Protests in Turkey show Erdogan’s Control over Mainstream Media

Middle EAst

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While one of the biggest protests was taking place in Istanbul in decades, the mainstream media turned a blind eye to reporting what was happening in the streets. The major TV channels such as CNN Turk and NTV chose to broadcast a cooking program or a documentary about penguins, instead of showing images of the clashes during which the police used brutal force, and teargas on peaceful protesters that were trying to stop the  demolition of  Gezi Park.

The mainstream media failed to report on the initial events and fueled the anger of many Turks who questioned the media blackout.

Emre Caliskan, a Turkish freelance journalist, points out one of the main reasons, “the majority of media companies have investments in other sectors and they are afraid to lose their contracts and be in the blacklist of the government”.

The media outlets in Turkey are owned by large conglomerates with interests in other sectors such as construction, energy, finance and tourism, as the study ‘Caught in the Wheels of Power’ published by TESEV states.

“Media owners were extremely dependent on the clientelist relations with the state which enabled them to acquire tenders to undertake massive projects financed by the public. This has prevented these companies from performing the watchdog function expected from the media in established democracies”, concluded the study.

Dr. Ceren Sözeri, co-author of TESEV report and professor at Galatasary University, gives an example of the close relationship between media owners and government. “A few weeks ago, Ferit Şahenk who owns Dogus Media, one of the biggest media groups in the country, took a big public procurement from the government, a new port for Istanbul called Galataport. As Prime Minister mentions, Şahenk always says that “Thank you my Prime Minister we have expanded thanks to you”, states Ceren.

One of his channels is NTV, whose chief editor resigned and apologised for the failure to inform the public about the protests. The protesters burnt out one of NTV’s news van which stands now as a symbol at Taksim square.

Self-censorship is a common phenomenon in the Turkish media that affects in particular journalists and reporters who fear to be fired. The European Commission has reported that several journalists have lost their jobs for writing articles openly critical of the government.

“The government interpretation of freedom of speech is becoming sharper and sharper by time. If you do not share the agenda, discourse and views of the government, then you do not have space in the media to express them”, affirms Emre.

Turkey was placed near the bottom (154 of 179 countries) of the World Press Freedom index and labelled the world’s biggest prison for journalists last year by Reporters without Borders.

Some TV channels did broadcast the Gezi protest images, such as Halk TV which belongs to the opposition political party (CHP). However, the Turkish public watchdog has fined these channels for “harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people” by broadcasting coverage of the Gezi Park protests.

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In this case, as in the Arab protests, social media has shown to be the key channel used to report and find out what was happening in Turkey.

“The social media was very useful since the beginning. After the first attack we shared information about “where the police is”, “which way is safe” and “where to reunite”. In the first 5-6 days the news about Gezi park were only in the social media”, explains Ufuk Tanişan, who has been protesting in Gezi Park every day.

On the first night, more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests, according to a study by New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory.

The great influence of social media was also shown when a campaign was launched on Twitter to raise money for a full-page ad to call for support in The New York Times. More than $50,000 was collected in 21 hours and the ad was published in the newspaper on 7th June.

The discourse of the government has been very critical towards social media. Erdogan defined it as “the biggest menace to society” and protesters were detained for posting “misinformation” via Twitter.

People in Turkey have turned to social media, and alternative and independent sources to inform themselves, such as Bianet, an activist media organisation with a version in English, and  What is happening in Istanbul?, a website that was created by a group of activists in Gezi. This website aims “to provide up to date and verified information on the events in Istanbul as the majority of Turkish mainstream media continues to either ignore the mass movement that we’re witnessing on the streets of Istanbul, or distort the facts”.

Ceren highlights that “one of the positive gains of the Gezi resistance is that people are more conscious about the media in the country and that small and independent media outlets will gain more importance in the near future”.

Article published at Media Diversity Institute

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Reporting on the Kurdish issue seen as supporting terrorism in Turkey

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A march against arrests of journalists in Turkey on March 31, 2011. © Gökhan Tan

 

“The main obstacle for Kurdish journalists or journalists covering the Kurdish issue in Turkey is that they are considered ‘terrorists’ and accused of making propaganda of illegal organisations through media”, explained the Turkish journalist-activist Rengin Arslan.

