Friday, June 07, 2013

Freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Turkey

The key point to emphasize is that the situation is complicated and in flux.  Turkey is not remotely like Cuba or Saudi Arabia or Ba'athist Iraq or Chile under Pinochet. On the other hand, it is not exactly a paradise for freedom of expression either. That was true during the period of the Kemalist republic, and it remains true, with variations of detail, in the emerging AK republic. Certain topics have always been especially dangerous. Telling the truth about the Armenian genocide, for example, can still get you hauled into court or even assassinated, so there's continuity there. In the old days, criticizing the secularism of the Kemalist republic could get you prosecuted, whereas nowadays public criticism of Erdogan and the AK is increasingly risky, especially for journalists and news organizations. The techniques of suppression and intimidation are often subtle and indirect rather than blatant, but they seem to be effective.

The coverage of the protest wave by mainstream Turkish news media during the past week—or, more precisely, their conspicuous failure to cover these dramatic events—brought home the extent to which the AK government's intimidation of the news media has been effective. And it's clear that they're not planning to change their ways.

Some highlights from a New York Times report:
The Turkish government blames Twitter. Many Turks point their fingers at a cowed news media.

As protesters took to the streets of Istanbul and other cities, confronting security forces wielding water cannons, plastic bullets and tear gas, the leading Turkish television channels stuck with scheduled programming: a cooking show, a nature documentary, even a beauty pageant. To find out what was going on — and, the government maintains, to fuel the violence — Turks turned to Twitter and other social media.

On Wednesday came the backlash. The semiofficial Anatolia news agency said the police had detained 25 people on suspicion of using Twitter to incite crime. The arrests underline Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s antipathy for social media, which he denounced on Sunday as "the worst menace to society."

Mr. Erdogan singled out Twitter for what he called its role in escalating protests that began last week in Taksim Square in Istanbul and quickly spread to other cities, saying, “The best examples of lies can be found there.”

Critics of the government acknowledged that misinformation flourished on Twitter and other social media, with incorrect reports that the crackdown had resulted in large numbers of deaths, and digitally altered photos said to be of victims. But they added that the rumors spread because the established news media were guilty of a lie of omission.

“Of course there is a dark side to Twitter,” said Asli Tunc, a media professor at Istanbul Bilgi University. “But if the mainstream media had done their job better, there would be less of this.” [....]
This is just a new version of an old story. In situations without effective freedom of the press, rumor is king.
On Tuesday, Cem Aydin, chief executive of Dogus Media Group, the parent company of NTV, apologized to viewers for the channel’s lack of coverage in the early days of the protest. “Our audience feels like they were betrayed,” he said in a video of a speech to NTV employees, which was posted on the channel’s Web site. “Our professional responsibility is to report everything in the way it happens. The pursuit of balance within the imbalanced environment affected us, as it did the other media outlets.”

“We owe you and our audience an apology,” he added.

For a country with democratic elections, Turkey has a robust tradition of suppressing free speech, on the Internet and in the mainstream media. A World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group based in Paris, ranks Turkey a lowly 154th among 179 nations.

From 2007 to 2010, YouTube was repeatedly blocked after videos insulting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of Turkey, were posted on the site. Dozens of journalists have been jailed in recent years, including many who have been accused of aiding terrorism by interviewing Kurdish separatists.

Still, there appear to be differences between the Turkish government’s response to the protests and the communications crackdowns employed by authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes during the Arab Spring, when several governments suspended Internet or mobile phone service in an effort to stop the spread of rebellion.

An executive of one leading Western Internet company, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that since the protests began in Turkey, there had been no sign of the government moving to cut off access to leading Web platforms like Twitter or Facebook, though some residents complained of sporadic outages of both.

Yet analysts say indirect censorship is widespread, with journalists operating in a climate of fear. Many of the leading Turkish newspapers and television broadcasters are owned by conglomerates with holdings in businesses like construction, where government contracts are an important source of revenue.

"If you are a company in construction that is trying to get government tenders, you are probably going to be careful about what you let your media company say," said Didem Akyel Collinsworth, a Turkey analyst at the International Crisis Group, an organization based in Brussels that works to defuse international disputes.

Fresh on the minds of many Turkish media owners is the $2.5 billion fine issued against one leading company, Dogan Holding, in 2009 — ostensibly for tax evasion but also levied shortly after the company’s publications had given prominent attention to corruption scandals involving government officials.

Over the past week of protests, the television news void was not total. One previously obscure channel, Halk TV, which has ties to an opposition political party known by its Turkish acronym, C.H.P., has been broadcasting nearly continuously with live footage of the protests. There has been no move to block English-language news sources like CNN International or the BBC, which have covered the events extensively.

This has highlighted the shortcomings of the main domestic news providers, critics say. One picture that has made the rounds widely on social media juxtaposes coverage on CNN International and CNN Turk, a Turkish-language news channel owned by Dogan. In the picture, CNN International shows fiery protest footage, CNN Turk a nature documentary featuring cuddly penguins. [....]

While the Turkish government says international coverage of the protests has been exaggerated, critics argue that the arrest of Twitter users shows Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian instincts, including an intolerance for protests that would be considered legitimate elsewhere.

“I didn’t see a lot of messages saying ‘Attack the police,'” said Yaman Akdeniz, a law professor at Bilgi University who specializes in free-speech issues. “I saw more saying, ‘Gather in this or that place.’ It is unacceptable in a democratic society to use these sorts of tactics to create a chilling effect on free speech.” [....]
That sounds right to me.

Yours for freedom of expression,
Jeff Weintraub