Fears over self-censorship as pressure mounts on Turkish media

ANKARA (AFP) - Prominent Turkish journalist Can Dundar says he misses the media censorship that followed a bloody 1980 military coup - at least then, journalists knew where they stood.

The 52-year-old, who was ousted this summer from the liberal paper where he had worked since 2001, believes that a new, more insidious form of censorship is silencing dissent at a crucial time for Turkey.

"As a journalist who witnessed the September 12 period, I can say I miss the censorship of that era. When a story was banned, a military official would tell you in the morning and the story would not be published," said Mr Dundar, referring to the aftermath of the 1980 coup.

Now, he said, media organisations including his former paper, Milliyet, are so fearful of repercussions that they self-censor.

"I know that even pictures of the prime minister where he does not look good caused discomfort within the newspaper." Mr Dundar is among at least 85 Turkish journalists who have been sacked or made to resign since protests erupted on May 31, according to the head of the country's journalists' union Ercan Ipekci.

Turkey has long been criticised for a lack of press freedom.

The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last year named it a "leading jailer of journalists", identifying 76 who were in prison, 61 of them purely for their journalism.

But activists say the situation has deteriorated since this year's unrest, which began as a row over the planned redevelopment of a park but evolved into mass protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seen as increasingly authoritarian.

Journalists covering the street clashes "became frequent targets of police abuse", said CPJ executive director Joel Simon.

"But most mainstream journalists don't fear being beaten or jailed. Instead, they fear losing their jobs." The result, some say, is that many are censoring themselves to avoid getting into trouble.

Turkish television stations were ridiculed for their timid reporting as the protests began, with one airing a documentary about penguins instead of covering the crisis.

The pressure comes in various forms - there are reports of organisations hiring or firing journalists at the request of government advisors, while some journalists say they have received threats from politicians.

Ismail Saymaz from the liberal Radikal newspaper received what he called an "intimidating" email from a local governor after investigating the death of a 19-year-old university student during the demonstrations.

The governor denied sending the email, which called the journalist "vile and dishonourable", but said he agreed with its content.

Arguably more damaging is the fear of media owners that criticising the government will hit the bottom line.

Turkey's largest media conglomerate Dogan Group was forced to sell the Milliyet newspaper after the government levied a record 2009 tax fine that Dundar said was a "message to all media bosses".

"Milliyet's new boss received the message and made it clear to us from the start that he did not want columns that would offend the prime minister. I believe my columns were thought offensive," said Mr Dundar.

"Dissenting voices in the newspaper have been silenced... at the expense of losing readership," he added, accusing media bosses of being "more royalist than the king".

In May, Turkey's state-run Savings Deposit and Insurance Fund (TMSF) seized assets belonging to the Cukurova group including the Aksam newspaper, citing the conglomerate's public debt.

It appointed former ruling party deputy Mehmet Ocaktan as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper shortly afterwards.

Ali Ekber Erturk was fired from the newspaper in September. He was told the paper was "restructuring", but attributes his sacking to his personal support for the mass protests, which he wrote a book about.

"I backed the Gezi Park protests especially through Facebook and my Twitter account, sharing my personal opinions," he said.

Dr Ann Cooper, professor at Columbia journalism school in the United States and former head of the CPJ, warned that media organisations unwilling to criticise authorities risked losing their credibility - something Mr Dundar said was already happening.

"Turkish audiences prefer watching CNN International to CNN-Turk for their news while dissident journalists face punishments ranging from dismissal to being targeted by the prime minister and ending up in jail," he said.

Dogan Tilic of the Association of European Journalists, bemoaned the state of media freedom in Turkey.

"In the 1990s, we were talking of murdered journalists in Turkey. In the 2000s, there are no murdered journalists, but trials and self-censorship," he said. "Shall we be grateful for this?"

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.