Yavuz Baydar: Half-truths in the age of Turkey’s emergency rule


Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan interviewed on Italy’s RAI News 24

Turkey’s third post-coup week has been full of uncertainties, suspicion and concern. As of Wednesday morning there were 1,297 individuals subject to an international travel ban, among them 35 journalists and 51 lawyers.

A developing rift between Ankara and Rome illustrates what Turks can expect from the government-controlled and -aligned media: a moulding of the truth to fit the words and agenda of the country’s president.

In a combative interview with Italy’s RAI News 24, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan challenged the Italian government’s investigation of his son Bilal. He warned that the incident would put Turkey’s relations with Italy “in difficulty”.

“If my son had entered Italy, he would perhaps be arrested. What is this? My son, who is a bright man, is accused of money laundering. Instead of hassling my son, Italy should deal with its own mafia,” he said angrily.

His anger spilled over to the city of Bologna as well. “In that city they call me a dictator,” Erdogan said. “They organise pro-PKK demonstrations. Why don’t they [Italian authorities] step in? This issue will jeopardise our relations with Italy.”

Later, Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, responded on TwitterIn this country the judges respond to the laws and the Italian constitution, not the Turkish president. It’s called ‘rule of law.'”

It’s unnerving how this not-so-diplomatic sparring played out in the Turkish press. While Erdogan’s words were widely quoted on TV channels, the Italian prime minister’s reaction was missing. As media-monitoring organisations pointed out, half of reality was missing, self-censored by subservient outlets under the president’s thumb.

Erol Önderoğlu, Reporters Without Borders’ Turkey representative, asked via Twitter whether or not Turkish TV channels would consider reporting Renzi’s “rule of law” comments. Sadly, he knew they wouldn’t. 

It goes further, though. As if self-censorship wasn’t enough, the government moved to block access to articles about the money laundering allegations against Bilal Erdogan following the RAI interview. Cumhuriyet — one of the handful of independent media outlets remaining — reported that Diken and Gazeteport — already under the eye of the government — were sites that had their coverage censored.

At the same time, behind the smokescreen of a subservient press, the Erdogan administration has turned its oppressive measures on Kurdish journalists. Police in the Karayazı District of Erzurum Province detained Mehmet Arslan, a reporter for Dicle News Agency (DİHA). Turkish telecommunications regulator, TIB, blocked access to the website of JİNHA news agency, which mainly covers Kurdish issues.

Journalists on social media were warning authorities that there was a high risk that a journalist in detention, Haşim Söylemez, who recently had two successive brain surgeries, could face health issues in jail.

A colleague of his, briefly arrested with Söylemez, tweeted that “he had a hard time even standing up in the cell”.

Önderoğlu is as deeply concerned as I am about the coming weeks. He said in next four months at least 149 journalists will be facing courts and, due to emergency rule practices, there will be many legal inquiries underway about the others, mainly based on the Anti-Terror Law and the Criminal Code.

Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.

Yavuz Baydar: A noble profession has turned into a curse

From left, Ahmet Nesin (journalist and author), Şebnem Korur Fincancı (President of Turkey Human Rights Foundation) and Erol Önderoğlu (journalist at Bianet and RSF Turkey correspondent). (Photo: © Bianet)

From left, Ahmet Nesin (journalist and author), Şebnem Korur Fincancı (President of Turkey Human Rights Foundation) and Erol Önderoğlu (journalist at Bianet and RSF Turkey correspondent). (Photo: © Bianet)

I have known Erol Önderoğlu for ages. This gentle soul has been monitoring the ever-volatile state of Turkish journalism more regularly than anybody else. His memory, as the national representative of the Reporters Without Borders, has been a prime source of reference for what we ought to know about the state of media freedom and independence.

On 20 June, perhaps not so surprisingly, we all witnessed Erol being sent to pre-trial detention, taken out of the courtroom in Istanbul in handcuffs.

Charge? “Terrorist propaganda.” Why? Erol was subjected to a legal investigation together with two prominent intellectuals, author Ahmet Nesin, and Prof Şebnem Korur Fincanci – who is the chairwoman of the Turkish Human Rights Foundation – because they had joined a so-called solidarity vigil, as an “editor for a day”, at the pro-Kurdish Özgür Gündem daily, which has has been under immense pressure lately.

This vigil had assembled, since 3 May, more than 40 intellectuals, 37 of whom have now been probed for the same charges. One can now only imagine the magnitude of a crackdown underway if the courts copy-paste detention decisions to all of them, which is not that unlikely.

Journalism has, without the slightest doubt, become the most risky and endangered profession in Turkey. Journalism is essential to any democracy. It’s demise will mean the end of democracy. 

Turkey is now a country — paradoxically a negotiating partner with the EU on membership — where journalism is criminalised, where its exercise equates to taking a walk on a legal, political and social minefield.

“May God bless the hands of all those who beat these so-called journalists” tweeted Sait Turgut, a top local figure of AKP in  Midyat,  where a bomb attack on 8 June by the PKK had claimed 5 lives and left more than 50 people wounded.

Three journalists – Hatice Kamer, Mahmut Bozarslan and Sertaç Kayar – had come to town to cover the event.  Soon they had found themselves surrounded by a mob and barely survived a lynch attempt.

Most recently, Can Erzincan TV, a liberal-independent channel with tiny financial resources but a strong critical content, was told by the board of TurkSat that it will be dropped from the service due to “terrorist propaganda”. Why? Because some of the commentators, who are allowed to express their opinions, are perceived as affiliated with the Gülen Movement, which has been declared a terrorist organisation by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is commonplace for AKP officials from top down demonise journalists this way. Harrassment, censorship, criminal charges and arrests are now routine.

