Going to Press


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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The adoption of a new press law in June of this year, along with the successful running of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) congress in Istanbul, have recently highlighted the changing fortunes of the Turkish media. Yet, while many have interpreted the hosting of the WAN congress as a reward for Turkey's efforts to dismantle restrictions upon the local press, others have been less convinced.

Undoubtedly, the WAN congress was a success, however. With some 1800 newspapers from around the world represented and with 1400 attendees, the congress was a plus point for Turkey. It also marked something of a turnaround from the days in which Turkey was under heavy scrutiny by the organisation over press freedoms.

Yet the new press law has been the cause of much more debate. Although causing some disgruntlement amongst Turkish journalists, the new regulations have removed a number of restrictive conditions. In particular, the closure of news organisations or the banning of their printing and distribution has been expunged as a form of punishment for editorial indiscretions. Equally notable has been the removal of a clause that unintentional ridicule or insult to state institutions be punishable by incarceration.

This is not to suggest that regulatory reform of press freedom is something new to Turkey though. Legal amendments in 2002 and 2003 saw similar changes. Specifically, these saw changes to laws that saw journalists committing an "affront to the state and state institutions and threatening the indivisible unity of the Turkish Republic", with jail sentences reduced from one year to six months. The anti-terrorist law was also re-examined in 2003, with a repeal to a clause suggesting that propaganda against the "indivisible unity of the nation" be annulled.

The reason for such fine-tuning over recent years is hardly a mystery. Without detracting from the convictions of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), media reform has been spurred on by the prospect of European Union membership. Meanwhile, the authorities have made little effort to conceal this motivation. In February 2004, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul asked the regulating authority, the Radio and Television High Council (RTUK), why it had penalised popular channel ATV for broadcasting Kurdish songs. Quite legitimately, Gul emphasised that imperfect implementation of the media law was having an adverse effect on relations with the EU - not what Turkey needed as it geared up to present its case for membership.

Nevertheless, the actual implementation of regulations, along with the room for interpretation by the regulatory authorities, still remains a thorn in the side of Turkish journalism.

"Changes in the law to prepare the country for entry into the EU did not in practice increase press freedom by much," according to a 2004 report released by international press freedoms group Reporters sans Frontiers (RSF). "The press is exposed to misuse of authority by the courts, which in practice continue to impose prison sentences and exorbitant fines that push journalists to censor themselves extensively on the most sensitive of subjects, such as the army and the Kurdish question," the report continues. The RSF thus wagged its finger at detentions of journalists deemed pro-Kurdish by anti-terrorist police just prior to the NATO Summit in Istanbul earlier this year.

The result has been that Turkey is 113th in an RSF index assessing media freedom around the world. Ankara in the meantime is unlikely to be pleased about being placed so closely to Russia, which ranked 140th on the scale and is notorious for interference in press freedom. This is not to suggest that Turkey will not push its way up the table in the coming years as implementation becomes more consistent. Rather, to point to the shortcomings that continue to exist with the system currently in place.

Meanwhile, controversial articles within the new press law have cast a shadow over the more positive amendments. Specifically, the ruling that "propaganda on behalf of illegal organisations or its objectives" be punishable by a one- to three-year prison sentence, or longer in certain cases, is likely to straightjacket debate on some of the more controversial security issues confronting Turkey. Editors have also shown something of a lukewarm response to the stipulation that prison sentences for crimes be replaced with fines.

"Carrying the financial cost of a legal infringement poses something of a nightmare for local journalists, given the modest means with which they live," according to Yusuf Kanli, editor-in-chief of the Turkish Daily News.

With wages so low, three months in jail rather than having the personal bank account sucked dry might even be preferable to some. But then again, the majority of journalists are hardly short of experience in avoiding statements that might conceivably touch upon sensitive subject matters.

To suggest however that the problems facing Turkey's press derive solely from regulation would be misplaced. Indeed, one of the greatest concerns remains the business/media connection, with Turkey's big-hitting business groups running the vast majority of local papers. With business interests often suspected of influencing editorial, it can be hard to maintain a sense of objectivity.

"We have seen the situation when those who have other ambitions are running the media," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely quoted as saying back in December 2003. "Those who see the media as a blackmail tool are doomed to face a similar situation."

Public estimation of the printed press remains fairly low, too. More than three-quarters of Turkish citizens see the media as amongst the least reliable institutions in Turkey, according to recent public opinion polls.

Yet there is a highly competitive media environment, in which criticism between papers over factual inaccuracies in each others' editorial does in some ways keep journalists on their toes.

However, most insiders within Turkey's media world still see the need for the press to change its image. The emergence of new media has also had an effect.

"Thanks to the internet and online media", holds Yusuf Kanli, "printed media has already become old. The Turkish media needs to change the paper concept by providing deeper analysis, more insight and a greater emphasis on background information."

While the indivisibility of business interests in media, along with the legal restrictions confronting journalists, have been problematic, without the support of business, journalists would struggle to earn their bread and butter. Meanwhile, the restrictions imposed upon press freedom, though stringent, are select and hardly as far reaching as those applied in some other parts of the world. No less should be expected, given Turkey's democratic credentials and EU aspirations.

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