The dangers for independent journalism when media get too close to the story are evident in recent events in Egypt and Turkey where some media organisations are being accused of acting like foot soldiers in support of the government.
In Egypt media coverage of confrontations between the country’s new military backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood has been “saturated with clear political bias and reflects the current political division,” according to Michael Irving Jensen, the regional head of IMS, a leading Danish-based media support group.
At the same time, the political backlash in Turkey following the Gezi Park protests has led to comment that the government is increasingly pulling the strings of media leading to a crackdown on dissident opinion and victimization of independent journalists.
Many observers in Cairo report that much of Egypt’s mass media, including journalists working in both state and private media, are now actively supporting a new discourse which is largely uncritical of the government’s recent crackdown and which portrays supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi as terrorists.
At the same time media outlets affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood have lost all sense of professionalism. On all sides professional standards are in free fall.
It is little wonder that some in the journalistic establishment are looking for the Egyptian media to get back on an ethical track. The EJN and its partner the Global Editors Network are currently working together with local activists who are trying to establish a new independent voice for media editors.
It’s much needed. Since the crackdown on pro-Morsi protests began and a state of emergency was declared media linked to the Muslim Brotherhood are showing intensely emotional footage of death and protest victims accompanied by rousing speeches and rhetoric that amounts to incitement to yet more violence. Meanwhile, other networks broadcast live footage of the clearance of pro-Morsi camps.
Unlike the pro-Morsi channels they were highly critical of the demonstrators, claiming that they were armed and have killed several members of the security forces. Egyptian state television has largely ignored claims of human rights abuse made against the police.
No wonder Jensen insists media should “adhere to journalistic standards and provide their audiences with non-partisan, professional coverage, in order to avoid inflaming the situation further.” But In this febrile atmosphere ethical journalists struggle to work professionally.
The crisis is summed up by Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief at the English-language Mada Masr website, commented to the online magazine Jadaliyya: “How can one remain autonomous and sustainable, to survive, grow and show that there is an alternative possible journalism? This is what we are grappling with right now.”
In Turkey media owners have been interfering with news content and dissident journalists are losing their jobs since anti-government protests in June. This has created concerns over the credibility of some news outlets. Experts and journalists feel media are under intense pressure from government on their newsrooms.
Professor Yasemin İnceoğlu at Galatasaray University says the pressure is intolerable. “In an environment of political authority which is aggressive, centrist and intolerant of differences and criticisms, media owners cannot stand up to the ruling party.”
She adds, “Media owners fire journalists or administrators who criticize or oppose the government. Those who are not sacked resort to self-censorship. In brief, it is now delusional to talk about a free press.”
One of the media victims, Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for Today’s Zaman and a former ombudsman for the Sabah daily, claims that media engineering is part of a political program based on the desires of an interfering executive power. He was fired from Sabah daily over criticism of the government. The company’s editorial board refused to publish two of his columns relating to the Gezi Park protests and government-media relations.
“The wave of interference, cunningly and discreetly implemented in most of the sector through more-than-willing media proprietors, is now beyond the stage of warnings and reprimands,” he warns. He says newspapers as the public turns to alternative sources including partisan television networks which are biased in reporting.
If media owners continue to toe the line drawn by the ruling party and avoid critical reporting of the government they will lose public support he warns.
These developments add a new dimension of concern about media and democracy in Turkey which goes beyond the high-profile protests of media freedom campaigners over the number of journalists and writers currently held in Turkish prisons.
In very different conditions journalists and media in both Egypt and Turkey struggle to maintain their credibility and independence in the face of governments that are ruthless and threatening. It is a profound crisis that should worry journalists everywhere; as self-censorship takes hold it will further weaken levels of public trust and that can be dangerous for democracy itself.