Turkey's media under fierce attack

This is a keynote speech that I delivered today, Dec 6, 2013, at the well-attended annual conference of Arab Journalists for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ), in the primary session under the title ‘Media Under Attack’.


Dear colleagues.

I am truly honored to be with you today. As media professionals in this troubling and troubled neighborhood we all share parts of the same destiny, same challenges.

Let me first commemorate the memory of a great leader.

The loss of Mandela, though expected, demands a note of respect. We have lost an examplary human being, who through his life showed us that any man, any woman can change, improve and reach high wisdom. He has gone through immense hardship, but as his stiff ideologic leaning softened, he not only revolutionized himself but through patience, also saved a nation in turmoil. He became a symbol, alongside with Gandi, of a benevolent leadership, defying violence.

He chose inclusiveness, social peace, and language of mutual respect. He could fragment a country, but he chose to unify an an entire nation, around the axis of democracy.

In terms of free press, Mandela chose a path exactly opposite to Mugabe, who hijacked his nation’s democratic aspirations for his own iron rule.

And these two paths symbolize our optional destinies in emerging democracies everywhere.

We shall all remember Mandela for his serene soft power, discreet charisma, sound reason and profound humanism.

May you, Madiba, rest in peace.


Coming from a background of radio and TV reporting, I know that in speeches, less is more. After around 20 minutes or so, each and every word comes as a sweet sleeping pill, and after half an hour, a warm, Kashmiri blanket covers you.

So, I shall be, I hope, no longer than those red lines, to allow also room for your questions and comments.

Journalism, this painful profession of ours, has always been cast under the shadows: it has been pinched, slapped, beaten, banned, silenced, tamed, hit, leashed.

But, despite the historically record high number of democracies today, paradoxically, there is not a bigger black sheep than journalism. The threats have spread all over the globe, and the methods to intimidate those given the task to serve public good and interet become more and more sophisticated.

Obama Administration proves to be one hardest on journalism, as the developing story of NSA-GCHQ surveillance, known by the name of Snowden, revealed the real face of authorities in the so-called democratic world, such as Australia, and the UK. Swedish media, as we speak has joined the wave, to test its democratic reflexes.

The most spectacular example latest was the unimaginable way British politicians reacted to journalism there. Parliament summoned the editor of the Guardian, an independent daily and website which published the Snowden files.

Although we all know that what made public was only 1 % of the entire file base, the panic among the powers is obvious.

The exchange of words between the Brtitish MP’s and Mr Alan Rusbridger, Guardian’s editor, shows how badly the shores of the profession are battered with age-old hostility for those who seek truth in the name of the public.


Asked why there should be any interest at all for these details of secret surveiilance of citizenry, and pressurized, Rusbridger said:

“Shooting the messenger is the oldest diversionary trick in the book. My experience is that when you speak to people and explain the issues, they are deeply interested. I can’t think of any story in recent times that has ricocheted around the world like this and which has been more broadly debated in parliaments, in the courts amongst NGOs.’

Asked by a Tory MP – and we all know this question, as the following “You and I were both born outside this country, but I love this country. Do you love this country?”

Rusbridger’s response:

“I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things.”

“So the reason why you’ve done this has not been to damage the country, it is to help the country understand what is going on as far as surveillance is concerned?” asks the mp.

“I think there are countries, and they’re not generally democracies, where the press are not free to write about these things, and where the security services do tell editors what to write, and where politicians do censor newspapers. That’s not the country that we live in, in Britain, that’s not the country that America is and it’s one of the things I love about this country – is that we have that freedom to write, and report, and to think.”

Alan is right, but let me add:

Where we operate and work as reporters and editors and anchors and pundits and photographers and bloggers etc etc, often the skills of ours and quality of our work match that of elswehere in the world, but our domain offers us higher obstacles, risks, and dangers.

As our Irish colleague, Patrick Cockburn, well-known columnist with the Independent newspaper, wrote recently about the Arab media, that ‘re-asserted state control of information and intimidation of journalists and their employers is proving all too effective. In many countries freedom to publish dissident views is less that it was before the  protests and uprisings of 2011.’

He also added that ‘ The ever-increasing limitations on freedom of expression are not all the fault of authoritarian governments and Jihadi insurgents. Satellite television did much to open up debate in the Arab world over the last 15 years, but from 2011 on it became a partisan and unreliable participant in political confrontation and civil wars in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and beyond. Innovations in information technology which once seemed so progressive became instead a conduit for propaganda and hate.’

In other words, wherever we look, we are on the same boat, for similar reasons, only the actors change, and the cabin pressure, if you will, varies.

But, in our experience, in Turkey, whatever can go wrong is now going wrong.

Nowhere in the world, as I mentioned in my op-ed article for the New York Times which led to my firing – are the methods to cripple journalism are as in your face, out in the open, shameless; primitive and sophisticated at the same time.

Let me explain, in plain, simple language for you.

We look at the three main criteria whereby we judge any media anywhere in the world.

