Professional journalism? Not in Turkey!

Blue murder is being cried over the lack of press freedom in Turkey. You never hear about the other side of the medal: journalists give themselves too many freedoms. Journalist Banu Güven: ‘Extreme language and polarization sell.’

There is a huge red board in the hallway at Hürriyet, one of the biggest papers in Turkey: Our Basic Principles of Publishing. Twenty rules by which the journalists of the paper have to abide. On one: ‘The essential function of journalism is to inform the public as soon as possible about the truth, without changing or exaggerating it.’ The ombudsman of the paper, the experienced and respected journalist Faruk Bildirici, thinks it is important the rules are posted on the wall, but says: ‘They are broken every day.’

Faruk Bildirici

Check Hürriyet, or any other Turkish paper. Factual, objective reporting is hard to find. As a matter of fact, often it’s not even attempted. One interesting recent example is the reporting on the death of the young Turk Ishan Gürz in a police station at IJmuiden in the Netherlands, early in July. English language daily Today’s Zaman, offspring of the huge Turkish language Islamic and pro-government paper Zaman, specializes in letting its reporting about Muslims who die under suspicious circumstances in Europe get totally out of hand. Without any proof, the headline in the paper soon after Gürz’s death was: “Turkish man dies after severe torture in Dutch police station”. Consequently the death was immediately seen from the perspective of increasing Islam phobia in Europe.

That’s exactly what happened two summers ago after the murder of Arzu Erbas, owner of a children’s daycare centre in Amsterdam. Even when it became clear that the murder had nothing to do with Islam phobia or racism, but that it was Ms Erbas’ extramarital affair that got her into trouble, Zaman kept on writing about hatred of Muslims as motive for the murder.

‘In daily practice, the ethical codes don’t mean anything’

You could call it the other side of the Turkish press freedom medal. The one side is very well known: there is censorship in Turkey, self censorship too, there are dozens of journalists in jail and hundreds of trials of reporters of varied backgrounds (see boxed text). That journalists in the meantime permit themselves extraordinary freedoms in their daily reporting and don’t care about basic journalism rules, is hardly a matter of debate.

Dogan Tilic

Dogan Tilic, professor in journalism ethics at ODTÜ university in Ankara and vice president of the European Association of Journalists, lists: ‘Sexism, nationalism, hate: Turkish papers are full of it every day. Almost every paper and TV station has an ethical code like Hürriyet, but in daily practice they don’t mean anything. That’s because of the most important rule in Turkish journalism: Never go against the interests of the owner.’

On the press freedom index of Reporters without Borders, Turkey this year fell to 138th place, one step above Ethiopia. The worst score in a decade. According to a recent report by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, there are 57 journalists jailed in Turkey at the moment (some of them on remand), and there are around seven hundred cases pending against journalists.

Journalists who report on the Kurdish issue and the PKK from a Kurdish perspective, have the highest risk of getting into trouble. They are usually charged with ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’, leading to long prison sentences. There has never been much attention paid to that in mainstream Turkish media. Now that journalists with other backgrounds are also being arrested, like the ones under suspicion of involvement in coup plans, the indignation and solidarity among Turkish journalists is growing.

Almost all media in Turkey are part of conglomerates, which are also involved in banking,  insurance, mining, food and household products, construction, you name it. The motives behind running a paper or TV station are seldom journalistic and usually purely financial. Dogan Tilic remembers a colleague who worked for a paper whose owner was also in chicken. Tilic: ‘They had to write on a daily basis about chicken and the benefits of white meat. Until the ownership of the paper changed hands, after which chicken was off the pages.’

The same applies on a larger scale. Newspaper companies are also in mining, so there was not too much attention paid to a potential environmental disaster earlier this year concerning a silver mine. The same goes for the construction of dams: there is a lot of civil resistance against the construction of dams in natural parks, but you hardly hear about it. And the negative consequences of the wave of privatizations? Hardly news, because media owners bid on state companies being privatised. Related to that: companies can’t be too critical or revealing about governing party AKP, because companies which are not befriended will miss out on lucrative deals.

