Dec. 10, 2017 is international Human Rights Day, starting the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To mark it, the International Press Institute (IPI) is publishing Direct Damage, a series of four articles by journalists in Turkey examining the impact that pressure on the media has on other aspects of democratic society. This article is the third of four entries in that series.
As part of the series, journalist Gonca Tokyol spoke with university students and young workers in the cities of Ankara, Diyarbakir, Erzurum and Istanbul to hear their views on how recent events in Turkey have shaped their relationship with the media. Individuals who declined to give their full name are identified by first name only.
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“Do you believe that the press is objective and free in Turkey?”
Almost every young person to whom the question is asked looks at my face with quizzical eyes, wondering, after a short period of hesitation, whether I really care about the answer. Many respond “no” after a few seconds, but the number commenting “of course” is so few that it could be said to represent the margin of error.
Nearly all the young people with whom we speak say that the news and reporters are not “objective”, and their opinion on whether journalists are being censored varies depending on their political views.
According to data released at the end of 2016 by the Turkish Statistical Institute, some 19.4 million young people, aged 15 to 30, make up 24 percent of the country’s population, which tops out at nearly 80 million. The percentage of young people who say they follow the news on a daily basis is a little more than half.
Some of those who do not follow the news daily say that they do not do so because they “cannot keep up with the political agenda” or do not care what happens in the country.
Göknil, 22, a student at Istanbul Technical University, says: “I’ve given up following the news, as I know that I can’t change anything.” Şexo, studying law at Dicle University in Diyarbakır, comments: “I don’t follow news, and I don’t want to. The press was silenced; I don’t have faith in news.”
An important cause of such a lack of attention is despair at an inability to change anything, even if one stays current on news developments. Others have given up trying to keep up with the news because they do not believe it to be accurate.
Across the board, a large number of students with whom we spoke said that they had given up reading or watching the news because they were fed up with the wording, amount and degree of vitriol in duelling statements that they described as a “cock fight” between politicians.
Social media as journalist
The Internet is young peoples’ most frequently used medium to access news. But young people do not follow media organisations through their websites, doing so instead through posts on social media platforms. In other words, social media is the journalist.
Another method young people use to access news is following the personal social media accounts of reporters from different newspapers or magazines, or television channels, as opposed to mainstream organisations with a presence on social media. Most young people with whom we spoke could not give a straight answer when asked when they last bought a printed newspaper.
With a few exceptions, young people use television more as a source of entertainment than as a source of news. The only exception is FOX TV. A significant portion of those with whom we spoke said that they did not read newspapers or follow the news, except “from time to time” the news bulletin anchored by journalist Fatih Portakal.
A majority of those students expressed political views opposing the current government. Even most of those who questioned whether Portakal practiced objective journalism said that his “dissident” bulletin was “the best possible under the present conditions”.
According to information in the annex of the Reuters Institute’s 2017 Digital News Report, published in November, 38 percent of people in Turkey say do not trust the news media. When we look specifically at young people, the rate increases; many say that they check out a few publications from “the opposite party” and filter information gathered before deciding what is “true”.
Mazlum, a civil engineering student at Dicle University, said that he first reads the news via “sources close to the government” on social media “because there is no proper news channel left”, and then he checks it against content reported by Kurdish news agencies to look for differences.
“People now create their own news by themselves,” he observes. “They read from a few places, then filter them out.”
Yusuf, a construction worker at Ataturk University in Erzurum, says: “I don’t believe in what’s written much. One newspaper claims that our economy is very good, but the other one claims, ‘Oh God, our country is about to crash.’ So, you don’t know which one to believe and finally you don’t believe any.”
He added, however, that he did not agree that journalists are being censored in Turkey.
Young people have different opinions regarding whether journalists and reporters are censored in Turkey, a country the U.S.-based think tank Freedom House has labelled “not free”.
