Interview with Brock alumna: on the state of journalism in Turkey

In Canada, our Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly protects freedom of expression and freedom of the press from scrutiny, discrimination and unlawful imprisonment. Despite this, free speech does have its legal limits being limited under section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ultimately allowing for the Canadian Government to limit these freedoms if it means ending discrimination, promoting gender equality, and even in some cases, protecting hate speech. This freedom of expression we so often take for granted, is subjective depending on which country your reside in, a point illustrated in the Reporters Without Borders image on the page. It is worth nothing that with the advent of the internet, it has never been so easy for journalists to express themselves in safe way. Presented, is an interview with a former Brock Alumnus, Merve Aydogan, a Journalist living in Turkey and currently working for Daily Sabah.

Merve Aydogan, former Brock University graduate and Journalist at Daliy Sabah

Merve Aydogan, Brock University graduate and Journalist at Daliy Sabah

Q: What was it like transitioning from Brock University to living in Turkey?

A: Well, I was born in Turkey and lived here until the age of 10, then began to live in Canada. Though I did live in Turkey for some time I did not have much memory of it as I was a child at the time, so when I moved back to Turkey from Canada after living there for 15 years, I did kind of experience a culture shock. I questioned everything here,from the way people walk, to the way buses were designed. I am now here for 2 years and I can say that I still question things, but not as much as I did in the beginning. Being a journalist also eased my transition to Turkey, because I do still work at an English-language based environment and connect with foreigners from various countries residing in Turkey. Also, I would like to add that I do love living here and experiencing new things every day, as I am grateful for everything that this country has blessed me with, that unfortunately, Canada was unable to. In fact, like many other Canadian students I had to get OSAP loan to my university tuition and now I am struggling to pay it off like many other graduates. After graduation, all workplaces insisted that I needed previous experiance in my field in which I did not have since I was a new graduate. Thus all perpetrators (the Harper government and its party) who had caused me to experience this led me away from serving Canada. I would definitely love to go back and continue on from where I have left off but unfortunately there are still question marks regarding the opportunities there. I do miss Canada and everything about it as well as my friends from St Catharines and Brock University as it was where I called home. Canada is still my home, but so is Turkey.

Q: How has Turkey’s treatment of journalism and media changed in the last five years in your opinion?

A: Turkey’s treatment of journalism and media has in fact changed positively in the direction of anti-government media outlets and journalists. The reason why I say this is because regardless of all the talk about pressure on the media, the Turkish press remains robust and is open to a range of voices and outlooks. Currently, there are 45 national newspapers, three of which are football- and sports-related, another three are published in English – Daily Sabah, Hurriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman – and one, Azadiya Welat, in Kurdish. As there are also 23 regional and 2,381 local newspapers, the numbers of national television channels are 27, while 16 are regional and 215 are local channels.
According to these figures, the circulation of 38 national publications – with the exception of sports and English or Kurdish papers – is 3,513,896. Nineteen of these publications have an anti-government stance and openly criticize the government while some of them insult, slander and threaten government officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on a daily basis.

More importantly, opposition papers make up around 2 million out of around 3.5 million national publication sales, contrary to claims that media is suppressed. A recent survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund says that Zaman, Sözcü and Cumhuriyet are the most biased newspapers in Turkey. For instance, Sözcü insults the president on a regular basis, uses only his middle name “Tayyip” and calls him a thief, murderer, dictator and other denigrating words. The daily’s front page on Jan. 1 featured a word search puzzle titled “Your 2016 Horoscope,” saying that the first three names the reader found in the puzzle would be in their life in 2016. The puzzle was intentionally made up with three names, Recep, Tayyip and Erdoğan and one of the lines said “Die Recep.”

Q: Have you or any of your collages ever felt threatened or pressured to alter a story?

A: You might be surprised, but in fact, my colleagues and I have been threatened and sometimes even pressured due to the articles we have written. We always write our articles solely based on solid evidences and official facts and figures. Especially for news articles about the terrorist organization PKK, we receive many threats from its supporters (perhaps even their members) on social media. One time in fact, they used my Twitter photo and circulated it around to show me as target. I did obviously immediately report it to Twitter, but as you can imagine, the PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey, but also by EU member’s states and the US and its supporters. Attacks are definitely concerning to me and my colleagues. Also, another colleague who had travelled to the southeastern province of Sur to obtain first-hand information on the anti-terror operations being held against the PKK, was attacked, beaten severely by the PKK members and its supporters. Similarly, on the articles we wrote on Gülenist Terror Organization (FETÖ), which is defined as a terrorist organization in Turkey for attempting to topple the elected government and infiltrating into state institutions, we get threats on social media again from its supporters. The Gülenist organization is also being investigated in the US for money laundering and providing unknown sourced money to US Senators in their campaigns.

