Discussing Media Freedom in Turkey

4 March 2015

I was recently fortunate to be with a group of South African media people (editors, journalists and academics and NGO types) in Istanbul to discuss issues relating to Media Freedom. The trip was organised and paid for by the Turquoise Harmony Institute and its focus was to engage with media practitioners and dialogue about our experiences on media freedom and journalism. Media freedom in Turkey is being further curtailed, and the immediate future looks very, very bleak for Turkey indeed. Read this excellent piece to see just how bad, and to see the striking similarities between Turkey and South Africa.

Here are five things I have taken from the experience, aside from the great food of course.

1. Media freedom is really precious

This might seem obvious on some levels but often it is more like a parachute – you only notice how vital it is when you really need it. We may have many reasons to fear it being undermined in South Africa, but we cannot forget how important it is, and that, broadly speaking, we have it.  We can say rude things about political parties and leaders, we can poke fun at them and expose massive wrong doing, we should expose more in the corporate sector, but at least we can do so.

We are nowhere near perfect, as we know media freedom is under real threat from the dark forces in various ways. (By dark forces in this context I mean, commercial interest, e.g. monopolies working to undermine small media, or factional political interests and securocrats seeking to shut down and limit media freedom). We also know that there are many in South Africa who, due to poverty, have too little access to media, who cannot afford the same levels of access or diversity or real freedom of expression, and it is essential that we focus on ensuring their rights are meaningfully realised. Only then can we say we are a nation with real media freedom.

That should not stop us however, from acknowledging that we can state these problems, name them and publish them. We need to celebrate our investigative media teams and editors who routinely resist pressure from many quarters. They are not perfect, but it is far better to have brave and sometimes faulty media than scared and insipid media that fails to challenge or inspire.

We also need to consider that media freedom isn’t simply undermined by crass state threats, but also structural issues, and how power is held in society. The relationship between media freedom and democracy and capitalism is a complex one. While it is true that to have a quality media and excellence in journalism and reporting you have to have media freedom there is no such corollary between capitalism and media freedom. We have seen in many cases around the world and on our own continent that capitalism often thrives under dictatorships. It thrives in China where media freedom is deeply curtailed, it thrived under apartheid, and it wasn’t a moment of conscience that made capitalists see apartheid was wrong it was that society was changing and popular uprisings and corrupt Nationalists were costing too much money.

The bitter irony of this is that in many of our societies, media freedom is also tied to capitalist modes of operation where advertising allows media to operate and report. Existing capitalist models facilitates media houses employing good journalists and report in the public interest. This of course raises the bigger questions of “independence.” Certainly, it is a fair critique to argue that there is no really independent media, just different forms of power and control. The ideal is to ensure we have a diverse media sector in terms of ownership and content. This is one reason why we need to ensure we have vibrant commercial, community and public media sectors, as all have the potential to bring different voices and perspectives.

2. Civil society is crucial in promoting media freedom

Our history has been profoundly shaped by civil society bodies, groups and movements. They were instrumental in supporting the broader struggle for democracy in South Africa and today they still play a critical role. Now we can thank them for playing such a significant role in the care and well-being of marginalised children, through Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres, child abuse support, welfare, feeding, health and social service support – without which our government would simply not cope.

Indeed for most sectors and issues we have sometimes small but vibrant and critical civil society bodies, from community policing groups to environmental community based activists, each making a valuable contribution to policy, activism, awareness, meeting community needs and more. In the media sector we have a handful of vociferous organisations that work around media freedom such as Media Monitoring Africa, Freedom of Expression Institute, SOS Support Public Broadcasting, MISA and more recently the Right to Know.

In Turkey it would appear there are few such groups in the media freedom sector. As a result, many of the battles remain silent, unsupported and limited progress is made. While our sector is under enormous financial and other pressures, it is a critical sector not only to the vibrancy of our democracy but to ensuring we continue to protect media freedom. Community protests around the country highlight both a failure of our authorities to hear people’s voices and concerns, and also a strength of civil society - that no matter what our voices will be heard.

