Friday, August 19, 2011

CNN Falls Short in a Video on Press Freedom in Turkey

by Richard Peres
Ekrem Dumanli’s article, “Time to Counter Global Lies,” (TZ, May 9, 2011) told of misinformation campaigns aimed against the AK Party and the Gulen movement outside of Turkey. However, it seems to me that the bigger issue relates to the mainstream Western media. To the casual television and Internet viewer of short news videos, the segments appear to be objective, balanced and fair minded. Both sides of an issue are presented. However the result can sometimes be distorted. I wrote about this phenomenon in a recent piece, “MSNBC Paints a Distorted Picture of Turkey” (TZ, April 25, 2011), exposing the flaws of an online article.

Ivan Watson’s two-minute video on the repression of journalists

Ivan Watson is a young yet veteran international journalist for CNN with an impressive track record at CNN and NPR, which is why I do not understand a recent short video he produced on CNN, called “Turkey’s Battle over Press Freedom.” It not only links Prime Minister Erdogan and the AK Party to the prosecution of thousands of journalists in Turkey, it does so without any attribution of supporting sources.

This is not to say that the arrests of journalists are not troubling and that the government has no accountability. Turkey’s record in this area is bad and indefensible, as revealed by visiting the sites of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, reading their reports on Turkey and seeing where Turkey is ranked. Certainly the Counterterrorism Law and articles 215 and 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, that facilitate the prosecution of journalists, are partly to blame, as well as a problematic judicial system subject to the same polarization prevalent elsewhere in Turkey. Moreover, there are those who cite the government for not doing enough to overhaul the judicial system to clear these obvious obstacles to press freedom. However, the video begins and ends with opponents of the government, with a five-second interval of comments by another view. It also intertwines the issue of Ergenekon arrests and repression of criticism of Fetullah Gulen, as if they were one and the same. It never stops to consider why the government would even want to have journalists who cover alleged coup plots against the government to be arrested. The result is a decidedly one-side report, unfortunately

I can understand how the Western press has picked up on the issue of journalists’ freedom in Turkey. As a Western journalist myself I can tell you that it irks me as well. But it’s up to CNN to delve a little deeper into the complexities of Turkish politics even in its short videos.

The CNN video begins and ends with the opposition

The video begins with coverage on the arrests of newspaper columnists Nedim Sener and Akmet Sik and states that more and more journalists are being arrested as part of a “coup investigation” (Ergenekon). It shows journalists protesting, then we see Can Dundar telling the camera: “As Turkish journalists we are here to protest the growing repression of the Turkish media by the Turkish government for the last couple of years.” By the Turkish government? It would have been better had Mr. Watson delved into this issue and let us know who in the judiciary are in the service of the government and who is not. The issue needs to be explained to viewers as well as the depth of political opposition to the AK Party on almost every issue. Instead the tone of the piece is quickly set by an opposition leader to the government.

The video then switches to the topic of Fetullah Gulen and the repression of Akmet Sik’s book. The clear implication is that the government is going after those who criticize Mr. Gulen, who is pictured as closely aligned to the government. Ihsan Yilmaz was asked if it’s dangerous to criticize Fetullah Gulen in Turkey today and responded, “That’s the image they are trying to create; this is a smokescreen campaign.” Full stop. Mr. Yilmaz is on screen for all of five seconds the is quickly gone. An allegation that attacks on the journalists come from Turkey’s generals is mentioned, but then Prime Minister Erdogan becomes the subject on screen to the following voice over: “Commentators say that as his grip on power has tightened, Erdogan has become less tolerant of criticism.” Thus the video again links journalist repression to Erdogan thanks to unknown “commentators.” This statement is immediately followed by Andrew Finkel on camera: “I thought that Turkey was becoming a more liberal place; I thought that if you dismantled the military apparatus then the country would be freer.” Full stop. What questions was he answering? What was the context of his statement? We will never know but the impression given is that he is referring to Turkey not being free. Switch to picturesque shots of Istanbul with another voice over that “over 50 journalists are now in prison and thousands of others are defending themselves in criminal cases in court.”

This video ends with how it began, with Can Dundar, who states: “We want to be free to write. We want to be free to talk. And we want to be free to publish our books without any repression or fear.” Switch to protests led by Mr. Dundar with the final voice over from Mr. Watson: “Under fire, journalists are demanding that the government do more to protect a fundamental democratic right.” This is the third strike against the government. It is the guilty party regarding journalists.

A serious problem for Turkey

The lack of press freedom in Turkey strikes a nerve in the West, and for good reason. It is a clear indicator of democratic values. The mainstream press has picked up on this issue and will not drop it easily, an area that generates bad PR for Turkey and provides a hindrance to its joining the EU. The ruling party needs to do a better job of addressing the issues and explaining its actions to the West, particularly when asked in public forums. Nevertheless, CNN should take more care in how it covers this complex topic in Turkey.

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