Pluralism, freedom and independence.

Diversity or pluralism, from the outset, looks impressive: Turkey’s media is large. 40 national newspapers, 250 TV channels, 1300 radio stations, 2500 local dailies and vast number of periodicals, plus a rapidly growing internet with at least 200 news sites, and a fierce competition to grab the share of 4.5 billion dollar ad revenue cake annually, the scene is spectacular.

But the the view gets blurred when you look into it. As indicated through a study update by Dr Ceren Sözeri, Galatasaray University, capital concentration, you have large conglomerates, now almost entirely pro-power, that control up to 70 – 75 % of the sector.

It leaves the rest mainly to a partisan, opposition press, and only less than a handful independent outlets, which care about journalism as we know it.

There is no public service broadcasting.

TRT is run strictly under the control of the government, managed by bureaucrats, obeying orders from the powers, and giving weight to propaganda. There is no editorial independence. For that institution it is still the conditions of the Cold War that applies.

On the private audiovisual side, it is TV that matters. Of the 250 channels, there are about twenty 7/24 news channels. Most of the main entertainment channels also run expensive news operations. None of the news channels notes any profits. Except for a couple or three, all are tied to the big conglomerates.

The proprietors of these channels are often owners of more than several. Current system in audiovisual present great opportunities for both the government and the owners for lucrative deals. The more the owners are offered deals – mainly through huge public contracts  and more direct agreements – the more dependent they become to the power, thus willingly serve their news operations for the political executive.

Turkey’s smart, pragmatist prime minister, Erdoğan, utilizes this system, now in its maximum level. He knows that more than 80 % of Turkish public, the silent majority, gets its news for free from the TV.

So, consequence number 1: By either on voluntary basis of bosses or by persuasion or by threats, today, in those channels all qualified, independent dissent has become absent; chased out. It happened by way of deselecting independent pundits or narrowing down the spectrum of news and political talk shows. Much you hear is either propaganda or counter propaganda in weak opposition channels. News and reasoned critique has gotten lost.

Add to this a strict audiovisual regulation through RTUK body, which is dominated and steered by the government, delivering restrictions and fines, often as wished by the power and also in decisions reflecting a conservative view, which deepens the polarisation.

Print media is deregulated, but not more outspoken. Mostly, it is the same people and families who own TV channels, that also have newspapers. They are in various, large, lucrative businesses that are life-dependent on government permissions and encouragement: trade, construction, banking, car inspection, textile, energy, telecommunications, automotive etc. In addition, they also are in media, without having any knowledge, let alone commitment, on our specific, pro-public profession.

All that matters for those owners, without any exception, is money, money and money.

Greed has spread around Turkish journalism like a gangrene, gnawing away whatever is left of our core values to serve the public’s constitutional right to know. What’s worse, is that greed has, in an unprecedented manner, built a common front with the immense power hunger of the prime minister, whose obsession with control, micromanagement and social engineering is no longer a secret.

This is what I call an ‘unholy alliance’ which has brought journalism to its knees.

The sectoral domination is by two types of proprietor: the ones, which have a secular leaning, but blinded by greed, thus enslaved to government; and those who are conservative Sunni business figures, close to Erdoğan, entering the sector in the past 8-10 years. Together they constitute a united picture. It showed a great performance to appease the government, when their outlets, channels did everything to black-out or cover-up, or distort the Gezi Park protests, blanketing the events by pinguin documentaries or live talks shows on schizzophrenia, while the police clashed on their backstreets. Thet pretended no such unrest was taking place.

Needless to say, both in audiovisual and print, there is now an unprecedented level of self-censorship, strictly guarded by the owners or their handpicked – some party affiliated – puppet editors in chief or controllers.

Consequence number 2: Newsrooms have now turned into graveyards, where journalism is mourned every day; or to use a far better description, they are now open-air prisons, where the stories that have news value, are pressed under the carpet.

Reporters have learned their limitations, have become discouraged; and there should be no wonder if there is literally no coverage of corruption or following issues that would demand accountability at higher level. The unholy coalition of politicians and owners agree that coverage of corruption would mean digging into their often common closets, so it is a double hurdle now.

There are, in print, only a handful newspapers, which stick to seeking and disseminating news; often under threats, massive hate campaign and harrassment. Not long ago, a court file revealed that a number of independent colleagues were wiretapped by the secret service, with the consent of the prime ministry’s office.

Yesterday, an independent newspaper with a modest circulation of 50 K, had to face triple charges – by prime ministry, by secret service and by national security council – for publishing a secret directive by national security council on surveillance and profiling of various religious sects, which have nothing to do with radical Islam. The newspaper today had a full front page promising that it will not bend an inch before oppression.

This is also part of the tradition: Turkish journalism has had many moments of heroic resistance over decades.

It will not go away. Brave reporters and pundits continue to raise their voices. But they do so under hate campaigns led by herds, political hooligans, both inside and outside the media. While there are smaller and smaller options for them to conduct journalism, the government has systematically redesigned even the print by some murky takeovers of dailies lately, handing them over ton the submissive owners, and had them recruit groups of pro-government propagandists as columnists.