3. Technology can be abused to limit media freedom

We know from recent leaks, the Spy Cables, that among other aspects many in South Africa have their phones bugged. We also know from media reports that in Mpumalanga state resources are being abused to monitor the activities of journalists. These activities are common practice in Turkey, with media practitioners routinely monitored. The same holds true for media in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Lesotho to name a few. 

Technology has made it easier to communicate, through images, super cool devices and programmes, but it has also created a range of privacy issues which we have yet to really come to grips with. In other nations, invasion on people’s privacy is being justified in the war against terrorism. Clearly we need to find a balance between legitimate crime prevention and citizens’ freedom and privacy. The lesson for me is that we have to focus on these issues and protect these freedoms now, for once lost they are very hard to win back. 

4. Commercial pressure can chill media freedom

The hazard of capitalism as a model for media freedom is highlighted starkly in nations where we see media houses being bought to help buy favour with government to secure big contracts and tenders. Some media in Turkey have suffered significant economic loss as a result of government directly threatening advertisers. Companies are told not to advertise with certain media if they wanted to secure any government business.

We have seen some instances where this has been attempted, notably against Grocotts Mail in Grahamstown where in 2007 the local municipality withdrew advertising as a result of critical media coverage. Luckily some heavy hitting from a legal team saw them back down with bloodied noses and resume advertising. Sadly, we have seen similar arguments being presented within senior government circles by people less well endowed with the knowledge of what it means to live in a democracy. Commercial threats to chill media freedom are real and impact many small commercial media daily. We need to expose these practices and seek better and additional ways of funding media. We need our chapter nine bodies to function effectively to help ensure these kinds of abuses are kept in check and that the dark forces are reigned in.

5. Shrinking newsrooms affect media freedom

Linked to commercial pressure is the reality our news media are facing - of models that no longer work, we have seen huge numbers of journalists being retrenched, of media houses under massive pressure to cut more costs. Sadly, many media owners seem to live in cloud cuckoo land where they think a short term gain of saving money by cutting many journalists won’t have a long term impact on their future digital business. While levels of Internet penetration in Turkey exceed ours (approximately 50% have access, as opposed to just over a third in South Africa) the media do not seem to be embracing digital media platforms. On some levels given the censorship (the Turkish government banned Twitter and Facebook at various points, and now routinely monitors these platforms) this is understandable, but is it also short sighted.

That said, Istanbul’s biggest daily sells over 1 million copies every day! None of our media can make that claim. We also need to temper that wonderful figure with the knowledge that most people in Turkey get their news from television – almost all of it state aligned or controlled. But digital is going to hit them and hit them hard. To that extent, we can take heart that some of our media here are doing all they can to seek digital media models. Granted some are way off the curve on this, but others like Media24 and the Mail & Guardian are investing significant resources into digital options. The Mail & Guardian even has a dedicated data journalist. It might seem small but it is significant, given their resources. Other media like Daily Maverick, Daily Vox and The Con all exist online as their primary content platform.

Despite our nation’s seeming self-destructive desire to hamper and hold back access to the internet, and move online, it is clear that that is where the future lies for media. It isn’t only about the platform but also about how news media shift their role. They need to change their models from getting the news to curating, explaining and being useful to their audiences. In doing this they also need to seek better funding models, and maintain their overall credibility. It is a tall order but one they have to meet if they are to play their role in protecting media freedom and not let it slide away under the pretext of right sizing, security concerns and short sighted greed.

The real question we have to ask is where are our new audiences coming from? As our continent continues to get younger, (50% of the population in Southern Africa is under 18) we need to see how we can meet young people where they are. We need to dispel myths that they aren’t interested in the news or what’s happening. Media Monitoring Africa’s work with children over the last decade shows that once engaged, children and young people have a lot of say about the news. After all, not only will they be the ones left with the mess our current leaders leave them, but they are also the future audiences. It’s time we started to act on that now, instead of hoping they will come to our media when they are over 30.

Finally, each morning for breakfast I was lucky enough to indulge in a delicious black berry yoghurt, so smooth and creamy it made whipped cream and strawberries seem dull, so thick and delicious it made the richest honey seem watery.  Conclusion: Turkey produces the best yoghurt in the world.