Turkish journalists see Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s attack on presenter for BBC’s Turkish service as a warning to them all
Based in London, where she is a presenter for the BBC‘s Turkish service, until last week Selin Girit was little known in her home country. That all changed when the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accused her of treason after her coverage of the recent anti-government protests. The attack struck fear into other journalists, who believe Erdoğan – having consistently blamed the media for fanning the protests – is intent on stifling all dissent.
The campaign against Girit was launched last weekend when the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, started tweeting aggressively against her. The BBC protested strongly against what it called government intimidation. Erdoğan was clearly unimpressed. Speaking in parliament a day later, he said Girit was “part of a conspiracy against her own country”.
Turkish journalists see the focus on Girit as a warning to them all – an example to cow the rest of them into submission. Serdar Korucu, editor of a major Turkish news outlet, said: “The prime minister is telling us, ‘Be careful what you say and do, or you can easily be next’.”
The Turkish mainstream media have ignored much of the unrest, with CNNTürk airing a documentary on penguins while the central square in Istanbul became the scene of street protests unprecedented in Erdoğan’s 10-year rule.
The public was outraged, and protests were staged in front of Turkish news outlets. Many journalists, however, were not surprised. Fatma Demirelli, managing editor of the English-language daily Today’s Zaman, explained that self-censorship had long become the norm in Turkish newsrooms. “Journalists now have a sort of split brain: on the one hand you see what the news is, but on the other you immediately try to gauge how to report it without stepping on anyone’s foot. Self-censorship has become an automatic reflex.”
Self-censorship is not new in a country that tops the world list of jailers of journalists, with 67 currently incarcerated, according to Reporters Without Borders. But it has drawn more attention during the protests around Gezi Park.
“The significant difference with the current events is that the censorship has affected a different constituency of people – middle-class Turks – rather than other groups whose causes have been more frequently subjected to censorship, such as activists advocating Kurdish rights and politics,” said Andrew Gardner, Turkey researcher for Amnesty International. “Another difference is that the events were widely covered in international media, exposing the self-censorship in mainstream Turkish media further.”
Censorship and control aside, violence and arbitrary threats against reporters trying to cover the events have also increased.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented a large number of cases of attacks on the press during the protests, including physical assault, detentions, threats and the unlawful confiscation of equipment and protective gear. Several journalists, Turkish and foreign, have sustained injuries from beatings and plastic bullets used by the police.
The organisation singled out police brutality as the biggest threat against journalists working in Turkey, saying that reporters were more at risk than they had been in two decades.
After covering a peaceful protest that was violently dispersed with tear gas and water cannon, journalist Alpbugra Bahadir Gültekin was repeatedly beaten by the police. “I told them that I was with the press, but they first insulted and then started beating me. After I fell to the ground, several officers continued to beat and to kick me,” he said.
Having recovered security camera footage of the incident, he brought charges against the police. He does not expect to be heard. “They operate in an atmosphere of impunity. But we have to start somewhere, and bring these incidents to light.”
Demirelli and Korucu agreed that Erdoğan had become a figure beyond criticism. “News stations have started to correct the prime minister’s slips of the tongue unasked, in order to be on the safe side,” Korucu said. “Nobody wants to ask uncomfortable questions, in order to keep him happy. But how can we begin to understand issues of interest if asking is not free any more?”
Demirelli said: “Journalists now always wonder if they really want to investigate, for fear that they might actually find something.”