Q: Do you have any personal experience you would be willing to share about censorship?

A: Unfortunately, there is strong misconception and even perception management in the West against the media freedom in Turkey which causes many to believe there is censorship on media members. I personally did not experiance any censorship but if there is censorships then those anti-government media outlets would not be able to go as far to insulting the government officials.

Q: What are your thoughts on the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and their ongoing acquisition and gradual state-initiated control of various media organizations and subsidiaries?

A: During the past 13 years Turkey has improved greatly in terms of the economy and is getting closer each day towards becoming a European Union member. The AK Party government has devoted strong efforts in improving country’s infrastructure as well and has improved the living standards of its citizens. In fact one of the reasons we have chosen to live in Canada was due to Turkey’s ban on headscarf in every institution thus they did not allow you to wear your religious attire at work or school. However, the AK party government addressed the headscarf ban issue to secure citizens’ democratic rights as part of the reforms included in a democratization package. The reform package also included addressing a number of other rights and freedoms for Turkey’s minorities, including ethnic and religious minorities, as well as the disabled citizens.

In regards to your question about the claims of AK Party acquisition and gradual state-initiated control of various media organizations and subsidiaries, if you look at the most recent circulation records for the week between Feb. 29 and March 6 it shows that opposition media outlets take the lead in national publications, with Zaman leading top of the list, followed by the Hürriyet and Posta dailies. While Zaman’s daily circulation was 548,333 in this period, Hürriyet’s was around 349,000, Posta’s 320,000 and Sözcü’s was 285,000, totaling 954,000 sales. Thus, these numbers should give you an idea of the accuracy of the claims. It should not be a shocker that some media outlets are pro-government as there are anti-government media outlets that exist. However, to say that media outlets are controlled by the AK Party government is only poor judgment and misperception.

Q: Reporters Without Borders currently ranks Turkey at 149yh place out of over 180 countries, with a current score of 44.16. Do you feel this is an accurate representation of the current situation?

A: I do not feel that this is an accurate representation of the current situation as I also believe that it is an unfair scoring. As I mentioned previously, there are various media outlets that are anti-government where in fact go as far as insulting the President of Turkey and his family. I am all for freedom of speech and freedom of expression however I strongly disagree that insulting any one, whether it is the President or an average citizen can be called freedom of speech. Also, if you look at the list it is obvious that the rankings are not relevant with the countries’ current positions.

Q: What is it like to be a journalist and work in Turkey at present?

A: Being a journalist in Turkey is tough, but also a great experience at the same time. I say that it is tough mainly due to the geographical location of the country in which is a highly critical region. Turkey experiences a great number of refugee influx and, in fact, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey now exceeds 2.7 million. I have been to various refugee camps and I have spoken to those people seeking asylum in Turkey. There are many heartbreaking stories from those people. However, hearing and seeing everything about the Syrian crisis first-hand is definitely a great experience for a journalist. I also live in the capital city Ankara, in which has already faced three suicide bombings in the last six months. Ankara is the city where all the Ministries are located at thus has high security measures. Regardless of the measures, we have faced three suicide bombings in the main city centers and I myself have missed being affected by the bombing by only a matter of few minutes. So I do love being here, it is a great experience however, it gets complicated and tough to get your head around things when such devasting things occur right by your door step.

Q: Do you see article 301 and 312 of The Turkish Penal Code as problematic?

Article 301:
1. A person who publicly denigrates the Turkish Nation, the State of the Turkish Republic or the Grand Assembly of Turkey and the judicial institutions of the State shall be punishable by imprisonment from 6 months to 2 years.

2. A person who publicly denigrates the military and police organizations of the State will too receive the same punishment.

3. Expressions of thought intended to criticize shall not constitute a crime.

4.The prosecution under this article will require the approval of the Minister of Justice.
Article 312: Imposes three-year prison sentences for incitement to commit an offence and incitement to religious or racial hatred.

***Amended On February 6, 2002, the “mini-democracy package” revised the text, stating that incitement can only be punished if it presents “a possible threat“ to public order.

A: The Article 301 was amended in 200 and has been resurrected in the form of Turkish Penal Code Article 299, which levies punishments on those who insult the president that also covers, “insulting the legacy of Atatürk.” Thus I do not believe that is problematic as almost all European countries have similar regulations.

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