Papers should fire ‘wise men’

It was another victorious week for Prime Minister Erdogan: he managed to get the Turkish media further under his control. And the media are not even protesting. On the contrary, they are willingly and with a smile accepting Erdogan’s proposal to make propaganda for the peace process that the government is (supposedly) initiating. At the same time yet another columnist was fired for expressing her opinions, this time Amberin Zaman, who wrote for daily HaberTurk.

Erdogan has installed a commission of ‘wise men’, whose task it will be to inform the people about the peace process, of course from the government’s perspective. The first meeting of the Prime Minister with the commission’s 51 men and 12 women has been held already, but nobody quite knows yet in what way these 63 people are going to inform the public, and not even about what exactly – the peace process, and especially the government’s contribution to it, remains totally vague.

But we do know the names of all these wise men and these few wise women. A staggering 21 of them, exactly one third, are working for big national papers, most of them as columnists, a few as reporters and one even as editor in chief. They work for the papers HaberTurk, Milliyet, Hürriyet, Star, Yeni Akit, Radikal, Taraf, Zaman, Bugün, and Yeni Safak.

Important opinion leaders

Like I said, most of them are not reporters, but columnists. They have another job besides contributing to newspapers, and most of them are first and foremost academics. They are no doubt wise in their own fields of expertise and respected in (certain segments of) society. But I think their appointment as ‘wise men’ is incompatible with being a columnist. They apparently couldn’t resist taking the prestigious wise job, but they should now have the guts to quit writing for national papers. If they don’t, the editors in chief of their papers should fire them. The one editor in chief on the list, Oral Calislar of Taraf, can’t fire himself, so his editors or the readers, should urge him to step down.

Columnists are important opinion leaders in Turkey, often called ‘journalist’ but they don’t do the work that is in general considered journalism. They don’t write interviews, reportages or background articles, they analyse and comment on developments in politics and society, based on their (in most cases) academic knowledge. Should they be subject to the same standards of independence as journalists? Yes, in this case I think so.

Contribute to the peace process

Turkish media are part of the issue that needs to be addressed through this peace process, the Kurdish issue. By their nationalist, pro-state and anti-Kurdish writing (and broadcasting), they have been largely responsible for painting a picture of the Kurdish issue as being a matter of terrorism – more about mechanisms in Turkish media in this previous article I wrote. If they want to contribute to the peace process, what they should do is distance themselves from the state and the government and try to promote a journalism as independent, free and unbiased as possible. By allowing their columnists and reporters to accept prestigious government jobs, they are doing just the opposite. The media are coming under firmer government control, which only adds to the problem.

From columnists, readers should be able to trust as much as possible that their contributions are based on their expertise as academics and that they are not just writing to please the government. From reporters, we may expect that they base their (choices for) stories on journalistic criteria, not on what the government would like to read. An editor in chief’s job is to lead his paper with only journalism in mind, and not his task as an officially recognized ‘wise man’. What Turkey needs, what the peace process can’t do without and what the people of Turkey are entitled to, is good journalism, not more spokespersons for the government in the national media.

In the name of peace

Of course, this is all typical of Erdogan. When he started this peace initiative, he straight away called on the media to ‘support’ the process, in other words, support and, more than that, not criticize the government’s line of action. One of the first to say he would give that support was Aydin Dogan, business tycoon and owner of some of the biggest and most important papers and TV stations. For those who hoped that would naturally mean more space for good, independent journalism, well, their naive dreams are shattered now.

But mind my words, none of these columnists and reporters will get fired, and Oral Calislar (nota bene the editor in chief of one of the few Turkish papers not owned by a business tycoon or Erdogan confidant) will stay put. The ‘wise men’ will also be interviewed about their new tasks, thus more pages will be filled with government propaganda. Hardly anybody will ask critical questions, afraid of being accused of being against peace.

And dissidents will be tolerated even less. HaberTurk’s Amberin Zaman is the most recently fired columnist who did dare to write openly, who did not censor herself under pressure from her paper’s boss and who continued to criticize the government till her last published column. She will definitely not be the last to lose her job in the name of ‘peace’.

4 thoughts on “Papers should fire ‘wise men’”

  1. Calling for the firing of journalists who want to support the peace process is something that I would expect from Devlet Bahceli and the MHP- I’m surprised to read this here.

    While the situation of the press in Turkey is appalling, and Amberin Zaman’s firing is just the latest sad event, your conclusions in relation to the Commission seem highly intemperate.

    According to your view, no journalist involved in the ‘Wise Men’s Commission’ (given the pressures on independent journos in Turkey) can follow their conscience and think independently on the peace process. This seems unfair- while I don’t know the profiles of all of the members, it seems like there are a few on the Commission who have been outspoken against government policy.

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  2. he problems in your analysis go deeper. By your logic, no journalist in Turkey working fora mainstream newspaper can be free from government influence, nor should their views be considered on pressing issues. They are all stooges. This view seems almost as hostile to freedom of expression as the current state of the press ownership – on one hand, the media don’t want journalists to put forward views that might incur governmental opposition; on the other hand, you say that they should not be listened to because they work for the press.

    However, it seems like you have deeper objections to the Commission beyond the involvement of journalists and this might be why you’ve made such an intemperate call. In a separate tweet, you’ve also called the initiative, a “propaganda commission working to spread the governments view”.

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  3. So all of the participants are government patsies. Again, this seems objectionable. Are the IHD (represented on the Commission) just a tool of the AKP? What about Yilmaz Ensaroglu? I can see people on there who have acted with great courage in support of peace and democratisation in Turkey. Your analysis is unfair.

    The mechanism may very well be flawed. For one, the list of members is indicative of a mentality, peculiar to Turkey, that sets too much store on the thoughts of intellectuals and big men. However, the Commission is an improvement on the usual practice of sewing things up behind close doors- the current discussions on the Constitution seem to be an example of this- and the Commission seems to be a step forward in terms of getting civil society’s perspective and to build a consensus on a peace process.

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  4. Embracing peace means that societies need to engage with the opportunities that are there and to take risks. It means that they should not reject a proposal because it is not perfect or because it comes from a source which they don’t appreciate. It means that we should not exclude the voices of journalists until the press in Turkey is free from government influence. If not, we will wait forever for peace.

    Peace process and transitions are inexact and fluid processes. There are enough people who benefit from the conflict and who will try and ensure that the current opening fails (like Mr Bahceli) for those who want peace to prematurely damn opportunities before they have been tested.

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