A harsh but sadly necessary editorial from MYMEDIA's partner in Turkey - P24 - about the rapidly skrinking space for free media.
“It’s no great secret how to improve your image in the world,” a former head of Turkey’s Press and Communications Directorate once confided. “Invite the diplomats to dinner and be nice to the foreign press”. It is advice his successors now pointedly ignore.
Once upon a time, the Ankara-powers-that-be tried to lure the great European and US newspapers to leave their crow’s nests in Athens or Rome to open bureaus in Istanbul. The theory was that seeing the Turkish reality close up, warts and all, was a first step in developing empathy and that informed coverage, no matter how critical, was a form of respect.
More typical of the current era is the decision, taken by default, to refuse press accreditation to Silje Rønning Kampesæter, the Middle East correspondent for the Norway’s largest daily, Aftenposten. Without a press card, it is nearly impossible for a foreign journalist to get a residence permit in Turkey and Ms Kampesæter’s editors have indicated that they will move her office to Amman, Jordan.
“We are permanently based in Russia and China without major problems, but are not allowed to stay in NATO-member Turkey”.
“This is completely unacceptable, especially since a close military allied shows contempt for basic freedom of press,” according to Espen Egil Hansen, the Aftenposten’s editor-in-chief. The last time the paper saw a foreign correspondent expelled was from Moscow in 1971, at the height of the Cold War.
Ms Kampesæter is not unique in having difficulties getting accreditation. “I was asked what sort of stories I would be covering,” said yet another journalist, a prospective member of the Turkish foreign press corps whose name we feel it prudent to withhold. P24 has been aware for some time of a dozen such cases but respected colleagues’ wishes not to make their cases public. In some cases, quiet, high-level diplomacy has succeeded and press cards have been issued or renewed.
This has not helped Silje Kampesæter whose crime, as best as her paper can establish, is having a German boyfriend of Kurdish-Turkish origins. And she has been travelling to parts of the country where much of mainstream media would prefer to ignore.
If it is the intention of the Turkish authorities to protect its country’s good name from critics, we can only conclude that they have failed spectacularly. The expulsion of their young colleague has led Aftenposten to look more closely at the state of civil liberties in Turkey. It comes as no surprise that they do not like what they see.
“Turkey threatens and prisons critical journalists” was a headline earlier this week. This was followed the next day by the story “Four signs that Turkey is heading towards dictatorship.”
Does public opinion in little Norway (population 5 million) matter to a country of just under 80 million at the geo-strategic crossroads of the world? If the answer is no, then why bother to deny Silje Kampesæter a press card in the first place?
One answer must be that the Turkish government is so used to controlling its own nation’s press that to see a media beyond its control is a red rag to its raging bull. It is one thing to preside over a vast propaganda machine. It is another to believe in your own propaganda so intensely that when cracks in this two-dimensional reality appear, your whole world seems threatened. To deny a Norwegian journalist accreditation must be the very definition of paranoia.
We note with some curiosity that the circulation of Aftenposten is 653,000. By coincidence this is roughly the circulation of Turkey’s largest newspaper. Official circulation in Turkey as a percentage of its population is one newspaper to 20 but we suspect the real figures are a great deal worse than that.
Why, indeed, would anyone buy a newspaper whose coverage is so circumscribed? And with its own population behind a veil of ignorance, why worry about the rest of the world?