To sell these papers with the (for the owner) most beneficial mix of news and opinion as much as possible, a sauce is poured over it that the average Turkish news paper readers really likes: nationalism, polarization, sensation, sex and sexism. Anti-Kurdish and anti-Armenian sentiments are stirred up, and in the reporting about domestic violence it seems as if the women who are killed by their husbands are themselves guilty (‘She went out at night without permission and now she is dead!’). Whenever soldiers die in the fight against Kurdish separatist movement PKK, then there is always a paper whose front page the next day is covered with a huge Turkish flag. When recently thirteen soldiers were killed and serious doubts were raised about the question whether it was really a PKK attack or a huge mistake on the part of the military, hardly any paper dared to seriously report about those doubts.

And then there are the ideologically inspired papers, TV stations and ‘journalistic’ websites. Zaman, one of the biggest papers at the moment, belongs to followers of the very popular though controversial Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, and so supports the government and doesn’t publish anything that doesn’t match its convictions, and writes a lot about other enterprises owned by Gülen followers. The Gülen followers also have TV stations. The once important but now marginalized and nationalist paper Cumhuriyet defends the republic, the Turkish army and the rest of the powers that be, and takes every chance it gets to pillory people who think differently.

‘Children of Moses’ has been on best seller lists for years

One step further than that: books and websites. Did you know the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his wife secretly have Jewish roots and conspire with the Israeli secret service to… Well, it goes too far to reveal the whole conspiracy theory here, but the anti-Semitic and racist book is called ‘Children of Moses’, has been on best seller lists for years and is given a cachet of believability because it’s written by a ‘journalist’. The writer, Ergun Poyraz, is now in jail for alleged involvement with Ergenekon, a shadowy network of people who supposedly wanted to overthrow the AKP government. The same goes for Soner Yalcin, editor in chief of OdaTV, a nationalist website. Journalists? Or ultra-nationalists who hammer a sign with ‘journalist’ on their door to give some authority to their articles, and howl with others about the lack of press freedom when they are arrested?

You could just say the Turkish media are a crystal-clear mirror of the political balances in the country and shrug your shoulders at it. But there are deaths to be mourned. The media were one of the powers behind the murder, early 2007, of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. The deeply rooted sentiment that Armenians are traitors was well exploited by some media. And so the underdogs in Turkish society – from Kurds to Armenians, from students with a headscarf to gypsies – are the victims, while they would be getting some support if there was a more professional press which published facts instead of deadly sentiments.

A journalism aimed at peace and understanding

Hürriyet’s ombudsman Bildirici uses the word ‘peace journalism’. ‘We should develop a journalism that is aimed at peace and understanding’, he says. ‘I report monthly to the board of directors about discrimination and hate in the paper, but it doesn’t help much.’ Also on his weekly half page column in the paper he can’t write what he would like to write. Like when the paper published pictures of bodies of dead soldiers and readers responded that they found that disrespectful. Bildirici: ‘I thought: we didn’t get such critics when we published a picture of the dead body of Hrant Dink. But I didn’t write it. The time isn’t right yet.’

Bildirici doesn’t blame the journalists of the paper. They are at the mercy of the wolves. In a healthy journalism climate, the editor in chief defends the journalistic policy against the commercially-focussed publisher, but in Turkey it’s the task of the editor in chief to make sure the journalists do what the publisher wants. Professor and journalist Dogan Tilic confirms that: ‘Young journalists that come fresh from university are usually very idealistic and aware of journalism ethics. A few years later they are part of the system. They are slowly being dragged into it. If you don’t join, your pieces aren’t published of you lose your job.’

