Editor’s confession concrete evidence of gov’t pressure on media, say observers

The televised remarks of Fatih Altaylı, editor-in-chief of the Habertürk daily, saying that there is tremendous government pressure on the Turkish media, have not surprised observers, who said the editor-in-chief’s case is a gripping example of the deteriorating state of the Turkish media, as well as the troublesome relationship between media bosses and the government.

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On Monday night, Altaylı appeared on a live news program hosted by journalist Cüneyt Özdemir on private broadcaster CNN Türk’s TV channel.

Altaylı said there is intense government pressure on the Turkish media, stating, “Instructions are pouring down every day [on media groups] from somewhere.”

“There is pressure on all of us. Today, the dignity of journalism is being crushed underfoot. Instructions pour down from somewhere every day. Everybody is afraid [of losing his job],” the editor-in-chief said. He also said that no executive in the Turkish media can claim that he has not been reprimanded by the government nor can any claim they have not faced government intervention in their publications.

According to Altaylı, pressure on the media is nothing new. “There have always been interventions. I have been doing this job for 32 years. Governments have always attempted to intervene in the media. The interventions are proportional to the strength of the governments. The stronger the governments, the more intense the interventions.”

Altaylı said his case had showed the pressure on the media in a more concrete way for the first time.

Oktay Ekşi, a founding member of the Press Council, said in remarks to Today’s Zaman that the media had never been placed under such immense pressure by the government before the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). “Today, the media is experiencing its darkest period,” he stated. Ekşi said the government has gradually increased its pressure on the media since 2007. “An atmosphere [of pressure] in which people feel themselves under threat has grown more worrisome. I had to bring an end to my almost 40-year-old profession [of journalism] in this atmosphere,” he noted.

Ekşi, who was chief columnist for the Hürriyet daily for 36 years, resigned in 2010.

Altaylı’s remarks came on the heels of an ongoing debate over claims that the Habertürk daily manipulated the findings of a 2013 opinion poll. A leaked conversation between Altaylı and Fatih Saraç, deputy chairman of the Ciner Media Group, which owns Habertürk, suggested last week that the former had manipulated the results of a poll conducted by the Konsensus Research and Consultancy Company in favor of the governing AK Party and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). “I will take some points from the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] and undecided voters. I will manipulate [the poll],” a voice allegedly belonging to Altaylı was heard to say in the recording.

The voice recording sent shockwaves throughout the political landscape and society, triggering debates about the scale and scope of government intrusion in the media.

Altaylı joined Monday’s TV program in an attempt to placate critics and defend himself.

Asked if he was surprised about the voice recording, the editor-in-chief replied, “No,” adding: “What surprises me is that only the voice recordings that are related to us [Habertürk] are being released. We all know that the entire Turkish media are faced with similar situations,” in reference to the government’s increasing pressure on the media. Altaylı also said he is surprised that people are acting as though they are surprised about claims of government intervention in the media.

Also last week, another voice recording — allegedly between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Ciner Media Group’s Saraç — revealed yet another government attempt to place the media under its influence. According to the recording, Erdoğan gave instructions to Saraç to stop a news ticker in which MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli called on President Abdullah Gül to intervene and reduce the tension during the Gezi Park protests, which rocked the country at the beginning of last summer.

Altaylı, in addition, implied that there may be other voice recordings that would reveal government pressure on other media groups. “If [records of] talks between the government and media managers happen to be revealed some day, it will be clear that the situation of those managers is no different from mine and that they have been striving to have their newspapers continue their activities.”

According to Altaylı, he is fighting against this government pressure. “All my friends [colleagues] are witnesses; I do not surrender. I fight, at least. I want them [critics] to criticize me for the columns and news reports in my newspaper but not over a voice recording. No one can try me over [government] instructions with which they have no idea whether I complied,” he stated. “I tell the right actions of the AK Party, which for me are decreasing day by day, as I tell its wrong actions. I was not admitted onto the prime minister’s plane [along with a group of journalists that accompany the prime minister during his visits abroad] for two years after this newspaper [Habertürk] was launched. I am not admitted to the plane today, either. If I am such a good boy [who listens to the instructions of the prime minister], why am I not admitted onto the plane?”

Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy Erdal Aksünger said he was not surprised to hear the claims of government pressure on the media at all, as there are already allegations that the prime minister ordered the removal of a news ticker from a news channel and the firing of journalists from a newspaper. “How can you talk about freedom of the press in such a situation?” he asked. He also said the prime minister had already placed the print media under his control and had recently passed a law to silence social media, in reference to a newly adopted Internet bill that critics say will restrict people’s free use of the Internet.

