Crisis of Turkey's Editorially Crippled Media Deepens Further

With the exception of a few semi-democracies in Balkans and Eastern Europe, nowhere in the world is the self-destructive role of media proprietors is more visible, more irrational, more aggressive than in Turkey.
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With the exception of a few semi-democracies in Balkans and Eastern Europe, nowhere in the world is the self-destructive role of media proprietors is more visible, more irrational, more aggressive than in Turkey.

Greedy owners of the big media groups - some ideologically close, some distant to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) - with huge economic interests in business other than media, strictly power-dependent of the government and bureaucracy, offer their 'services' through their media outlets for the political executive, as well abuse their ownership extensively to advance their influences.

Along with legal restrictions which squeeze the freedom of press, it is this arrogant, 'unholy alliance' between the government and media proprietors which set an example before the world how a vastly diverse media landscape like the one in Turkey, can turn into an 'open air editorial prison'.

The proprietors often without any external pressures impose self-censorship on the government policies, block investigative journalism. They stand for non-coverage of corruption; black-out of stories and comment that contain criticism about issues that may damage their relations with the prime minister, deadly keen on their own economic interests.

Turkish media's case is therefore rather unique in its complications.

Globally, there are three criteria to judge the health of any media in any country: Freedom, independence and pluralism/diversity.

There is not a problem with the latter: with 40 national dailies, 2500 local papers, 250 private TV channels, 1300 radio stations and more than 150 news sites and online portals, Turkey has a big, competitive sector.

It is the first two that present problems.

While mainly Kurdish dissent is subjected to legal punishment, and tiny, partisan Turkish press and a few independent papers operate freely and largely undisturbed by law, the media moguls are busy suffocating the freedom, and strangling editorial independence of the big groups.

The recent, spectacular case of daily Milliyet illustrate the pattern more clearly than ever. It has all the ingredients of how the 'unholy alliance' works: a scoop, a prominent columnist being fired, an editor who ended up in his post with zero credibility and a historic Turkish paper as a lame duck. Plus a proprietor asking the prime minister who he should appoint as editor-in-chief.

Let us first have a quick glance at the background of the case:

Minutes of the meeting on İmralı Island between the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and the pro-Kurdish [Peace and Democracy Party] BDP delegation was published on Thursday, Feb. 28. Next day, Prime Minister Erdoğan furiously targeted Milliyet in public, saying 'if this is journalism, down with it!'

He quoted also a line - to make his case - by the veteran chief columnist of the paper, Hasan Cemal. The day after, Editor of Milliyet timidly explained he stood behind the story. But, a couple of days after, Hasan Cemal's column was absent.

It was censored by the direct orders of the proprietor - Demirören family.

Further more, 'father' Demirören demanded the Editor a to halt "such coverage" and Cemal be fired. The trauma spread to rival mass daily, Hürriyet, whose proprietor, Aydın Doğan, imposed a ban on coverage of Milliyet incident. Hürriyet's columnists were asked for days not to comment at all.

Last Tuesday, upon his return after a two week 'ban', Cemal filed again article, fiercely defending the role of journalism, criticizing the media proprietors and Erdoğan. When it was once more refused, he resigned from Milliyet.

The 'victim' this time was a internationally known, powerful liberal voice, author of several taboo-breaking books - on Kurds and Armenians. He was also known for his staunch, consistent support for the elected government for its EU reforms and at times it was threatened by military memorandum in 2007 and with a closure case in 2008.

Milliyet sufficed with a brief note about the departure, while its columnists preferred to ignore it. His colleagues looked the other way because they feared losing their jobs or because they are hostile to Cemal's liberal views. The indifference tells even more about the miserable state of the journalism here.

But, within hours, the article was posted on-line.

It is also published in English at the IPI's website.

Who is the real culprit here? For many the way out is to put the entire blame on Erdoğan. But it is there thing get complicated.

Two days ago, in his usual blunt manners, he was on the record, telling that the proprietor of Milliyet had (after he purchased the daily last autumn) visited him and asked whom he should hire as editor in chief. He also told that he in response had given a name, but the recruitment had failed.

Erdoğan has little respect for rich media proprietors. Two years ago, he had complained that they were constantly knocking on his door to ask advice and expect favors. 'I tell them, do not come to me, it is your business' he said.

He vilified them also later, by calling them 'shopkeepers'. Not a single proprietor of big groups came out and protested in the name of media freedom.

The other side of the coin is, Erdoğan weighs very heavily with his emotional outbursts. He may not have been imposing decisions in media himself, but whatever he says has consequences.

Yet, at the end of the day it is up to the proprietor, also, to rise up and defend media freedom as much as the journalists do. It is also up to the proprietor, too, to grant his staff editorial independence.

The problem is systemic. In a fresh Turkey Report passed by the European Parliament, it is recommended that ownership pressures must be by laws be prevented. It said that EP '..notes with concern that most media are owned by and concentrated in large conglomerates with a wide range of business interests, reiterates its call for the adoption of a new media law addressing, inter alia, the issues of independence, ownership and administrative control.'

It is a welcome acknowledgment, finally, of the root cause of the problem.

As long as the proprietors with other economic interests than only media stand begging before the political powers, with their eyes only fixed on winning public tenders, there will be no editorial independence, thus no freedom, in the 'mainstream'.

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