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In Turkey, Media Bosses Are Undermining Democracy

July 22, 2013

By Yavuz Baydar

21MEDIA-articleLarge-v2ISTANBUL — THE protests that convulsed Istanbul and other Turkish cities last month exposed, among many other things, the shameful role of Turkey’s media conglomerates in subverting press freedom.

As the social unrest reached a peak on May 31 with clashes between tear-gas-happy police officers and protesters spreading through the heart of the city, the lack of even minimal coverage by seemingly professional private news channels presented the residents of Istanbul’s upscale neighborhoods near Taksim Square with a moment of truth. They could see, hear and smell the truth from their windows, and they quickly realized how their TV channels had lied by omission.

As the city center turned into a battlefield, 24/7 news channels opted to air documentaries about penguins or to go on with their talk shows. One channel, Haberturk TV, only 200 yards from the now famous Gezi Park, had three medical experts discussing schizophrenia — an apt metaphor for the state of journalism in Turkey.

But this is nothing new. For years, it has been politically expedient for major news outlets to cover up the truth and impose news blackouts on all serious issues, especially the Kurdish conflict. After an October 2011 meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and media owners about how to cover “news on terror,” mainstream TV outlets were cowed and began to exercise excessive editorial caution. When 34 Kurdish villagers were bombed to death by Turkish fighter jets two months later, in Uludere, near the Iraqi border, these outlets very efficiently blocked coverage of the story.

The plague of sanitized media coverage reaches far beyond Turkey. Across the globe, and especially in young or struggling democracies like Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Hungary and Albania, the lack of media independence is doing real damage. Media executives who intimidate or censor reporters while kowtowing to governments to protect their other business interests are undermining the freedom and independence of the press that is vital to establishing and consolidating a democratic political culture.

Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists’ role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism.

The problem is simple: one need only follow the money. Turkey’s mainstream media is owned by moguls who operate in other major sectors of the economy like telecommunications, banking and construction. Since only a few large TV channels and newspapers make profits, the proprietors tend to keep them as bait for the government, which needs media managers who are submissive to the will of politicians. Read the rest in the New York Times.

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