The Fallout from Gezi: Where to Now?
Although the crisis for journalism in Turkey in recent years has focused on the arrest, detention and prosecution of scores of journalists, as this report reveals, the country’s media face an equally devastating threat to ethical journalism from the corrupt and sinister environment in which they work. Gökhan Diler told the EJN that before Gezi people were divided, even those working within media circles, over whether there was any clear political bias in media.
“Gezi caused a mind shift within media,” he says. “There is a clearer awareness now of where the red lines are drawn and who is exercising the authority.”(35) Significantly, the Gezi incident and the subsequent events have opened up a new debate inside Turkey about the role of government and its relations with the media. There are now calls for more transparency in media ownership and rules of governance that will eliminate the possibility of all forms of direct and indirect political influence on journalism.
Two different struggles are in place, says Mustafa Karam, one to build solidarity in the media profession and a second is to change the political approach and open the door to pluralism in media and more independent voices. Society is polarised and there are few opportunities to get access to inclusive journalism that provides more pluralism. When discussing the legacy of the government and mainstream media’s treatment of the Gezi protests, the word “polarization” is repeated time and time again. What exists now, says Yavuz Baydar, is “a more tamed media”; a media that has been and can be “bought by money or intimidation.”
While the bulk of columnists are now largely pro-government, others feel more intimidated. For him, there has been an “entrenchment in media,” which is increasingly demarcated in partisan terms, impossible to reconcile.(36)
The Hrant Dink Foundation, established by the family of the assassinated former editor of Agos, monitors hate speech in the media and periodically publishes reports with analysis on the topic. Zeynep Arslan, who is involved in this work, said they observed that hate speech was strengthened after Gezi, as a result of the polarization that aggravated social fault lines and heightened pre-existing suspicions.
For Ercan İpekçi, veteran journalist and President of the Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGS), the driving forces behind this polarization are government policies and the mainstream media. The tension and hostility conveyed by the divisive narrative favoured in the media are not reflective of society, where by and large, people are more understanding of one another, he argues. He also notes a broader shift in society: “The level of consciousness is higher now… Society has learned to demand its rights.”
Another consequence, points out İpekçi, was that people rejected mainstream media in favour of social media.(37) This does not constitute journalism, stressed İpekçi, and in fact social media was often conducive to the propagation of unfounded rumours and disinformation during the protests. The lesson of Gezi for the media was a failure to consider the context of the protest, according to veteran journalist and author Andrew Finkel, who said that both media and the government were unsure how to react. They suffered from a fundamental lack of understanding as to what the protests were about, which has still not been overcome.
This led to a general sense of paranoia, he said, with a government constantly looking over its shoulder, and led to far-reaching consequences in all areas of society, in order to prevent a reoccurrence of such events.(38) Importantly, says Finkel, it also led to the realization how other events, such as the Kurdish conflict, had been treated by the media in the same way for years – receiving distorted coverage or in some cases no coverage at all.(39)
Baydar explains that the government exerts considerable influence over content, though indirectly for the most part. Op-ed pieces for example, have been known to be directly commissioned from pro-government think tanks, who would on occasion send “ready-made propaganda” to newspaper editors, he says.(40) Not surprisingly, in this atmosphere mainstream news organisations struggle to find a credible, independent voice, and many doubt that the ownership structures can allow for meaningful change, but Baydar, is optimistic.
“The graft probe is a new opportunity for Turkish journalism to push itself out of suffocation,” he told Reuters. Baydar is among a group of prominent journalists who launched Platform 24, a media monitoring website, which aims to counter the undue influence of government over media and to encourage accurate, balanced, fair, non-partisan news coverage.
Nuri Çolakoğlu, says the Gezi events have highlighted problems which have always been present in the long and troubled history of relations and between government and media. The turbulence of the last months – there were serious clashes between Doan, Sabah and some other media about the fallout from the Gezi protests – has also provided some glimpses of a new mood sweeping the country. “It may be that Gezi marked a turning point and there is clear evidence of a generational shift,” he says.
“Certainly, it has opened the door to fresh thinking about media and the future of journalism. It is a discussion not held in the context of maintaining conventional media practice.”
Although Çolakoğlu does not hold out much hope for a change of mindset within the current government, some people are saying enough is enough. “Everyone knows what is right and what is wrong,” he says. “But how do we create conditions in the media for doing it right? We can start by supporting new media initiatives and by starting a debate inside the media and within wider society about the need for change. There should be no going back.
(35) Interview with EJN delegation November 20th 2013.
(36) Interview with EJN delegation November 20th 2013.
(38) EJN interview, November 19th 2013
(39) EJN interview, November 18th 2013
(40) EJN interview, November 18th 2013