One group with which we spoke, the majority of whom said they were close to the government, argued that the possibility of even asking such a question showed that censorship claims were unrealistic. A considerable number of others, though, said that they believed there was no real freedom of expression in Turkey and that they believed censorship to be a commonly used method, not just against the media, but across the country. Among young people with whom we spoke who defined themselves as a “nationalist”, the number who said they thought that censorship was necessary for the “survival of the state” was quite high.
Rabia, a student at Gazi University, told me: “Some things might not be meant to be reported. That shouldn’t be regarded as censorship.”
Çağatay Ayaz, who studies journalism at Ataturk University and says that he supports the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has similar ideas. Denying that censorship exists, he says that the media is not objective and that current practices are insufficient.
“Censorship is a must,” he says. “In the [2011 earthquakes that rocked Van in south-eastern Turkey], there were many news reports about the situation and countless photos. What is the BBC doing in our country? They villainize Turkey.”
Yusuf, who says that he does not believe that newspapers or television report news objectively, answers “no” when asked whether journalists and the news media are being censored. Nevertheless, he thinks for a moment and continues: “I don’t believe that our statesmen interfere with the news, no matter who wrote it. If they do, you wouldn’t be able to come here and report this.”
Çiğdem Öz, a journalism student studying in Erzurum, thinks otherwise. Saying that her fellow students face censorship, even in the school newspaper, Öz, 21, says that they believe that they will continued to deal with censorship after they graduate. Her friends, who publish the school newspaper, agree that the media is censored in Turkey. Alper, a fellow student who says that we cannot talk about freedom of the press where censorship exists, says that there can be no room for censorship in the media, even if it is for the sake of maintaining order.
Students in Diyarbakir underline that censorship is nothing new to them, arguing that people in the West often receive “wrong and incomplete” coverage of what is happening in Kurdish cities.
“After the battle in Sur, they dumped scoops of debris, for example, in the garbage,” one says. “Human bones and historical artefacts were found…. Our teacher was on Al Jazeera speaking about the history of Sur. A Qatari media organisation can broadcast this, but there is nothing in the Turkish media.”
Renas, a student at Dicle University adds: “After the attack on the [pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party] HDP meeting in Diyarbakır on 5 June 2016, we walked into this area. Turkish flags on one side, photos of Abdullah Öcalan and yellow-red-green pendants on the other side. Then, the TGRT [news] cameraman came and shot. I watched when I returned home in the evening and they broadcast only half of the footage, with the title ‘separatists carrying terrorist organisation symbols’.”
Following Friday prayers at the Melike Hatun Mosque, which is located across from Ankara’s Youth Park and which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened at the end of October, we spoke with three friends who said that they supported the MHP. When asked “who censors?”, they answered: “statesmen”.
Independently of their political views or the city in which they live or study, most young people in Turkey say that they do not believe that the media is free. However, among those who said that they are close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since the end of 2002, most say that the argument that “the press is not free in Turkey” does not reflect the truth, even if some accept that the media – agreed to be the fourth cornerstone of democracy – “cannot move very comfortably”.
Muharrem, who lives in Ankara and has been unemployed for some time, says: “They say there is no freedom of the press, but every newspaper has coverage of [Republican People’s Party (CHP) Chair Kemal] Kılıçdaroğlu.”
Ekici, a 20-year-old university student and self-identified AKP supporter, argues that [the disclosure of video evidence of a border search of Syrian-bound, intelligence-agency-owned trucks that discovered a load of weapons] – the basis for the arrest and three-month pre-trial detention of former Cumhuriyet newspaper Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and the paper’s Ankara representative, Erdem Gül – “cannot be considered part of freedom [of the press because] state secrets were disclosed.”
Even if he concedes that some mistakes have been made, Muharrem maintains: “They’re behind bars not because of journalism but terrorism. There might have been some mistakes, wrong people might have been locked in jail, but those publishing state secrets are agents, not journalists.”
Freedom of information?
Kübra, who studies geography at Ataturk University, is the only person to say “yes” when asked whether there is freedom of information in Turkey. But her close friends, sisters Meryem and Mehtap Cici, do not agree. Büşra Yapıcı, Yahya Savcı and Sadık Uçak – students at Marmara University – answer “no” in unison. The group, whose members say they support the MHP, says that news reported to the public is either truncated or reported incorrectly.
