Yavuz Baydar, Editor-in-Chief of Ahval, a trilingual Turkish news service, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.
Good morning everyone, thanks for joining us to discuss and debate issues around this noble cause. I have come here from Turkey, which particularly in the past twelve years has been a developing story with a lot of breaking points, from a journalistic point of view. An interesting story now turning into a drama. It is, as a country, put in a more different context than Russia, definitely than North Korea or Venezuela and others. It is a country if you put it in context, negotiating membership still with the European Union. It is a country whose membership with the western institutions number more than 30-35 of them, topped by NATO, and it is a country with a vibrant society and diverse social fabric. And it is a country under immense social transformation with very high aspirations for a new democratic order with a new constitution as a base, a new social contract. Yet, the drama is at a new level.
It is now what some people call a power grab, some others call a drift towards autocracy, some others call turning into a party state where the electoral hegemony leads to a rule that at the end of the day would alienate and even criminalize elected opposition. So if we look at today, the drama is continuing at the Turkish parliament as well as outside. The so-called domestic security package, which has been put forward by the ruling AKP government with more than 130 points, has raised alarm levels to new heights. Financial Times editorial today talks about Turkey shifting towards a police state.  In a Turkish newspaper a liberal columnist made a reference to the famous – I don’t know the German word for it but the – bill passed 1933 in Reichstag on the 24th of March; the law that makes it possible, I don’t know the German word for this. And this liberal columnist talks a lot in gloom about what is to be expected and calls in loudest terms to stop this. Parliament has turned into a battlefield for some days where opposition members, Kurds or others, nationalists of all camps, have been beaten. Blood has been spilled over the floor of Turkish parliament. So this happens also if you put it into a regional context with where Turkey is located; this raises the levels of drama.
So we do not know at this moment whether Turkey’s drifting towards truly as alarm levels are raising to a police state order, or is it drifting towards what many fear as some form of domestic confrontation. Some people talk about civil war or common sense prevailing, perhaps finding a new path by returning to the basics and working towards a democratic order, to a path which would lead to a democratic order. So the uncertainties are very high and the make or break moments will come in the June elections. Many people again, the pessimists at home or abroad, are talking about these elections as the last one, the last free one. So pessimists are usually well-informed optimists so we should take those warnings very seriously. So this is the political context, very worrisome and I will put the state of journalism in this context; this is why I am here for.
I have been a journalist for over 35 years and have been feeling lately in this atmosphere that two professions in Turkey, as this democratic transition seems to fail, are in danger: members of the judiciary and press corps. The job definition of those two professions are based on independence. Third and fourth estate, if those estates are targeted, the conclusion is inevitable. The path towards democratic order will fail. Indeed the AKP government’s failure or evasiveness to deliver Turkey a new constitution has led to this critical standpoint, where many judges are now feeling the immense pressure not to be subordinated by the political executive. Whereas the media in general is being suffocated, fearing nullification of its function.
The mother of the Mr. Loening mentioned in the opening remarks that the mother of all freedoms is freedom of expression. That’s true. I would go further beyond that and say we should be very careful about putting freedom of the press and freedom of the media as an extension of this freedom, the basic freedom. Freedom of expression is the midwife of freedom of media, if you will. Freedom of expression is the riverbed on which journalism thrives. But it’s different; they are not necessarily the same thing, although they overlap to a great deal. To me and to many journalists in this profession, freedom of the media is much more about reporting stories, informing the public rather than opinion, although it is part of the freedom of the media. Commenting is easier in today’s world; everybody is a potential blogger. But opinion without proper information to the public is often on the verge of propaganda. Informing is therefore the lifeline of journalism, it’s the bridge between the public, its constitutional rights, and also the constitutional rights of journalism.
The title of my session of my speech, “Turkey the Top Jailer of the World,” is in a way therefore misleading. As of today Turkey is no longer the top jailer of the world and I would alert everyone that this should not be adopted as a cliché. Yes, truly between 2008 until 2014 Turkey has been among the top three [in] jailing journalists. But the numbers in 2014 decreased dramatically from 40s to single-digit numbers. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, it is now seventh in journalists in jail in Turkey. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, it’s somewhere between 0 and 5. Although these findings, as agreed by the CPJ and Reporters Sans Frontières, do not by any means mean that the situation of Turkish journalism has become better. Indeed, it has become worse.
It has to do with censorship and self-censorship overwhelming the quantitative analysis of how many people are in jail. The number of jail journalists is no longer in many emerging democracies is the major measure by which one measures the situation of press freedom. In Turkey’s case, as in some other countries, the governments realize that jailing journalists – I’m not talking about dictatorships, I’m talking about regimes where they still hold free elections – governments realize that jailing journalists is a headache. So they have now found very shrewd and cunning ways to suffocate the media. This has been done more visibly than anywhere else in Turkey, dress rehearsed in Gezi Park protests, where the main bulk of the Turkish media was basically, by their own proprietors who are in liaison or in alliance with the powers that be in Ankara, forced the entire newsrooms under their control to black out the news where these protests were spreading to 79 out of 81 provinces of Turkey. This systematic and very visible self-censorship proved the point for us, including myself, that even if a country holds zero journalists in jail, if the media sector order doesn’t change in terms of independence, freedom and diversity, it will suffer very deeply. Where, at the end of the day journalism at best will turn into stenography, which is becoming the case in Turkey.
Independence is now so much threatened since the Gezi Park protests which was is July 2013. Until now the firings of journalists, sackings, have replaced jailings as punishment methods, punitive measures. It’s a new development. It was happening before, but now it is on mass in a systematic manner. [The] number of journalists who have been sacked since July 2013, according to some union figures, is close to 2000. This is about 10-15% of the entire press corps. Those fired have left or right conservative, non-conservative inclinations; it doesn’t matter. The real reason for these arbitrary sackings were those journalists’ defense of the professional dignity, integrity, honor and values of journalism. And this continues to this day.
So I would urge everyone to look at this new situation, which is being copy-pasted by many countries, where the power holders are feeding the media proprietors, media moguls, with a lot of carrots mainly by way of public tenders, billions of dollars, which is the case in Turkey. And those media proprietors, driven by greed and seeing only money in the business, in our critical business, it’s supposed to be in public service, they are acting as chief sensors in their media institutions. This is affecting approximately 80% of Turkish media today, mainly TV channels because the authorities see that TV, like in Russia, up to 85, maybe plus of the population, sees, watches TV and gets it’s the only sole source of new information that they get. So the control of the TV has been done almost to completion in Turkey. Print is suffering and the newspapers are now out of 40 national newspapers, those who are keen on reporting, I emphasize reporting, stories [of] corruption, investigative journalism, are only four or five. And this is a very dramatic situation and those newspapers are under constant threat by way of lack of public advertisement or private, even business, advertisement.
So this is the drama and that puts Turkey, in this critical point, where [the] public is being blacked out by whatever perhaps is happening in Turkey. It is only feeding – if this is a drift towards authoritarianism, this is only being helpful for the government that rules the country. Journalism is in danger and it is, if this trend continues, going to turn into a state no longer independent but part of the political executive, which would be shameful indeed.
7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015