In 2014, Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal became the recipient of Harvard University's Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism. It was, no doubt, a proud moment for him. The Nieman Fellows, who awarded the prize to Cemal, explained their decision with the following statement: "Hasan Cemal and Turkish journalists like him have shown great courage in upholding the importance of a free press in their native land. Bearing witness and speaking truth to power are more necessary than ever in Turkey and other places around the world where journalists face government hostility, harassment, and arrest." Upon reading the words "great courage" and "harassment and arrest," one admittedly feels a rush of anxiety.
Hasan Cemal – whose grandfather, Cemal Pasha, was one of the three pashas that ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I and was assassinated by an Armenian nationalist over his involvement in the Armenian genocide – has worked in the media for 45 years. In the early stages of his career, Cemal worked with Kemalist publications such as Devrim (Revolution) and Yön (Direction), whose editorial policy was to incite a military coup by any means necessary. Later, he joined Cumhuriyet, a newspaper originally established in accordance with one of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's decrees.
Over the past 45 years, Cemal has witnessed the overthrow of five democratically-elected governments by the Armed Forces. As a matter of fact, the Lyons Award winner admitted in his memoirs that he took orders from the military junta, which unsuccessfully attempted to seize the government on March 9, 1971, and to bomb a military barracks.
In the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, Cemal carefully stayed in the military command's good graces and ran the Cumhuriyet newspaper for several years. He was a passionate supporter of the postmodern coup that took place in February 1997 against Necmettin Erbakan's government, and did not hesitate to attend media briefings at the military headquarters. In 2007, Cemal opposed the military overthrow of the Justice and Development Party government and proceeded to publish notable yet apologetic books on military guardianship and the Kurdish and the Armenian questions – issues to which he had remained indifferent throughout his career. When he left Milliyet after the paper changed hands (which, for the record, he repeatedly said had nothing to do with government hostility), Cemal became a columnist at T24, a popular website sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Over the past five months, over 20 of Cemal's articles mentioned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in their titles. The rest either represent open letters to him or are related to his politics.
Here are a couple of examples:
"How have you become so devoid of a sense of shame?"
"Notice to Erdoğan: How can turned turn into Syria and Egypt at the same time?"
"We will resist despotism. No to robbers of freedom."
"Erdoğan: The ugly and new face of the Old Turkey."
"To most certainly go to the polls on Sunday and say no to Erdoğan."
"You have no right to discredit the country. One day, you will be held accountable!"
The day Cemal received the Lyons Award, his article had the following title: "To overthrow the Sultan." Halfway through the piece, the editors published a drawing of Erdoğan as an Ottoman sultan. Those who selected Cemal, most certainly thought what a great job they had done that day – unless, of course, they got to the final sentence of Cemal's column: "Get up, the boarding time is fast approaching. In Naples, at a coffee house by the sea, I raise one more glass to democracy and freedom." He does not exactly strike one as a brave journalist compelled to work under government pressure now, does he? Based on everything the Western media has to say about press freedom in Turkey, one gets the impression that Cemal is fighting the Erdoğan dictatorship from an underground publishing house rather than the shores of Naples.***
According to Freedom House, the state of press freedom in Turkey is worse than Kuwait. Reporters Without Borders similarly indicates that the country ranks 154th out of 180 countries, which means that journalists in Iraq and Ethiopia are better off than their colleagues here. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) maintains that Turkey is among the 10 worst offenders of press freedom. Against the backdrop of these assessments, let us take a look at the numbers.
At present, 38 national newspapers remain active in Turkey compared to 15 publications in Germany and 20 papers in the U.K. While three of these newspapers are exclusively related to sports, the rest concentrate on political developments. Out of these 38 publications, at least 21 oppose the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Let's try another approach. Out of roughly 4.7 million copies sold every day, approximately 3 million belong to opposition newspapers. Similarly, four out of Turkey's five best-selling newspapers, i.e., Zaman, Posta, Hürriyet and Sözcü, support the opposition.
To be fair, the word opponent hardly describes the situation in which certain journalists find themselves today. A number of opposition papers make sure to address the president by his first name, Recep, on their front pages every day. Sözcü, which has a circulation of 344,000 copies, pays particular attention to referring to the president as a thief, a murderer, a supporter of sharia, a sponsor of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or a dictator.
These 38 newspapers employ nearly 1,000 professional columnists, which might be a rare situation to begin with. Every day, Turkish newspapers publish roughly 400 columns, and approximately half of these articles deal with political issues. Similarly, two-thirds of Turkish columnists support opposition parties.
