In Turkey, ruling AKP on trial in high court, media

Newspapers and TV have entered a bitter fray between the opposition and the AKP government, accused of undermining the country's secularist ideals.

Yigal Schleifer
Bias: Media critics say newspapers, such as these in Istanbul, are reinforcing opinions rather than informing the public.

If the media is supposed to serve as a mirror for the society it covers, then the Turkish press may actually be doing too good a job.

Turkey's highest court takes up a case today against the ruling AK Party (AKP) that has been driving a wedge between secularists and the government, which is rooted in political Islam.

That division is being fiercely reflected in the mass media, where pro-government newspapers and television stations are facing off against pro-secularist media outlets, each being accused of slanting the news in a way that seems to benefit their position. Lost in all of this, critics and some journalists say, is the truth provided by a truly independent media.

"The media has become a battleground," says Bulent Aliriza, director or the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

"Every newspaper is taking sides, through its columnists and now, increasingly, through its news stories. It's becoming harder to say that there is an independent media with an objective view."

In addition to today's judicial move to close down the liberal Islamic governing party for violating the country's secularist Constitution, the uncovering of an alleged ultranationalist plot to overthrow the government has also polarized Turks. An indictment for the plotters, belonging to a group known as Ergenekon, was filed on July 14 and charged 86 people – among them high-ranking retired military officials – with planning a coup.

"I think the closure case and the Ergenekon case have been a kind of litmus test for the Turkish media," says Yasemin Congar, deputy editor in chief of Taraf, a brash daily launched late last year.

'Unprecedented' government influence

The use of disinformation in the Turkish media is nothing new. Planted press reports were instrumental in the Turkish military's nonviolent ousting in 1997 of the Islamist Welfare Party government – an event that has come to be known as the "postmodern coup."

But the emergence of a powerful Islamic press and some questionable moves by the AKP – such as the recent sale of the bankrupt but influential Sabah ATV media conglomerate to a business group run by the prime minister's son-in-law – have given the government unprecedented influence in the media, critics charge.

In the Ergenekon affair, for example, pro-government papers have been on the receiving end of a constant flow of sensational leaked information – some of it false – about the case.

"The AKP is utilizing all its tools to control the media, either directly or indirectly. The government has learned how to manipulate the media – you can see this especially in the Ergenekon case," says Kemal Kaya, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "There is no balance in the support for the government by the pro-government media in Turkey."

Media critics fault both press camps for their coverage of recent events. Pro-government papers have frequently shown a slavish devotion to the AKP and its defense, they say, while the competition has often gone out of its way to attack the government.

Columnists and editors have entered the fray, publicly accusing their rivals of distorting the truth, and a group of four newspapers have even initiated a lawsuit against a competing paper that accused them of being "pro-coup."

"It appears that some parts of the Turkish media have been in support of Ergenekon," says Bulent Kenes, editor in chief of Today's Zaman, an English-language newspaper that belongs to a media company closely linked to an influential Turkish Islamic movement. "Some of the big media organizations have been trying to blacken the case and trivialize it by producing fabricated news about the Ergenekon case, saying it was a tiny gang and that the government is trying to use it to create pressure on its opposition."

The pro-government press has been particularly critical of the Dogan Group, a media giant that publishes four of Turkey's Top 10 circulation papers, which it says have been less eager to run with the Ergenekon story.

"[That] accusation is not fair," says Sedat Ergin, editor in chief of the influential Milliyet paper, one of the four published by Dogan. "On the contrary, a series of articles we intended to publish on the issue was officially banned by the [case's] prosecutor on the grounds that it might compromise the secrecy of the investigation.

"When such a polarization is rampant, in such a political atmosphere, every debate is held captive by this divide," he adds. "Ideology and strong political convictions become dominant and usually take precedence over the facts."

Indeed, Istanbul's chief prosecutor, Aykut Cengiz Engin, took the media to task for its reporting on the Ergenekon affair when announcing the indictment.

"A great portion of the reports and commentaries were not factual," he said at a press conference. "These reports, to a large extent, led to information pollution and the public was misinformed."

Lost: news readers can believe in

Indeed, what seems to have been lost in Turkey's increasingly bitter journalistic scuffle, say observers, is the chance for readers to find news they really can believe in.

"There is now a gray area in the media, where you cannot get a true picture of what is happening in Turkey," says Dr. Kaya, the scholar at Johns Hopkins. "The truth is missing."

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