Nedim Şener tells ECPMF "Turkish media are ..."

The prize-winning journalist and author Nedim Sener who won a case for wrongful imprisonment against the Turkish government gives ECPMF his insights into the state of the media in Turkey.

Nedim Şener Nediem Şener (Picture: Muzaffer-Kantarci)

Interview by Burak Ünveren


ECPMF: You are continuing to campaign against abuses of media freedom in Turkey through your work at Posta and your social media following. What specific reforms would you like to see?

Nedim  Şener: Let me first take a picture of journalism in Turkey. Turkey is a country where not only the press freedom is under  threat, but the freedom of speech of the society, too. Turkey is a country where journalists feel the  suppression by the  political power every single day. Turkey is a country where self-censorship is on the rise. Turkey is a country where a group of vandals, one of which is a member of the parliament who is affiliated with Justice and Development Party (AKP), who carries the responsibility for power, can physically attack and damage an important newspaper like Hürriyet.


The fact  that a member of the parliament, who believes in democracy and got elected in a democratic way, acts together with newspaper- attacking vandals, is before all else an insult towards democracy, as well as the freedom of the press and speech. 


Turkey is a country where  the Star newspaper was  bombed, its owner  was subjected to an armed attack, and the penetrators of which are still not  found.  Turkey is a country where people who have  no other  activity than journalism, namely writing, can be judged on the accusation of being 'a member of a terrorist organisation' and  put in prison.


Turkey is a country where  journalists accuse each other of being a 'terrorist'. Turkey is a country where there  are journalists who think it is journalism to publish the accusations and allegations of the police and the judges word by word and even adopting a stance on the side of the police and judge. It's actually a country where certain expressions, which can be interpreted as criticism, are interpreted as insult by the court  and result in prison sentences. It's a country where journalists can  be easily accused of being a 'spy'.


It's a country where  foreign  journalists are accused of being a 'spy', some of them are deported while doing their job. It's a country where newspapers threaten each other, it's a country where  newspapers humiliate each other  every day.  It's a country where media bosses are put under pressure. It's a country where journalists are fired because of their opposing stance. It's a country where newspapers are used more  as an instrument of war than reporting news. It's a country where journalists are not members of the union or organised. And, I am sorry  to say  this, but Turkey is a country where  journalism is the least trustworthy occupation. In Turkey politicians are  referred  to  with  corruption  and  bribe,  and  a great deterioration is mentioned  in the judiciary.  In spite of that, according to the surveys, journalists are  the  very  people  who  the  society  trusts  the least. Honestly, it is a picture which is sad on all points. We are trying to do journalism within such a picture.

I would like this picture to come to an end. I don't think there is a need  for a huge reform in Turkey with regard to press freedom. The problem stems from the fact that the existing laws get interpreted in the direction of punishment, whereas we need libertarian interpretations which take into consideration the European Convention on Human Rights.


As you know, three years ago the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey increased up to 102. Now, this number is around 25. The libertarian interpretation that I have mentioned has had a great  contribution in the decrease of this amount. Yes, journalists are not getting put in prison recently, but a high number of journalists have  been  sued, including me. You can feel the pressure of the judiciary.



How important to you is the support of the international community and organisations such as the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom?

In my opinion, journalists all around the world are brothers and  sisters, since all journalists are in pursuit of the truth. This is how I was and  still am able to stay strong, in and outside the prison. The support of Turkish as well as the international journalists and journalists’ organisations played  an  important role in my coming out of prison.


In addition, the international solidarity of journalists played a huge  role in the decrease of the imprisoned number of journalists in Turkey, from 100 to 25. Still today, journalists all around the world can stay  strong owing to this support.



The refugee crisis has turned an international spotlight on Turkey's media. What is your response to the media coverage?

Unfortunately, for a long time, the topic of Syrian refugees did not  attract sufficient attention. Both in the world and in Turkish media, the topic of Syrian refugees were for a long time reported focusing on the problems they created. And sometimes they were reported with the dimension of human trafficking.


Yet, the humanitarian tragedy dimension was neglected. If Angelina Jolie did not visit the camps in Turkey, this issue wouldn't be reported in the world media. However, the insensitivity regarding this issue changed by the 'Baby Aylan' photograph taken by a Turkish journalist. That dead body which was lying on the beach with all of its innocence was a slap on all of our faces.


I hope that the issue of Syrian refugees will be more covered focusing on its humanitarian dimension. Because this world belongs to all of us.



Turkey is a candidate country for EU membership, but a conditionof entry is freedom or the press and freedom of  expression. How far away is your country from achieving those standards?

There are many structural obstacles with regard to the full accession of Turkey to the European Union. For instance law, for instance economy, for instance democratic criteria.


Once the problems are overcome regarding these issues, the freedom of the media and speech problem is going to be solved itself, because most of the issues as  regards to the freedom of the press and speech are just reflections of the deficiencies in the other areas. If there is a universal legal structure and the deficiencies are  overcome in the areas of economy and democracy, a lot of problems will disappear in the media. The deficiencies in the area of the freedom of the media and speech are reflections of the very deficiencies in other areas.


