« Journalism : The Collateral Victim Of Turkish Politics’ Polarization »

Interview with Erol Önderoglu, Editor of Bianet and Correspondent in Turkey for Reporters Without Borders
Interview held by: Tania Gisselbrecht, Project Associate @BridgingEurope

Assailed by the President and thus exposed to public condemnation, banned from covering sensitive news subjects, threatened with detention In the last months, Turkish journalists’ working conditions have been deteriorating. In order to understand better the context in which they operate against all odds, Tania Gisselbrecht from Bridging Europe talked with journalist Erol Önderoğlu, editor of Bianet website and correspondent in Turkey for Reporters without Borders.

Launched in 2000, Bianet (BIA stands for Bağımsız İletişim Ağı or Independent Information Network) is a Turkish news website covering political, social and cultural affairs with a special attention for fundamental rights and freedoms : freedom of expression, press freedom, minorities rights, women and children rights. Every quarter, Bianet is publishing a press freedom report.

Every month, it releases a report on violence against women.

http://www.bianet.org/english/women/160503-men-kill-18-women-in-november

The website also proposes a selection of articles translated into English. It is financed mainly by foreign resources (e.g. European institutions, national development agencies).

Reporters without Borders is an NGO defending press freedom. It supports and protects journalists and fights against censorship. To do so, it relies on 10 offices and its worldwide network of 150 correspondents based in 130 countries. http://en.rsf.org/

For many Europeans, it is the presence of an Islamo-conservative government at the helm of the State which explains Turkey’s poor press freedom record. However, media have been under threat for decades.

The western public opinion has an erroneous perception of the situation because it only started to show interest for Turkey in the last 5 years or so. Europeans have not been informed about the state of fundamental freedoms in Turkey before 2006. Their knowledge is insufficient and partial.

Up until 2000, a period in which the Army Command was imposing its political vision to the government, journalists, reporters or columnists were already undergoing heavy pressure because the army would systematically call upon prosecutors to bring them to trial. In Ankara, there was a strict censorship bureaucracy which dictated the official ‘line’ to be replicated by the media. The Army Command would determine orientations and appropriate language to be used in certain privately owned media, but above all in the public media. On top of that, several journalists lost their life, especially in the South Eastern region. Between 1996 and 2000, more than 20 Kurdish journalists were killed by the ‘deep state’ or small groups like the Hizbullah.

So, even before Erdoğan’s rise to power, the picture was already pretty bleak. The early 2000s ushered in a period of reforms. NGO and media therefore tried to take part to the legislative debate but, in parallel, from 2002 to 2010, they never stopped monitoring instances of human rights abuses and censorship. Personally I was not excessively optimistic. For instance, the government had adopted a new penal code, which came into force 1st June 2005. The text’s negative outcomes quickly materialized : within a few months, hundreds of media workers, intellectuals, human rights defenders, critical MPs, were brought to justice under the accusation of denigrating the Turkish identity, the institutions, the police or army forces as defined by article 301. Immediately after that, the journalist of Armenian origin, Hrant Dink, was murdered. Then in 2006, the anti-terror law started to be improperly and abusively used. In 2008, Youtube was suspended for almost two years. And those facts were only the tip of the iceberg.

Since 2010, the government’s intentions are clearly becoming objectionable. Following series of amendments to the statuses of the High Courts of justice (Supreme Court, State Council, Constitutional Court), former president Erdoğan’s rhetoric has toughened up. To the extent that one can legitimately wonder what his real ambitions are, doesn’t he simply envision to question the goals set out in the framework of Turkey’s EU membership bid ? The government’s attitude leads us to believe that in the near future, we will witness a confrontation with the EU. In this case, we will neither know whether the EU is really committed to the idea of welcoming Turkey as a member State, nor whether Turkey is attached to Brussels. As a matter of fact, Erdoğan’s policy seems to hinge on consolidating his power within Turkey in order to develop an ambitious regional policy throughout the Middle East and Turkish-speaking Republics. This project will be detrimental to the freedom of expression.

The legacy of all those years of abuses against the media are institutions with little consideration for the ethics of journalism and disregard for its role within a democracy. How does the justice fare in that respect ?

