Sunday, May 29, 2011

Struggling to Make Sense of It All

As Turkey grapples to deal with all that is going on in the Arab Middle East these days, the Turkish media is having an equally difficult time keeping up. The following piece from the Foreign Policy Research Institute comes thanks to a post of Jenny White at Kamil Pasha. An excerpt:
Not surprisingly, the media plays an important role in both reflecting and influencing public opinion in Turkey. Since the outbreak of the first protests in Tunisia, Turkish media coverage of the Arab Awakening has portrayed a confused but ambitious picture of Turkey’s role regarding an intervention in Libya. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problem (with neighbors) policy” and Turkey’s role model status for democratizing Middle Eastern countries have contributed to an optimistic and ambitious domestic environment. However, the pace of developments in the Middle East, which required swift responses from Turkey and the West, unfolded more rapidly than Turkey had expected, causing confusion in Turkish government and foreign policy circles, as well as in public opinion. This is particularly evident when examining some of the most popular newspapers in Turkey—Hürriyet, Milliyet, Zaman, Taraf, Radikal, and Haber Türk—and their portrayal of the Western intervention in Libya.

The Turkish media in general, and columnists and commentators in particular, are primarily concerned about Turkish foreign policy direction and an appropriate Turkish response regarding the recent events in the Middle East. [4] Pleased with Erdoğan’s responses to the uprisings in Tunisia and especially in Egypt, many columnists supported Turkey’s initial criticism of the Western intervention—regardless of their general attitude towards the government and its policies. However, while several columnists lost interest, others ceased opposing the intervention once Turkey began participating in it. They, then, shied away from criticizing government policies, which presented a complete reversal of its position vis-à-vis the intervention within a few days. So, the media’s initial criticism of the Western intervention in Libya—like that of the Turkish government—appears to have been rooted in opposing France’s leadership of the operation. [5]

However, the majority in the Turkish media—namely the Islamists, leftists, and nationalists, continue to oppose any Western involvement in the Middle East. This unifying position among various opposing blocs in Turkey reflects a general suspicion of Western intentions in the Middle East. This theme features prominently in the government’s own discourse, especially with the approaching elections on June 13, 2011. Moreover, the West is perceived as monolithic in Turkey; only rarely are distinctions made between the U.S. and the European powers. Rarer still are the policies of the European powers evaluated individually. News of America’s $25 million of financial aid to the opposition in Libya, [6] the death of more than 800 Libyans fleeing Gaddafi’s crackdown, [7] and NATO’s “indifference” [8] to the growing number of people dying or trying to escape has caused increasing suspicion in the media. [9] Coverage and analyses also usually focused on this type of headline grabbing news.

The Turkish media primarily covers the Western politicians and Western media rather than Arab leaders and Arab media. While most are suspicious of Western intentions in the region, it appears, the Turkish media remain disinterested in the details of this complex situation.
This disinterest is particularly troubling given Turkey's increased role in the region and frequent references to it as a model for the Middle East, something that Turks (and myself) are still having trouble getting their heads around, especially in light of the AKP's increasing illiberal attitudes.

As I have written here before, though Turkey's role in the Middle East has been expanding in recent years, few Turks think of their country as a heavy hitter in the region and fewer still no much about the complexities. Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the Turkish foreign policy establishment has generally aimed to keep Turkey out of the complex scene of Middle East politics, allying itself firmly with the United States and NATO.

Turkish news is still largely "Arab light" despite the AKP's recent efforts to build new relationships and pursue markets in the Arab world. This was more or less acceptable when the status quo was what it was before the Arab spring, a stagnate scene of disparate authoritarian regimes that provided the kind of stability that loaned Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's "zero problems" with neighbors policy some kind of working feasibility. Turkey could approach its relations with each country bilaterally without so much having to worry with the larger regional picture other than Israel, which was seemingly excluded from the "zero problems" equation to begin with. However, given the emergence of the post-Arab spring and the likelihood that Turkey will continue to play a leading role in the region, better coverage of Arab politics and the complexities therein is most certainly welcome.

No comments: