Wave of dismissals after Gezi Park protests
The conservative Turkish daily Sabah fired well-known journalist Yavuz Baydar as its ombudsman on 23 July after refusing to print his last two commentaries. So Baydar, who held the position for many years, joined the long list of leading journalists to have been dismissed or forced to resign from prominent Turkish media. The liberal daily Milliyet fired its editor, Derya Sazak, five days later and then its well-known columnist, Can Dündar, two days after that.
WeFightCensorship is posting the first of the two commentaries by Baydar that Sabah censored. Entitled “Dangers of swimming in turbulent waters,” it criticizes the way some Turkish media demonized the international media for their coverage of the “Occupy Gezi” protests. It urges them to halt the attacks and calls for solidarity among journalists.
The commentary was sent to Sabah’s editors on 24 June but, instead of publishing it, Sabah editor-in-chief Erdal Safak ran a scathing editorial about Baydar, who was very upset. He took several days off and wrote an op-ed piece blaming media owners for the self-censorship now widespread in Turkey. The New York Times published it on 19 July. When he went back to work at Sabah, he offered another commentary on relations between the ombudsman and the editor-in-chief. It too was never published.
Gezi Park highlights self-censorship
The demonstrations that began being held in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in late May to defend the park from the threat of demolition quickly grew into a national protest movement against the Erdogan government’s authoritarian tendencies. The protests were unprecedented in their scale and ability to transcend Turkish society’s deep rifts, and the authorities responded by criminalizing them and using force to disperse them.
Sometimes attacked by demonstrators, reporters were also the victims of systematic violence and arrests by the police. Outspoken journalists and social network users were branded as the Trojan horses of an international conspiracy to bring down the government.
The Turkish Union of Journalists (TGS) said that at least 22 journalists were fired during the protests and 37 were driven to resign. Some journalists reported that their editors had censored articles.
The Islamist daily Yeni Safak, for example, refused to publish an article by Isin Eliçin, entitled “External forces and Mehmet Ali Alabora,” in which she criticized the campaign of intimidation and disinformation that her newspaper had been waging since 10 June against Alabora, an actor who had expressed support for the demonstrators on Twitter. He was threatened after Yeni Safak portrayed him as one of the leaders of a “conspiracy designed to bring down the government.”
Six journalists resigned together from +1, a new privately-owned TV station, on 11 July, accusing the owner of interfering in its editorial policies.
Although exacerbated by the polarization resulting from the Gezi Park protests, this tendency is not new. There has been an increase in high-profile dismissals and resignations of leading journalists in recent years. The daily Aksam’s staff were “reined in” after a change of ownership in June 2013. Milliyet columnist Hasan Cemal was forced to resign in March over a controversial article on the Kurdish issue. Ahmet Altan had to resign from Taraf in December 2012. Aysenur Arslan was fired from CNN Türk, Andrew Finkel from Today’s Zaman, Banu Güven from NTV, Ece Temelkuran from Haber Türk and Mehmet Altan from Star. Some little-known journalists have meanwhile enjoyed meteoric promotions.
Although politicized, the Turkish media have the merit of being very diverse. But that may not last much longer. There are no safeguards that prevent media owners from meddling in the editorial independence of their staff. The vulnerability of their staff is increased by the fact that most newspapers are nowadays owned by big holdings that are active in such sectors as construction, finance and telecommunications – sectors in which winning state contracts is crucial.
As a result, it has become harder and harder over the years for Turkish business journalists to do in-depth investigative reporting. And to protect their business interests in the most profitable sectors, some media owners exercise all their influence to tone down their media’s criticism of the government.
The scale of the growing self-censorship trend was seen when many leading Turkish media ignored the Gezi Park protests for the first few days. The fact that CNN Türk broadcast a wildlife programme at the height of the clashes in Taksim Square on 31 May drew so much comment that the photo of a penguin quickly came to symbolize media connivance with the government. Another 24-hour news channel, NTV, had to apologize to its viewers for failing in its duty to report the news.
The contrast between the initial silence from leading Turkish media and the live coverage that the protests received from leading international TV broadcasters resulted in a big surge in the latter’s viewer ratings in Turkey. But it also elicited fierce hostility from government officials and pro-government media, which accused the international media of “disproportionate” and “biased” coverage.
Anti-foreign media hysteria
In speech after speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan portrayed the demonstrators as “vandals” and “fringe elements” acting at the behest of terrorist organizations and international speculators. He also targeted CNN, the BBC and Reuters. “You have been fabricating false information for days,” he said at a meeting on 16 July. “But you stand alone with your lies. This is not the nation whose image you have projected to the world.”
Some of the Turkish media quickly followed the prime minister’s lead, accusing the international media of deliberately orchestrating a campaign of disinformation against Turkey with the aim of besmirching its image or even bringing the government down. The climate of mistrust was extreme and worse was to follow.
The daily newspaper Takvim ran a fake interview with well-known CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour on its front-page on 18 June. Headlined “Dirty confession,” the bogus interview had Amanpour confess that CNN had slanted its coverage of Turkey’s protests “for money” and “under pressure from international lobbies.”
Ten days later, Takvim went so far as to file a complaint against CNN and Amanpour, accusing them of denigrating state institutions and using their coverage of the protests and “false news” to stir up hatred within the population. At the same time, a hostile campaign launched by Ankara’s mayor on Twitter against BBC correspondent Selin Girit set media and social networks ablaze and Girit found herself accused of being a British spy.