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Secret Handshakes of Turkey’s Corrupt Media Bosses

The media in Turkey is coming under increasing intimidation as journalists asking uncomfortable questions about the Erdogan government are dismissed from service because heads of media institutions are hand-in-glove with the political authorities.
A press conference organised by the Turkish Journalists Union (TGS) on Sunday in Istanbul announced that 22 journalists had been dismissed from service and 37 others were forced to resign.
“These dismissals and resignations are mostly related to censorship policies followed by some media outlets in dealing with the Gezi Park resistance,” the English-language Today’s Zaman of July 22 quoted Gokhan Durmus, head of TGS’s Istanbul branch telling the press conference. He said that media workers are “trying their best to resist the pressure exerted by media bosses and the government.”
Pressure on journalists following demonstrations at Gezi Park in Istanbul and elsewhere were highlighted in this blog on June 28 and July 2.
“Our colleagues worked hard for the public’s right to be informed, and they paid for it with their jobs. Some have been censored, some had their TV programs shut down. There are even journalists who have been sacked due to their tweets. A colleague has been dismissed from his job just for saying hi to a [Gezi] protester,” said DurmuÅŸ at the press conference.
In a forthright guest column for the New York Times’ Sunday Review, Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar, the ombudsman for the daily Sabah and a columnist for Today’s Zaman has described how corrupt media bosses have secret deals with the repressive government of Prime Minister Tyyip Erdogan. “Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists’ role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism,” he wrote in an opinion piece published on July 19.
The think-tank Carnegie Europe supported by the Open Society Foundation recently completed a study on Turkey’s media. Co-authored by Marc Pierini, former Ambassador of the European Union to Turkey and Marcus Mayr, the report received the international publication of the year award in the Prospect Think Tank of the Year Awards.
According to OSF, Pierini’s report looks at Turkey’s media from a European perspective. “The report proposes several steps to take for Turkey to move forward and promote progress in the area of press freedom, such as ending dispute over the numbers of the jailed journalists, continuing the judicial reform process, enhancing the role of civil society in protecting press freedom, and reviving the EU accession process.”
The report presents the following key findings:
  • Turkey currently has the highest number of imprisoned journalists in the world, but the government and civil society organizations strongly disagree about the exact number. This creates an antagonistic atmosphere that hinders constructive reform.
  • The judicial system tends to equate criticizing government policies and sympathising with radical ideology. Journalists who report and comment on sensitive investigations or court proceedings as part of their job can face judicial prosecution.
  • Many imprisoned journalists are detained on charges relating to terrorist activities linked to Kurdish separatism.
  • The government filters content online and blocks websites, seemingly targeting content that it deems unwanted or illegal.
  • Large conglomerates control major media outlets, so economic interests cloud media decisions and undermine editors’ and journalists’ ability to provide truly independent, critical reporting.
  • The government directly interferes at times in media affairs by lashing out at journalists or outlets in response to personal and policy criticism.
  • A judicial reform package was adopted in mid-2012 to address some of these issues, but more drastic reforms are needed. A fourth judicial reform package should be adopted soon.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) places Turkey 154 of 179 countries in the Press Freedom Index.  

Pictures as Protest

By Katie McNish

The New York Times last week reported on a dicey situation in Zambia, where a journalist’s effort at activism backfired and landed her in jail.

Chansa Kabwela, the news editor of the Zambian daily The Post – which has been critical of the impoverished country’s “corrupt” regime – was concerned about the national health care worker’s strike. She was approached by a distraught man bearing photos of a gruesome incident: his wife, naked outside a local hospital where she had been denied medical attention by striking workers, giving birth to a child who died hours later. According to Ms. Kabwela, the man hoped that if The Post published the photos, more tragedies like his family’s could be avoided. She and The Post’s other editors decided that the images were too disturbing for publication, but felt they were important given the dire situation. On June 10, Ms. Kabwela sent copies of the photos to several women’s groups and public officials, including the Vice President and Health Minister, urging them to “take quick action and end this strike.”

But, Ms. Kabwela told the Times, “the government deliberately decided to misunderstand my intention,” – to draw attention to the suffering caused by the strike – and instead dubbed the images “pornographic.” On June 13, she was arrested and charged with “distributing obscene materials in order to corrupt the morals of society.” She was released on bond but faces up to five years in prison.

Some have speculated that this incident has been a government response to The Post’s negative editorials, though statements by both the government officials and some of women’s groups that received the photos pointed only to the woman’s nakedness, highlighting her lack of “privacy and dignity.”

Ms. Kabwela issued an apology and the strike has since ended, but the war of words between the The Post and the Zambian government continues. Recent editorials have called President Rupiah Banda and his government’s response to the incident an “abuse of power.”