Independent deputy Hakan Şükür, who parted ways with the AK Party in mid-December of last year, said Altaylı’s confession has made both the editor-in-chief and the Turkish people confront a serious fact, referring to government pressure on the media. Şükür resigned from the ruling party in protest at a government plan to shut down exam preparatory schools.

Also on Monday’s TV program, Altaylı denied claims that he had fired three Habertürk reporters for publishing a news report criticizing deficiencies in the public health system in the İstanbul edition of the daily in September of last year.

“I did not fire any of my friends [colleagues]. I fought for them [to maintain their jobs]. They were fired by executives superior to me,” he said, without elaborating.

In another leaked voice recording that was uploaded to YouTube by a Twitter user earlier this week, Erdoğan allegedly called Saraç to rebuke him for the critical health report that appeared in the daily on Sept. 24 of 2013. The prime minister allegedly told Saraç that such stories, with titles belittling the government’s achievements in the public health sector, would cause the government’s work to look worthless. In response, Saraç reportedly said: “Yes, sir. This is a shame on our part. This will never happen again.” The three reporters were later fired from the newspaper.

According to journalist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, Altaylı is right in his claims of government pressure on the media. “There is not a single executive in the central media who has not fought against government pressure,” said Aydıntaşbaş.

MHP Deputy Chairman Yıldırım Tuğrul Türkeş said he finds the timing and content of Altaylı’s remarks “meaningful,” claiming that the remarks were a sort of “mea culpa.” “Altaylı has verified that he has received orders from the political power [government] and its commissioners to protect the benefits of the media group he is affiliated with,” he noted.

‘What will happen if I resign?’

Habertürk’s editor-in-chief also responded to calls for him to resign from his post due to the increasing government pressure.

“They call on me to resign. What will happen if I resign? Will the entire media be left to the pool group?” he said. By “the pool” he was referring to a multi-million-dollar pool allegedly created by the AK Party government and a group of businessmen for the purchase of the Turkuvaz Media Group, which owns the Sabah daily and ATV channel, among other media outlets. According to claims that have been circulating in the Turkish media, certain businessmen bribed the government to win public tenders, and the government used the money it collected from these businessmen as bribes to acquire the Turkuvaz Group.

“Why am I staying in my position? To practice journalism as much as possible, despite all the difficulties,” Altaylı stated.

He also said he regretted interviewing the prime minister on a TV program during the Gezi Park protests last summer. Altaylı was the first journalist to interview the prime minister during the protests. “The proposal [for the interview] came from them [ the government.] I do not have personal shame. I told the prime minister that he could not call people ‘alcoholics’ on that program. I asked him whether he was planning not to hold a referendum on the Gezi Park plans. He said he would not ask the people’s opinion about government plans to preserve the legacy of [Turkey’s] ancestors. The program, for me, was finished with those remarks,” Altaylı noted.

The Gezi protests erupted when a small group of environmentalists began a sit-in in Gezi Park, in the heart of İstanbul, on May 27 of last year, attempting to block the government’s plan to build an Ottoman-style barracks in the park. Following a heavy-handed police crackdown on the peaceful protests, thousands took to the streets and rallies spread across Turkey. More than 5,000 protesters were injured and six people, including a policeman, were killed during the month-long protests.

Altaylı said he defines himself an honorable journalist. “They insult me and my family. I do not make any of my business secretly. If there are 20 honorable journalists in Turkey, I am one of them. No one can claim that I have sold my soul to the devil.”

AK Party spokesman congratulates Saraç over ‘new mission’

A newly leaked audio recording, allegedly of a phone conversation between AK Party spokesperson Hüseyin Çelik and Saraç, suggests Saraç was used as a mechanism in Habertürk to publish those stories the government wanted to see in the daily.

In the conversation, a voice believed to belong to Çelik is heard congratulating Saraç on his new “mission.” In response, another voice, allegedly of Saraç, asks the AK Party spokesman to inform him beforehand about what the government wants to have published in Habertürk. Saraç also says that Altaylı and Kenan Tekdağ, another Habertürk executive, work under his orders.

In another leaked conversation, Saraç tells a government official claimed to be Energy Minister Taner Yıldız that Habertürk did not report on the Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish civilians were killed by military jets on the Turkish-Iraqi border in 2010, and that the prime minister was happy about that.

Source: Today’s Zaman

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