Indexing press sanctions, ignoring what is sanctioned

Indexing press sanctions, ignoring what is sanctioned

As with many a reporter in ever-more-difficult Turkey, I find hope in the international attention given to Turkish journalism in this era of peril. The iconic New York Times just published a major tome on the decline of press freedom here. Paris-based Reporters without Borders has just published its annual index chronicling Turkey’s decline: at “No. 148” on the RWB list, we are now behind Malawi and the Congo but mercifully still ahead of Mexico and Afghanistan.

Other report cards will follow. Such scoring is welcome, a rare bit of warmth against the spreading chill. While most chilling are the outright assaults in the form of the jailing of scores of colleagues, more insidious are the preemptive forms of self-censorship. Shall I characterize in this column, for example, the details of the government’s response and position on these issues? Backspace. Delete. Backspace. Delete. A tiny example of self-censorship at work.

But the insidiousness least considered is the cumulative and long-term erosion of legitimacy that such indexes do not reflect. By their nature, the bevy of annual scorecards issued by press watchdogs measure one thing: the sanctions being placed on journalists and journalism. Indexes need quantifiable and comparable data: numbers jailed, numbers killed, numbers shuttered. I am glad that they do it.

There is no index, however, to measure reportorial depth, diversity of perspective, penetration of analysis, the courage of practitioners. Said differently, this growing shelf of watchdog indexes measure sanctions. Meanwhile, they entirely ignore what is being sanctioned. It is akin to measuring war by military casualties – which are surely important – but ignoring schools burned, factories demolished, museums pillaged of priceless antiquities.

Let’s consider another context. On the latest RWB list, Afghanistan edges out Pakistan by one spot, 150 over 151. Both countries are harsh environments for journalists. But “freer” Afghanistan has never had much in the way of a serious news media, but for the short, 10-year reign of its first newspaper, Seraj al-Akhbar. Interesting that it was founded in 1911 by the intellectual Mahmud Tarzi, who had learned his tradecraft in Istanbul during the early constitutional period of the Ottoman Empire. 

Pakistan, meanwhile, has a press tradition reaching back through the era of British India to 1780. Gutsy newspapers today include Dawn and the Daily Times, soldiering on against the odds. Pakistan today it is one of the few countries where readership is actually growing.

Or let’s look at Greece. In the rankings at No. 71 it is a much “freer” place than Turkey. But what is being freely published is generally not much to be proud of. Greece has one serious newspaper, the center-right Kathimerini. Perhaps there are two if you count the center-left Eleftherotypia. 

This contrasts with Turkey where until the recent chill, any corner newsstand would offer you your choice of unrestrained Marxist, liberal, Islamist or nationalist newspapers. “Unrestrained” most no longer are.
Indexes tell us of the assaults. They tell us nothing of comparative loss. There is no measure of the true damage to legacy, capacity and professionalism.