A cartoonish example is a chief advisor to Erdoğan, who now writes regular columns in two different newspapers, one one under his name and one with a nickname. Some of prime minister’s relatives are in key positions in media outlets.

Some AKP deputies write also regular columns.

A newspaper practically gave its op-ed page away to a pro-government think tank, with zero editorial control, to unleash propaganda. No dissent has been allowed in those pages; and it is a newspaper with 300 K readers. Some editors in chief are also organically linked to the party.

There is today almost zero trade union presence in those so-called mainstream, conglomerate-tied outlets. Collective rights are weak. This, in addition to what I described, explains why there is no more a tangible editorial independence to speak of.

You have seen in the agenda paper of ARIJ that Turkey is the world’s top jailer of journalists.

Let me bring an important nuance to that. The number of the jailed varies, between 30 through 80 depending on which institution that does the inquiry. Overwhelming majority of those, nevertheless, are Kurdish. And because of the Kurdish issue, and its peculiar nature, those who are jailed are activists as well as publishers.

So, not in a way we define and understand journalism. So, we had better to define them as dissidents rather than journalists. Not to water down, but to disperse confusion about the terminology.

On freedom, as we see in this despicable figure of the jailed dissidents, we have around 30 dormant or non dormant clauses in laws that restrict journalism and free speech. They often do not lead to jailings but intimidate, discourage and have a chilling effect. Prime minister often files charges on journalists because of what he sees as libel and slander. His continous media bashing has also had destructive effect on several layers: his harsh words on media has whipped up his voters’ hostility to media itself and are taken as orders to fire undesired reporters and pundits.

As noted by Freedom House, in an address recently: ‘ This political intimidation is enabled by the government’s leverage over holding companies that rely on government tenders in construction and other industries for business and rein in their media outlets for fear of losing those contracts. Media outlets that criticize the government can be hit with punitive tax measures and sold to more compliant owners, as most famously happened to the Doğan Group in 2007-2009, when it was forced to sell Milliyet and Vatan. Even at mainstream newspapers considered to be independent, editors now keep critical stories off the front pages, burying them in reduced format in back pages.This atmosphere of intimidation extends to academia as well, where professors report that  presidents fear student protests on their campuses, lest they be blamed and dismissed by the government, which controls their appointment. Conservative liberal commentators, including many who previously supported the AK Party as the best way to break decades of military guardianship, appear to be the new and special targets of intimidation. From columnists to TV announcers to editors to owners to academics, everyone fears the phone call from the Prime Minister’s office, telling them, “The Beyefendi is not happy with you.”

So, I would say that it is not – except for Kurdish colleagues and dissidents of the Marxist left – the jail sentences that threaten and undermine the journalism in Turkey today: much more cunningly, direct or indirect political intervention, has improved a new pattern as a punitive measure in the main bulk of the sector: firing the undesired from the media.

And, to solidify control, making them untouchables, pariahs. Those who are fired, often with no severance, just like that, are not able to find jobs elsewhere, because other owners are frightened to be facing the wrath of power.

Two more elements make the situation worse.

First, with the exception of one independent news ombudsman, there is no self-regulation. The entire Turkish media is on a free ride on ethical breaches, with hate speech on top.

Second, there is no solidarity within the corps. To the opposite, journalists are entrenhed in firing lines againts each other, in a climate that can be described as fierce polarisation.

For example, today, there was almost no newspaper which objected with a headline or editorial the harrassment of Taraf by a triple charge. It can be described as shooting yourself on the foot. All the existing journalist organisations are structured along ideological lines as well, refusing to seek common ground for addressing our growing challenges.

So, we are i profound gloom. The wisdom is, all I described to you is happening in a country, which is negotiating membership in the European Union, thus having the obligation that media freedom and independence is crucial to undergo democratic transition and for citizen participation.

Instead, all the signs are, we are – if this trend goes – sailing towards the norms that apply in some Central Asian republics, with media as organic extension of the absolute power.

We also know that as long as we have the civil society in action, like in Turkey now, we have the ability to change the course of events. Our global struggle is clear: we should remain staunchly in the defensive for our professional integrity and values. We are not in active politics, we are part of the public defining the politics, by way of free elections; thus we are not in the business of attacking, not in identifying ourselves as pro government or opposition, right or left etc: we are in for critically scrutinizing all our news subjects, and report and report and report.

In an attempt to disperse the gloom, some of us decided very recently, that we should establish an independent platform, as you see in the logo, called P24, to monitor, train, help and encourage good journalism. Today we are only seven indy journalists, some of whom are fired, like myself, and we seek new paths to defend our job, mainly by way of internet and blogs.

Let us be all in this struggle, smartly defending our profession and build bridges and pockets of journalism fronts, not only in our countries but in the entire region and continent. I assure you, with the way things are developing, our public will need us more than ever.

Because the truth and nothing but the truth will set them free.