Again, some columnists have reached a point where the term "opposition" does not quite cover the degree of their dislike for the government. A particularly popular contributor once even suggested that police officers will watch guard near Erdoğan's grave so that people do not spit on it. Every day, at least 20 columnists like to call the president a thief, a murderer, a fascist, a dictator, mentally-ill or ignorant. Now please take a moment to imagine a journalist in Kuwait, which experts think is freer than Turkey, engaging in such vivid criticism of their government.
In addition to national publications, there are 23 regional papers and a total of 2,381 weekly or daily local newspapers from different political backgrounds. Several thousand columnists are currently employed by these publications.
Furthermore, approximately 40,000 news websites remain active in Turkey, 40 of which receive over 1 million clicks on an average day. As you correctly guessed, half of the nation's 10 most popular news websites oppose the government's policies. Again, news websites feature hundreds of columns targeting or advocating for the AK Party. As for television, a total of 258 TV stations remain active in the country today with 27 national outlets, 16 regional channels and 258 local stations. Four out of the nation's most popular evening news broadcasts do not go to great lengths to conceal their deep dislike of the country's government.
Interestingly enough, 18 out of 27 national outlets feature nothing but news from the perspective of Turkish nationalists, Kurdish nationalists, leftists, AK Party supporters, Republican People's Party (CHP) supporters and liberals. Nine out of 18 of these networks support the opposition. Every evening, some 100 commentators appear on these national news networks and engage in lengthy debates on the nation's affairs. It would not be an overstatement to claim that these commentators often talk before they think. Out of the three top news networks, two openly side with the opposition while the third aims for the middle ground.
There are four weekly national humor magazines published in Turkey. With a total circulation of 200,000, they are all secular, socialist, tragic, humor magazines that hold the Kemalist line with a very obvious and strong anti-government bent. Each week's cover features caricatures of Erdoğan or Davutoğlu and at times the subject of the content is Erdoğan's wife or son and sometimes even Davutoğlu's youngest daughter. The humor targeting Erdoğan, members of the AK Party, the religious, women in headscarves and Arabs are no different from the famous Islamophobic cartoon from Denmark and the limits of insult often even exceeding those limits filled with humor. Despite a brief interruption, the microblogging website Twitter and Facebook, among others, represent valuable domains for political debate. Every evening, the government's proponents and opponents engage in virtual hashtag wars.
Over the past year, all illegal wiretappings were leaked by Gülenist law enforcement officers via Twitter. Thus far, they have not become the subject of a judicial investigation with the exception of brief periods of being held in custody. Most recently, a former AK Party politician was arrested after tweeting about taking the president's wife away from his bed, and suggesting that killing the president would be a perfectly legitimate act.There are also a number of so-called dictionaries, popular online forums frequented by secular-minded, white-collar Turks. On these websites, defending any given act by the AK Party government lands you on the naughty list before you even know it.
Similarly, the claim that the media cannot report corruption allegations due to censorship is completely inaccurate. For months, stories about the Dec. 17 and Dec. 25 operations made headlines in all media outlets. Newspapers regularly reported corruption allegations against cabinet ministers. As a matter of fact, a new outlet, Karşı, was established just to report news of corruption.
On Dec. 17, 2014, which marked the anniversary of the operations, 20 national newspapers covered the corruption allegations on their front pages. Finally, almost all international news agencies and major media companies have established offices in Turkey, which so-called experts claim has a worse press freedom record than Ethiopia. One would think that their interest in the country stems from their eagerness to experience government opposition personally. Back in 1990, the number of foreign journalists stationed in Turkey was only 70. Twelve years later, the number soared to 164. By 2012, 327 foreign journalists were permanently based in the country. Currently, the number stands at 350. The performance of foreign journalists, some of whom border on political activism in their crusade against the government, is proof itself that Turkey is no hell for the press corps.
The degree of diversity in the Turkish media does not exist in many European countries, let alone Iraq, Ethiopia or Kuwait. Obviously, this does not mean that journalists and the profession of journalism are not without problems, or that there is infinite freedom either, or no censorship, or a completely healthy working relationship between the government and the media. Nor that there is infinite freedom, no censorship. A completely healthy working relationship between the government and the media.
We should ask the following question as a first step: when was the Turkish media completely free?
The present tradition of journalism in Turkey dates back to the 1920s, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to form a pro-Republican media corps in Ankara to take on the Istanbul press. Newspapers such as Ulus, Cumhuriyet, Milliyet and Akşam were established directly by CHP ministers and parliamentarians in line with Atatürk's directives.
