Anna-Katharina Ahnefeld, Oyumaa Batsukh, Merve Keçeli, Yu-Hsuan Lin and Man Wai Tam
Independent journalism in Turkey is now at its darkest moment. In merely a decade, the country has turned from a place with improving press freedom to a prison for journalists. In 2004, Turkey stood 98 among 167 countries on the press freedom ranking released by Reporters Without Borders. In 2018, the number dropped to 157. The drastic decline in press freedom, together with the rising authoritarian ruling, has made Turkey the most freedom-deteriorating country in the world.
As of May 11, there are 192 journalists jailed, 142 wanted in Turkey. While the upcoming Presidential Election on June 24 is showing intense competition, candidates from opposition parties are heavily oppressed and the Turkish media are forced to give unanimous voice. Selahattin Demirtaş, presidential candidate from People’s Democratic Party (HDP), has been running his campaign from the jail. TRT (Turkish Radio and Television Corporation), the national broadcaster, is criticized for only broadcasting mass meetings held by the current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Another candidate, Meral Akşener from İYİ Party, claims that news workers at a television channel were fired only because of broadcasting her mass meeting for 10 seconds.
How Turkish Media Lost its Independence
How did Turkey, a country that once embraced different opinions on media, become a not-free state in such a short time? According to Akşener, media ownership by big corporations and self-censorship are the two main causes for Turkish media’s tragedy today.
“We should not hand the media to the owners of the big market. Media should be independent,” she said. “People who work in the media should not have the censorship in their minds. The owners of the big market are scared.”
Fear leads to silence. While journalism is expected to hold powers to account, many Turkish journalists, faced with financial and political pressure, have chosen to avoid telling the ‘uncomfortable truth’ to secure their jobs and personal safety.
Even digitization has not given help. As the Turkish government’s controlling hand reaches social media, there are very limited channels for independent journalists to speak out.
Turkish investigative journalist Ahmet Şık for example, had spent a year and two months in prison for his tweets that, as claimed by the authority, “support terrorist organizations”. After being released, he stood up and defended himself. “What I tweeted are not in line with criminality but in line with freedom of expression and press. It is a radical criticism towards the State. The state cannot decide how we criticize their unlawful acts.”
“Being independent is quite difficult,” said Andrew Finkel, a journalist who has been working in Turkey for over 30 years, during his recent speech at Brussels Talking Lecture at the VUB.
Finkel is also one of the founders of P24, a civil society organization to support and promote editorial independence in the Turkish press. After a few years’ efforts, he shows slim optimism towards the future of independent journalism in Turkey. “We started from defending independent journalism,” he said. “Now we are defending independent journalists.”
Journalists in Prison: Where is Hope?
In a country where the media are immersed with propaganda and truth-telling journalists are treated as terrorists, does independent journalism still have hope?
Maybe. Let’s not forget that journalism only has impact when citizens start to make a difference. In Turkey, the civil society, although only a part of it, is still alive and engaged in the more and more suffocating environment after the Gezi Park protest in 2013. During the past few weeks, #TAMAM (‘enough’ in Turkish) has been trending on social media to express discontent towards Erdoğan.
The more people say “enough is enough” against the authoritarian power, the more relevance journalism’s watchdog role gains and the more resilient it becomes. Will independent journalism in Turkey see the dawn after the darkest hour? The result of the presidential election next month may give an answer.