Banu Güven: ‘I find it important to choose my words carefully’

Or you resign. Like Banu Güven, for fourteen years one of the most famous faces of the rather journalistic news station NTV. She had a daily talk show about politics with one guest, and was no longer free to invite on her show whoever she wanted. The Kurdish politician and human rights activist Leyla Zana was high on her list, but wasn’t approved. Too controversial. All of a sudden at the beginning of July Güven disappeared from the screen.

Banu Güven

Soon after that she wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Erdoğan, in which she held him responsible for the decline in press freedom. The Prime Minister, who can’t stand criticism, doesn’t need to censor too much because the media now do that perfectly themselves, she states. ‘Extreme language and polarization sell, there is a common terminology that everybody chooses’, she says in a phone interview. ‘But I find it very important to choose my words carefully and not follow the common language. It’s still possible at NTV, but the general atmosphere in journalism is getting worse. I felt I couldn’t do my work properly anymore.’

She had offers from other media, but she turned them down. Güven: ‘I will face the same problems almost everywhere. From now on I will work on my own projects and publish on my own website. Be the journalist I want to be. Ten, fifteen years ago I couldn’t have done that, but now, with the possibilities of internet and self-publishing, it’s possible.’

The army of the Imam

That’s exactly where ombudsman Bildirici sees hope for the future. ‘Stories will always come out, eventually’, he says. ‘The number of journalists who write books or publish online is increasing, and they publish about subjects they can’t write about for their papers. These books often get a lot of attention, because they reveal what would otherwise stay concealed.’

He does realize how sour that sounds. Earlier this year, the well known, reliable investigative journalist Ahmet Sik was arrested because of his book ‘The army of the Imam’, in which he tries to prove that the Turkish police force is infiltrated by followers of Fethullah Gülen. His sources are used against him: he is locked up for alleged links with Ergenekon. Bildirici: ‘The lack of journalism ethics is a huge problem in Turkey. But the decreasing press freedom, along with an increasing number of journalists in jail, is an even bigger problem.’

2 thoughts on “Professional journalism? Not in Turkey!”

  1. I do agree with what you wrote, and that’s not something new at all. Turkish media has been suffering from bias for years, and there is nothing to do with that unless the society takes an action and rebels itself. As far as I am concerned, people are pleased to see media like that and that must be the reason why they don’t speak out or feel bothered. People love this ‘media’.

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  2. It is a good and well balanced article. I liked reading about it. But I think there are some points that you did not mention.

    First of all, controversially enough, this is the time when the press is having the broadest freedoms alhough this is kind of stained by the lack of ethics, sexism and ultranationalism etc. Previously most of the newspapers and mainstream TV channels were belonged a businessman who had strong ties with army and governments of his time. He was also a well-known contractor for both the government and military. At that time thousands of Kurdish villages were burnt down, people from these villages were evacuated by force. Also there were thousands of unsolved political assassinations. But none of them could find their place in the media. A former political figure Turgut Ozal was well known for increasing the paper prices overnight when he has spotted an article which criticizes him or his then ruling party. At that time it was the state was a monopoly which was allowed to produce or import the paper for the media.

    Even Banu Güven admits that, though the presence of Leyla Zana was not approved by her TV channel, she would not even imagine to invite Zana to her program like 10 years ago. Please remember what had happened to Orhan Pamuk when he announced that millions of Armenians and Kurds were slaughtered by Turkey.

    It was not only the censorship at the media only. At that time “nationalist” prosecutors would start an investigation on grounds of “praising the crime and criminals” or “insulting Turkishnes” and even get treats or even bullet or timed bomb from covered paramilitary terrorist cells.

    I hope the media will be freer in the future and the governments would be less authoritarian with media outlets. But it also takes that te controversy and polarization in society to come to an end and people require balanced and ethical behavior from their news outlets.

    I also think that the business and media outlet ownership should be regulated further. But obviously this is also an unresolved issue in well advanced democracies of Europe as we’ve recently seen from the latest Murdoch case in the UK and USA.

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