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'We are not the press officers of politicians'

Alan MacKenzieSeptember 9, 2016

The full story of how a Conflict Zone interview that never went on air caused a diplomatic stir between Turkey and Germany.

DW Conflict Zone Türkei
Image: DW/M. Martin

After the attempted military coup on 15 July, there was much to talk about with the Turkish Youth and Sports Minister Akif Cagatay Kilic.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to cause concern among world leaders in his response to the revolt, while Turkish authorities deal with its aftermath with apparently little respect for human rights or press freedom.

Some leaders had found Turkey’s approach on a worrying trajectory even before the coup. When asked in April if he thought President Erdogan was an authoritarian leader, President Barack Obama responded that “there are some trends within Turkey that I have been troubled with”.

The Conflict Zone show in Ankara therefore should have made for an interesting debate.

Minister Kilic answered all of the questions with little hesitation and shook presenter Michel Friedman’s hand before leaving the room with his team while the Conflict Zone production staff packed their equipment.

But before they had a chance to leave the government ministry premises where the interview took place the CZ team received a phonecall.

“Someone in Mr. Kilic’s office called to say the minister wished to talk about the interview,” said Conflict Zone producer Monika Martin, who was responsible for recording the show in Ankara.

What the minister’s people actually wanted was the interview footage. A Turkish member of the crew surrendered it after he was challenged in Turkish by a government official.

The team protested but was left with little choice when the atmosphere became intimidating.

“We tried everything we could to get it back but they made it very clear this was not an option,” said Martin.

Turkish media has reportedly been subject to the same intimidating behavior and worse in recent months.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) say Turkey has become the "world leader in imprisoned journalists", who have taken a "heavy toll" following the coup attempt.

More than 100 media outlets have been closed, and 42 journalists detained. More have been banned from travelling abroad, according to the organization.

And journalists have not been the only target. Fifteen universities and 1000 private schools have reportedly been closed, as well as 1,200 charities; 40,000 people have been detained, half of whom charged; and 80,000 public sector workers sacked or suspended, including thousands of judges.

To international observers this has appeared as another step on a journey towards authoritarianism that was well underway even before July’s coup. The Turkish government maintains that it is simply exercising its right to defend itself from terrorism.

German-born Akif Cagatay Kilic is part of the Turkish government and has known President Erdogan for many years – his father was the president’s physician and Kilic worked as an advisor to him over a number of years.

As youth minister, he is responsible for giving the young people in his country – of whom there are over 30 million under 25 years old – a voice within government. He knows the situation and offered an interview to Deutsche Welle on that basis.

"We are not the press officers of politicians," Michel Friedman said in his response to the incident.

Conflict Zone interviewees do not receive questions in advance, but topics for discussion are often cleared beforehand. In this case, they were cleared by the minister’s press people.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert has said on the issue, "Press freedom is non-negotiable. We behave according to this principle at home and we represent it abroad,” echoing the call of the Green Party co-chairman Cem Özdemir that the German public broadcaster should not be allowed to be bullied abroad.

Reporters Without Borders and the German Federation for Journalists (DJV) have also called for the Turkish authorities to release the tape.

Asking questions – hard questions – is what a free press does. The death penalty, human rights, women’s rights, democracy, freedom of the press – all of these things were part of the confiscated CZ interview.

In light of these actions, Conflict Zone viewers can make up their own minds about how comfortable the Turkish government is with giving answers to these questions.