On the sidelines of a European Union-backed media freedom seminar in Tbilisi last month, I was chatting with Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the managing editor of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press survey, over how accreditation was used in Turkey as a form of censorship in which reporters were denied the right to access information and prevented from obtaining an accurate account of what has happened.
She was quite keen on following up on an incident that happened in late March when a Cihan news agency cameraman who was covering the helicopter crash of prominent politician Muhsin Yazıcıoğlu, the leader of Grand Unity Party (BBP), was left on top of a mountain in a freezing snowstorm. On the instructions of the commanding officer at the scene, military search-and-rescue teams denied the cameraman a lift after they found out that he worked for Cihan, part of the Zaman media group, which also publishes English-language daily Today’s Zaman. We will probably see the incident cited in future reports of this media watchdog group as an indication of the lack of press freedom in our country.
I suppose our regular readers already know by now that we were blacklisted by the General Staff in Turkey for running articles critical of the military because the military exerts undue influence over Turkish politics, and the state of civilian-military relations are simply incompatible with the democratic standards and European values to which we aspire.
The newspaper is fighting numerous lawsuits in court because it has published critical articles. Instead of bowing to the pressure brought to bear upon our paper, we simply take the challenge head on and keep reporting as best we can in a fair and free manner.
To a degree, I can understand why the Turkish military denies accreditation to Today’s Zaman. I get that. They don’t want to expose themselves to public scrutiny more than they have already done. Numerous leaks exposing plots and coup attempts against the democratically elected government and smear campaigns targeting civic and community groups have put the military in a tough spot in the eyes of many Turks in recent years. These vicious plans were all published in media outlets not accredited by the General Staff. Public interest obliges us as a responsible media outlet whose loyalty is to its readers to unearth secrecy and to dig up the dirt.
I am completely lost, however, in grasping why on the earth a political party closes its doors to a major media outlet just because its leader does not like the coverage he was getting from these papers. We learned last week that Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli took upon himself an unprecedented move and forced the party executive board to adopt a list of blacklisted media organizations. The move came after the MHP declined to extend invitations for an annual breakfast press conference to the representatives of Zaman and Today’s Zaman, among others.
In contrast, however, we open our doors to everybody in this country. The fact that we are the largest-circulation mainstream daily in the country is testament to the fact that everybody can find a voice in our pages, from liberals to conservatives. As our Editor-in Chief Bülent Keneş conveys strongly to editors and staff on every occasion that Today’s Zaman’s pages are open to everybody as long as they do not offend or insult others, we loathe discriminatory practices of any kind.
During the summer months of this year, I had hosted two heavyweights from this party over a breakfast conversation in our Ankara office. MHP Secretary-General Cihan Paçacı and MHP parliamentary group deputy chairman Oktay Vural had a chance to talk to our reporters and share their thoughts. We even ran a full-page interview with Vural following the breakfast meeting, reporting everything exactly the way he said it.
Whenever an issue arose in Ankara involving political developments, our reporters placed a call to opposition party deputies including the MHP asking for their comments. We published their analysis as they said it, and we continue to do so. Judging from the decision taken by the executive board at MHP headquarters, deputies were instructed by Bahçeli not to return phone calls placed by Today’s Zaman reporters. Thus, if you wonder why you do not see a quote or comment from MHP officials from now on, the reason is the ban instituted by the MHP leader. Suffice it to say we will simply include a sentence in our reports that the MHP declined to return our calls or refused to respond to Today’s Zaman’s inquiries.
The other opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has not gone as far as the MHP in denying access to information. At least not yet. Though the party leader, Deniz Baykal, declined to meet for an exclusive full-page interview and possibly a headline story with Today’s Zaman reporters, we have hosted CHP deputies in our Ankara office and were invited to CHP headquarters. For now, they respond to our calls for inquiries and comments and do not shy away from making themselves available, except for Baykal and a couple of other deputies in leading positions.
With other parties on the left and the right of the political spectrum, including the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — which succeeded the now-defunct pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) — the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Grand Unity Party (BBP), the Socialist Democratic People’s Party (SHP), the Rights and Freedoms Party (HAK-PAR), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and many other small parties, we continue to cover with no obstacles in our way. We just hope both Baykal and Bahçeli come to their senses and realize that they are punishing their own parties and doing a great disservice to their supporters.