Wednesday, July 30, 2008

More on Objectivity and the Turkish Press

Difficult to follow indeed . . .

From Yigal Schleifer at the Eurasia Daily Monitor:
In many ways, the Turkish press has been making news, as much as it has been reporting it. Several journalists were among those arrested in the Ergenekon affair, including the chief columnist and the Ankara bureau chief of Cumhurriyet, a secularist daily that has been extremely critical of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Meanwhile, columnists and editors have been slinging serious mud, publicly accusing their rivals of distorting the truth. Four newspapers have even initiated a lawsuit against a competing paper that accused the plaintiffs of being "pro-coup."

"It appears that some parts of the Turkish media have been in support of Ergenekon," says Bulent Kenes, editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper that belongs to a media company closely linked to an influential Turkish Islamic movement and which publishes Zaman, the country’s largest circulation newspaper.

"Some of the big media organizations have been trying to blacken the case and trivialize it by producing fabricated news about the Ergenekon case, saying it was a tiny gang and that the government is trying to use it to create pressure on its opposition," he adds.

The pro-government press has been particularly critical of the Dogan Group, a media giant that publishes four of Turkey’s top-ten circulation papers, including the influential Hurriyet and Milliyet papers, and which has been less eager than its competitors to run with the Ergenekon story.

Sedat Ergin, editor-in-chief of Milliyet, says he has tried to take a more "cautious" tack on what has frequently been a sensationalized story. "When we have had reliable information, we have not been afraid to run with it. The accusation (that Milliyet has downplayed the Ergenekon story) is not fair. On the contrary, a series of articles we intended to publish on the issue was officially banned by the [case’s] prosecutor on the grounds that it might compromise the secrecy of the investigation," he says.

Adds the editor: "When such a polarization is rampant, in such a political atmosphere, every debate is held captive by this divide. Journalistically, it makes our job difficult. Ideology and strong political convictions become dominant and usually take precedence over the facts."

Indeed, when the Istanbul chief prosecutor, Aykut Cengiz Engin, recently released the Ergenekon indictment, he took the media to task for its reporting on the affair. "A great portion of the reports and commentaries [on Ergenekon] were not factual," he said at a press conference. "These reports, to a large extent, led to information pollution and the public was misinformed."

The use of disinformation in the Turkish media is nothing new. Planted press reports were instrumental in the Turkish military’s non-violent ousting in 1997 of the Islamist Welfare Party government -- an event that has come to be known as the "post-modern coup."

But the emergence of a powerful Islamic press and some questionable moves by the AKP, such as the recent sale of the bankrupt but influential Sabah ATV media conglomerate from state receivership to a business group run by the prime minister’s son-in-law, have given the government an unprecedented level of influence over media coverage, critics charge.

In the Ergenekon affair, for example, pro-government papers have been on the receiving end of a constant flow of sensational leaked information -- some of it patently false -- about the case. "The AKP is utilizing all its tools to control the media, either directly or indirectly. The government has learned how to manipulate the media -- you can see this especially in the Ergenekon case," according to SAIS’s Kaya.

"There is no balance in the support for the government by the pro-government media in Turkey," he says.

But Today’s Zaman’s Kenes contends that the aggressive reporting that his paper and others have done on the Ergenekon case does not mean they are blindly following the government’s lead. "We’re pro democracy. If the government does something wrong in terms of democracy, everybody will see that the Zaman group will resist that. We are independent of the government," he says.

What seems to have been lost in Turkey’s increasingly bitter journalistic scuffle is the chance for readers to find news they really can believe in, observers say.

"Everybody has had to take sides in one way or another," commented Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "It’s becoming harder to say that there is an independent media with an objective view."
For background on the press coverage of the Ergenekon investigation, see July 9 post.

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