Fouling up press freedom in Turkey

Some time ago, I had lunch with a senior Western diplomat who served in Ankara before retiring from public service and who is currently working for a well-respected US think tank in Europe. He was doing research for a comprehensive report on press freedom in Turkey. As a pointer, I told him that if he really wanted to make a difference in Turkey’s bleak outlook on press freedom and to contribute to making our lives as media professionals in Turkey better, he should not fall into the classic trap of drawing generalized conclusions in crisp black and white categories, as some foreign observers often do in Turkey studies. In a complex and multifaceted debate on the freedom of press issue, you have to carefully peel away each layer of this problem to really see what lies beneath. In short, I said, he should not be mixing apples and oranges in his upcoming report to dodge the debate on credibility.

I guess all our colleagues, with the exception of the die-hard government fans in this country, recognize there are a lot of problems we face every day in Turkey while doing our job as reporters and editors. They are real and make our lives difficult. They range from self-censorship out of fear of reprisal to legal woes for simply reporting what is happening in the courtrooms or in government agencies, from the extremely blurred line of divisions between corporate and editorial sides of media businesses to totally uncalled-for strong reactions to critical reporting from the government, most specifically from the powerful prime minister himself.

However, while trying to make a case for the legitimate concerns of Turkish reporters and editors, advocacy groups on press freedom are mixing legitimate cases with the ones that, in my opinion, have nothing to do with the journalism profession at all, thereby weakening the precious commodity we jealously guard every day on the frontline of journalism: credibility. As we are scrambling to decide on the layout of the first page of tomorrow’s newspapers in what we call “noon budget meetings” in the newsroom, the bad apples in our profession are rushing to help out terrorists logistically or to lay out a grand public relations strategy for generals who want to take over the government and the country. Touting the cases of these rogue reporters/editors as violations of freedom of press does in fact does great disservice to hundreds of others who feel passionate about their profession in the media. The confusion, deliberate or unintentional, does harm journalists in Turkey.

It is true that Turkey has rigid anti-terror laws and many archaic laws, rules and regulations that restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press. For me, the “archaic mentality” within the older generation of judges and prosecutors presents a bigger problem than the laws. This is because you can fix the laws, but how can you rehabilitate hundreds of legal professionals in senior positions in the judiciary who have long believed in the sanctity of upholding the interest of the state above the rights of the individual? While this deserves another in-depth review, I have to emphasize that terror is a real problem that keeps killing innocent citizens, including reporters in Turkey as well as men and women in uniform. I’m intimately aware of cases in the Zaman media group in which reporters have been threatened by these vicious terror organizations, including Ergenekon and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), because of critical reporting in the past. The police have had to deploy riot police and terror response teams in front of my office in the Turkish capital on more than one occasion. The threat is not just limited in Turkey. Zaman bureaus were ransacked, stormed and even set on fire, which led to injuries of our staff by PKK members in France, Austria and Germany.

Hence, I find it difficult to fathom the reasoning behind putting all relevant cases in which journalists found themselves on the wrong side of the law in the same basket. For instance, some of the names mentioned in the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a respectable watchdog agency for which I was also a proud member during my time in New York as the UN bureau chief for Zaman, have been indicted or convicted on terror charges, not because they were doing their jobs as reporters but in fact they were aiding and abetting terror organizations. Some were accomplices in crimes such as robbery, possession of firearms, plotting a coup to oust democratically elected governments from the power and other serious felonies.

I wrote extensively on journalists who are being tried in the Ergenekon terror case after examining thousands of pages of indictment and evidence folders and detailed charges in the indictment in previous articles. For example, Tuncay Özkan and Mustafa Balbay, both on the CPJ list, have no merits in terms of press freedom because the meetings they held with generals accused of attempting to wreak havoc in the country to prepare the ground for a military coup were not part of investigative journalism, but rather they were active participants in attempts to fulfill the terror organization’s vicious goals. Balbay did not even pen a single story of secret plans of power-hungry generals who are now called to account in the courtroom. He, in fact, wrote articles deliberately to advance the generals’ cause in the small ultra-nationalist Cumhuriyet daily. Özkan had used his own TV station to mobilize rallies in support of Ergenekon’s terror causes.

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on the Özkan vs. Turkey case may set a precedent for us here, shedding light on at least some of cases where jailed journalists are charged with crimes. In the first review of the landmark Ergenekon trial — a case where a vicious terror organization plotted to wreak havoc in the country in order to pave the way for a military coup — the Strasbourg court ruled in December 2011 that two applications lodged by Ahmet Tuncay Özkan and Mustafa Levent Göktaş, both defendants in the case, did not even pass the “admissibility” criteria. The court confirmed that the applicant, Tuncay Özkan, was treated not as a “jailed journalist,” but as a person accused of “coup plotting.”

As for the journalists arrested for being members of the PKK and its umbrella organization, the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), there are serious charges leveled in the indictment that no government in the world can take lightly. These people, charged with being part of the media council attached to the KCK, are responsible for finding new recruits for the PKK. Not only did they run Rambo-like hero stories for PKK terrorists in own media outlets to create a romantic appeal to Kurdish youth, they also provided logistics by linking up newcomers to the PKK networks.

According to the survey titled “The building of militant identity in terror organizations and a profile of militants,” which was prepared by the Ankara-based International Terrorism and Transnational Crime Research Center (UTSAM) after examining the depositions and personal history of 2,270 PKK terrorists captured between 2010 and 2012, 20.76 percent of the people who were recruited to the PKK said they were influenced by PKK propaganda and publications. This is by far the largest percentage among all 15 principal reasons probed for joining the PKK. No wonder the PKK spends 38 million euros every year on press expenses. The PKK-affiliated news outlets sometimes even provide intelligence to the PKK by running reconnaissance missions under the cover of journalists. There are many examples of these in the court documents. Even the ECtHR accepted, in many cases, that member states of the Council of Europe may restrict freedom of the press based on charges that it praises violence and glorifies terror and hate speech.

If the trial in the Turkish court does not seem to be so convincing for our colleagues in the West, maybe I should point out the trial of the PKK mouthpiece, the Kurdish-language television station Roj TV, which has been charged with promoting and glorifying the activities of the PKK in Copenhagen. The court fined Roj TV 400,000 euros on Jan. 15 for being financed by the terrorist PKK and disseminating PKK propaganda both in Turkey and Europe. During hearings in court, evidence submitted to the court by the Danish prosecutor suggested that senior officials at the station had even requested that the PKK coordinate their assaults in a way that would fit the station’s newscast hours.

Although CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon tried to respond to criticisms of his organization’s report on Turkey on seven points — most of which I agree with — I believe, at the end of the day, he lost out on the big picture by mixing apples and oranges in our profession. As such, what the report really did was to fuel further conspiracy theories in Turkey, a country where people are easily inclined to believe that the West has always had a hidden agenda for Turkey and is after dismemberment of the Turkish nation-state into bits and pieces.

As the government of Turkey closed its ranks to further criticism, the CPJ’s misguided and confused report has also weakened the hands of reporters/editors who have been campaigning to advance press freedom in Turkey against all the challenges. If my Western diplomat friend I mentioned at the outset is not careful in his upcoming report, that too will fall into that category, strengthening an already-entrenched perception of the West, however misguided and misplaced that may be.

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