Hundreds of foreign journalists visit the United States each year at the invitation of the State Department. They visit a variety of newsrooms, meet their American counterparts and see for themselves how our journalism works in Washington, D.C., and in other parts of the country.
Last week, five American journalists and academics (including me), were invited to return the favor by going to Turkey to meet with journalists in Istanbul and Ankara. The Turkish journalists we met came from all sides of the political and media spectrum – everything from a pro-government Islamist daily called Yeni Safak to a very familiar-looking all-news television channel known as CNN Turk.
Twenty-Eight National Newspapers!
The Turkish media scene is lively and crowded. There are 28 national daily newspapers in Turkey, and more than a dozen national television stations. There are also hundreds of local newspapers and radio stations. Almost all are owned by a few conglomerates. There is also a national public broadcaster in both radio and television known as TRT, which is completely funded by the Turkish government.
The conversations with these often-scrappy journalists were tremendously frank and wide-ranging. Discussions usually touched on the complicated new relationship that Turkish journalists now must have with the Turkish government — a government described as “moderate Islamic.” Relations between journalists and the government are often fraught with political tensions about government policies.
That’s partly because of a recent amendment to the Turkish penal code that was passed in December. It’s called Article 301, and it now makes it a crime punishable by prison to offend “Turkishness,” a euphemism for the icons of the Turkish state as well as the policies of the government.
For example, any public discussion of the fate of Turkey’s Armenian community during World War I could be considered an offense against “Turkishness.” Many in Turkey consider the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians to be the first Holocaust in modern times. Some Turkish journalists are raising the issue, saying that Turkey needs to openly confront this issue in its history, but writing about this in Turkish newspapers is not without some risk. Many Turks, especially in government, consider that number to be highly exaggerated. They say that whatever deaths occurred were the result of wartime inadvertence, not a systematic policy of genocide.
Article 301 can also affect any vigorous satire (and there is a lot of it around) about the government. No one is sure where the boundaries are. As a result, state prosecutors have applied the new law in different ways, much to the confusion of the media, which is still assessing what constitutes “offending Turkishness.” Some important Turkish writers have been charged under Article 301 including Orhan Pamuk, whose works are widely known and respected abroad.
Free Speech and Free Press
Many of the journalists we met expressed hope that their American counterparts would be more aware of the threats to free speech and a free press in Turkey.
At the same time, the Turkish journalists were well aware of the issues surrounding freedom of the press in the United States. We were frequently asked whether the possible trial of Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s advisor is – like Article 301 in Turkey – an attempt to intimidate the American media into revealing its sources.
We were also asked how Americans view an event of enormous significance to Turks but little known in the United States. In July 2003, Turkish Special Forces in Iraq were mistakenly identified as insurgents. American and Iraqi forces placed hoods over the heads of the captured Turks. That act caused (and still evokes) enormous national upset. While no one was killed, many Turks felt humiliated that their American ally could do this. The offense to Turkish national pride still smarts. Worse yet from the Turkish point of view, this story got little notice in the U.S. media at the time, and it is likely that few people in the United States can recall it today.
The War in Iraq
Overriding all discussions about press freedoms and U.S.-Turkish relations is, of course, the war in Iraq.
Most serious news organizations in Turkey have full-time reporters based in Baghdad and especially in Kurdish Iraq, which borders on an area of Turkey with a large Kurdish community. Within Turkey, there are many cultural and political tensions between Turks and Kurds. Many Turkish journalists expressed their concern that the U.S.-led war will undoubtedly encourage Kurdish separatism in Iraq and possibly in Turkey, as well. Even reporting about Kurdish aspirations for independence could run the risk of incurring an Article 301 offense.
The Turkish press has a tradition of mixing fact-based news, opinion and speculation. Some of that speculation can sound highly provocative to American ears. It sounded that way to me when a senior journalist from the Islamist newspaper Yeni Safak mentioned that 9/11 was so bold and so complicated an event, it could only have been accomplished by Americans! The American visitors in the room were shocked into silence by that assertion. Later a U.S. diplomat said that similarly bizarre conspiracy theories get into the newspapers in Turkey constantly, in spite of all best efforts to debunk those stories.
But it is the war in Iraq that darkens all conversations. We were asked repeatedly when the invasion of Iran would take place. Would Turkey be next? Has the influence of the neo-cons finally abated or will they re-emerge in a new guise? Is the rise in oil prices a deliberate or an unintentional result of the war?
There were some tough and deeply felt questions (for which we visitors had no answers), but the questions were always asked in a spirit of warmth and admiration for American journalistic values, even if rarely for the policies of the Bush administration.
An irony, noted by American and Turkish journalists alike, is that in a country of strong secular influences (historically enforced by the Turkish Army), the number of Turkish women who now wear the headscarf as a sign of their religious commitment to Islam has dramatically increased, as has the Turkish media’s reporting on the tensions between Islam and politics in Turkey. We were told that the headscarf is, in part, a reaction to the war in Iraq and to the dramatic upsurge in public religious feelings.
More Turkish News Ombudsmen
At the same time, there is a growing interest in the role of news ombudsmen in the Turkish media as a necessary element in maintaining a free and independent news media.
Along with longtime ombudsmen at national and secular newspapers such as Vatan, Hurriyet and Milliyet, two Islamist newspapers — Zaman and Yeni Safak — have announced that they, too, will have readers’ representatives. Other newspapers are rumored to be close to selecting ombudsmen as well.
Appointing an ombudsman is a good move, in my opinion, because it recognizes the need for a public voice inside the newspaper. But not all Turkish newspapers seem completely willing, at this point, to give their ombudsmen the independence necessary to operate with sufficient credibility. Some still maintain other managerial or editorial duties inside the paper and they acknowledge that needs to change.
That lack of a clear job definition is something that the Organization of News Ombudsmen will need to address at its annual gathering next month. In short, can one be considered an ombudsman if he or she retains a foot in the editorial or management ranks?
I have enormous respect for our colleagues in the Turkish media. They have a complicated and sometimes dangerous balancing act they must perform daily, often under difficult legal, religious and cultural circumstances. In the end, I am hopeful that they can do this but, like all journalistic endeavors, the support and awareness of their colleagues at home and abroad is essential to their success.
At one encounter with journalists in Ankara, we discussed the challenges that both American and Turkish journalists share in our common search of a media that understands its primary obligation is to serve the public. I quoted Thomas Jefferson: “A people cannot be both ignorant and free.” A Turkish colleague responded with a quote from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish republic: “The problem of a free press,” said Ataturk, “can only be resolved by having more free press.”
Perhaps the similarities between Turkish and American journalism outweigh the differences after all.