Although the EU or the Council of Europe have carried out several training programmes designed for judges, you cannot expect mentalities to change overnight. After 15 years of reforms mainly targeting justice, it has now become obvious that major abuses will occur within the judiciary. For various reasons. First, the executive power’s interfering with the High Justice system never stopped (i.e. whatever the regime in place). Consequently Turkish judges have developed a very peculiar conception of their mission. Indeed they favor the State’s security and support to the government over the protection of fundamental rights. Finally, a new parameter is adding up to that status quo. Some of the judges trained in the framework of European programmes have been dismissed and transferred in retribution for their involvement in corruption investigations targeting government members, and for their alleged affiliation with the islamist Gülen movement. In such a context, the judges’ mentality cannot evolve positively because there is no continuity in upholding fundamental principles. Justice is an institution that has trouble learning from the past.

For a few months, the Constitutional Court has been making a brave stand against abuses, notably through the voice of its president who speaks of ‘a climate of fear’ pervading Turkey. Isn’t that an encouraging sign ?

The Constitutional Court ‘s work has recently been praised by the European Court of Human Rights. It did not only managed to reduce the ECHR’s case-load by assuming its duties as an effective domestic remedy, but it also made very important decisions in the framework of the individual application system. Last year, for instance, the Constitutional Court lifted the bans on Twitter and Youtube.

This institution has thus become the last defense for citizens and journalists. The latter are now hoping that the Court repels the law allocating extensive powers to police courts’ judges. These men have now full authority on deciding who can be arrested and detained, which places can be searched, which website censored. They have become all-mighty.

However because of its critical stance, the Constitutional Court seems to have become the President’s next target. For the regime, the Court is nothing short of a recording chamber for its decisions. Beware if it does not validate the government’s policies!

The role and courage shown by the Constitutional Court owes much to the personality of its President. In other words, the institution remains fragile.

Obviously. Besides the government’s declared ambition is to multiply the number of judges sympathetic to its policies within the High justice bodies. It is a mean of breaking them down. Conflict is looming and might gain steam in the coming days. Currently, Turkey has possibly one institution to rely on, but if the government succeed in disarming it (by altering its composition), the Court will become ineffective. This will impact public order, and media or NGOs will no longer have protection within the justice system.

Turkish political landscape is highly polarized to the extent that the political culture seems intolerant to any critical discourse. What are the consequences for journalism ?

It is extremely difficult to rise above this atmosphere of conflict. For several reasons. First of all, in Turkey, media ownership is resting on strong financial groups. Most of the time, these groups did not get hold of press outlets with a view to informing, but to capture advertisement revenues, to consolidate their influence. They are ready for anything in order to win public tenders, so they have clearly chosen sides. Therefore editorial independence hardly exists in Turkey. For instance, it will be difficult for a journalist working for an outlet close to opposition parties to praise one governmental initiative even if it benefits the citizens. Conversely, if you work for a media outlet recently established with the government’s support and owned by business men close to the regime, you won’t be able to tackle corruption, embezzlement issues or the shady relationships between the power and financial holdings. As a journalist, one is aware of these limits right from the beginning. That strong polarization has a second impact on the profession. Journalists don’t need to be creative. Given the persistence of an antagonistic climate, they just have to report the daily exchanges of words between politicians, whether they belong to the governing party or to the opposition. It is very easy to write about conflicts of that magnitude, it is concrete. No need to investigate.

As the journalists is simply echoing political quarrels, he is tied up to his/her desk. In other words, this climate of polarization is killing field reporting and investigative journalism, which should be performed without concessions, without consideration for the relations between the government and the opposition. The journalism that thinks and denounces is the collateral victim of polarization. It is no longer in a capacity to convey citizens’ concerns.

What can be done to prevent this nefarious political atmosphere to contaminate journalism further ?

A small community of journalists is aware of this polarization phenomena. But they represent the tip of the iceberg compared to the practices of the mainstream media. I am therefore afraid that they will have no impact whatsoever because mainstream media are always on the lookout for political disputes, because they thrive on feeding verbal escalation. Exemplarity does not seem to be on the mainstream media’s agenda.

In that respect, one of the major challenge for Turkish journalism is to bring together professionals who work for outlets with different political affiliations. It is indeed striking to see journalists, who 15 years ago were submitted to the government and the army’s pressure, support the current government without qualms. These journalists are reproducing the despicable attitudes adopted by their adversaries in the past. On the other hand, old times staunch defenders of the army now compare Erdoğan’s policies to those carried out by the military regimes ! Turkey definitively has a caricatural reading of what journalism is. At all levels, there is a lack of objectivity. In the end, professional associations struggle to gather journalists from different political backgrounds, to convince them to talk about the outcomes of their coverage, to foster a climate favorable to auto-criticism and constructive dialogue. That is the major problem of our profession. Of course, there are good alternative or independent websites like Bianet, P24, Sendika, Diken or the citizen initiativeÖtekilerin postası, but these structures are not heard in the media sector. Their call in favor of appeasement, of collaboration and professional solidarity are not relayed by the mainstream media.