Such was the birth of a tradition in Turkey – where the media has always favored the CHP. During the Democratic Party era between 1950 and 1960, for instance, there were only two newspapers supporting the ruling party. Over the years, the Turkish media has been careful to side with the official ideology and the military. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of the country's newspapers openly supported the military overthrow of the democratically-elected governments in 1960, 1971, 1980, 1997 and 2007. No mistake committed by the military, in turn, made the headlines. As a matter of fact, it took years for the Turkish media to report the story of Turkish jets mistakenly sinking S.S. Kocatepe during the 1974 Cyprus offensive. The first criticism of the military was published in 1986 while the first mention of a Kurdish question took place the following year. Things like the Armenian genocide and the 1938 Dersim Massacre did not make it to the papers until after 2010.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the media helped cover up official misconduct in the context of the Kurdish question. It was the same journalists who looked the other way as 17,000 assassinations took place and the military bombed and burned Kurdish villages. When the Istanbul offices of a newspaper were targeted, the media could only mention the development in passing. And it has been less than a decade since the last time journalists and their bosses met with military commanders to explore cooperation opportunities – only seven years since we last saw journalists begging the military chief of staff for anti-government remarks on live television.
Turkish newspapers, usually a part of larger corporations, always sided with one government or another. The nation is no stranger to newspaper editors playing favorites in political party conventions and turning their publication into an election pamphlet for their party of choice. In 2002, when the Justice and Development Party first came to power, the total circulation of a handful of publications supporting their cause was around 100,000. Up until 2008, the mainstream media deliberately referred to President Erdoğan as "Tayyip."
Unsurprisingly, newspaper clippings constituted a major component of the evidence against the AK Party during the 2008 closure case – which enjoyed support from the mainstream media. And it was only six years into its tenure that the AK Party launched an effort to promote the establishment of new media outlets in favor of its policies.
Sociologically speaking, the journalism business in Turkey has traditionally been under the control of secular-minded Kemalist elites – which led to 80 percent of the papers representing the ideas of 20 percent of the population. Nonetheless, the pro-AK Party liberal and conservative media outlets have always been more diverse than the secular-minded, Kemalists journalism. While secularist media outlets did not employ pro-AK Party and liberal journalists and columnists, liberals, conservatives, social democrats, Armenians and Kurds, who were unable to secure employment within mainstream outlets, have been able to work with conservative newspapers and TV stations. Furthermore, the shortage of educated, professional and experienced journalists among conservative ranks resulted in the rise of secularist journalists rising to managerial positions in conservative papers. The opposite, such as the employment of veiled female journalists working with Dogan Media Group, would have been unimaginable.
According to the CPJ, 59 journalists lost their jobs over the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The Union of Turkish Journalists, however, puts the figure at 22 since 37 people decided to leave their places of employment for not providing enough support to the protestors, only to blame their resignations on pressure from the government. Around the same time, 22 reporters and columnists, including myself, left Taraf daily over political disagreements, which did not receive any attention whatsoever.
If you happened to be an activist journalist chasing the dream of revolution during the Gezi Park protests, a media corporation owned by a major holding with investments in banking, the oil business and automobiles, it is probably not a good idea to pose for a picture in front of one of your network's broadcast vehicles burned down by protesters. Or if you join the mob gathering outside your office building, there should be no hard feelings if your boss does not want to cut you a paycheck at the end of the month.
For instance, Yavuz Baydar, who won the European Press Prize in 2013, had served as ombudsman for Sabah newspaper since 2004. For six years during his employment, Sabah was a pro-AK Party newspaper. As a matter of fact, Baydar stayed on even during the Gezi Park protests – that is, until he wrote an op-ed for The New York Times two months later to publicly criticize his employers. Interestingly enough, he had been fired by the Milliyet newspaper (which he recalls as a leading example of good journalism), for exposing a false story about the military. Even worse, Baydar had accused jailed journalists in a 2012 interview with CPJ. Baydar currently works with a newspaper owned by the Gülen Movement, which orchestrated the mass arrests of journalists in Turkey.
What really dragged Turkey's media freedom score down over the past years, however, has been the large number of arrests. Since Turkish journalists double as political actors, they tend to face prison at times of particularly intense political struggle. The story of the Unionist reporter Hüseyin Cahit Yalçın, who managed to get imprisoned under the Committee of Union and Progress, the Kemalist single party regime, and the Democratic Party, is particularly striking.
As for contemporary history, according to international media watchdogs, 83 journalists were imprisoned between the 1980 military coup and the transition to the multi-party system three years later. With the abolition of certain laws that placed severe restrictions on the freedom of thought, the number decreased to 28 by 1990.
