Media freedom in Georgia and Turkey

TBILISI — It seems that Turkey and Georgia not only share a border but are also close in their unsurprisingly low scores in media freedom indexes issued by leading press watchdogs around the world.

In its Freedom of the Press 2009 rankings, Washington-based Freedom House describes both Turkey and Georgia as “partly free” on the media freedom scale, with the former ranked 101st and the latter at 128th. In the latest report from Reporters without Borders, a Paris-based international organization that advocates press freedom, the rankings are reversed, yet still lock both countries in the partially free category, with Turkey ranked 122nd and Georgia at 81st place in the index.

The opportunity for comparative analysis presented itself when I was invited to a seminar in Tbilisi last week on media freedom in Georgia which was sponsored by the European Commission. For me, it felt as though a two-week workshop had been squeezed into a two-day crash course covering pretty much all of the issues confronting the Georgian print, online and broadcast media, both regionally and nationally.

It was certainly interesting and educational to find out how similar so many issues facing the Georgian and Turkish media are. The problem of media owners acting like editors-in-chief who are trying to advance other business interests through the media arm of their corporate conglomerates apparently poses major challenges in both Turkey and Georgia.

The questionable relationship between media owners and political actors and advertisers obviously casts a shadow of doubt over the independence and impartiality of editorial content in the eyes of the audience, all participants agreed. This concern has certainly been one of the main issues raising the eyebrows of many in Turkey for a long time. Media groups used to position themselves as either for or against the government according to a set of predefined relations, sometimes to the benefit of business interests in other ventures or to deny favorable treatment altogether in some cases.

The Turkish public was awakened to this hard and bitter fact when powerful media mogul Aydın Doğan’s tax evasion and accounting irregularity case resulted in a hefty fine against the group by Turkey’s tax collection authority. Although Doğan’s shady business practices have been known by media professionals and government officials for quite some time, over a span of governments on both sides of the political spectrum, only the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) had enough courage to step up and throw much needed political support behind the tax agency so it could go after the books doctored by the group’s management. The group’s long-sustained impunity seems to be over, and the case is pending in the Turkish courts, though Doğan has sought a settlement with the agency.

Setting an example does help to promote media freedom in this case, but it is certainly far from satisfying the need for structural change in the media landscape. Firstly, we have to adopt strong laws to ensure the corporate side of the business does not affect the editorial independence of the media, something the current government has failed to do so far. For example, we need a law severely limiting or banning media owners from entering public tenders. Secondly, we should have strong trade union laws for members of the press, providing better protection against possible interference from the management through the use of threats of layoffs or firings.

I should note, however, that there is an important difference between the Turkish case and the Georgian experience, which at times confuses foreigners. There are multiple players in the governance of Turkey to a varying degree. Unfortunately, the government, which has the mandate from the people, and Parliament, which is the representative body of the public, fall short of invoking their executive and legislative powers fully. The Turkish military, which sees itself as the guardian of the vague concept of the regime, still exerts considerable influence over Turkish politics. It is no secret that it tried to manipulate the press and pressure media owners into firing columnists who wrote critical articles about the role of the military in the past. There is an abundance of evidence regarding the various schemes employed by factions in the military, most of which has come to light during the Ergenekon investigation.

Last, but certainly not least, is the fact that the military still uses accreditation as a tool to deny information to media outlets with no justifiable reason whatsoever. For example, it bars reporters from the Zaman Media Group, which publishes both Zaman and Today’s Zaman, the largest dailies in Turkey in Turkish and English, respectively, from attending weekly press briefings or covering military-run programs. By denying access to information controlled by the military, it is actually doing a great disservice to a large portion of taxpayers in this country.

I learned a lot about the Georgian experiment from this seminar and had a chance to make my own contribution to the well-attended audience on the Turkish media outlook as well.

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