In the current media landscape what is the share of the pro-government press in terms of sales ?

From 2005 onwards, the government started to get hold of former liberal outlets whose owners had been indebted. The ‘Savings Deposit Insurance Fund’, the state agency in charge of supervising cases of private firms’ debt default, has provided a handy tool for taking control over media outlets. On several occasions, the fund seized assets belonging to insolvent holdings in order to run their media outlets, before selling the latter to groups having close ties to the government. Examples include the Sabah-ATV channel or the dailies Star and Akşam.

However the circulation of the pro-government outlets does not increase. In Turkey, daily press sales are reaching approximately 5 millions of copies. The global circulation is proportionally small for a country of 75 millions of inhabitants. As for the sales of pro-government dailies, circulation, including Zaman’s (close to the Gülen movement), does not exceed 2-2.5 millions of copies. Zaman, Turkey’s highest-circulation daily, sell roughly 900 000 copies per day. Bugûn (also close to the Gülen brotherhood) sells 135 000 copies; Taraf 55 000; Star, Yeni Şafak, Günes, and Takvim respectively 100 000 ; and Sabah 300 000. Considering the scale of the government interfering with the media, one could say that its involvement is not paying off.

What is the government influence over television ?

Next to a few continuous information channels, which follow a rather liberal editorial line, television is also under the influence of power. Besides it remains the main source of information for most citizens. Going to the kiosk to buy newspaperS is not a customary habit in Turkey. It is easier to get informed by switching the TV on. Editorial independence is therefore even more crucial in the television sector. Most channels are broadcasting TV series and entertainment programmes. Political issues are disregarded unless they are ‘simple’ or ‘tabloid’ information. But it is extemely difficult to establish editorial independence in a system dominated by ‘tabloid’ media. However the 24 hours information channels are a reason to hope for. Obviously these channels did not demonstrate their independence at the start of the Gezi uprising when they continued to broadcast documentaries about pinguins instead of sharing real news. Fortunately part of the Turkish audience quickly realize what was going on and protested. CNN Türk, NTV, and Habertürk were forced to apologize to demonstrators and viewers for having shielded the government against criticism.

As long as media ownership will be regarded as a means of obtaining public tenders, the editorial line of the mainstream media will stay under political influence and a subject of controversy. It is imperative to establish a system that maintains the independence of media, which protects journalists and their sources, and enables media to resist political and financial interfering. Unfortunately, in Turkey, we are far from that goal. There is not a single project pointing to that direction on the table. In the Parliament, the main opposition parties, CHP and HDP, have submitted several questions to the government, as well as motions for investigation. To no avail. The ruling and opposition parties must be able to create a consensus in Parliament in order to share their respective opinions on the topic of editorial independence. And it is vital that journalists associations be involved in the discussion. Otherwise I see no future : political and financial interests will continue to prevail over information.

Concentration of media ownership in the hands of industrial or financial holdings is a global phenomenon. To what extent is Turkey’s situation peculiar ?

Unlike the western model, Turkish journalism operates in a fragile structure. In France for instance, companies like Lagardère or Dassault also diversified their assets and invested in the media sector. Their situation is not ideal, but both at the national and local level, there are structures like editorial boards where members can express themselves freely and condemn any interfering from their boss or owner. In Turkey, we are completely helpless in the face of interfering. Publication directors are the bosses’ ambassadors. They are implementing internal censorship mechanisms by setting out strict rules to be followed. Consequently, editors, members of the editorial board, reporters cannot produce independent information. Yet a journalist needs to know he/she can rely on trade unions and legal protection in order to carry out his/her tasks. But only 1 % of Turkish journalists are members of trade unions. In these conditions, when a media boss want to fire personnel, he can do it without prior warning, without worrying about trade unions’ or judicial pressure. When illegally fired, journalists usually sue their employers and their claims are often recognised as rightful. However isolated judicial cases are not enough to convince media owners to follow good practices and to abstain from laying off. Holdings which announce huge profits are nonetheless authorized to lay off media workers or journalists under the false pretense of ‘economic downturn’. Sometimes they simply cite ‘forecast of economic downturn’. This cannot be tolerated. The Labor Ministry does not perform well its supervision duty. The government can inflict heavy fines for a breach to the tax law (see for instance the Doğan holding case, but it refrains from controlling the journalists working conditions The contrast is blatant.

