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Turkish Media’s Moral Bankruptcy: An Interview with Haluk Sahin by Zeynep Alemdar

Two weeks since the eruption of the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, the demonstrations show little signs of abating. Instead, they have proliferated across the country and taken on new political forms, expressions, and iterations. One thing, however, remains largely consistent: the mainstream Turkish media have at best shied away from covering the protests and at a worst ignored them completely. With all eyes on Istanbul, following the international and Turkish media simultaneously can be a dizzying contrast of two irreconcilable worlds. Despite this, the demonstrations have shaken the Turkish media to a core with protesters often directing their ire at the news media specifically. Unlike few periods in recent Turkish media history, this has been a jarring wake-up call for an embattled industry and a threatened profession.

Okan University political scientist Zeynep Alemdar had the opportunity to pose some important questions about this topic to veteran journalist, prominent academic, and Artı 1 TV producer, Haluk Şahin. Şahin, who teaches at Bilgi University’s Department of Television Reporting and Programming, was previously the editor-in-chief of Nokta and Tempo news magazines, the editor of the TV Journalism program Arena, and the News Editor of the TV Channel Kanal D. His writings have appeared in Hürriyet, Hürgün, Gazete, Güneş, Cumhuriyet, Radikal, and Yurt. Şahin was the first journalist in Turkey to earn a Ph.D. in Communication (from Indiana University in 1974) and his scholarly writings on the media have appeared in the Journal of Communication, Journalism Quarterly, and Media, Culture, and Society.

Zeynep Alemdar (ZA): How would you describe the way in which the media acted towards the events at Gezi Park?

Haluk Şahin (HŞ): Of course we should not generalize to the media as a whole, but the mainstream big media performed dismally which was another manifestation of its moral bankruptcy because the big media have not been doing their job for quite a while. The media bosses and tycoons have decided that doing business with the government is more profitable than doing their job, which is informing the people about what is going on. So this Gezi Park uprising has show very clearly that these media are not in the news business. And one of the good things that will come out of this event is the realization that a new media is badly needed in Turkey.

Young people gathered in Gezi Park have been protesting not only against the government, or the Prime Minister, but against the media as well. They have marched to the headquarters and offices of a number of TV stations and media outlets and voiced their strong indignation against this kind of betrayal of the cause of the media. Typically, the media have a very important responsibility and role to play in a democracy and Turkish media specifically have at times been very vocal and at the forefront of democratic struggles. But especially over the past five years or so, the media have given in to the pressures from the central government––the government of Tayyip Erdoğan.

Erdoğan has, on the one hand, created his own media. On the other hand, he terrorized the mainstream media by imposing very high tax penalties, by harassing them on a daily basis in his speeches, and applying various other kinds of pressures––including the selective implementation of the restrictive criminal law clauses and anti-terror law causes. So now Turkey has the dubious distinction of being the largest journalist jail in the world. Some say over seventy journalists are in jail and there are thousands of other prosecutions. Despite all this, Tayyip Erdoğan and his followers are still griping against what little independent media still exist. So on the whole, we don`t know how this whole thing is going to play out. But the media are definitely among the losers.

ZA: You mentioned Erdoğan having created his own media. Those are expected to tow the government line. But what about newspapers such as Akit, Vakit, and even Yeni Şafak that have been publishing provocative and inflammatory statements and gone as far as targeting specific individuals? How do these media act in the government`s interests?

HŞ: Well there have always been dangerous liaisons between the secret services and the media in Turkey. The secret services have used the media for their own goals in the past but this was usually done on a limited scale. But during the Erdoğan era, we witnessed leaks not only from the secret service but from the courts, prosecution, the Ministry of Justice, and other institutions to publications that are close to the government. In other words, the media were used as instruments for the prosecution of journalists. They were also used to prepare the ground for forthcoming prosecutions by targeting certain individuals, and sort of creating an image of these people that would make the forthcoming prosecutions seem legitimate.

Now we are seeing even more cancerous forms of this kind of dangerous relationship between certain governmental offices, the secret services, and some elements in the judiciary. They use newspapers, which are close to the government to harm people, to create excuses for those who may have other ideas about certain institutions, writers, or individuals. In other words, it`s another form of disinformation and provocation that serves dirty purposes. I find it extremely dangerous.

But on the whole, what I meant when I said that the events of the past week have demonstrated very clearly that the big media are morally bankrupt, is even more important in these other instances because Turkish society has been deprived of its right to obtain legitimate and correct information about what is going on. But then, of course, there are a number of smaller publications and smaller broadcasting stations that are trying to fill that gap to some extent and I happen to be working with one of them. That was precisely the reason why we started something like this.

We have been victims of the purges in the media because we were independent-minded journalists; we were kicked out of the media. There`s a very large number of us, essentially the best and brightest of the Turkish media who have been unemployed for a quite a while. And we decided we would get together to start a television channel of our own. We had to wait for a while until we could find some capital, and now we have one in operation. Now there are small-scale newspapers trying to do their job. So things are changing. But on the whole, I think the Gezi Park uprising has been a slap on the face of the big media. And a well deserved one!

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