Court proceedings are dragging on in Turkey for 44 Kurdish media workers accused of supporting terrorism. While human rights groups say the trial, which opened in September, is an attempt to clamp down on free speech, the Turkish government maintains that some of the defendants are not actually journalists, but propagandists.
The trial, then, is grappling to define what makes a journalist?
No universally accepted definition appears to exist in Turkey. Unlike in many Western countries, Turkey has no deep-rooted tradition of journalism as a distinct profession, one seen as serving as a potential watchdog, or a check on governmental overreaching. Turkey’s first school of journalism, at Ankara University, opened only in 1965.
For many Turks, having an opinion that you express regularly in a media outlet is enough to make you a journalist – even if you work simultaneously as a researcher, academic, peace activist, or even government advisor.
“Sometimes they have many jobs,” commented Erol Önderoğlu, the Istanbul-based researcher for Reporters Without Borders. “They have their other task, but they have their place in media as well. Being a journalist is not a conclusion of identity.”
Pure economics often contributes to that double role. Even after working for six years, a reporter may earn no more than 3,000 lira ($1,672) per month, noted Dr. Eylem Yanardagoğlu of Istanbul-based Bahçeşehir University's new media department.
As in the former Soviet Union, a widespread perception exists that a journalist’s “other task” can encompass covert activities.
“These journalists are not journalists,” Turkish Prime Minister Recepp Tayyip Erdoğan asserted to The Washington Post on September 20, referring to the scores of Turkish journalists now in prison for allegedly working for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), or being involved in a supposed coup plot.
“These are people who have been in touch with or worked with terrorist organizations,“ Erdogan alleged.
Many Turkish journalists attribute such allegations to what they describe as the government’s ongoing campaign to stamp out public criticism; not to any fuzzy understanding about the role and functions of journalists.
"Whether you are Kurdish or Turkish, all the people criticizing the government have to be ready to go to court," said Ercan Ipekçi, president of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey. Ipekçi estimates that 76 journalists are currently in jail on charges related to the PKK or the so-called Ergnekon conspiracy.
He declined to discuss whether journalists occasionally doubling as activists constitutes a conflict of interest that contributes to the problem.
Not all Turks agree that a journalist choosing to double as an activist or sociologist represents a conflict of interest, noted Bahçeşehir University's Yanardagoğlu. "It depends on how you define a journalist,” he said. “Is it a conflict of interest? From a normative perspective, there is a conflict of interest there. But we should always keep in mind that ordinary readers tend to choose publications that endorse their viewpoints."
With 93 newspapers per 1,000 people, according to the European Journalism Centre, and hundreds of TV and radio stations, Turkey has a media outlet to suit every point of view.
Indeed, catering to these points of view -- rather than providing straight news reporting -- is often the raison d’être for many outlets. Those eager to express themselves on a given agenda often become reporters for such outlets. “There is [sic] no journalistic genes here,” complained one Turkey-based Twitter user, when asked what defines a journalist. “With a patronage system in media you can’t get real news.”
The flip side of that situation is that for issues like the conflict over Kurdish rights – formerly a taboo topic – outlets perceived as promoting a certain agenda can prove to be a rare source of information. The constant coverage of events in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast by the 44 Kurdish media workers now on trial is unique, said Reporters Without Borders’ Önderoğlu. “You cannot find other media -- in mainstream media -- that is able to achieve this task.”
Önderoğlu believes that a journalist doubling as activist is fully acceptable as long as basic journalism ethics and principles are followed: no hate speech, no inciting violence, no insults, no xenophobia.
Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık, best known for his investigation into supposed ties between Turkish police and the religious Gülen movement, agrees that the Kurdish media workers are being targeted for their published work. "You cannot consider journalism as a matter of crime, whether you like it or not. You can only criticize,” said Şık, who also works as a university lecturer in journalism at Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
Şık himself is currently on trial for supposedly supporting a government coup and for allegedly threatening civil servants. The Turkish state has long had an antagonistic relationship with journalists, he pointed out. In the 1990s, dozens were allegedly assassinated. Today, journalists are simply jailed.
Being able to criticize those imprisonments is a development that, ironically enough, suggests “a progression with democratization,” Şık said.
Justin Vela is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.