“We force them into line”: Press control in place of press freedom in Turkey

by Mako Qocgiri

Originally published on ISKU – Informationsstelle Kurdistan. A PiK translation.

What could be more beautiful for a government than to see the media in its country only writing positive things about it? Certainly this would influence public opinion to the benefit of the government, which would in turn ease the path to re-election. Unfortunately it is not always so easy for some governments. Because, where there is democracy, the media ought to critically examine the policies of the government. Therefore the government must make more effort not to have any stumbles in their policies because the media representatives are on their tail. So goes the theory….

In Turkey the AKP government has sought out another path for dealing with the media. Critical media is simply silenced and brought into line with mainstream media. You can also handle it this way. At least when you place no value in democracy and freedom of the press.

In Turkey around a hundred journalists are currently behind bars. This number leaves every other country, even those openly anti-democratic, in the shadows. The biggest portion of these journalists by a long way come from the Kurdish media. This fact alone clearly lays bare the connection between the lack of press freedom in Turkey and the unresolved Kurdish question. But the attacks on the freedom of the press do not only affect Kurdish media representatives. The mainstream media get theirs too.

It lasted until early 2011 before the AKP government’s attacks on the media were noticed internationally. At that time the two well-known journalists Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener had been arrested for the charge of Ergenekon membership. The AKP government had also foreseen the not yet published book, “The Army of the Imam”, by Ahmet Sik, which uncovered the influence of the Gulen-sect on Turkish security forces. With these arrests the government made it very clear that it no longer targeted just Kurdish and socialist journalists, but all those who do not work in line with the government.

 Another well-known victim of the “media politics” of the AKP, just before the 2011 election, was a presenter for the Turkish news channel NTV, Banu Guven. The period before the elections is high season on Turkish television for discussion programmes with all the party candidates. Guven thought nothing of it when she wanted invited the Kurdish politician, Leyla Zana, onto a discussion programme. But she had committed an error. Her editor was out under pressure from somewhere and the invitation to Leyla Zana was taken back. Zana was not surprised by this decision since she had already been exposed to other forms of repression from the state. More surprised was Guven, who had never experienced such a blatant meddling in her programme. When she learned that, after pressure from the AKP government, the invitation to Leyla Zana was taken back because the government feared losing votes if Zana was given the public forum, Banu Guven quit NTV after an early holiday.

The government were pleased that an unwelcome person like Banu Guven voluntarily sacrificed herself. Even if she did not necessarily represent an unwelcome voice for the government, she still wanted to give the chance to unwelcome voices. And this offence is just as bad in the eyes of the government.

The government has therefore put the country’s journalists to use as they go about their work without problems and without any great effort. It simply gives regular oral and written statements on various events in Turkey and abroad, and the journalists must simply write these up in their article. So meddlesome research and investigations are far from the journalists’ agendas.

Should a journalist however decide to research themselves and then report differently from the statements of the government, they will find themselves dealing with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. Erdogan regularly announces about what the media should, or much more likely, should not report. Often the Kurdish conflict and the escalating armed conflict are then on the list of forbidden topics. Erdogan sometimes prefers to name one or the other journalist on his attack list publicly. This happened recently in the case of journalist Yildirim Turker. Turker established the liberal newspaper “Radikal” and worked for it for 16 years in total. This long-serving journalist sealed his fate when he did not blindly follow the statements of the government regarding the skirmishes in Semzinan (Semdinli), which had lasted for around three weeks, but he wanted rather to offer a different picture of the situation. That displeased the AKP government, and even a newspaper like Radikal could not keep Turker, and he left after an agreement on 12th August. A similar incident befell the journalist Serdar Akinan from the conservative newspaper “Aksam” two days earlier. Even his columns did not fit the picture of a “good” journalist for the AKP government. It was enough for Erdogan to declare that people were taking notice of Akinan’s articles, and the newspaper immediately showed him the door.

About the reporting ban on Semizinan, the columnist Cuenyit Ozdemir, another name targeted by Erdogan, appropriately wrote the following for Radikal: “We are seeing in the case of Semdinli, that the government has imposed a great censorship on the media. Before, in the 90s, this censorship was imposed by the military. At that time, in order for there to be no reporting about the PKK, the military called the journalists, sometimes even the editor, and pass on their ‘requests’. Now, since then, times have changed. The ‘appealing’ voice on the end of the phone is now a civil (and not military) voice, but the ban stays the same.”

Finally, notice of an event: The above-mentioned former journalist of the newspaper Radikal, Yildirim Turker, has been invited to speak at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, on 13th October, for a discussion under the title, “Freedom of the press and democracy in Turkey”.

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