9th April 2018
Over the past five years the pressure on Turkish journalism has continued to grow in the midst of national and regional crises that have stretched the credibility of Turkey as a working democracy to breaking point. Many journalists and dissidents have fled the country, fearing prosecution, and gone into exile.
But some journalists and media activists are not giving up. Even in the face of intimidation, victimisation and loss of jobs, a spirit of resistance is being displayed as journalists groups regroup and look for fresh solutions to the news crisis. As of February 19, 2018, 156 journalists are in jail, around 200 media shut down, hundreds of press cards and passports cancelled. The leftist and Kurdish news agencies and online news organisation are constantly banned by Information and Communication Technologies Authority. They try to survive through changing their URL.
The Afrin operation of the Turkish Army in Syria led to a new assault on journalism with writers, political opposition and social media critics of the war targeted by the government on the grounds of making “terror propaganda”.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, 786 people have been taken into custody for being against the Afrin Operation – or operation “Olive Branch” as the government terms it.
Media owners and the editors were called to a meeting and warned by the Prime Minister about how to cover the operation within “national interests” and given 15 principles to be followed in reporting. The government has restricted coverage of critical statements or comments from Kurdish or political opposition as well as any mention of foreign media’s critical news about Turkey (Ahval, January 21, 2018). As the Spectator reporter Alice Beale noted, “the days of free reporting from northern Syria are over.” Even foreign journalists have been issued with a stiff set of instructions from Ankara on covering the Afrin operation.
In recent months, the government has come under heavy criticism for its crackdown on freedom of media and freedom of expression by European governments and international journalists associations. However, according to the President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, imprisoned journalists are “gardeners” of terrorism (Deutsche Welle, January 5, 2018). Six journalists including prominent columnists Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak were sentenced to life in prison over their alleged role in the failed coup attempt because of their television appearances and newspaper columns.
On the other hand, same time Turkish-German Deniz Yücel was released after a year in prison without any charges brought against him thanks to the efforts of the German Government even though Erdoğan labelled him as “German agent and terrorist”.
These two recent cases once more showed that the government will criminalise journalism to silence critical voices and use foreign journalists as hostages for international issues.
In these circumstances self-censorship is rampant and ethical journalism has been cowed with the focus of activism on efforts to free jailed journalists and support those facing prosecution.
Many journalists are jobless or working in precarious conditions. They face huge risks. Not surprisingly, the mood in the mainstream media is one of near hopelessness. Editors and reporters think that there is no chance to do real journalism in the country.
The scale of the problem is reflected in a series of interviews carried out with 14 journalists from mainstream, independent and international media and in the discussions around two media roundtables organised in İstanbul and in Ankara in February 2018.
The journalists in the survey spelled out a series of actions that they felt were needed to help keep an ethical flame alive in the world of Turkish journalism. In particular, they pointed to
Actions to combat censorship: Censorship and self- censorship is widespread. Some journalists admitted that they deliberately avoid some issues to survive;
Improving solidarity: Journalists, media and human rights activists are notoriously divided. Actions are needed to create more co-operation.
Tips on reporting restricted subjects (human rights journalism, child abuse, gender, migration): Reliable reporting is difficult when many journalists are excluded from government press meetings, and are not getting insider information. Their only sources are lawyers and NGOs.
Online and offline security: Independent journalists, particularly Kurdish ones are at risk. They don’t have press cards and never get accreditation. They can be easily targeted by police or army forces. How do they survive and how do all learn the basics in use of digital security tools?
More investigative journalism: There are calls for creating and building local investigative journalists networks;
Alternative media: More needs to be done to strengthen alternative media voices but it is still needs a collaborative effort to remain on the agenda on social media to attract public opinion. Division and political or historical baggage are still preventing solidarity among journalists.
New ways of telling stories: Social media are prominent news sources for readers and audience. How can they be mobilised for quality and ethical story-telling?
Standards and respect for the audience: Many news stories don’t meet the basics of journalism. Stories are defective, hate speech is common, and more effort is needed to build a culture of standards.
These findings provide a challenging opportunity to confront the crisis overwhelming the entire media landscape and are evidence that all is not lost. Independent journalists and media support groups are still open to collaboration and are willing to work together to build new and creative alliances to keep journalism alive. A set of priorities for this new movement were further identified at meetings in Istanbul and Ankara in February 2018 organised by the EJN, the Journalists Union of Turkey and with the support of the Turkish Press Council and independent media support groups such as P24, Teyit.Org and the Progressive Journalists Association.
After two days of discussions the meetings developed a draft action plan to provide support for ethical journalism and good governance in media to counter the current hostile climate and to combat self-censorship.
There was general agreement that the crisis in Turkey requires support for media and journalism on a number of different, but related fronts. These include:
- Training and raising awareness within the journalism community on basic principles: The core values of ethical journalism: accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and transparency;
- The essential of good governance for ethical ownership and management of media;
- The importance of self-regulation at all levels, including the level of the individual, the media enterprise, and across different platforms of distribution
- Development of further skills training and editorial tools to assist journalists in combating unethical journalism, hate-speech, and undue bias in reporting while developing good practice in journalistic methods, including use of images and pictures, protection of sources, reporting migration and other rights issues;
- Understanding the nature of change in the communications and journalism sector and facing the ethical challenges of using technology – data journalism, Internet tools for investigative journalism.
- Improving skills and capacity in the use of technology and web-based tools in journalistic work;
- Actions to strengthen self-regulation as a mechanism to improve transparency and accountability and quality of journalism at all levels;
- Research activity to analyse the current media environment including the impact of self-censorship and the scope of unethical practice across the spectrum of journalism;
- Building bridges between journalism and civil society and political centres of power to create a national dialogue about the importance of ethical communications and a new movement for media and information literacy (MIL)
- Strengthening specific areas of journalism such as investigative journalism, video production, online portals and new forms of information and introducing awards and prizes that reflect and recognise best practice;
- Creating an informal structure for dialogue and ethical and independent journalism on whichall stakeholders – teachers of journalism; media practitioners and managers; media support groups; unions, existing networks and relevant civil society groups can play a role.
All of this is welcome, but it cannot disguise the reality that the political atmosphere is toxic and polarised. Journalism has become more emotional than ever.
Building a new approach will require patience and collaboration and a commitment to practical actions, but there is a welcome recognition inside journalism that the media crisis is not just one that stems from political pressure, it also flows from a lack of attachment to the basics of journalism – a failure to verify information; sensationalism and emotional reportage; a rush to publish and media competition that leads to slipshod journalism and propaganda.
It is this media weakness that is inspiring activists, media support groups and independent journalists to a new movement in support of ethical reporting and to strengthen traditional journalism.