There is such a picture in Turkey regarding the media: On one side there are media groups which support the government insanely. On one side there are  media institutions which support the opposition insanely and even via insults. And in addition there is the media we call the 'mainstream' media, which is in the middle, trying to be objective. And the actual problems are the attacks carried out against the so-called 'mainstream' media.


Most  importantly, there is an administration which cannot endure criticism. If the government desires to make any steps regarding the membership of the European Union, they have  to adopt a more liberal approach with regard tofreedom of the media and speech. They have  to develop a sharp attitude towards the attacks on newspapers, take the legal steps which will prevent journalists from getting arrested and sued. The political powers that be should not forget that criticism is the driving force  for the improvement of democracy.



How do you remember and evaluate the abuses of media freedom during the Gezi Park protests? In this context, do you think the experience of citizen journalism which had to replace the mainstream media during the protests opened a space for the further development of media freedom in Turkish society?

As I see it, the violations of freedom of speech performed by a political power which was becoming more  and more  authoritarian also played a role in the Gezi demonstrations. It goes without saying that the  initial goal of the protests was to save the trees in the Gezi Park and prevent a mall being built in place of that area. The government thought that it could extinguish the protests via suppression and violence. Until the Gezi protests, the society was frightened, intimidated. More than 100 journalists were jailed and everyone was living with the fear of being jailed.


The media which was supposed to be the voice of the people was completely silenced. The Gezi protests began as a result of these very circumstances. As I have said, the demonstrations which initially began with the purpose of saving the trees transformed into a resistance against authoritarianism and  suppression. The media however preferred to remain silent during these protests - the broadcasters in particular.


In my view, the time when the lack of confidence towards the media increased the most was the period of Gezi Park protests. In the beginning, there was no coverage regarding the protests. Even the broadcaster which was physically 100 meters away from the Gezi Park did not cover the demonstrations. Because no one wanted to make the government angry. Yet, the Gezi protesters also carried out protests in front of the buildings of broadcasters. In the end, they covered the Gezi protests, but some of those who reported and covered this  news got fired. However  the protests spread all around Turkey.

In this regard social media played  a gigantic role. At that point in time, the usage of Twitter in Turkey exploded. A new generation emerged, which follows the daily events not from the newspapers and television, but from social media. Today they express their reactions on social media as well. Yet, in a short amount of time, a certain pollution began to be experienced in this area, too.


I don't know to what extent we can call it a 'citizen journalism' when we read the content on social media. Because journalism is not an activity to be performed without  transparency and objectivity. Journalism provides facts and events objectively. However, today on social media you can  read interpretations which merely consist of perceptions, are thus subjective, and most of the time wrong.


Social media is moving  towards becoming an area on which people make comments and insult each other, and where  the reputation of people are damaged due to fake news and photomontages, rather than  reporting. Social media is instrumentalised and used by certain individuals who are either close to the government or opposed to it, or even by organised groups which consist of individuals who are attached to terrorist organisations, for the purpose of disinformation rather than  citizen  journalism. These groups 'shower' the people with insults they target.


In the press we generally read news related to events that the President or politicians were insulted on Twitter. However, today, in the context of Twitter, there are ten thousand lawsuits which were brought by some citizens against others.


Currently, Turkey is ranked at the top of Twitter’s list when it comes to content removal requests. As regards to these requests, the citizens, too, have an effect  as  much as  the politicians. Because now everyone started to get  aggrieved by this kind of content.



How do you evaluate the public opinion of Turkish society with regard to the huge number of journalists who are imprisoned in Turkey?

As you have expressed in your question, indeed, the reaction of the  public towards the imprisonment of journalists is very important, given that  those who make and implement those laws develop their behaviour in accordance with that.


Particularly in the period when more  than  100 journalists were imprisoned, the public pressure played  an extremely important role. Both the domestic and the international public opinion was effective. Yes, today, too, there  are journalists in prison in Turkey, and it is in no way acceptable in democracies that people who never carried guns in their hands are  being put in prison just because they carried out journalism. The public opinion  will be effective with regard to their freedom, too.


Did you receive moral or material support from civil society organisations in Turkey which work for the freedom of speech and the media?

Do you think these institutions are important actors for establishing a free society in Turkey in which everyone can freely express their thought?

I did not receive any material support from the civil society organisations in Turkey, but I received a tremendous moral support. Hereby I thank them  all, as well as all international organisations who provided me with support, including the ones in the European Union and the United States of America.  These institutions in Turkey provide all the journalists who face problems with the same support regardless of their political views. Sure enough, this support will pave the way  for press freedom as long as it continues to increase.


Burak Ünveren earned his B.A. degree in Political Science and International Relations at Yıldız Technical University, Turkey. He is currently enrolled at the University of Leipzig, as a part of the international joint master’s programme Erasmus Mundus Global Studies. He has been a research intern at the EIJC since the beginning of April.