Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Media Freedoms at Stake in Turkey
A week is not a long time to get to know the issues in a country as complex and as fascinating as Turkey. But here are some impressions after a short but intense stay:
The Dogan Media Group is one of the most important and influential organizations in that country. It controls about half of all media outlets including the highly influential cable channel - CNN Turk. It's most important daily newspaper is called Hurriyet and it publishes in both Turkish and English.
Last month, the government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved against Dogan and levied a US$3.2 billion fine for tax evasion. If the fine goes through, it will effectively wipe out the media organization. Dogan has been highly effective in a series of investigative reports which have revealed a level of corruption that it claims connects the prime minister's party. Erdogan has also called for Turks to boycott the Dogan media group. Dogan has denounced the fines as politically inspired and the European Union has condemned the government's actions as inimical to the principles of free speech.
This comes at a particularly difficult time for the Turkish government as it presses its claims to membership in the European Union.
At the same time, a century-old cultural, political and religious animosity between Turks and Armenians has been laid to rest. Under the urging of the Europeans and the Obama administration, a protocol of agreement was signed this week in Zurich in which the Turkish and Armenian government agreed to open borders, freer trade and an end to the animosity that has marked relations since the end of World War One.
Driving the point home, a soccer "friendly" was played between the two national teams, under the gaze of the presidents of both countries. This event was simply unthinkable a few years ago. But the thaw in relations came about - in part - because Turkish and Armenian journalists began writing about the need for better relations, despite the antagonism expressed by both governments. One small step for good journalism.
Our last night we dined by the shores of the Sea of Marmara with a couple of local journalist friends (one Yank and one Turk).
We got the lowdown on the political scene which appropriately Byzantine, to say the least. I asked now that the Turks and the Armenians have kissed and made up, what about the Kurds?
“Ah,” said my Turkish friend, "that’s even more difficult. With Armenia, it’s now just history. With the Kurds, it’s still fresh.”
The Turkish army in its ongoing fight against the Kurdish separatists known as the PKK, has killed about 20,000 Kurds over the years. There is not one family in southeastern Turkey that hasn’t lost someone.
All males must serve in the army, but because of that huge number of Kurdish dead, many young Kurds avoid the draft and come to Istanbul. But a residency permit is impossible without proof of military service, so young men are constantly being shaken down by the local cops (all of whom have been in the army) who want to see their discharge papers. I witnessed that myself on more than a couple of occasions.
A job or an apartment without a residency permit? Also illegal but not impossible. That bind has spawned a huge Kurdish economic underground, which is illegal again and in some instance, criminal. All of which is to say that there is a strong anti-Kurdish sentiment among many Turks.