Media freedom in Turkey: The fairest take

Media freedom in Turkey: The fairest take

Last week, I wrote in this column that under the “Islamist” AKP, Turkey is “moving in the right direction” with regards to religious freedom. Notably, it was not me who made that observation, but the Commission on International Religious Freedom established by the United States Congress.

However, it is impossible to be similarly positive when it comes to press freedom in Turkey. This particular issue, in fact, has created lots of concern in the past few years, with various international bodies warning about state or government pressure on Turkish newspapers and television channels.

The fairest take on this problem, in my view, has been the most recent one though: The report titled “Freedom of the Press and Expression in Turkey,” published by the Washington-based, liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.

Penned by Michael Werz and Max Hoffman, the report is quite fair, because it not only portrays all the problems Turkey has in this critical issue, but also puts them in the right perspective and context.

For example, the report begins by reminding, “During the late 1980s and early 1990s, journalists were targeted and sometimes killed” by various militant groups in Turkey. It adds that “current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP has successfully defused much of [that] violence.” The report also notes that, “Turkey today is more democratic than in the past... [with] a healthy civil society, enshrined civilian authority, and a vibrant political debate.”

When it comes to troubles, the report also takes a more sober line than some of the previous reports on the same issue, as seen in this claimer:

“Comparisons of Turkey to authoritarian countries such as Iran, China, or North Korea are off base. Some organizations monitoring the situation in Turkey have drawn such comparisons in order to attract attention to the plight of imprisoned journalists... [But] this provides the government with the opportunity to dismiss all outside criticism as overhyped.”

What is the real nature of the problem then? Here, the report rightly points to two levels. First, the legal level, more precisely the Anti-Terror Law, which used to ban “printing or publishing declarations of terrorist organizations.” This has led to many arrests simply for “disseminating PKK propaganda.” The fact that AKP reformed this law recently is appreciated by the report, but more reform is encouraged.

Yet then comes the real problem with the AKP: Political pressure on media bosses, using the economic leverage of the government, to make their newspapers or news channels more government-friendly. I think all criticisms here are very factual and accurate, and the AKP people should really listen to them without self-righteously dismissing it all as “anti-AKP propaganda.”

Finally, the report is also right on point when it underlines deeper causes of Turkey’s longtime freedom of speech deficit. One is “[the] political culture where the line between personal insult and outdated notions of honor and legitimate criticism or debate is blurred.”

Another cause is “the consolidated ownership of news outlets by large conglomerates,” whose economic interests make them subservient to whomever holds power in the overpowerful Ankara --- in the past the generals, today the AKP. Some things just never change.