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Turkish journalism is all but destroyed 27 mars 2015

Posted by Acturca in Turkey / Turquie.
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The Guardian Weekly (UK) 27 March 2015, p. 19

Yavuz Baydar *

Intimidation and imprisonment mean the free media is on the verge of extinction, while government-friendly moguls are given lucrative contracts.

Among journalists, the truth universally acknowledged is that bad news commands more column inches than good. In Turkey, the even more depressing truism is that much of the bad news has to do with the news industry itself. Those of us trying to preserve our integrity as journalists fight a constant rearguard action – against proprietors who set little store by integrity, and against a government that tries to accrue power by restricting freedom of expression.

The idea of journalism as a check on the unfettered exercise of power is evaporating

Recent headlines have been devoted to the jailing of the journalist Mehmet Baransu. He was detained for a story he wrote in 2010, based on (literally) a suitcase of military documents, handed over to him by a whistleblowing officer, which implicated senior commanders in an attempted coup d’état, codenamed Sledgehammer.

He was accused not of misleading the courts but of handling state secrets, despite the fact that he had handed the leaked documents over to state prosecutors. Having got the military under its thumb, the government now requires its cooperation and has turned on the journalist who once made the government’s case.

Worse still, much of the government media is egging the prosecutors on. Imagine Glenn Greenwald being arrested and then the rest of the press urging the authorities to throw away the key. The current state of journalism is only a reflection of how polarised Turkish society has become under the divisive rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This destructive pattern was accelerated by the two police operations in the last days of December 2013, massive investigations into the affairs of four ministers of the majority Justice and Development party (AKP) government. Those touched by the corruption scandals included a number of businessmen with close connections to the government, bureaucrats and bank managers, but also Bilal Erdogan, son of the prime minister.

Of even greater concern is that the investigations appeared to suggest that senior government figures were engaged in sanctions-busting against Iran, and that these senior figures had links to financiers who laundered funds for al-Qaida.

The files compiled by law enforcement and prosecutors were a burning fuse: they claimed to expose a vast network of organised crime, with evidence of bribery, abuse of power and widespread corruption at the very highest echelons of power. Corruption of the nation’s media was at the heart of these allegations. A critical part of the investigation concerned consortiums to cofinance media entirely in favour of the AKP government. This joint effort, in which businessmen benefiting from government contracts paid into a common slush fund, gave rise to the term “pool media”.

Yet if alarm for the independence of the Turkish press was already high, those concerns were raised still further soon after the outbreak of the summer demonstrations in 2013 to protect Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Protests spread to 78 of the 81 provinces in Turkey. The degree of self-censorship became so intense that the mainstream Turkish media itself became the subject of demonstration and open ridicule. Even so, Erdogan declared that critical media – domestic and international – were part of a conspiracy to topple him and his government from power. Thereafter the demonisation of independent journalism gathered pace. Journalists who tried to defend their independence and dignity found themselves fired or dispatched to professional limbo.

The developing story of high-level corruption was declared by the news management to be an area surrounded by “barbed wire”. Thus, 2014 began with a self-censorship more institutionalised and internalised than ever before. Blocked by political and institutional pressure, the core of Turkey’s dedicated and defiant journalists migrated their craft online. The government’s reaction was to try to shut down YouTube and Twitter, but this proved technically difficult and legally unsuccessful.

Still Erdogan is undeterred; the internet remains a target and vulnerable to government interference. Between 2013 and the end of 2014, the government imposed more than 20 news blackouts on important stories, on various grounds including national security. This was a normalisation of censorship.

Erdogan has simply raised the stakes to enforce dependence: in return for lucrative public contracts, all the media moguls in Turkey have to put their outlets in the service of power. It is a system based on corruption that also requires full complicity. If Erdogan or his aides do not call the top managers and editors of the media to publish propaganda or censor undesirable content; the owners themselves do it.

The notion of journalism as a check on the irresponsible, corrupt or unfettered exercise of power is evaporating. Investigative reporting, more crucial than ever, is on the verge of extinction. Our democracy now depends on whether the Turkish media can escape the quagmire into which one man’s ambition has driven it.

* Yavuz Baydar is the co-founder of P24, the Platform for Independent Media, and is a columnist and blogger

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