Interior minister decries lack of quality news as Turkey crushes free press

This week Turkey’s interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, told the public of his great wish: If he were not in charge of the branch of government responsible for arresting journalists, he would like to “leave everything behind” and become a journalist himself.

What prompted this unbidden confession from the minister? Not the news that Turkey had broken a three-year tradition by this year coming second, rather than first, in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of the world’s worst jailer of journalists.

You may think this would make the profession marginally safer in 2019 than in previous years. Yet the committee said the result was not a sign of an improved situation in the country, but rather the result of the Turkish government effectively stamping out critical media outlets.

This year’s leader, China, jailed 48 journalists, one higher than Turkey’s tally. That amounts to one more journalist jailed out of the approximately 1.3 billion more citizens China has than Turkey.

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So, when a radio host’s question spurred Soylu first to daydream about his alternate life as a reporter and then to decry the lack of investigative reporters in Turkey, it must have been difficult for the presenter to contain the comeback that was asking to be made. He could have told the minister this was because his police had already locked all the good journalists up, though such a remark would not have done wonders for his career or his criminal record.

Because if there is one thing Soylu made clear in the interview, it was that words can hurt.

“They criticise me. They ask how I can defend the police intervention on women dancing in Kadıköy,” the minister said, referring to women whose performance of the feminist protest song and dance “Las Tesis” in an Istanbul district was broken up by a police intervention.

“Well forgive me, but when those dancing women call the state, police and judges ‘rapists’ and ‘killers’, how are we supposed to deal with this,” Soylu said. The protest song, which originated in Chile and has quickly spread around the world this year, says the patriarchy is responsible for violence against women and says police, political leaders and the state share the blame.

As a budding reporter himself, Soylu must know it is the journalist’s duty to speak truth to power – just as long as that truth is not too harsh, apparently.

If a critical journalist publishes words that do sting, we already know that in Turkey they risk a spell behind bars. But we saw again this week that the government has ample means to keep the press in check even if it has relinquished its place as the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

It has used one of these – its control over the advertising revenues newspapers receive – in an attempt to choke BirGün, one of the country’s only widely distributed left-wing news outlets.

In Turkey, advertisements are allocated to newspapers based on their circulation by a state-run agency. This week, BirGün revealed that the agency had blocked the newspaper from receiving those revenues for four months based on a technicality.

The agency says BirGün has failed to provide citations in its news stories. This is a requirement that not only runs counter to established practice at newspapers worldwide, but is also apparently being applied arbitrarily in Turkey to BirGün alone.

It is an especially effective tool to target the newspaper since, unlike the many dailies owned by magnates whose favourable coverage earns them lucrative government contracts, BirGün must rely on limited income sources, advertising being one of the most significant.

It will be a tragic shame if this blow proves debilitating for the newspaper, whose staff includes fine investigative journalists, and which has shown a great deal of bravery resisting the government line even against the tide of public opinion.

Cumhuriyet’s transition to a nationalist editorial board has dampened that newspaper’s impact as a critical newspaper, while Sözcü, the most widely read critical outlet, was fully behind the military operation the government launched in October.

Meanwhile, BirGün’s internet editor Hakan Demir was detained that month for sharing a news article reporting on the offensive. Investigations into journalists at the newspaper are ongoing over years-old news articles on an anonymous social media account that leaked information on the government.

Similar examples of how the government represses media outlets in Turkey are nearly endless. That Soylu can decry the country’s lack of investigative reporters without being challenged on this shows how effective this strategy has been.

 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.