media policies in Turkey. Geo-politics trumps media freedom every day. And right now with Syria, Iraq and Iran on its borders no one wants to highlight increasing autocracy in Turkey. For the moment the prime minister is free to follow other countries like Russia, China, North Korea, or Saudi Arabia in directly or indirectly restricting what the population gets to see or read.

Groups like the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists write scathing reports on the state of Turkish journalism and even send delegations to meet with Turkish government officials. Stephen Franklin, a veteran reporter who knows Turkeyvery well, wrote a long piece in the recent Columbia Journalism Review highlighting the obstacles and risks that Turkish journalists face every day. But beyond these critiques from professional organizations very few people are willing to rock the Turkish boat very hard right now.

Prime Minister Erdo─čan’s dislike for the media goes far beyond what the local media report on what passes for their news pages. He is also now the Supreme Drama Critic. In November last year He lashed out the immensely popular TV soap-opera The Magnificent Century which is a loose, very loose,serial about the greatest of the Ottoman sultans, Suleyman the Magnificent. While the show is more Dallas On The Bosphorus than any attempt at history it was good entertainment with lots of titillating scenes about what Suleyman got up to with his favourite wife and others in the harem. This infuriated the Supreme Critic.

The Prime Minister Disapproves
That is not the Suleyman we know . . . He spent 30 years horseback.” Yes, well. In a chilling addition, he added “We have alerted the judicial authorities on this and we are waiting their decision … Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson.”

This was enough to make the blood of the producers run cold. If the show is even aired this year Suleyman will most likely resemble a cross between Rambo and the Terminator.

Many of Turkey’s liberals who originally supported the government’s attempts to break the former military-judicial-bureaucratic elite’s stranglehold on Turkey are now having second thoughts. They are beginning to wonder if they simply haven’t replaced one autocracy with another.