Government should examine its own press card regulations

Government should examine its own press card regulations

As the “who is a journalist” debate in Turkey deepens, I have a proposal to help focus the definitional struggle: The government should audit its state-issued “yellow press cards.”

The background is the growing number of arrested journalists in Turkey, now numbering about 70. The government’s position is these folks were not arrested for their journalism, but rather for other activities.

Earlier this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) based in New York weighed in. It concluded that just eight journalists are jailed in Turkey, at least partially accepting the government’s argument. In the ensuing controversy, the CPJ’s executive director went on the defense. In a blog written a few days ago, he explained that, “we make a distinction between journalism and political activism.” 

Another way of stating this might be as a distinction between the “objective” Anglo-American approach to the craft versus that practiced in Europe, particularly southern Europe including France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. In these more temperate climes, journalism has long been more partisan, more associated with (and sometimes sponsored by) political parties and in a word, activist.

I have my own prejudices in this discussion. But arguing the merits of various journalistic cultures is not my purpose. Neither do I offer judgment here on Turkish justice. But while the above debate continues, a foundation for a more intelligent discussion would be attention to the way official press cards in Turkey are handed out.

I neither have nor seek one of the coveted cards. But many do. Not because it offers much value in gathering the news. Rather it is a sort of government-controlled bonus, allowing free access to museums and football games, free access to public buses and parking lots and often a wink and a nod at a traffic stop. I’m confident an audit would reveal most bearers of the card are not working journalists; and conversely, a majority of working journalists don’t have one.

A look at the 56-article press card regulation of the Directorate of Press-Publication and Information is instructive. If you are journalist, you have to be employed for at least two years before you get a magic card. Military service conducted during the wait doesn’t count. Foreign journalists don’t have to wait but there are limits. Foreign news agencies, for example, can obtain up to five press cards for employees. But foreign broadcasters are limited to two. Why the difference? Beats me. 

The rules include an entire section for members of Parliament who have been journalists. They can keep their cards as long as they were journalists at least a decade before election. There is no provision for Internet journalists. Meanwhile, PR officials working for a university communications department do qualify. The arbitrariness goes on and on. 

I once encountered a bank employee with a press card. Why? Just so he could park his car for free each day on the way to work.

I doubt the “who is a journalist” debate will end soon. But while it rages, the government’s credibility would be aided if it cleaned up its capricious – even bizarre - criteria to formally establish the legitimacy of journalists.