Turkey's Independent Media Under Severe Attack

Turkey's Independent Media Under Severe Attack
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When visiting Warsaw at the end of September for an OSCE conference to address the issue of media ownership and transparency in Turkey, I had a disturbing déjà vu.

Déjà vu started with a colleague, pointing me out that there was a Turkish official delegation there. I shrugged: it was very usual. But, rather soon, when I was met with their suspicious glances, and not casual, friendly salutes, I sensed something was wrong.

As soon as I finished my speech -- about the deep background on powerful companies which also own media and the damage caused to journalism by the proprietors who cut business deals with the government -- the only official to raise the objections were from Turkey.

One of them, a diplomat, tried hard to counter all the points I raised, arguing that there was simply nothing wrong about freedom nor independence in our country. 'It is like everywhere else' he claimed. I responded that I was not in an offensive, but a defensive position for my profession. I found it strange that a diplomat speaks for private media owners, who should be the ones to refute my points.

As the session finished, my déjà vu came to a boiling point. I caught up with the Turkish delegation and told them how disturbing this was that they did not say hello and present themselves.

This was the first time I had met such a hostile attitude since Erdoğan's AKP came to power in 2002. It reminded me of the 1990's, when the coalitions were externally managed by the generals, or 1980's most of which were under the control of the top brass. It was those times, journalists who were devoted to their profession were treated as public enemies. I had thought that those days were gone, forever.

Apparently, not. We are again being sieged by the same oppressive, threatful mentality as days go by. In this sense Turkey's rulers are finding their bad old selves.

The new pattern is intimidation of the critics of the government by organized hate campaigns and liquidation by sackings.

The execution model is a combination of prime minister or his office directly issuing threats and attacks on articles and journalists; his advisors keeping busy with nasty exchanges on news stories with editors and columnists and a new breed of sycophants who are being employed as 'hit men' in various news outlets which have come through some flunkey owners under the control of the government. They are also being helped by some 'dark forces' within the 'new state apparatus' to smear whatever remains of independent journalism in the country.

One of them which had to face he serious threats from those circles was the increasingly popular T24 website. Its attraction depends on the team of highly respected colleagues such as Hasan Cemal (fired from Milliyet) and Murat Sabuncu (fired from SkyTurk TV channel) and many others report and blog there.

Tiny on budget, it has been busy with some crowdsourcing, which apparently went well. Soon after, an utterly obscure website posted a piece, claiming that T24 had started 'beggary' and 'public thievery' under the name of 'readership fund'.

In the piece, T24 was described as a place where 'those who after being fired could not find any venue to write were nested' and that its staff were pro-PKK. The piece called the authorities to look in their account books.

Elsewhere, again recently, in a newspaper that was recently 'redesigned' to meet the government's propaganda needs, a columnist claimed in two consequent articles that those journalists from Turkey who contribute to the respected website Al-Monitor were serving the interests for Bashar Assad, thus working against Turkey. Needless to say, most of the 'denounced' are known for their critical and independent reputations.

But, the most serious attack came recently. Immediately after the reports in Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, highlighting the role of Hakan Fidan, the chief of Turkey's intelligence service, one of Turkey's remaining independent dailies, liberal Today's Zaman, was accused of 'treason' by a columnist who writes for another staunchly pro-government daily.

She was convinced that by quoting a threatful statement by an ex-MOSSAD agent against Fidan, Today's Zaman had crossed the line. She argued that it should not be quoted or be quoted with the editor's condemnation below, otherwise it meant clearly that the newspaper was serving against the interests of Turkey.

This was not the first time Today's Zaman was denounced as undesirable. But apparently it was a tipping point for its editor, Bülent Keneş -- a contributor to Guardian Comment -- who in the last days wrote two powerful editorials, in which he fired severe criticism to the government.

The growing sense of suffocation shows now signs of a new trend, which also spreads the sense of déjà vu. During and after the Gezi Park protests, most of the international media - CNN, Reuters, Der Spiegel, New York Times, etc. -- had been fiercely demonized by Turkey's pro-government media as part of the huge global conspiracy against Erdoğan's government, in a campaign co-led by the Anatolian Agency, which is now completely under official control.

But, so far no foreign correspondent had been forced to leave or be deported.

Not until recently. After over a decade, a well-known Dutch colleague is now declared persona non grata. It was another Dutch colleague, Joost Lagendijk, who broke the news in daily Today's Zaman.

'Unfortunately, that line has now been crossed,' he wrote. 'Bram Vermeulen, a correspondent for the Dutch liberal newspaper NRC Handelsblad, has been told that his residence permit and press card will not be extended after Jan. 1, 2014, meaning that from that moment on he will be a persona non grata not allowed to stay in Turkey anymore or visit the country in the future. The reason? He has been put on a blacklist, and even after months of behind-the-scenes enquiries and requests by his employer and the Dutch Foreign Ministry, the Turkish authorities do not want to disclose what Vermeulen has done to deserve this harsh treatment.'

'Vermeulen got the first sign something was wrong when, upon returning to Turkey in March of this year, he was taken aside at İstanbul Atatürk Airport. After two hours, he was told that his name had been marked in their computer system. He was listed as an undesirable person who was no longer welcome in Turkey.'

The attacks against journalism have also gone beyond the borders of the absurd. Not so long ago, a chief advisor harshly accused a blogger of portraying the AKP as an Islamist government which tries to end the species of pigs in İstanbul's wildlife.

The blogger, Barış Altıntaş, had penned an article on the consequences of the immense mega-urbanization projects in Istanbul, such as a third bridge over Bosporus which leads to deforestation and destruction of environment. Altıntaş cited press stories in her blog -- titled Revenge of the pigs -- on a moving family of wild boars which were chased out of their habitat and had shockingly to swim across the straits.

At the end of the day, none of these signs are a laughing matter. As weeks go by, to fully control the media has become an obsession for Erdoğan and his increasingly defensive advisors.

They do not seem to know that it is a mission impossible and an exercise which will cause deeper damage for the already ill reputation Turkey suffers in the family of democracies.

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