The period between 1991 and 1996 marked a particularly dark chapter in the history of journalism in Turkey. Under the pretext of anti-PKK campaigns, state-sponsored death squads murdered at least 28 journalists – mostly Kurdish reporters whose murders remain unsolved. Probably to keep a NATO ally happy, international watchdogs had no problem maintaining Turkey's status as "partly free" during these years.
In 1993, the number of imprisoned journalists was 55. Four years later, the number had climbed to 78. By 1998, 58 journalists were in prison. A 1999 amnesty decreased the number to 13 by 2002 when the AK Party rose to power. In the wake of legal changes within the context of EU harmonization, the CPJ reported in 2006 that only one journalist was in prison. Again, the same organization established that there were no imprisoned journalists left in the country. The situation remained the same the following year.
According to the CPJ, four journalists were detained in 2009, all of whom worked for media outlets affiliated with armed leftist organizations. The organization, for instance, did not include Mustafa Balbay and Tuncay Özkan on their list, since they did not associate their pre-trial detention with their journalistic activities. The following year, the number remained the same.
In 2011, the number climbed to eight after Nedim Şener and Soner Yalçın, among others, ended up in jail during the Oda TV trials. The following year, the number peaked at 49. It was the same year when pro-PKK media outlets and journalists accused of collaborating with the organization became the target of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) operations. In 2013, the government took steps to decrease the number to 40. Finally, in 2014, the CPJ reported that the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey stands at seven.
These journalists work for marginal publications affiliated with far-left organizations such as the PKK, DHKP-C, MLKP and MKP. Most of these publications have a circulation of 1,000 and are published on an irregular basis. Although the CPJ report mentioned that the aforementioned organizations are outlawed in Turkey, it refrained from mentioning that these are armed organizations – which makes it less likely for the reader to deem the charges against these seven journalists plausible. To be sure, the individuals in question are believed to have perpetrated a number of crimes including the bombing of a yacht marina and kidnapping. Given the current state of Turkey's justice system, however, the Ministry of Justice has issued a call for the CPJ and the relatives of the accused to go through the case file and share their objections with the authorities. If the imprisoned journalists reject the charges, they still have a right to submit an individual application to the Constitutional Court – which they have not yet done. Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice upheld the court ruling in one case whilst mentioning problems with pre-trial detention.
But what caused this radical drop from 40 to seven?
In late 2013, the partnership between the government and the Gülen Movement ended. And this had a lot to do with the number of imprisoned journalists, because Gülenist operatives oversaw both the Oda TV trials and the KCK proceedings. From mid-2013 onward, but more visibly in 2014, the authorities began to force out Gülenists in law enforcement and prosecutors' offices. At the same time, positive developments associated with the Kurdish reconciliation process resulted in the release of Kurdish journalists.
In other words, the number of imprisoned journalists dropped significantly in the wake of the power struggle between the AK Party and the Gülen Movement, which was probably no coincidence. In the final days of the year, however, an operation took place in Turkey that EU officials thought deserves the following public statement made on a Sunday: "The police raids and arrests of a number of journalists and media representatives in Turkey today are incompatible with the freedom of media, which is a core principle of democracy."
Signed by High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn, the statement raises serious concerns about the state of the EU, whose officials wrongly identified 10 police officers as journalists. Following the operation, 22 people were released immediately. Three out of the total four people arrested were police officers, including Tufan Ergüder, who was a senior executive and mastermind of the Istanbul Police Department that conducted the Ergenekon and KCK raids, which led to the arrests of some 40 journalists in 2011.
In other words, the EU's ignorance not only helped label a police officer who dealt major blows to press freedom, a defender of press freedom, but also nearly suspended Turkey's 50-year membership application over unconfirmed information.
However, the situation of Frederike Geerding recently, a freelance Dutch journalist based in Diyarbakır, who writes pro-PKK articles on her website is considered one of the unfavorable developments in Turkey's record of press freedom. After the police failed to find her at home three times in the last five months, she was taken to the police station on the charge of "terrorism propaganda" and released a few hours later. We still need to ask if one is free to write an article saying: "[Is] the PKK laying down its arms … I will be disappointed if it did."
So if you claim that Turkey has a worse press freedom record than Kuwait, Iraq and Ethiopia, others will respond by suggesting that journalists are not freer anywhere else in the world.
By the way, somebody should seriously break the news to Kuwaiti journalists about their amazing accomplishment. What a great story for the emir, who shut down two major papers over the past year, to retell at social functions.
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