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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Turkish media wars: part II

On Thursday last week I reported on remarks made by the US ambassador to Turkey, Francis J. Ricciardione, regarding the detainment of three journalists with ties to a news website critical of AKP: OdaTV. Well, the excitement continues. Friday, Prime Minister Erdoğan returned fire, criticizing the ambassador in his usual blunt style. The New York Times' Sebnem Arsu quotes from the PM's remarks:
"Unfortunately, some outsiders snooping into things that are not their business believe in this fuss and make comments,” he said in a speech broadcast to governing party members. “First stop and research, ask what it is all about, what the judiciary will be doing, ruling for what, learn all of this. This is called amateur diplomacy.”
But Ambassador Ricciardone has backing from home:
A State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, said Wednesday that Washington stood by the ambassador’s remarks and that it would be watching the journalists’ case very closely. “We do have broad concerns about trends involving intimidation of journalists in Turkey,” Mr. Crowley said.
Mr. Erdogan and the AKP leadership thus point to the independence of the judiciary as evidence that they could not be behind the arrests. This argument should not be dismissed out of hand - it was only recently that the AKP itself was subject to a failed attempt by the Constitutional Court to shut the party down. But a more reasonable assumption is that the judiciary's independence from the party in power de facto varies. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the interests of the particular prosecutor in the Ergonekon case, Zekeriya Öz, is closely aligned with those of the AKP.

One issue that I did not mention in my post on Thursday but which poses an interesting backdrop for the arrests is the fact that one of the three detained - the owner of OdaTV, Soner Yalçın - is also a columnist for the Hürriyet newspaper, which is the flagship publication of the dominant Doğan media group (Doğan Yayın Holding) and generally critical of the AKP. Doğan is one of the largest conglomerates in Turkey and owns three of the nation's leading newspapers: besides Hürriyet, Doğan also owns Milliyet, a newspaper further to the right and Radikal, a left-liberal newspaper, neither of which toes an AKP party line. The Doğan media group has been the target of a government campaign that includes the imposition of a fine amounting to some 4.8 million
Turkish Lira. The
company and many analysts have argued that the government action constituted an attempt to bring the media group down for political reasons.

Doğan has been fighting the fines in the courts, and on Wednesday Doğan announced that the Council of State - the highest administrative court in the country - had handed Dogan an important victory by reversing several earlier decisions and thereby removing 1.8 billion lira from the original fine of 4.8 billion. According to the Wall Street Journal, this means that the court so far has sided with Doğan in almost all of its decisions on the case - some 2 billion remains to be decided.

It is hard not to suspect that the government's actions toward Soner Yalçın are connected to the campaign against the dominant media group that employs Mr. Yalçın and whose papers are generally critical of the AKP. And the timing suggests that maybe - although this remains speculation - the arrests of OdaTV journalists was an attempt to strike back against Doğan after their recent court victories. On the other hand, the journalists in question are held due to allegations of collusion with purported coup-makers and I am in no position to evaluate that claim. Even a centrist journalist like Mustafa Akyol in Hürriyet Daily News rejects the suggestion that the detentions are part of an overall scheme to intimidate journalists. I have to admit that I find it difficult to adjudicate between these positions.

Nonetheless, all eyes are on Erdoğan and the governments treatment of journalists and media institutions. I can understand if the AKP feels besieged from all corners, having to fight simultaneously the mighty military establishment, a generally hostile judiciary, and a media spere that until recently was under the sway of a powerful and decidedly anti-AKP media group. But there is a very significant difference between the military and the media in a democracy. Whereas the former should serve at the government's command, the freedom and independence of the latter is absolutely crucial.

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