Polarization and press freedom

The award for the most untrue quote related to press freedom goes to Egemen Bagis, Minister of EU Affairs. He wrote in “Today’s Zaman” newspaper (a religious and very pro-government daily): ‘Today in Turkey there is not an issue or topic that cannot be discussed. Everybody in Turkey can freely discuss his ideas and everyone is free to express their opinions, beliefs and lifestyles.’ I wonder how he can dare to say such things, with dozens of journalists in jail and hundreds of court cases pending against journalists and writers.

The topic of press freedom is discussed widely these days in Turkey. By different groups in different ways, which makes it a great metaphor for the polarization in Turkish society.

Let’s start with the case of Bekir Coskun, famous columnist for daily newspaper Haber Türk. Well, he was a columnist there, and recently got fired. In general it’s assumed that he was fired because he was too critical of the AKP government. The AKP, they say, puts so much pressure on papers that don’t support the government (like Haber Türk) that they feel obliged to fire the most opinionated columnist. It’s true that Prime Minister Erdogan has criticized press critical of him in strong words – totally unacceptable, but was this behind Coskun’s dismissal? People who are already anti-AKP are sure that that’s the case. Today’s Zaman of course writes that it had to do with a quarrel over Coskun’s salary.

What really happened is not known for sure. Fact is, though, that it again raised concerns about press freedom. And the tensions were high already, especially since the campaign for the referendum on constitutional change in September. The papers with journalists and columnists voting ‘No’ to the constitutional change package, say they felt they couldn’t publish their opinions freely. Also opposition party CHP says that since the referendum campaign, there is more ‘fear’ among journalists. The CHP is afraid that this fear will increase before the general elections, planned for next summer. So now they will publish a report about press freedom in Turkey. They will send it to the EU too, in several languages, to convince ‘Europe’ that press freedom is under siege in Turkey.

It is of course; the CHP is right about that. But just how sincere is the CHP? And how sincere are other parties that express their concern about press freedom in Turkey? All groups in society speak out for the press freedom of the group they support.

Let me give another example:

There are several journalists in jail who are suspects in the Ergenekon case. (You can read several short articles and blog posts about or related to Ergenekon on this website, search for ‘Ergenekon’, well I did that for you, click here). Some of them were arrested two years ago, but they are still behind bars. Without being convicted for anything. These men are not suspected of murder or such things, so there is actually no reason to keep them in prison. They could even be acquitted in the long run, which would mean they are in prison now for no reason. A shame, because all they could do when they are set free is pick up their pens again and write.

The CHP, which basically thinks the Ergenekon trials are political and only used to silence AKP opponents, visits these men in prison and supports their case. Great, but they do not support the journalists from a newspaper that has the most court cases filed against them, the daily Taraf. They reveal coup plans and are very critical about the army, and there are trials against them every day. Does the CHP speak out for the Taraf journalists? No they don’t, because in their eyes the Taraf journalists are the ones causing trouble for the Turkish army, and the CHP supports the army. And the Taraf journalists, do they speak out for their colleagues who are in jail for allegedly being involved in Ergenekon? No, they don’t, because they attack the power of the army, and don’t support their colleagues who are jailed for connections to alleged coup plotters.

In the end, the group of journalists most in trouble in Turkey are Kurdish journalists. Most of the court cases are against them, or against the Kurdish papers and magazines they are writing for. Taraf actually speaks out on the Kurdish question, but do the big newspapers (that now cry out about the fear the AKP incites) put the pictures of Kurdish journalists on the front page when they are on the way to court, like they do when one of their own journalists is charged? No, they don’t. Maybe they should: the front page would have a picture like that almost every day. Now that would be a statement!

The main stream papers are (of course for good reasons) in shock when one of their journalists is charged. They protest over increasing ‘fear’, but close their eyes to the ongoing trouble faced by Kurdish journalists, who are not confronted with just ‘pressure’ but with long jail sentences, countless court cases and repeated bans on their media. Some mainstream media feel pressure now; there is apparently self-censorship and that’s censorship of the worst kind, but in general, you can say they operate within state guidelines. They obey the ground rules: don’t anger the army, don’t write anything that could be in any way seen as support for the PKK, don’t criticize Atatürk, to name a few. It would suite them that now that they feel Erdogan’s pressure, they would really open their eyes and columns for the broader picture of press freedom in Turkey. And risk more court cases in so doing.

I’m afraid it’s all wishful thinking. Kurdish journalists speaking out for journalists jailed in the Ergenekon case, hand in hand with their colleagues from Taraf. The CHP and the mainstream anti-AKP press protesting against the continuing harassment of Taraf journalists. Zaman columnists strongly bashing Erdogan for some speech in which he again warns the media. Only then would I be totally convinced of their real concern for press freedom, rather than just their own interests and opinions.

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