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Sunday, 10 June 2007

What do journalists know, anyway?

Adnan Menderes is remembered with a combination of fondness and embarrasment in Turkey today. Embarrassment, because his government was toppled in Turkey's first military intervention since Ottoman times, and Menderes himself was tried and hung.

His death was either an accident or a convenient mistake, depending on your point of view. The telephones at the prison mysteriously went dead just before the execution, and a personal appeal from the president to halt the process never got through in time.

Today it is remembered as one of the darker chapters in Turkish history. Even the army has expressed regret. And Menderes's reputation is secure: after all, he headed Turkey's first successful opposition party and led the country through a decade of reform and development in the 1950s. His name now graces an airport and a university. That's the fondness. He will not be forgotten.

But for all his zealousness, Menderes was a stubborn man, and he didn't think much of the media either. He tightened press censorship laws in the latter half of his premiership, and made an especial effort to suppress - not ignore - criticism of his policies. It was partly this behaviour that alarmed military chiefs in the first place. He appeared to be openly challenging Atatürk's secular state without letting anyone else be open in their objections.

Menderes's style - his programme of reform, his outspoken character, his contempt for the press - has often been compared to the current prime minister. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has sued many journalists and cartoonists over the past five years for personal denigration, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his efforts only grant his critics a wider audience. But he has made a handsome sum in compensation too.

Last month, The Economist took Turkey to its front cover with the headline "The battle for Turkey's soul". The leading article inside showed depth and a thorough understanding of Turkish politics, clearly written by someone living in, or at least familiar with the country. It came to the conclusion that "if Turks have to choose, democracy is more important than secularism". It encouraged the re-election of Mr Erdoğan's AK party on July 22nd.

What interested me about the piece was the reaction. Many people I spoke to were surprised at how blatantly the Economist aligned itself politically - newspapers in Turkey do show political leanings, but they are rarely arresting in their support.

Others were outraged at how a foreign publication could dare to comment on Turkish affairs. An NTVMSNBC report on the story is a telling example. "What right do the British have to comment?" says one particularly informed commenter from Ankara. "The British couldn't defeat the Turkish army (in 1923), so they are passing the task on to the AK party." Another asks the Economist when it will stop meddling in Turkey's internal affairs. There is also condemnation of British imperialism and vows to overcome it.

In 2005, a Swiss magazine quoted the author Orhan Pamuk as saying "Thirty thousand Kurds, and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody dares to talk about it." He was referring to Turkey. The words landed him in court, brought him several death threats and probably contributed to his Nobel literature prize last year. Many Turks were angry at his words, including President Sezer, who conspicuously failed to congratulate him on his Nobel victory.

In April of this year, Nokta magazine (see my picture, above) ran what it claimed were the diaries of a retired general, in which he purportedly says there had been plans for a military coup in 2004. The story caused quite a stir, particularly when the former chief of staff became suspiciously vague when asked to comment. It all culminated not in a full investigation - the army said the diaries were fake - but in a police raid of Nokta's headquarters. The magazine has since closed down, citing "pressures".

Journalism would not be journalism if it did not sometimes court controversy. A widely-read, stirring piece will always find an angry response from a disagreeing reader. But in Turkey, there is an ugly habit of directing that anger not at the opinion, but at the author himself. There is a tendency to approach criticism in a "one size fits all" manner; that is to say, that all critics are troublemakers.

This is wrong. Nokta should be able to publish without fear of a police raid. Orhan Pamuk should be able to say what he thinks without fear of a trial. The Economist should be able to publish its thoughts on Turkish politics, as it does for every country, without being labelled an imperialist tool.

The reality is that a harsly critical story can be ballooned into an act of treason, particularly if the author is not already well-known. It is as if freedom of speech applies only until the point of criticism, and anyone who crosses the line is a troublemaker.

I myself have been dismissed from a state broadcaster for criticising Turkish radio. When the director called me into his office to hand me my verbal notice, he did not comment on what I had written. Instead, he said: "You should have known this would happen. Well, you know now, and you won't do it again, but you have to go in any case."

What is interesting about all this is that it is a mindset. It is as if everybody knows there are certain lines that cannot be crossed, and if you do cross them you must be asking for trouble. What it boils down to is the Turkish state being suspicious of everyone - of Greeks, of Armenians, of Circassians, of the Alevi sect of Islam, of Kurds, and especially of Turks.

There is a solution, but it is not an easy one: people must learn to trust each other.

9 comments:

tugrul said...

Have you read F. Zakaria's recent piece in Newsweek: "After Bush"?

He says America first needs to recover its self confidence. He says "We have become a nation consumed by fear... besiged and overwhelmed". He talks about the hysteria, paranoia and anger, the athmosphere of fear and panic, fearmongering politicians, etc etc.

The same story in Turkey - plus the fear of secession, sheria law, etc.

When I first read F. Roosevelt many years ago, I didn't understand what he was referring to. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror." I didn't understand at that time what he was referring to.

Now I understand the meaning of his words.

Bad Tyrpist said...

What a lovely quote! And how appropriate.

FDR was actually talking about fear of the consequences of taking strong, decisive action against the dangers facing America..the depression. The next sentences were:

"In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days."

I am waiting with bated breath to see if "the people" here in Turkey will give support to "a leadership of frankness and vigor " in the upcoming election, and, moreover, whether that leadership will have sufficient frankness and vigor over the next few weeks.

James said...

Wonderful quotations. They do apply to the situation in Turkey - what happens from now depends on what the people decide on July 22nd.

Bated breath all round, I think.

Hans A.H.C. de Wit said...

Great blog, excellent postings James. I can not agree more on what you write down here.
Regarding censor ship, just experienced it twice.
Kind regards from a Dutch in Istanbul

James said...

Would be very interested to hear your experiences, Hans. What kind of censorship?

Hans A.H.C. de Wit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emre Kizilkaya said...

Great post, I definitely agree with most of your thoughts, but I have doubts about some of them.

For instance, Nokta issue... Nokta has published these diaries, couldn't show any proof and rejected to announce the source of the news. The claim was totally baseless.

On the other hand, its closure was probably something that Turkish military will never want (especially in this period). Its closure is ordered by its owner (who was afraid of public reactions). Its editor-in-chief implied his boss, not the military, while talking about "pressures."

BTW Hans, if you were insulting people just like you insulted me on my blog, it is normal not to publish them. Such a censorship is applied not only in Turkey, but any other civilized country, too. I didn't delete your comment, just to make you ashamed someday.

Hans A.H.C. de Wit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hans A.H.C. de Wit said...

oh Emre,
You can exactly check out for whom I am writing. I dont publish the translated ones (into Turkish) on my blog.
And my editors are all Turkish...they were astonished.
Anyway,...hope that one day you will learn th nuances of critics, feedback, irony, satire and Insulting