Future of media’s independence at stake on June 7
Turkish journalist Yavu Bayder heads up an internationally-respected independent news platform called “P24.” Bayder is a primary source of information emanating from Turkey under the Erdogan regime. He spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson in Jerusalem.
TML: How would you describe the greatest changes to Turkey as a democratic state and since Erdogan came to power in 2003?
Yavuz: The AKP story, the Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party, began in 2002, after a huge economic crisis. There are several periods which change in character: The first three or four years were reform-oriented; freedom-seeking policies helped by the European Union membership negotiations which was typified by a sort of taboo-breaking, the loosening of hard media conditions.
Things started to change in the second AKP election-cycle, which was from 2007 through 2011. We started seeing problems again due to the Kurdish issue with some restrictions coming into the picture. The problems became serious following the general elections that took place four years ago, in June, 2011, that again ended in a sweeping victory for Erdogan and his party. As prime minister, according to some, he showed his intentions. His hidden agenda — which is authoritarian — surfaced. Others argue, and I’m inclined to argue along with them, that the party started losing its reformist character. Many of the founding fathers of the party left, had to leave, or had to be pacified. So this period meant growing pressure on Turkish media in various terms.
First of all, in terms of decent and partisan media — mainly Kurdish — we started seeing our colleagues going in groups to jail, facing detentions and some sentencing. By 2009 to 2010, we had a world record for jailed journalists: more than one hundred at one time, capturing the attention of the Committee to Protect Journalists. This was followed by the intensification of self-censorship in newsrooms controlled by media moguls, many of whom were financially dependent upon the government and government policy through public tenders and procurement systems. Those proprietors became very useful, very instrumental in imposing immense self-censorship. Investigative journalism diminished to almost nothing and the Gezi Park protests, which attracted world attention, showed how weak and how crippled the mainstream media controlled by media moguls were. This also exposed how widespread and how deep the censorship as a newsroom culture, was.
TML: Where does that leave you today?
Yavuz: We have a deteriorating situation. There are two basic criteria through which we look upon any country’s state of the media freedom. Looking through those criteria, Turkey’s situation with the media is deteriorating rapidly – “standing on its last leg,” as a colleague recently put it. The mass firings that have taken place since Gezi Park protests were warnings to “wise up.” Erdogan started imposing more and more pressure on media proprietors, who in turn started firing people; firing journalists from across the spectrum of the Turkish media – some 1,500. The main bulk of human resources in the media sector were in the street. This was when we realized that the profession, not only journalists, but journalism itself as we know it, as we practiced it, was under threat.
So we are now at a stage right now which we are fighting sort of a last professional fight or resistance, to keep a domain for ourselves. Today there are only four or five news outlets remaining that can do some sort of news journalism as we know it.
TML: So let’s look at the pool of. How many journalists are there at the moment, and how safe are they?
Yavuz: According to Reporters without Borders, twenty-three journalists are in jail 85 to 90 percent of whom are Kurds. Then, the recent spectacular arrests of Hidayat Karaca of Samonyolu TV, and Mehmet Baransu, an investigative reporter formerly of Taraf, brought in a new dimension with charges against them of terrorist activity, spying and obtaining and keeping secret material.
This means further criminalization of journalists and establishing the link between journalism and spying and subversive activity. Out of a total of fifteen thousand active journalists in Turkey, most are based in Istanbul where they live and work in fear: not necessarily fear of going to jail, but fear of losing their livelihood. This is underscored by the fact that only 1.5 percent of this core group dares to be members of trade unions.
TML: Yavuz, why aren’t you afraid?
Yavuz: Turkish journalism has always been marked by resistance against censorship; resistance against restrictions. We went through three military coups and there has always been a steel core of journalism colleagues that fought for their profession. What’s different this time is that we have a leader who still enjoys very high popularity, the popular vote, and a leader who seems determined to use any instrument available, any means available to continue to pressure and subordinate journalism in the service of the executive power. That is what we fear and what we are determined to stop, so fear in those terms is an element that I feel less than and colleagues working in main parts of the media.
TML: What’s at stake in the June 7 election?
Yavuz: Well, this is a make or break type of election, because we have had very clear, visible asymmetry in Turkish politics. Opposition has never been able to rise from its ashes, so this asymmetry is giving a lot of advantages to AKP and Erdogan, who intends to change the regime’s character into a presidential system he claims is similar to that of Mexico.
TML: Yavuz, while Erdogan was rising to power, Turkey was seen as a secular Islamic state. It could and did serve as a bridge between the West and the more extreme Muslim states in the region. More recently, Erdogan has adopted a position clearly embracing the more radical and fundamental regimes. Where does he stand now and how do you describe Turkey under Erdogan in this particular area?
Yavuz: We have a pragmatic politician in terms of Erdogan. He’s used religion very successfully to consolidate his power with the backing of at least 45 percent of the electorate. But this also meant polarization, polarizing rhetoric, demonization, alienating other segments such as Kurds and Alawites. He’s flirting with the military and trying to contain whatever remains of any kind of institutional threat to his power. But one thing is clear: He sees himself as a political figure who will continue to spread a lifestyle; a world; a domain, in which Sunni-Islamic values will be defining and dominant. That’s what’s being seen as the danger of dividing Turkey further and deeper.
TML: If Erdogan is weakened, what will that mean for Turkey? Is that feasible?
Yavuz: Well, that’s a good question because the alternative has always been seen by the electorate for the past nine or ten years as something that doesn’t generate hope. That is why the common man, the silent majority, although they may have negative issues with [Erdogan’s party, the] AKP, stayed there for better or worse.
The particular concern with this election is that there will be crises no matter what the outcome, because Erdogan is acting as if he’s de facto prime minister, breaching the constitution as if it’s suspended. Because he knows this cannot go on forever, Erdogan is pushing the boundaries so hard so that he can get enough of a majority to institutionalize or legitimize the presidential system as he sees it.
TML: Is there a popular consensus in terms of the borders with Syria and the fact that we haven’t seen Erdogan close those borders in a serious manner?
Yavuz: No, Turkey has unfortunately become part of these regional crises. It could have chosen other paths. It could have chosen to be a soft-power, staying away, like Jordan. As far as humanitarian issues are concerned, it could have limited itself in its foreign policy regionally, but it went further, because what happened in Syria between the family of Assad and the family of Erdogan has become some sort of family vendetta. There is a lot of personal hatred and emotions put into it, which sort of polluted Turkey’s relations with Syria. That means while Turkey still tries to maintain good relations as an ally with NATO and with the White House, it is still playing a very active role along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia in trying to topple the Assad regime. Turkey has never been a regime changer, but has always pursued a policy based on soft power, interdependence etc. This is a new situation, which has raised the stakes to new heights.
TML: As we speak, you’re in Jerusalem to speak about press freedom issues at an international conference hosted by the Jerusalem Press Club. Erdogan, meanwhile, is even attacking foreign media — he scolded The New York Times for what he viewed as an apparent endorsement of his opponents. You said the Turkish press is in trouble. Do you think it is completely doomed?
Yavuz: It all depends on the election outcome, of course. I mean if he ends up with another sweeping victory, Erdogan will no doubt translate the election result into another carte blanche to do whatever he wants to with the media, its freedom and independence. He has already taken control of the state broadcaster, TRT, which is now a propaganda machine. What I fear is a worst-case scenario that will mean an end of whatever remains of the independent segments of the media. We will be much closer to the settings and default positions applied by Putin’s regime regarding media freedoms, where you only have some weak voices living under threat, more fear and unable to conduct their constitutional role that should be given to any journalist in any democratic country. That umbilical cord will be cut.