Why is Press Freedom Necessary for Everyone in Turkey?

by Postwoman

June 28 marks the one month anniversary of the protests that arose out of Istanbul’s Gezi Park, and soon spread to many other parks and squares of Turkey. Mostly described as “Occupy Gezi” or “Diren Gezi” (Resist Gezi in Turkish), the protests have no central command and are evolving, perhaps into a full-fledged movement, as we speak. Protestors largely oppose Prime Minister Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, mostly incarnated in his paternalistic governance derived from the majority of votes his party gained, and police repression against the protestors. Reclaiming public spaces in their neighbourhoods, they have recently been experimenting with direct democracy in forums where a collective dialogue with respect for diversity and gender equality thrives.

The rise of those protests has left many hopeful, others muddled, and almost half of the country angry. A systematic counter-publicity campaign led by the Prime Minister and officials of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has deliberately attempted to discredit protestors and the facts that constitute their grievances. Blaming the protests on a vaguely defined “interest rate lobby” and international media that are uncomfortable with Turkey’s economic growth, many AKP supporters repeatedly bend the truth. They have so far claimed that protestors drank in a mosque (the muezzin of the mosque who was there that night refuted those claims), drawn similarities between protests in Brazil and Turkey, hence foreign plotting, and pointed out foreign publications that “fabricate news.” Examples of misinformation are not limited to AKP supporters and officials though; some supporters of the protests have also circulated spurious pictures and claims, mostly on social media.

In tandem with the political polarization looming over the country, if not spurred by the politicians, mainstream and social media have become a battlefield where reports of spam, blocking, slander and falsehood are weapons of both sides. Where should citizens turn to when they are left scrambling through hundreds of tweets, drowning in conflicting accounts on their TVs with no serious fact-checking and no way of holding anyone to account? Journalists? Well, easier said than done. If there is one common foe that has united many who have been involved in either side of the political contention, those are certainly journalists in Turkey. In a country that infamously jails the most number of journalists, and stays systematically blinded to the coverage of Kurdish resistance, one could have expected a certain level of tension towards, and from, the media. The mainstream news organizations first failed people by instituting an utter blackout during the first couple days of Occupy Gezi. After they started covering the protests, accusations of bias, distortion, censorship, and intentional exclusion have been steadily leveled from both sides towards domestic and international media.

Above: CNN International live from Istanbul on June 11, 2013. Below: Same time on CNN Turk it reads "Marginal groups attack police with molotov cocktails and stones"

Above: CNN International live from Istanbul on June 11, 2013. Below: Same time on CNN Turk it reads “Marginal groups attack police with molotov cocktails and stones”

We live in tough times to be a journalist and Turkey is no exception. In addition to the political and economic violence conducted by the state’s media watchdog in the form of fines, media organizations fear reprisals by government officials and courts. Over the last four weeks, journalists who were in the streets to cover the protests have had to suffer through teargas and pepper spray, injuries caused by teargas canisters, and attacks of water cannons as the police violence was escalating. Moreover, they were particularly assaulted, verbally abused, or detained by police. Rather than being protected by their professional status, many abused journalists have suggested that press passes have rendered them specific targets for police (I’ve been trying to track and document violence against journalists in Turkey during the protests here).

Gokhan Bicici of IMC TV was detained on June 16, 2013. After detention, his gas mask was taken, his ipad was seized, and he was dragged on the ground by police.

Gokhan Bicici of IMC TV was detained on June 16, 2013. After detention, his gas mask was taken, his ipad was seized, and he was dragged on the ground by police.

Pro-government media and some AKP officials have targeted journalists such as Ece Temelkuran or Can Dündar as the instigators of the protests. AKP’s Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek has recently singled out Selin Girit of the BBC Turkish service and accused her of being an “English agent” because she tweeted discussions from one of the neighborhood forums. His slander was not only retweeted by some of the ministers of the government, not to mention the Prime Minister who referred to it in a speech, but also taken up by the AKP’s social media groups as Gökçek rallied his followers to condemn Girit and her coverage of the protests, which never went beyond merely witnessing and reporting on reality.

Amidst the deluge of misinformation and slander, people in Turkey desperately need objective journalism. Journalists’ reporting in the country, however, has been physically and symbolically hindered on many levels – and even when they did cover the protests, their stories are read with suspicion by both sides of the political polarity. I accept the fact that the relationship between reporting and power is too complex and not always easy to unpack in the urgency of political uprisings. But there are also bare minimums that need to be met in order to turn the ongoing protests into a fruitful democratic debate – much needed in light of the upcoming local elections in March 2014. We need not only facts but also a diverse range of views and voices represented to all. Thus, it is pressing for Turkey to have a media system in which journalists can offer information, investigation, and social empathy.

As the protests in Turkey complete a month, both AKP supporters and the protestors need to channel their frustration with the media into a political reform that not only breaks the legal-commercial link between the government and media owners’ cross-sector ownership, but also enables a space where journalists can speak and report freely. Police violence against journalists should stop immediately, as should the slander and intimidation that individually targets reporters on social media and are encouraged by government officials. Press freedom is not only necessary for, or in the interest of, journalists. As citizen journalists on the social media and news consumers, we all have a stake in fighting back against encroachments on freedom of expression.

Sociologist Michael Schudson argues that journalism does not produce democracy where democracy does not exist, but it can help democracies thrive. There is no doubt that Turkey is a democracy, albeit an imperfect one as all democracies are. No matter which side of the protests you support, however, we all resent the violations of our personal and social space, and the media and journalists are no exception. We should all demand a better media system to give journalists the space they deserve to facilitate our collective democratic experience and to hold the powerful accountable.