By Simon Bahceli
TURKEY’S High Court ruling on Monday sentencing twenty journalists – along with numerous military officials, politicians and university scholars – to prison terms ranging from six months to 34 years, dealt what many agreed was a final blow to press freedom in that country.
It is not only the culmination of the Ergenekon trials, in which hundreds were accused of seeking to overthrow the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government by illegal means, that sends shivers through the spines of Turkish journalists. Even before the High Court ruling Ankara had faced dire criticism for having more reporters in jail than any other country on earth. Moreover, its government’s successful endevours to wipe out remaining media opposition by intimidating individual journalists and threatening editors with legal action have been well documented both in and outside a country that was until recently seen as a model for other predominantly Muslim countries seeking to establish themselves as functioning democracies.
As Reporters Without Border (RWB) stated in a report on Turkish press freedom earlier this year, “In the name of the fight against terrorism, Turkey is the world’s biggest prison for journalists”. In the same report it added that, “the state’s paranoia about security…has a tendency to see every criticism as a plot hatch by illegal organisations”.
So appalling was its approach toward media freedom that RWB listed Turkey as the 154th safest country to be a journalist out of 179 globally – a listing that falls far below numerous countries no one would dare claim to be democratic models for their region.
In the light of such oppression and fear on the Turkish mainland, one has to ask what the implications of this might be for media freedom in what many see as Turkey’s colony in northern Cyprus.
At first glance, observers can easily get the impression that pretty much anything goes in the enclave. On Thursday, for example, the left-wing and unashamedly anti-AKP daily Afrika used its front page to accuse the Turkish government of carrying out a massacre against Kurds in Syria through its backing of Al Qaida militias operating there. The publication of such a front page by a mainstream national daily in Turkey would be unthinkable.
Afrika’s owner-editor Sener Levent is of course no stranger to legal action and other means to silence him. His journalistic work saw him briefly jailed in 2002 when he lost a libel case against the late Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, and his offices have suffered arson attacks and were even shot at as a result of his paper’s anti-establishment stance.
These attempts to silence Levent are now presumed to have been the work of Turkish “deep state” operatives working in Turkey and northern Cyprus; the same goes for the fatal shooting of Turkish Cypriot journalist Kutlu Adali in Nicosia in 1996. But with the “deep state” now supposedly behind bars for decades to come, having been placed there earlier this week by the Turkish High Courts, is it right for Levent to assume he can publish what he likes unhindered?
Head of the Turkish Cypriot Journalists Association (KTGB) Cenk Mutluyakali said he was yet to feel any fallout from the Turkish government’s onslaught against his colleagues on the mainland.
“At the moment Turkey’s problems with press freedom are not reflected here and we write what we like,” he told the Sunday Mail with only the slight concession that this “could change”.
Others are not so nonchalant. As one journalist who wished to remain anonymous told the Mail, “Most of our journalists fear [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan personally”, but added that the usual mouthpiece of Ankara’s disquiet toward Turkish Cypriot journalism was the Turkish ‘embassy’, which would “summon editors” and “call them into line”.
“Most journalists here do not have the guts to oppose it,” he said, citing intervention that got top-selling daily Kibris to “tone down” reports on a petty crimes being carried out by Turkish nationals living in northern Cyprus.
But it may not simply be about whether journalists have the guts to oppose Erdogan’s, Ankara’s or the Turkish ‘embassy’s’ wishes on Cyprus. It is more about whether owners of media outlets in Nicosia can financially afford to oppose them.
In the north virtually all newspapers and broadcasters belong to political parties and/or businessmen whose political affiliations are well known. This means that editors summoned to the ‘embassy’ arrive there as representatives of political parties or business interests. It is easy therefore to see how pressure can be applied when contracts for projects paid for by Turkey are being handed out.
Elaborating on this, head of the Turkish Cypriot Journalists Union (BASIN-SEN) Kemal Darbaz told the Sunday Mail that the Turkish government, like many others, was using tools it had acquired through installation of a neo-liberal economy that allows vast conglomerates to own the majority of mainstream media outlets.
“Globally, the problem with the media now is a matter of its ownership,” he said, highlighting that these same conglomerates bid for multi-billion dollar projects from the government, meaning that printing anti-government sentiment is simply not in their interests.
However, Darbaz says that the smallness of northern Cyprus and the subsequent closeness of its people, and of course the lack of conglomerates in the enclave, means the media can still afford to be critical when it wants to be. Nevertheless, he insists there is “a daily erosion of independence and editorial freedom,” and warns of a need to “remain vigilant and create alternative ways of making sure our news is heard”.
Indeed, if Turkey succeeds in carrying out its much feared economic restructuring of the north – a restructuring that is supposed to reflect Ankara’s neo-liberal model dominated by Turkish conglomerates – then such warnings will surely need heeding.