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Press repression reflects Turkey’s challenges 13 décembre 2014

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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Star Tribune (USA) Saturday, December 13, 2014, p. A7

John Rash *

Pushback against domestic and international news media in a society on “knife edge.”

Turkey — the topic of this month’s Minnesota International Center “Great Decisions” dialogue — ranked 154 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2014, an annual analysis prepared by Reporters Without Borders.

Press repression there is so troubling that three media freedom organizations — English PEN, Article 19 and Reporters Without Borders — posted an open letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the eve of his September address to the United Nations General Assembly. Citing several cases, the letter stated: “There is now a worrying trend of publicly smearing the reputation of journalists in Turkey, including threats to their lives.”

Other organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have raised similar concerns; CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon, led a delegation that met with Erdogan and other Turkish leaders this fall.

The reasons behind Turkey’s press repression, as well as the reactions from its democratically elected leaders, give perspective on a key U.S. ally undergoing significant change — and challenge. For years, Turkey was one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. That has eased a bit.

But other tactics to pressure the press can be just as insidious, said Prof. Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkish politics who teaches international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

Barkey describes a “three-pronged attack that is far more sophisticated than just putting journalists in prison.” It’s less censorship and more “firing, bullying and controlling” the press, either directly or indirectly.

Why focus on Turkey, when so many other countries also suppress the press? In an interview, Simon cited Turkey’s membership in NATO, its aspirations to join the European Union and the fact that Turkey “was promulgated as a role model for the Middle East and the Muslim world as an example of how to reconcile democratic principles with Islamic identity.”

In fact, Turkey has long been the Muslim country many in the Mideast would most like to emulate. And for years, its foreign policy philosophy of “zero problems with neighbors” was considered successful.

But now, Turkey’s caught up in the broader regional split over Syria’s vicious civil war, and at home it’s riven with divisions. All of these dynamics drive the pushback. Domestically, Turkey’s rulers believe they need “to take strong steps to ensure that their perspective is covered fairly,” Simon said. He added: “We completely disagree with that. In fact, the media is accurately portraying a reality that we view with grave concern, which is the continuing tendency toward the consolidation of power, a lack of accountability and transparency, restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.”

Simon, author of “The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom,” referred to leaders in Turkey, Russia and Venezuela as “democratators” — democratically elected, but not democratically governing.

Of Erdogan, Simon said: “In order to achieve his vision for the country he needs to suppress these forces internally and undermine their international supporters, and part of that is the way the media functions both in a domestic context and internationally, and that is at the root of this hostile attitude toward the media.”

In Turkey’s case, Syria’s collapse affects foreign — and media — policy. Despite its Western orientation, Turkey sees the conflict fundamentally differently than U.S. and European Union leaders. Most recognize that repression in Damascus is the root cause of the chaos.

But the West is concentrating on ISIL, while Turkey is focused on Syria’s repressive regime. To be sure, the Obama administration sees Syrian President Bashar Assad in the same light as Erdogan and other reasonable leaders do. But ISIL is the U.S. priority, and that fact is straining the relationship between two longtime allies.

Turkey’s government, Simon said, believes that “the media is undermining its strategic position, and they need to take strong measures to counter that.”

These strong measures may continue. Turkish leaders were willing to meet, but Simon described their response as “defiant.”

Defiance may project strength, or it could be covering up weakness.

“Does that strengthen or weaken you?” Barkey rhetorically asked. “It protects you, but ultimately doesn’t make you stronger. I think at some time the dam is going to break.”

An unimpeded press can be messy, and uncomfortable, but ultimately the press provides society an outlet to sort out its issues.

“There are all sorts of deep disaffections in society that can pop up at any minute that aren’t mediated through the media, through public debate, through institutions that can challenge the government in an effective way. It is very dangerous to organize a society in this manner, and this is definitely the knife edge that Turkey is walking right now.”

This knife edge isn’t as keen as other global crises. But America, the world and, most important, Turkey would benefit from the country improving its press policies, and thus strengthening its democracy.

* John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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