I am on the board of the Organisation of News Ombudsmen (ONO), a global body that represents news ombudsmen, public editors, reader representatives, academics and others involved in creating and upholding media standards and best practices. Last week, a colleague of ours, Mr. Yavuz Baydar, Readers’ Editor of the Turkish daily, Sabah, was dismissed. His columns about reporting on protests in Istanbul were earlier rejected by the editor. Baydar’s sacking raises many questions about the idea of self-regulation.
ONO President Stephen Pritchard said the firing represents “another example of heavy-handed attempts by Turkish media to silence their own journalists and is totally counter to all the principles of ethical journalism.”
Mr. Pritchard said: “Mr. Baydar is recognised internationally as a staunch advocate of press freedom in Turkey. His recent reporting on the close ties that exist between media owners and the Turkish government has exposed depressing levels of corruption that are seriously damaging to democracy. Turkey cannot describe itself as a democracy while such behaviour continues. We call for his immediate reinstatement.”
Change in Turkey
The Turkish media is undergoing profound change. Multiple vested interests coalesce to create an atmosphere that suits the current regime. The cost is enormous. At peril are the truth, informed public, democracy and progress. Mr. Baydar was the Readers’ Editor for Sabah since 2004. The conflict of interest became an important issue when the paper was sold to Calik Holding, a company with far too close a relationship to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdog˘an.
Mr. Baydar says that the special place of Sabah in Turkish journalism was explained to the new owners. “At the earliest stages the new management had been made aware of the special status of Sabah in the Turkish press — as a pro-reform, liberal, modern daily, whose editorial line was in synch with the push for membership of the EU. One of Turkey’s oldest and most vocal ‘mainstream’ papers, Sabah had a very diverse readership, representing all the complex segments of Turkish society. Yet, particularly after the 2011 general elections, its professional standards began to decline. Its reporting was increasingly perceived as pro-Erdog˘an: this was clear from criticisms coming into my office. Such partisan journalism is anathema to the very DNA of Sabah.”
His attempt to reflect on the broader principles that govern the rules of reporting and to provide honest feedback from readers was in vain. Says he: “I tried to relay this public perception in my column — this was met first with indifference by the management and then, more recently, with anger. The more partisan the paper’s editorial line, the more I, as ombudsman, came to be seen as an enemy. In May I received a warning about how I should stop clashing with the newspaper”.
Mr. Baydar wrote, in The New York Times recently, that the protests that convulsed Istanbul and other Turkish cities exposed, among many other things, the shameful role of Turkey’s media conglomerates in subverting press freedom.
Let’s look at some of his sharp observations: “As the social unrest reached a peak on May 31 with clashes between tear-gas-happy police officers and protesters spreading through the heart of the city, the lack of even minimal coverage by seemingly professional, private news channels presented the residents of Istanbul’s upscale neighborhoods near Taksim Square with a moment of truth. They could see, hear and smell the truth from their windows, and they quickly realized how their TV channels had lied by omission… Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists’ role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism.”
Early warning system
This is a classic case where a journalistic institution of repute is subjected to crude manipulations of politics and capital. The high moral ground established by a self-regulatory framework is effective only when the institution of the Readers’ Editor is truly free, independent and credible. The owners and the editors must respect that sacrosanct space of the Readers’ Editor. The fair criticism by the Readers’ Editor is an early warning system. It is for the editorial and the management to take cues from these observations, however unpleasant they may be, to effect midcourse corrections.
The Turkish case brings out the dangers of blurring the crucial dividing lines. The fact that the editor refused to carry the column critical of the newspapers’ coverage of protest itself is a manifestation of the reduced role of the institution of the Readers’ Editor. There have been occasions where the Readers’ Editor and the Editor genuinely differ on some issues and their coverage. In those occasions, the best practice so far has been to permit both the Editor and the Readers’ Editor to express their divergent views and permit the readers to decide. The board of Kasturi and Sons, the publishers of this newspaper, is committed to protect the independence of the Readers’ Editor, the touchstone of credibility. This commitment, unfortunately, remains elusive in Turkey.