Press Freedom in Turkey: Signs of hope for 2010?


Last year Turkey ranked 122nd in a press freedom index. To find out why, EJC talked to Mahmut Çinar, a journalism lecturer at Bahcesehir University, Istanbul.
We hear of a stark media landscape: from draconian laws to political interference, from the Kurdish question to the Armenian genocide. But as EU accession talks continue and taboos are broken down, there are some small signs of hope.
HH: In an article for Press Freedom Day 2010, I mentioned laws banning anyone in your country from ‘damaging Turkish identity’ or insulting a public official. What is your general view of the media industry in Turkey?
MC: Over the past two years these laws have featured in the government’s reform package for EU accession, so recently we have heard little about Article 301 [concerning damage to Turkish identity]. But today, when I checked the situation, I saw that in the first three months of 2010 some 260 people had been prosecuted under similar laws. Not all are journalists; some are writers or artists, expressing their ideas, and of these 69 are journalists. This is a huge number. Compared to last year’s figures, for the first three months, it was 60 out of 110. So apart from this specific article, there is a clear decline for press freedom in Turkey. One reason is the government’s negative approach to any kind of opposition. As the number of government-linked media has increased over the last four or five years, it seems that the government has gained confidence in taking action against other mainstream media, which resulted in unending threats such as huge tax penalties.

HH: You’re referring to the case of media group Dogan, which has been critical of the prime minister and president?
MC: Yes, the fine against them was huge: about US $2.5 billion. Dogan is the biggest media company and they have several newspapers, TV channels and magazines, and they were on the side of the opposition, it was clear. In the first years of this AKP government, they seemed to be in agreement with the mainstream media. But after they started to have more government-linked mainstream media, they started to be more aggressive, for example against Dogan and other big media groups. We all know in Turkey that Dogan had some improper relationships regarding its taxes and other financial issues. But this fine is a record in Turkish history.

HH: So it’s disproportionate?
MC: Yes. But the government is not the only stakeholder which the press has to face. We also have cases regarding military officers. Also the division of power itself: The government is very aggressive about any opposition from the press.

HH: On a day-to-day basis, do you hear of much intimidation and self-censorship because of this?
MC: Yes, especially over the last two years. It’s been a bad time for journalists in Turkey.

HH: What about the state of media pluralism and diversity? For example for the Kurdish minority? Are there broadcasters who cater for them in their own language?
MC: We have one TV channel… a public broadcasting service but it’s different from in Europe and the USA. It is a government, let’s say state service, which is TRT and they have several TV channels and radio stations. And they have TRT 6, which is in Kurdish, but we cannot say that the channel contains things which Kurdish want. It’s only Kurdish coverage of TRT1, with subtitles in Kurdish. It’s forbidden to broadcast in Turkey or from Turkey in any other language than Turkish. Newspapers are legal, Kurdish people have one major Kurdish newspaper, also considered a very opposition one, linked or related to PKK, so they always have problems.

HH: Does Kurdish have similar roots to Turkish? Can one understand the other?
MC: No, they are completely different. In the northern part of Iraq, they use the Arabic alphabet. In Turkey, Kurdish people have adopted the Latin alphabet for their language. It’s a completely different language from Turkish, coming from another Indo-European language source.

HH: Turkey came 122nd out of 175 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) press freedom index. Do you think that’s a fair ranking? Is it too Western-centric? Is there a bias against Turkey?
MC: No, I think RWB makes its rankings by making interviews with Turkish journalists, academics and NGOs. So I don’t think there’s any bias. I think 122 is fair. It is where we are. It reflects the numbers of those sent to jail, killed and treated by state security services, government or army. So for me, it doesn’t seem unfair to have Turkey in this ranking.

HH: To turn the question around, can there be any benefits of restricting free speech in Turkey? For example, if the media fuels nationalism or hate speech against vulnerable groups?
MC: The other problem about press freedom or freedom of expression is self-censorship about critical and sensitive issues, such as the Kurdish issues in Turkey and the Armenian Genocide. Most of the mainstream media is very nationalistic, pro-state and pro-right concerning those two issues.
This semester I’m teaching news editing. Last week we did some discourse analysis of the mainstream media. We took the newspapers and tried to see how they cover the issues about Kurdish people, the Armenian issues, also other identities such as non-Muslims in Turkey, gender issues, gays and lesbians, and the picture is very dark I’m afraid… We have been seeing the same thing for years. In mainstream media, just because we had started to talk about some issues which we couldn’t before we can see an increase of sensitivity about using hate speech against Kurdish people. Ten years ago you could see very aggressive discourse against those people, but today they are more sensitive, just because we publicly try to speak about those things. But on the Armenian Genocide, really abusive reactions against the US Congress Committee and also the Swedish parliament. Especially mainstream media have very aggressive and nationalistic discourse against any other identity.

HH: So these resolutions in Sweden and USA have made the media more nationalistic and aggressive?
MC: Concerning the Armenian issue, they have become more and more aggressive day by day. Concerning the Kurdish issue, media see it as a domestic issue which should be talked about. Public opinion demands it. So they are now more sensitive about that. Also the discourse about other identities, not just ethnic but also religious and gender identities, they have a very traditional hate speech.

HH: External criticism makes that more extreme, like a siege mentality?
MC: Yes, the more people there are talking about the Armenian Genocide, the more aggressive our media become.

HH: You teach journalism in Istanbul. What are your hopes and fears for your students? Roughly how many go on to work outside of Turkey, in Europe, US, the Middle East every year?
MC: Most of them are preparing themselves for the Turkish market, for Turkish media and television, magazines, radio and press. Hopes and fears – always a hard question for all of us. I see some things going well, concerning some very taboo issues of Turkey, including the examples I gave. But also I can observe that nothing has changed about gender issues for the past 15-30 years. It seems that young people, about 20 years old, still see gender issues in the same light as their parents. For political issues, on the other hand, we see some very progressive signs.

HH: How are your classes in terms of gender, roughly half and half?
MC: Yes, and they share the same life. But for example, when I tried to criticise tabloid newspapers, they are very surprisingly very suspicious about it. Concerning page three pornography, they say “Why do you think this is not right?” I didn’t expect this from a journalism student living in one of the major cities of the world, well-educated, speaking a couple of languages, for example, with access to any kind of international media and academic information, but still thinking like this. Not just young men, also female students also surprise me. But concerning Kurdish issues we have come some way. For example in classes, we can talk about these issues, which was something off limits 20 years ago in Turkey. Even though there may be nationalistic reactions, at least we can talk about these things now. It’s a sign of hope.