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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, January 14, 2008

So You Think You've Got It Rough? Turkish Journalists Know Better...

US journalists bemoan their condition on a daily basis - and often with good reason. The future of our profession and our craft has never seemed so cloudy. News organizations are dropping their most precious resource - people - on a daily basis. The quest for the elusive audience and the sought after demographic leads newspapers and broadcasters to move onto the web without any guarantee that "there's gold in them thar hills." My erstwhile colleagues in ombudsmanship are seeing their ranks diminished as newspapers shift ombudsmen to other tasks or simply fail to replace them when they retire. The latest to drop their readers' editor is The Baltimore Sun.

But in Turkey the media tries to do an excellent job of deepening the journalistic culture and the democracy that it serves, often against some serious opposition by newspaper owners, the government and the military.

My colleague Yavuz Baydar is the ombudsman at the influential Istanbul daily "Sabah." He has been witness to the struggles of Turkish journalists and sent me this observation published in the weekly magazine, Zaman:

'Headlines rolling'

If you believe that the future of democracy -- for better or for worse -- is solely dependent on the will of the government, you are wrong. A rise or fall of the freedom and the rule of law depends to a large extent on the media. The more devoted and dignified the press, the easier to stabilize democracy.

In other words, one can rightly blame high-level journalists for the ill adventures of politics and misrule of law in Turkey. The dirty habits of abusing the law as a tool for political blackmail and instrument for economic self-interests -- on personal and institutional levels -- still continue.

One of the darkest episodes of journalistic misconduct is approaching its 10th anniversary. It was to be labeled the "Feb. 28 process," during which large segments of this society were frightened and paralyzed by the ghost of fundamentalism while the press willingly played along with the military top command. It had ended with Çiller and Erbakan's fragile government breaking up. The Welfare Party (RP) was shut down and the mayor of the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, could no longer continue with his duties and ended up in jail for reciting parts of a poem.

One of the key actors in those "days of horror" was media proprietor Dinç Bilgin, who then owned daily Sabah and ATV. After a huge financial crash in Turkey in 2001, Bilgin was one of those bank-owning media moguls who not only lost his assets, but also was put in jail on corruption charges. He is still fighting to repay his massive debts through a resale of Sabah, one of Turkey's leading dailies that recently went to the Çalık Group.

In a rather rare interview this past week in daily Yeni Şafak, Bilgin came with some unusual and unexpected confessions about the Feb. 28 process, which he calls "a period I am ashamed of."

One incident in those days, seen widely as a page of shame, was the censuring and firing of two liberal columnists: Cengiz Çandar and Mehmet Ali Birand, both of whom wrote for Sabah. The machinery of disinformation was in full gear. A "story" was fabricated quoting a captured Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) "commander," Şemdin Sakık, that some columnists, including those two, were "cooperating" with the PKK. Both daily Hürriyet and Sabah came out with identical headlines in the same day in the spring of 2007, with stories accusing the columnists of cooperation. None of them were given the right to respond. Hürriyet's chief columnist, the very person who is still the head of Turkey's Press Council, joined the choir of executioners, calling them "villains." He would come to regret that later and half-heartedly confess his mistake.

The most remarkable thing in those days was the total silence of the press. No colleague dared to come to the defense of those columnists. I remember trying desperately to have my op-ed piece published by Radikal for weeks. In the end, due to the bravery of some colleagues there, my piece, which condemned the "damaging editorial flaws" and "mistreatment" of both papers, was printed a month later. I am not proud to have been alone in all of this, being the sole voice of dissent, in that sad mess.

Bilgin now claims that he had a "phone call" the day before and that he called Hürriyet's editor, who he says insisted headlining with the story. He says he could not convince him otherwise (prevent him from not headlining the story) and that Sabah had to send Çandar on a "mandatory vacation." Sabah, Bilgin implies, had to follow to compete with its rival.

The confession needs no further comment. What happened in those days, in terms of the cooperation between the powers-that-be and the press, was further elaborated on in a recent article by Şamil Tayyar, Star daily's Ankara bureau chief. He speaks in detail about what happened on Feb. 4, when a tank battalion marched through the town of Sincan, whose mayor was accused of links with Islamic radicalism. This was an event that could be seen as a prelude now-famous National Security Council (MGK) meeting on Feb. 28, when the government was targeted harshly by the top command.

Tayyar says that the mainstream press was "notified" of the tanks' march the day before they rolled into Sincan. Both Sabah and Hürriyet's editors sent reporters there, telling them to "wait there, something big will happen." In a comic episode, the following happened: Sabah's two reporters fell asleep in a car in Sincan. One of them was woken up early in the morning by the sound of tanks rolling down the street. He shook his colleague. "Wake up," he yelled, "the headlines have started to roll!" Hürriyet's reporter took pictures and saw no news value (and subsequently got fired).

All hell broke loose in Ankara when the news hit the city. Sabah refused to share the pictures and, at the special request of certain editors, the same tanks rolled again through Sincan "to repeat the news story!"

Comments? Only one: Many of those "key editors" are still in their "key positions" in the press, with no intention of admitting anything. Denial is the tune.

Baydar continues to advocate for a free and freer press in Turkey. American journalists would do well to monitor their progress or lack thereof and thereby encourage our own journalistic culture to take more risks.

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