Turkey’s negative media image: It is not a conspiracy

Charges of ‘Orientalism’ ring hollow in light of the civil rights abuses committed by PM Erdogan’s government.

Turkey has the most number of journalists in jail according to a 2013 report[Reuters]

In a recent Opinion piece for Al Jazeera, a senior adviser to Turkey’s ruling AKP party, Ertan Aydin, made note of “a resurgence of media orientalism on Turkish democracy”, a claim that Bloomberg journalist Marc Champion (a target in Aydin’s piece) described as “playing the Orientalism card.” Aydin’s main thesis was that much of the less-than-positive international news coverage afforded Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the past year can be attributed to archaic worldviews rooted in the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible – a position echoed by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. In the particularly acid conclusion to his piece, Aydin wrote that “Turkish intellectuals and journalists from the opposition parties” were “sore losers” who had “manipulated and aided Western media’s Orientalism” in an attempt to destabilise the AKP government.

It is a fundamentally flawed argument, yet it resonates because the accusation that international media coverage of Turkey (and other predominantly Muslim countries) often reduces many issues to the question of religion contains more than a grain of truth. In my own research on the AKP’s first electoral victory in 2002, I found that there was a clear over-emphasis on the part of newspapers in the US and the UK on the role of Islam, bypassing crucial factors such as economic collapse, secular dissatisfaction with the political status quo and endemic political corruption. This isn’t to say that religion didn’t matter – it did, of course – but rather that the coverage masked the complexity of Turkish politics behind simplistic generalisations about Islam. Thus, my work indicated that early coverage of the AKP did contain a marked strand of Aydin’s version of Orientalism. 

Turkey’s reputation as a serial denier of free speech rights is not a function of Orientalist editors in New York or London, but of a prosecutorial system that placed these journalists in prison in the first place.

So what, then, is the fundamental flaw with arguments about Orientalist international media of Turkey over the past year? Let us take the example of AKP supporters pointing to the sparseness of international coverage (as compared to the coverage given to Gezi) of the “Occupy Hamburg” protests and resulting police violence as evidence of double-standards in international coverage of Turkey. Yes, coverage of Occupy Hamburg was thin compared to Gezi, but by discussing the two events as if they were equal in scope, political relevance and violence for Germany and Turkey, AKP supporters ignored any semblance of context or logic. In much the same way, claims that Turkey has been given a raw deal by the international media over the past year strain credulity when considering the overwhelming evidence of police violence against protesters, as well as the political instrumentalisation of the media, police and legal system in Turkey. Examples of well-documented abuses abound, so are they all simply a function of Orientalism?

Where to begin? Perhaps with the 2013 report from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in which Turkey was ranked the number one country in the world – for the second year running – for the imprisonment of journalists. The CPJ noted that of the 211 journalists jailed worldwide, 40 (almost 20 percent) are to be found in Turkey. The countries trailing Turkey in the rankings? Iran (35), China (32) and Eritrea (22). Despite the widely-reported study being published only 10 days before his Al Jazeera piece, Aydin failed to make note of it and instead trumpeted the AKP’s democratic credentials. Turkey’s reputation as a serial denier of free speech rights is not a function of conspiratorial editors in New York or London, but of a prosecutorial system that placed these journalists in prison in the first place.

We then have Amnesty International’s report which can only be described as damning for the Turkish government. On issues as wide-ranging as the denial of the right of peaceful assembly and protest, the use of excessive (and also deadly) force by the police, the targeting and detention of protesters, and the intimidation and attacks upon lawyers, medical staffand journalists, the Turkish state was held to task. As the report concluded: “The authorities’ response to the Gezi Park protests to date in many ways represents a continuation of long standing patterns of human rights abuses in Turkey; the denial of the right to peaceful assembly, excessive use of force by police officers and the prosecution of legitimate dissenting opinions while allowing police abuses go unchecked.”

Of course, these issues had been covered in great detail by both the international media and critical domestic media in Turkey long before the October 2013 publication of the Amnesty document, making the study a confirmation of international reporting and a solid refutation of claims of news bias against the AKP government. The suggestion that Turkish intellectuals and “opposition” journalists colluded with international media to falsely smear the AKP and Erdogan becomes all the more ludicrous when one reads this report.

As 2014 begins, Erdogan faces the biggest challenge of his 12 years in power: the corruption scandal engulfing the AKP. And, again, as with Gezi, Erdogan points the finger of blame (in part) at vague international forces. Yet Erdogan’s hyperbole, and Ertan Aydin’s claims about Orientalism and the “sore losers” of the opposition, fade into irrelevance as a purge of prosecutors takes place following the corruption allegations, lawyers continue to face threats of imprisonment, legislation allowing the prosecution of doctors for “unauthorised” care (understood to be a tool for preventing the treatment of protesters) is passed, journalists continue to be intimidated and the proposal of legislation giving politicians arbitrary power to censor Internet content goes forward.

What is obvious is that both Aydin and Erdogan use Orientalism and international conspiracies to explain away negative international coverage of the AKP government, and do so in an utterly cynical fashion – with Erdogan’s (potentially dangerous) targeting of the Turkish BBC journalist, Selin Girit, as a British agent as perhaps the ultimate example of such cynicism. Yet, despite the distaste we should have for it, the use of this rhetorical tactic does raise an issue worth considering: namely, the extent to which simplistic, de-contextualised coverage of certain parts of the world by the “Western” media, over extended periods of time, can give unintended political ammunition to authoritarian leaders desperate for excuses. While those outside of the country may scoff at what he says to his supporters, Erdogan’s accusations maintain a degree of credibility. As I have addressed in some of my earlier work, coverage of Turkey has for years relied upon tired clichés such as “Where East meets West”, or “Where Tradition Meets Modernity”, as well as innumerable pictures of mosques, men with moustaches or veiled women. Details and context were low, and emotive, exotic imagery high. Yet, while this earlier reporting could easily be classified as Orientalist, general coverage of Gezi and post-Gezi Turkey, I would argue, was not. Let’s hope this latter trend holds.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.