Detention of the three top human rights figures, the event in Midyat or the case of Can Erzincan TV are only snapshots of an ongoing oppression mainly aimed at exterminating the fourth estate as we know it. According to Mapping Media Freedom, there have been over 60 verified violations of press freedom since 1 January 2016. 

The lethal cycle to our profession approaches its completion.

While journalists in Turkey – be they Turkish, Kurdish or foreign – feel less and less secure, the absence of truthful, accurate, critical reporting has become a norm. Covering stories such as the ”Panama Papers” leak — which includes hundreds of Turkish business people, many of whom have ties with the AKP government — or the emerging corruption case of Reza Zarrab — an Iranian businessman who was closely connected with the top echelons of the AKP — seems unthinkable due to dense self-censorship.

Demonisation of the Kurdish Political Movement and the restrictions in the south eastern region has made it an extreme challenge to report objectively on the tragic events unfolding in the mainly Kurdish provinces which have forced, according to Amnesty International, around 500,000 to leave their homes.

Journalism in Turkey now means being compromised in the newsrooms, facing jail sentences for reportage or commentary, living under constant threat of being fired, operating under threats and harassment. A noble profession has turned into a curse.

In the case of Turkey, fewer and fewer people are left with any doubt about the concentration of power. It’s in the hands of a single person who claims supremacy before all state institutions. The state of its media is now one without any editorial independence and diversity of thought. 

President Erdoğan, copying like-minded leaders such as Fujimori, Chavez, Maduro, Aliyev and, especially, Putin, did actually much better than those.

His dismay with critical journalism surfaced fully from 2010 on, when he was left unchecked at the top of his party, alienating other founding fathers like Abdullah Gül, Ali Babacan and others who did not have an issue with a diverse press.

Soon it turned into contempt, hatred, grudge and revenge.

He obviously thought that a series of election victories gave him legitimacy to launch a full-scale power grab that necessitated capturing control of the large-scale media outlets.

His multi-layered media strategy began with Gezi Park protests in 2013 and fully exposed his autocratic intentions.

While his loyal media groups helped polarise the society, Erdoğan stiffly micro-managed the media moguls with a non-AKP background — whose existence depended on lucrative public contracts — to exert constant self-censorship in their news outlets, which due to their greed they willingly did.  

This pattern proved to be successful. Newsrooms abandoned all critical content. What’s more, sackings and removals of dignified journalists peaked en masse, amounting now to approximately 4,000.

By the end of 2014, Erdoğan had conquered the bulk of the critical media.

Since 2015 there has been more drama. The attacks against the remaining part of the critical media escalated in three ways: intimidation, seizure and pressure of pro-Kurdish outlets.

Doğan group, the largest in the sector, was intimidated by pro-AKP vandalism last summer and brought to its knees by legal processes on alleged “organized crime” charges involving its boss.

As a result the journalism sector has had its teeth pulled out.

Meanwhile, police raided and seized the critical and influential Koza-Ipek and Zaman media groups, within the last 8 months, terminating some of its outlets, turning some others pro-government overnight and, after appointing trustees, firing more than 1,500 journalists.

Kurdish media, at the same time, became a prime target as the conflict grew and more and more Kurdish journalists found themselves in jail.

With up to 90% of a genetically modified media directly or indirectly under the control Erdoğan and in service of his drive for more power, decent journalism is left to a couple of minor TV channels and a handful newspapers with extremely low circulations.

With 32 journalists in prison and its fall in international press freedom indexes continuing to new all-time lows, Turkey’s public has been stripped of its right to know and cut off from its right to debate.

Journalism gagged means not only an end to the country’s democratic transition, but also all bridges of communication with its allies collapsing into darkness.

A version of this article originally appeared in Süddeutsche Zeitung. It is posted here with the permission of the author. 

Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.

Turkey arrests journalists who showed support for press freedom

UPDATE: 30 June, Erol Onderoglu and Şebnem Korur have been released from prison.

Index on Censorship calls for the immediate and unconditional release of journalists Şebnem Korur Fincancı, Erol Önderoğlu and Ahmet Nesin, who were arrested by Turkish authorities on 20 June.

“These individuals have committed no crime. Their transgression was to exercise freedom of speech to show their support for a free and pluralistic media. It shows the depths to which Turkey’s authorities have sunk to silence any and all narratives that differ with the government’s,” Melody Patry, senior advocacy officer for Index, said.

In May, Turkish authorities began investigations for “terrorist propaganda” against journalists that participated in a solidarity campaign with the Kurdish daily newspaper Özgür Gündem. The campaign, which involved editors-in-chief, was launched on 3 May 2016 — World Press Freedom Day. On 25 May, Önderoglu – a representative for Reporters Without Borders and member of the governing council of international free expression group IFEX, as well as a correspondent for Bianet – was added to the list under investigation. Korur Fincancı is president of Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT) and acting as editor-in-chief ad interim of Özgür Gündem. Nesin is a journalist and author.

Index reiterates its call for Turkey to review its terrorism legislation and to end the abusive practice of prosecuting journalists under anti-terror laws.

Press freedom in Turkey has rapidly declined in the last six months with over 60 verified incidents reported to Index’s project Mapping Media Freedom. Since 1 January 2016, three journalists have been killed, with attempts made on the lives of two others.  Mapping Media Freedom has recorded 31 incidents of arrest and detention since the start of 2016.