Conflict & Justice

Working for Turkey’s state media, press freedom 'within limits'


A photographer takes a photo of Turkish riot police officers standing in line as they block access to Taksim square on May 31, 2014, during the one year anniversary of the Gezi park and Taksim square demonstrations.



As the only New York correspondent for the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) — a state-owned news agency — Kahraman Haliscelik files around 35 stories per month from his office in the United Nations building.

Though he produces profusely, the kinds of stories he files must be carefully chosen. After all, his work for TRT puts him at the behest of a state that is already ranked 154th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2014 Press Freedom Index, and which is experiencing even more quickly deteriorating press freedoms at the hands of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Just last week, RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the government for targeting journalists with both physical attacks and “inflammatory rhetoric,” following the May 31 anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. RSF has also demanded an investigation into “police violence against many journalists” that targeted at least 10 reporters, including members of a CNN International crew, during the anniversary demonstrations two weeks ago.

“A year after Gezi, the security forces are still using unjustifiable violence against journalists covering demonstrations,” said Johann Bihr, the head of the RSF Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “The impunity enjoyed by those responsible for last year's abuses just encourages the police to continue. It is high time the authorities reined in such practices by abandoning their inflammatory rhetoric and by ensuring that those guilty of violence are punished.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has also described a dire state of affairs for press freedom in the country overall, having found that Turkey was the world's leading jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013.

Experts say that journalists working for TRT, which, as of 2010, had the second largest listenership in Turkey and which, as of 2008, derives most of its funding from a two percent tax included in the public’s electricity bills, must toe a thin line between reporting the news and becoming it.

"There has been a tremendous amount of pressure on the professional journalists who work for this organization, to essentially toe the line of the government in ways that they'd never been forced to do before,” said Steven Cook, a Turkey expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But Haliscelik said that while working for TRT puts many topics off limits, including corruption allegations that broke out against the prime minister last December, his distance from TRT’s offices puts him in a certain no man’s land.

On the one hand, he said, his rare expertise as a correspondent in New York makes him valuable, difficult to replace and thus worth keeping around, even if he doesn’t walk the line perfectly. He has the luxury of providing neutral coverage, less swayed by the politics back in Turkey's newsrooms and government offices. On the other, Haliscelik said, his employer’s restrictions have a pull — albeit “weak,” and one he doesn’t mind — on his professional output.

“Even if President Obama is coming here, if I know that story isn't going to be interesting for them, I don't go and cover it,” he said. “I just go home and drink tea.

"The reason I ignore it is because I know they won't broadcast it. It's not my editors. They won't do anything against their own state. Just like a State Department worker won't criticize Obama. It's a similar mentality," he added.

Part of the reason Haliscelik is able to reconcile his work as a journalist and the bias of TRT is that he believes objectivity is a myth.

"There is no journalistic piece that doesn't have any opinion in it,” he said. “You bring me a piece and I'll show you what views are there."

And it’s no secret that TRT does not quite strive for objectivity. In fact, in a recent report, The Open Society Foundations, a nonprofit grant-making organization, said “the parties in power have consistently used the public broadcasting services for propaganda purposes, despite TRT’s independence being enshrined under the protection of the constitution.”

The report’s editor, Marius Dragomir, said “the key problem is politicization” and the government’s influence over the appointment of TRT’s management means that “board membership reflects the political power in the government.”

Because of this, any critical edge Haliscelik may have can never firmly be brought to bear on the Turkish state.

Though Haliscelik recently published a blog post about his personal experience as a target of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, uses Twitter as a platform for advocacy on issues like Egypt’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s inaction before a spiraling civil war in Syria, or talks about Erdoğan's “unwise” and “impossible to impose” plans to block Twitter, he does not publish such stories with TRT.

Instead, he said, he writes stories like one he published in April when he covered a panel about cultural visas — which allow visitors to work or study in the United States — and what a stay in the US might offer applicants.

Focusing on topics like these, Haliscelik said, he can keep busy without ruffling his employers’ feathers.

When he has filed more even-handed material to his editors, like coverage on the Committee to Protect Journalism’s criticism of Turkish press freedom, Haliscelik said, it did not go over well.

“The top management was not very happy about the story,” he said.

And while the international community has pointed to self-censorship by Turkish media outlets that fear backlash from the prime minister, Haliscelik claims restrictions simply have not compromised his work.

“I don't feel I'm limited,” he explained. “Because if I cover Tribeca film festival, there's no politics there. If I cover Wall Street, there's almost no politics there. If I cover fashion shows, or the UN, or the Turkish community.... And that gives me the freedom to do what I want, because I don't have to touch any sensitive issues.”

But Steven Cook said Haliscelik is just an example of the trouble with the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation.

Last November the two had a tense encounter on Twitter, after Haliscelik tweeted: "Many #Turks are fascinated by how @stevenacook has transformed from a friend of #Turkey into a complete opposite of a friend. #Israel? #why?"

Cook said that Haliscelik’s confrontation was provoked by his criticism that Turkey is growing more totalitarian.

"My encounter with this guy, I think, suggests everything that has become wrong with TRT in a nutshell," Cook said.

But Asli Tunc, the head of the Media School at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said that to blame any TRT employee for self-censorship would be “too harsh.”

“Because I know people [at TRT] who are incredibly qualified in their own job, and they have to bring bread to the family,” she said. “But if you are politically conscious, and if you care about social issues, it’s getting much harder to stay there, because it creates a dilemma everyday.”

In the wake of the Gezi Park protests that began one year ago, dozens of journalists (including two employees of TRT) have been fired or forced to quit because of their coverage.

Elsewhere, Doğan Media Group, a Turkish media conglomerate, was hit with a record $2.5 billion fine, forcing it to sell its main television station and two daily newspapers. The fine, wrote independent researcher Nicole Pope, “was widely viewed as a politically motivated step to restrain the company, whose flagship newspaper Hürriyet was critical of the government.”

More recently, news websites like Today’s Zaman — a platform for the opposition in Turkish politics — were hit by cyber attacks that made them inaccessible on critical days surrounding municipal elections.

Despite this crackdown on the press, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has enjoyed growing success at the ballot box with every successive election — including the most recent, which took place on March 30. And with that political validation, analysts say, came greater state control over TRT.