As members of the Ethical Journalism Network meet in Brussels to discuss the Network programme for the next three years (December 10) Turkey is emerging as the Network’s most challenging target in efforts to build a culture of good media governance and self-regulation across the globe.
Over the past week I took part in two meetings of academics, media leaders and journalists at separate venues in Istanbul both of which ended in strong calls for action to build a new and independent culture of journalism. At the same time, international media supporters turned a fresh spotlight on the country’s stricken media.
Turkey is a major media player. It boasts 300-odd private television stations as well as a national public network. There are around 1,000 private radio stations and as many as 50 daily newspapers serving a national market.
It’s also a country where strong opinions are held and heard as the political pendulum swings between progressive and reform-minded movements and the more narrow, insular and conservative politics of nationalism and religious fundamentalism.
It could a haven of pluralism, but it is not. Much of the blame rests with an intrusive and intolerant government, but media can also be faulted. There is very little investigative reporting. There is fierce competition in the crowded media market and often journalism charts a safe course following the agenda of the country’s combative Prime Minister Recep Erdogan who does not suffer fools gladly, including his media critics.
In a country where the law and official media policy make nonsense of Turkey’s word-perfect constitutional guarantee of free expression, it’s not surprising that self-censorship – reporting in an atmosphere of fear – is rampant.
Few mainstream media owners or editors are willing to promote risk-taking journalism, no matter how compelling and truthful if it might be. They live in fear of anti-terrorism laws and a wide-ranging ban on any information that might be interpreted as insulting, whether to Islam, the government, the state, the flag, or even the official history of the country.
The scope of the crisis was highlighted in a recent report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). It concluded that the press freedom situation is critical with Turkey the world’s number one country for the number of imprisoned journalists.
With more than 60 reporters and editors currently in jail, many of them alleged to have infringed the vague articles of anti-terror law, one can understand media reluctance to rock the boat.
No-one is sure of the exact numbers in jail – some say it is as many as 76 – but everyone dismisses the government’s risible claim that “only three” of those in prison are genuinely journalists.
A recent delegation from the International Press Institute, supported by the European Federation of Journalists and a broad coalition of local editors and journalists took up their cause.
The delegation’s presence, just before the EJN visit, also highlight’s the political reality that Turkish ambitions to join the European Union remain fanciful when reporters go to jail for acts of journalism that are a routine part of media work elsewhere.
All of this provides a challenging background for the Ethical Journalism Network which is currently preparing a programme of activities with professional partners in Turkey.
The aim will be to strengthen the work of media managers and journalists by creating more effective solidarity within the industry in defence of ethics, transparency and good governance.
But as discussions on the spot have shown, the work will not encourage change unless it is focused on local realities. Newspaper owners, some of whom have faced government-inspired attacks on their businesses, need to find ways of being more transparent and credible in their forms of internal governance and defence of professionalism. In this regard the ethical audit for media managements recently developed by the EJN may help.
At the same time, journalists’ groups and other media associations need to work on their capacity for professional solidarity. Divisions within media abound, but the energy and joint commitment shown over the campaign to get journalists out of jail illustrates the how effective co-operation can be mobilised.
It will be a test to see whether a similar broad front can be created to combat the scourge of hate speech, which is emerging as perhaps the single-most dangerous threat to democracy across many parts of Europe, and in Turkey media play a part in maintaining a climate of intolerance.
Widespread discrimination against the Kurdish community has left its mark on the media community. The CPJ notes in its report that about two thirds of the journalists in prison are Kurdish journalists charged with aiding terrorism by covering the views and activities of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK).
As well as facing up to stereotypes and the problem of discrimination the EJN also plans to look at ethical problems in the area of political reporting. Turkey faces four key votes in the next few years, including elections for a fresh parliament and local government, a vote on the constitution and Presidential elections. Together they provide a supreme test for Turkish journalism.
The recently-adopted election reporting code and guidelines which Pakistan media have developed in co-operation with the EJN may be useful in defining how journalists navigate the ethical challenges of fair reporting in the over-heated atmosphere of Turkish politics at election time.
The aim will be to promote commitment and professional solidarity across all platforms of Turkish journalism. If this can be achieved it will make a modest contribution to weakening the government’s grip on the controls of media and could see journalists currently in jail set free sooner rather than later.