Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Fourth Estate

On April 30, Parliament Speaker Köksal Toptan addressed the "Press-Politics Relations" panel in Parliament on occasion of the 44th anniversary of the founding of the Association of Parliament Correspondents. Toptan proclaimed, “In democracies, press is the Fourth Estate after the legislative, executive and judiciary powers. The public needs to be informed at the right time and truthfully; opinions have to be discussed freely and openly in a healthy democracy.” However, much more revealing to his jejune salute to the press was a statement he made about this Fourth Estate: "Politics and press are not rivals of one another. We run on the same track, serving the public." Well, yes, this is in part true, but what it does not acknowledge is that this relationship is often confrontational. A healthy press will be multiple in its points of view, unrestricted in its freedom to operate, and unrelenting in its criticism of government institutions.

I bring this up not to harangue Toptan, but to draw attention to a problem in Turkey that needs to be redressed. A recent poll released by, a project of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. The poll surveyed attitudes toward the press in a variety of countries around the world and, in relation to Turkey, found there to be substantial support for government interference. Only 45 percent of Turks responded that they think the media should have the right to publish stories even when the government thinks their publication will cause political instability while 42 percent of respondents affirmed the right of the government to so intervene. Only 38 percent of Turks thought that the media should be given moe freedom. This is particularly enlightening in response to the current Article 301 debate and suggest that CHP, MHP, and plenty of AKP officials who were opposed to stronger reform measures have strong public backing in the country.

The WorldOpinion survey's findings also complement analysis of Freedom Houses' recently released ratings assessing freedom of press in Turkey. Out of Freedom Huses' 2008 ratings of 195 countries and territories, 72 (37 percent) were rated "Free," 59 (30 percent) "Partly Free" and 64 (33 percent) "Not Free." The evaluations are based on an assessment of the legal, political and economic environments in which journalists worked during 2007. Turkey secured a rating of "partly free." Acknowledging reform of Article 301 as a step forward, the report commented about the impact of the restriction on journalists ability to operate: "Convictions against journalists are made much less frequently than are prosecutions, but trials are time-consuming and expensive." The report concluded that press freedom has declined globally in the past year.

If Turkey is going to realize greater freedom for the press and the AKP to adopt a more liberal stance toward the media, efforts should be made to increase understanding of the healthy, oppositional, and agonistic relationship inherent between the press and the government and denounce government repression of journalists and their work. This would be a healthy part of the discourse that AKP might assume as it fulfills its promises to move past half-measures and pass real and meaningful reform in regards to the protection of freedom of speech.

For more information, see Reporters Without Borders' annual 2007 report on the state of the Turkish press.

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