Ejder who is studying Civil Engineering at Dicle University, comments: “The country has been in a state of emergency for months, democracy has been gone for years. Very few can hold the line due to pressure on the media. We justify this situation, even if just a little, due to what happened. But they should have taken that into consideration when they entered this profession.”
His friend Renas adds: “In an environment where HDP Co-Chairmen Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yükseldağ and many other MPs have been under arrest for months, no wonder journalists remain passive”.
The young MHP supporters with whom we spoke after the Friday prayers have exactly the opposite view, yet they make a similar comment.
“Journalists are afraid,” one says. “They think that their newspaper will be shut down and they will end up in prison if they write something wrong or make an undesirable comment.”
Another point on which everyone among the university students and young workers with whom we spoke agreed is that the media is not objective. Almost everyone answered “no” when asked whether they believe newspapers or other publications are objective.
Media organisations close to the ruling party are not the only ones considered to lack objectivity: many of those with whom we spoke said that they believed that “anti-government” or opposition media outlets put aside their commitment to journalism in order to make “propaganda for disaffection”.
According to Mazlum, a civil engineering student, “both those closely related to the government and to dissidents” practice biased journalism.
Ahmet Göneş, a communications student at Atatürk University, argues that journalism in Turkey is not objective. However, he continued: “I’m Kurdish, but I can’t say that Kurdish media is objective. They don’t have the same facilities as the newspapers close to government, but they’re not objective by any measure whatsoever.”
His classmate Alper agrees.
“Journalists must forget their political identity while making news, but, looking at the current status, Sözcü and Star are the same,” Alper says. “The problem isn’t about those close to the government, it’s about the media as a whole.”
Bias and ‘polarisation’
Independent from their political views, a significant portion of young people with whom we spoke said that they believe that the approach to news fuels “polarisation” in the country. But their approaches to the degree of “bias” in the media differed.
Some said they considered it justifiable for dissident media, which occupies “the weak side of the unequal table”, to be biased, given the political, legal and economic backing that the ruling party gives to some media organisations.
Those who argued that journalists’ only duty is to convey information objectively said that that the degree of prejudice in the current period would negatively impact the country’s democratic development and future, regardless of its direction.
Renas, who studies at Dicle University, says that “objectivity would be indispensable if politics in Turkey were based on thought, but, for example, I don’t think it’s legitimate for Özgür Gündem, which defends a colonial community suffering for years, to be biased”.
A 22-year-old female student at the Istanbul Technical University’s Gümüşsuyu Faculty of Mechanical Engineering argues that media close to the government or the opposition are biased.
“You can read the same incident as two different news items, depending on where you read it,” she says. “That fuels the polarisation in the society.”
A student at the Middle Eastern Technical University agrees, saying: “The news we read and the news the rest of the country reads or watches are quite different from each other. That intensifies the political polarisation, which already exists for other reasons.”
Furkan, the ITU student, predicts that the absence of freedom of information in Turkey will affect his life in the long term.
“People are in the dark about incidents or worse, they’re conveyed incorrectly to the people,” he observes. “People being kept in the dark directly affects politics, as we’re a ‘democratic’ country. A person makes his or her political choices through his or her own understanding of truth without having any information. State agencies are losing value. And that has an impact on our life directly or indirectly. The problem affects our lives, our legislature, executive and judiciary.”
Onat Duğantaş, a student at Beşiktaş Anatolian High School, summarises the common expectation that young people have for the media, regardless of differing political views, fields of study or cities of residence: “An objective approach to news must be a priority, public support must be received in the struggle against censorship and resources providing misinformation must be exposed to the public.”
Gonca Tokyol is a Turkey-based journalist who currently works for T24. She has covered a wide range of topics, including Turkey’s youth, presidential elections in Iran, the 2017 Justice March and the refugee crisis.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily reflect the views of the International Press Institute (IPI).