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Protests and penguins: Turkish media face big chill

Turkish journo blog
Destroyed TV van at Taksim square in Istanbul last week. While Turkey’s largest city was convulsed  by anti-government protests,  demonstrators took out their exasperation as broadcast media looked away.  AP Photo/Kostas Tsironis

Waves of indignation swept through the Canadian media Wednesday at the news that CBC journalists Derek Stoffel and Sasa Petricic were forced to make an unexpected 11 hour stopover in an Istanbul prison.

The two were hauled in for the crime of photographing workers taking down barricades in Taksim Square, where protesters have been gathered for nearly two weeks, bombarded by water cannons and tear gas.

The CBC team’s treatment was exemplary by Turkish standards.

Courtesy of Foreign Minister John Baird and Ottawa’s consular officials, they weren’t held for months or years of pre-trial detention, charged under anti-terrorist legislation, threatened with torture or denied the right to defend themselves before “Special Heavy Penal Courts.”

Unfortunately, Turkish journalists aren’t so lucky.

Reporters Without Borders calls Turkey the world’s biggest prison for journalists. Last December they identified 72 held in detention, 42 of them in direct relation to their work.

“The government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has waged one of the world’s biggest crackdowns on press freedom in recent history,” said New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

“Authorities have imprisoned journalists on a mass scale on terrorism or anti-state charges, launched thousands of other criminal prosecutions on charges such as denigrating Turkishness or influencing court proceedings, and used pressure tactics to sow self-censorship.”

“But these aren’t real journalists,” is the standard line from the Turkish authorities, who insist that the imprisoned people are subversives, Kurdish separatists, linked with terrorism or guilty of various “serious crimes.”

No surprise then that the coverage of the widespread protests was so limited that Turkish TV viewers got a program on penguins rather than protesters, while the international media reported on arrests, scuffles, and attacks on mainly peaceful demonstrators.

King Penguins from the British Antarctic Survey. Associated Press photo/British Antarctic Survey.

When Erdogan himself publicly denounces journalists, urges cowed media organizations to discipline critical staff members and files defamation lawsuits, it doesn’t go unnoticed.

The economic conglomerates that control much of the media are largely unwilling to risk the consequences of real reporting. Fines against media corporations have caused sell-offs and even greater concentration and cronyism.

That’s also caused a public backlash against the media in Turkey. A news van of a leading TV news channel was demolished in Tacksim Square, and the station’s CEO later apologized for its lack of coverage.

The protests have laid bare the nasty secret that the Erdogan government has managed to keep from the outside world for years: it’s a semi-autocracy masquerading as a modern democracy.

When the demos end, there will be a lot of rebuilding to do for both government and media -- starting with public trust. Chill out, penguins. What the public wants now are watchdogs.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to Europe, South Asia and the Middle East, winning national and international awards.





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