What opinion do Turks have about journalists ?

In the 90-2000s, this profession was one of the least trusted. In that period, given the poor quality of information, it was obvious for Turks that journalism was not independent from power. Besides there were more ‘tabloid’ outlets. Additionally the influence of financial holdings was reflected in the content of information. The profession hence had a bad reputation. Today the criteria used to assess the reputation of journalists have changed. The Turkish citizen perception of this profession is very much influenced by political polarization which is duplicated by the media. In general, public opinion probably thinks that journalists are not independent, that they are under the control of political parties and financial holdings. However Turks appear to grant journalists some ‘mitigating circumstances’ insofar as journalists are nonetheless supported by their respective communities of readers/viewers. They are ‘their’ journalists, journalists who share the same political views. In other words, it is enough for a journalist to be frank enough to criticize the government, or on the opposite, to be brave enough to defend the values of the religious constituency as well as the government’s interests, to find favor in the eyes of ‘his/her’ audience. Turkey appreciates a very partisan journalism. From this point of view, the country has regressed. Whether the job is done at the expenses of quality or whether the profession is linked with financial interests, that does not matter much for Turks. (This sadly means that the Turkish public opinion is not aware of the role of journalism in a fully-fledged democracy).

So to say institutions, journalists as well as the public opinion seem to be in the grip of one single mentality: the other is the enemy. This attitude impairs listening abilities, makes dialogue impossible. What could alter it ?

This gloomy picture has worsened over the last five years. I believe we need a major event to convince political parties to resume dialogue. Above all, President Erdoğan should give up verbally assaulting journalists, civil society representatives or opposition leaders. The presidential discourse should set the example in order for appeasement to settle in and for political parties to promote a more constructive agenda. Failing that, the other option would be the strengthening of the EU-Turkey relationship in order for Europe to be able to press for improved dialogue in Turkey.

Unfortunately Europe seems distant lately.

Yes and this causes major concern. We fear that the EU will not grab this opportunity to weigh in with future evolutions, to serve as a model and to lower the political temperature in the country. Besides Europe could act outside from the sole EU accession framework. Given our long-standing cultural ties, it would be too saddening to believe that UE-Turkey relationships can only be reinforced when negotiations are on track, but inevitably falter when discussions are severed. People need to maintain friendship ties whatever the state of political relations.

The Turkish civil society and journalists are more and more isolated, sometimes criminalized, and consequently left out from the democratic reforms debate. I must admit that this context make me feel rather pessimistic. There are initiatives and partnerships set up to reinforce the democratic message, but as long as civil society and the media won’t be heard by the government, they won’t be able to contribute to the country’s democratization either. The EU and international organizations’ role is to support media and civil society in order for their demands to be taken into consideration.

The European Federation of Journalists, in cooperation with the Council of Europe, has just launched an online rapid reaction platform for the protection of journalists. What do you think of this initiative ?

Every project which anchors Turkey in Europe is welcomed. This is even more true in the case of a mechanism designed to prevent abuse against journalists. That being said the Council of Europe has been concerned for a long time with some alarming violations of freedom of expression in Turkey.

The criminalization of the insult against the Turkish nation, institutions and security forces by article 301 of the penal code and the prohibition of defamation by article 125.3 have brought about disproportionate sentences. The Council of Europe has already underlined the need to decriminalize those offenses, particularly when they are nothing but criticism against political figures.

Those two articles are hanging like Damocles swords upon the heads of Turkish journalists and intellectuals. Repeated demands to abolish those offenses have not been acted upon by the government. It is true that a system of preliminary authorization by the Ministry of Justice has been introduced with regards to the implementation of article 301, but what do we do when the Ministry agrees to the prosecutor’s request to sue or detain a journalist because of his/her opinions ?

Those constant threats are ample reasons for Turkish journalists to activate the rapid reaction mechanism. First because it is always important to shorten the application process, secondly because it is useful to build a link between the victim in Turkey and the Council of Europe. Indeed, in Turkey, individual applications must be examined in last resort by the Constitutional Court. If the Court rules in favor of a journalist whose rights have been infringed, his/her case won’t no longer be heard in Strasbourg. Yet cases discussed in front of the EHRC are a vital source of information about the situation in Turkey for our European colleagues. With this new mechanism, we will develop our information network.

Altogether, beyond this initiative, it is of utmost importance to multiply common projects. My 18-year long experience as Reporters without Borders correspondent tells me that partnerships will be fundamental for the future of journalism in Turkey.

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