For Turkish media, last week was a dramatic one as usual. The declining standards in journalism and the transformation of media organizations into propaganda tools was proven once again.
Let's start with a funny discussion coming from Sözcü, a newspaper with neo-nationalist and anti-Justice and Development Party (AK Party) tendencies. Here is a quote from them:
"President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broke fast with Presidency of Religious Affairs head Mehmet Görmez and other religious officials on a table worth TL 6.5 million [$2.4 million] in the Presidential Palace."
The TL 6.5 million table must have gotten your attention. The answer to how the newspaper determined the cost of the table is in the following sentences:
"The cost of the table was released by the Union of Architects of Ankara. According to the union, the cost of the table and chairs at the iftar that hosted 'religious officials' is TL 6.5 million. This figure is equal either to the salaries of 6,689 workers at minimum wage or approximately that of 3,000 miners."
The news spread at the speed of light. The pro-Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) T24 news website, the Gülen Movement-affiliated Zaman newspaper and the anti-government Hürriyet newspaper decided to publish this article with very similar sentences, as if they all sprang to work with a touch of a button. This type of publishing brings another question to mind. Just because an article originated from another news source, does it mean that those who quote share none of the responsibility? In other words, let's say an article was faulty or entirely false and another news organization quotes it. Can the later organization say that they did not prepare the article but just quoted it and appear innocent?
Indeed, there were many lacking points in the aforementioned article. First was the lack of confirmation of information received from a source. None of the newspapers that published this article saw any kind of receipt that indicates the cost of the table or the purchase date and place. The Union of Architects of Ankara has come into the public eye many times before, but not because of its work in its profession. The overwhelming majority of subjects were political. Yet the newspapers published this information without seeing any need for additional investigation or confirmation. There is no doubt that this approach does not relate to either investigative journalism or journalism itself.
Another basic principle of journalism that was ignored by these publications was the right to reply. None of the news organizations that published this article contacted the Office of the Presidency to ask about the claims to give them a right to reply. This is because their purpose was to score one against the government rather than uncovering the truth.
A couple of days later, Erdoğan spoke, and while showcasing a video on the production of the table in question, he said that the table cost TL 4,600. Many newspapers did not feature this statement, while some of them published it without commenting for the sake of keeping up appearances. And some others changed their target, and this time said that even though the table did not cost TL 6.5 million, the kitchen costs of the Presidential Palace were too high.
So far, none of the news organizations that featured the original article has released an apology, correction or explanatory note. After all, the article already fulfilled its purpose. As Mark Twain said, "A lie can travel half way around the world, while the truth is putting on its shoes."
The lie was already circulating around the world on social media and in newspapers such as the Washington Post, which published an article on the issue. The mission was accomplished. Of course this mission was not journalism.
Fueling the machine
According to a Reuters article, HDP Co-Chair Figen Yüksekdağ made a statement:
"The Turkish government has supported ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] for years. Today's massacre is a part of this support. It is up to the Turkish government to prove it does not support ISIS." Funny, isn't it? You have a claim, an accusation and ask the accused to prove their innocence. It appears that Yüksekdağlı either is not aware or appears to be unaware of the law's basic principle that the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges. In fact, the current behavior of newspapers in Turkey is not that different.
It started with the ISIS attack on Kobani, which is controlled by the People's Protection Units (YPG), last week. ISIS terrorists entered the town and attacked the civilian population by blowing up a car bomb. Dozens of people were killed and many injured. My condolences are with the loved ones of the deceased, and I pray for a hasty recovery for the injured. This attack is not tolerable.
Another action that is not tolerable is exploiting the suffering of those who were killed in this terror attack by cooking up fabricated news.
After the attack, social media users shrouded in anonymity claimed that the ISIS terrorists that attacked Kobani came from the Turkish border. Many local and foreign journalists accepted this accusation without questioning it and helped it to gain traction. The news organizations that first broke the news were the national Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Turkish daily Radikal, which belongs to the Doğan Group in Turkey, the pro-PKK İMC TV and the T24 news website. Other websites that are less known and open for propaganda wrote titles such as "Turkey let ISIS cross border to attack Kobani."
However, a journalist should have asked several important questions before either publishing an article or giving the claims a leg up on social media such as who the source of this claim is, what is the purpose of the news source, are there visuals that corroborates the allegation and is the claim consistent with physical facts?Of course, none of these questions were asked, and a couple of hours later Anadolu Agency (AA) released visuals that indicate that the terrorists came from Jerablus, west of Kobani, and not from Turkey, as the original sources claimed. The same disinformation turned toward AA this time and made a ridiculous allegation that AA might have had prior knowledge of the attack as they have visuals. However, AA received these images from cameras stationed on the border by the Turkish Armed Forces that are set to record constantly.
Later on, statements from the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and YPG officials were not consistent with the claim of ISIS terrorists coming from Turkey, but it was too late. The disinformation machine was already oiled up and working, while the HDP was provoking its voter base against the AK Party interim government. Even though the allegation was refuted by every source available, the journalists that helped the claim spread invented witnesses out of thin air in order to continue the disinformation and propaganda. They did not correct their articles or issue an apology.
Fabricated facts and images were not just those though. A photo of a young boy killed during Israeli attacks back in 2011 was used as if it happened the day of the terrorist attack. The photo of Iraqi soldiers captured by ISIS during their March 3, 2014, Fallujah attack were used that day as well by photo-shopping Turkish flags on their uniforms to claim Turkish soldiers attacked Kobani. Camouflage worn by an ISIS militant who was killed were claimed to be Turkish even though it was the same as YPG uniforms. Later on, it was clear that ISIS militants wore YPG camouflage to pass through checkpoints easily.
These examples show that we are faced with a very dirty war. One of the most important aspects of this war is fought in the media and its ability to shape public opinion through perception management. The duty of journalists is quite simple though. They must avoid becoming a tool for terrorist organizations and stick to basic journalism principles fervently. By abiding by the rules of investigative journalism with ethical codes in mind, disinformation can be stopped effortlessly.