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Welcome to Turkey!

Can Dündar
Can Dündar
September 9, 2016

Turkish journalists know well the Erdogan regime's hostility to press. With the confiscation of a recent interview, Deutsche Welle journalists have experienced similar pressure, Can Dündar writes in a guest commentary.

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In Turkey the really uncomfortable questions asked of the government come from foreign journalists. There are two reasons for this:

First, Turkish officials never meet with any real local journalists. It has been years since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met a Turkish journalist in a situation where he might have to worry about being asked difficult questions. He has only accepted interviews with sympathizers of his regime who pose simple questions.

Second, if journalists were to inadvertently ask difficult questions at press conferences, they would either be heavily berated by the official in question or they would lose their jobs.

'Such questions'

It is much easier for foreign journalists, who can fly back to their home countries, to ask the difficult questions. But they are also often not really satisfied with the answers that they get.

Erdogan and his ministers always respond to uncomfortable questions with the same preformulated answer: "If Turkey were a repressive state, you would not even be permitted to ask such questions."

It is only possible to talk about real freedom of the press, freedom in which questions can be asked, if you ignore the threat behind this official response. Even in a repressive state, it is still possible to occasionally ask difficult questions - it is just hard to gauge what will happen to the person who has asked the question. In a system such as Turkey's, every difficult question has a price. And there are very few journalists who get away without paying this price.

The Yücel affairs

One example from last year was at a press conference held by the mayor of Sanliurfa, a city in southeastern Turkey. Some journalists asked questions about local residents who were concerned about supporters of the "Islamic State" in the city. The mayor abruptly and angrily ended the conference and ordered some police officers nearby to "take them!" Three journalists were arrested.

A short time later, it was determined that one of the three journalists - Deniz Yücel, the Istanbul correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt - in fact worked for a foreign press organization. It was then that the situation drew a barrage of international criticism. The authorities were forced to release the journalists, and announced that the affair had actually been merely a routine identity check.

Yücel came under fire again seven months on. This time it was from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. At a press conference with Davutoglu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Yücel asked what the prime minister's response was to claims that authorities had been killing civilians in their anti-terrorist operations. It was a question that any Turkish journalist would not have dared to ask.

Instead of answering the question, Davutoglu accused Yücel of behaving as if he were the third head of government in the hall and making a political statement. Davutoglu went on to say that he respected Yücel, but added a version of that preformulated statement: "To be given the opportunity to make these allegations to the prime minister is a sign of freedom of the press in Turkey."

This is simply not true. It is not possible to talk about freedom of the press in a country where it takes courage to even ask a question. Furthermore, the following day Yücel was denounced in an official government publication as a sympathizer of the Kurdistan Workers' Party who had asked the prime minister impertinent questions.

The most recent example of this interpretation of the meaning of free press, in which journalists are free only to be spokespeople, came after a Deutsche Welle team interviewed Turkey's youth and sports minister: The ministry simply confiscated the material. The enormous amount of criticism that followed has most likely irritated ministry officials, but it is unlikely that it has occurred to them how absurd their behavior actually is.

The situation's clear

As the Turkish Journalists' Union stressed in a recent statement, the DW team's experience should be enough to show the enormous difference between international standards and the current state of the press in Turkey.

On the occasion of this disturbing event, I would like to say the following to my German colleagues: Welcome to Turkey! I hope you can better comprehend what I have experienced on a day-to-day basis in this country of stolen questions. And forget about using video material. You won't get it back.

The youth and sports minister should have to apologize for his behavior. That could even help officials think twice before they confiscate material from journalists again.

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