Of the 39 media professionals detained in connection with their professional work in the country, 30 cases directly relate to their reporting on the Kurdish issue, according to the latest figures of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

The majority of these journalists, arrested by the Turkish authorities, are accused of creating propaganda for or being a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) –  an armed group, or Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) – an umbrella political organisation. Both groups are banned and listed as terrorist organisations by Turkey.

The PKK has fought against the Turkish army since 1984, demanding change  from an independent state to autonomy and recognition of their culture rise and identity. The Kurdish minority in Turkey constitutes up to a fifth of the country’s population, with between 14 to 20 million located mainly in the southeastern region.

Rengin condemns the fact that many journalists can be accused of supporting or promoting propaganda of terrorist organisations and that the Kurdish media, in particular, is being targeted.

Aydin Yildiz, a reporter for the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency, was detained in October 2011 and charged for being a member of KCK, for attending demonstrations of civil disobedience and the funerals of PKK members.

“Aydin was covering the events and he had been targeted because he was a Kurdish journalist working for an outlet that opposes the administration”, stated Aydin’s lawyer in the Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Studies conducted by think tanks and human right organisations concur that the main problem in the country is “the lack of the government’s ability to distinguish between reporting on terrorism and terrorist propaganda”.

The indictments against journalists are filled with journalistic activities. “You have contact with your editorial desk, with your information sources that may be on the ground. You have contact with people involved in PKK that inform journalists of protests. All this journalistic relation is part of the accusation of the indictments, taking that it is a structural collaboration and it is not journalism”, stated Erol Önderoğlu, representative of RSF in Turkey.

The legal system – the major obstacle

The legal framework and the judicial system are the major obstacles for press freedom in the country.  Its opacity provides a broad scope for the Turkish judiciary to accuse and arrest journalists.

The Anti-Terror Law, published in 1991 and aimed at a Kurdish rebellion in south-eastern Turkey, provides a wide range of action against pro-Kurdish media and journalists that cover the Kurdish issue as the terms ‘propaganda’ and ‘terrorism’ are vaguely defined.

The European Commission Progress Report on Turkey stressed the need for the country to amend its anti-terror legislation. It criticised that the legal framework on organised crime and terrorism is “still imprecise and contains definitions that are open to abuse, leading to numerous indictments and convictions”.

Cases in which terrorism or anti-state crimes are alleged are being tried in “special authority courts”, which are endowed by the criminal procedure code with extraordinary powers. It can impede the defendant’s lawyer from accessing the case files and hold suspects in custody for months, even years, without a hearing.

The journalist Aydin Yildiz spent 10 months in pre-trial, being released on 13 July 2012 and still  awaiting trial.

Over the last few years, the government has introduced changes to improve the legal system. A judicial reform package was adopted in July 2012 to end the use of special courts’ authority to regional criminal courts, prohibit the seizure of written work before publication and also ease restrictions on media reporting of criminal investigations.

However, “these reforms fall short of a significant improvement regarding freedom of expression”, stated the European Commission.  Currently, the Turkish government is working on a fourth judicial reform package to address some of the critics of the European Court of Human Rights.

“It is my hope that the fourth reform package will include the much-needed amendments to the Anti-Terror Law and the criminal code; amendments which will clearly distinguish between the exercise of freedom of expression and freedom of the media and any form of support for terrorism”, declared Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reviewed the Kurdish media, concluding, for example, that some of the most targeted media in the Kurdistan region, such as the Dicle News Agency and the daily Özgür Gündem, publish opinion pieces by pro-Kurdish and PKK leaders, which draws particular indignation from the authorities, but do not openly or directly advocate the use of armed violence.

Experts in press freedom agree over the need for the government to be more open to critical views over the Kurdish issue, and understand freedom of expression as a two-sided coin with information and ideas that can be favourable and regarded as inoffensive, but can also shock and disturb the authorities.

However, the European Union sees that Turkey represses critical views and freedom of the press continues to be further restricted in practice.

Prosecutors and courts in Turkey often perceive dissidence and criticism, as well as the expressions of minority identities, primarily as a threat to the integrity of the state. The Turkish judiciary tends to protect the interests of the state instead of the public’s right to receive information.

An example of this is the ranking of the World Press Freedom Index of RSF that places Turkey in the bottom, situated in the 154th place out of 179. Turkey was also labelled, last year, as the world’s biggest prison for journalists. “A sad paradox for a country that portrays itself a regional democratic model,” RSF stated.

Article published at yourmiddleeast.com