Press freedom means the press is independent

For foreign journalists in Turkey, the past three weeks have been a roller-coaster ride. The month began with the presidency’s withdrawing the accreditation of three German journalists. The move sent a shiver of fear through the dozens of other correspondents who have been waiting eight weeks for their press cards to be renewed.

On March 9, the German government warned citizens against travelling to Turkey, saying they could be prosecuted for remarks that would be legal in Germany. The next day, two of the three dis-accredited journalists flew back to Germany — the third journalist having received the news while in Hamburg.

A Berlin newspaper published a survey indicating Germans were not going to be vacationing in Turkey this year. On March 12, the presidency called one of the three journalists, Joerg Brase of ZDF TV, to say the decision had been reversed and he would receive a press card. Brase returned to Turkey on March 17.

The U-turn on Brase pleased foreign correspondents, but not too much. The Foreign Media Association said it welcomed the decision, but it hoped the presidency would now renew the press cards of the other foreign journalists waiting in the queue — believed to be at least 40.

Press cards are vital not only for work in Turkey — a journalist cannot interview a civil servant without one — they are the key to a residence permit. When it withdrew accreditation, the presidency effectively expelled the three Germans.

What nobody outside government could explain was why Erdogan’s office did perform a volte-face on Brase? The leading theory is that it was Germany’s travel advisory.

“Statements, which are covered by the German legal understanding of freedom of expression, can lead to occupational restrictions and criminal proceedings in Turkey,” the advisory said. “It cannot be ruled out … that the Turkish government will take further action against representatives of German media and civil society organizations.”

But the advisory was not only a response to the expulsion of the journalists. On March 5, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had warned that those who “attend meetings of the terrorist organisation (i.e. the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK) in Europe” would receive a surprise when they came to Turkey for a holiday. “Let them pass through our airports, they will be arrested and sent (to prison),” Soylu said.
It sounded like a clear threat to prosecute anybody who attends a Kurdish event in Europe, where the Kurds stage musical events as well as political rallies in cities such as Cologne. Within a day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a clarification. Spokesman Hami Aksoy said: “Turkey will continue to welcome tourists from Germany and all other countries with traditional Turkish hospitality.”

But the damage was done. The German newspaper Tagesspiegel commissioned a survey on how Turkey was regarded as a holiday destination. It found 67 percent of Germans said “definitely no” when asked if they would go to Turkey; and 20 percent said they would consider going to Turkey as they were not affected by developments. (The survey of 5,047 respondents was conducted by Civey between March 6 and 11.)

This was not what the barons of Turkey’s hotels and tour companies wanted to hear. Germany is the second biggest source of tourists — 4.5 million Germans came to Turkey last year.

However, did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rescind the decision on Brase because the tourist barons called him? One doesn’t know. So far Erdogan has retreated only on Brase’s accreditation. The other two journalists, Thomas Seibert of Tagesspiegel and Halil Gulbeyaz of Norddeutscher Rundfunk, have not been told their press cards will be renewed. This suggests the reversal on Brase was more of a gesture than a change of heart.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the press-card denial is that all three journalists were German. It had been thought that Turkey was trying to improve relations with Europe. Erdogan paid a state visit to Germany in September. Why then did he single out German journalists?

“I don’t have an answer to this question. It doesn’t make any sense,” Brase told journalists on March 10. He and Thomas Seibert gave a farewell press conference in the ZDF offices in Istanbul shortly before they went to the airport.

One journalist asked if Turkey’s municipal elections on March 31 might be a factor, particularly when there are 3 million Turks in Germany. Brase replied the press-card withdrawal had not become an election issue: “It has been kept out of Turkish media completely.” And unlike the presidential and legislative elections last year, German Turks cannot vote in Turkey’s local polls.

The closest Turkey came to justifying its move occurred on February 28 when Finance Minister Berat Albayrak addressed an EU-Turkey event in Istanbul. Six foreign journalists had to wait outside because their press cards had expired on December 31. And more foreign journalists with 2018 cards did not even arrive. EU Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen told the ceremony he regretted that journalists had been barred.

Albayrak, who is Erdogan’s son-in-law, replied the government was reviewing the accreditation of all foreign journalists.

“Some have had their accreditations renewed,” he said. “The accreditations of others have not been renewed … Every country’s press freedom functions according to its own rules.”

To be fair, one has to acknowledge that French President Emmanuel Macron barred the Russian-state media RT and Sputnik from the Elysee Palace, accusing them of spreading “propaganda” and “misleading information”.

But Macron’s move differed from Turkey’s in at least two respects. The French president gave reasons for his move. The emails sent to the German journalists in Turkey gave no reason, Seibert and Brase said. Second, Macron banned the Russians only from presidential events. RT and Sputnik remained in France and reported on other organs of the government.

Sigma asked Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund, a respected think-tank in Ankara, why the press cards had been withdrawn.

“In past elections and referenda, Erdogan has benefitted a lot from disputes with European leaders,” Unluhisarcikli replied. He was referring to the political hay that Erdogan made in the 2017 referendum campaign when Germany and the Netherlands refused to allow Turkish Cabinet ministers to campaign in their countries. Erdogan accused their governments of behaving like Nazis, and Turkish newspapers splashed pictures of a Dutch police dog attacking a pro-Erdogan demonstrator.

“He invites these disputes,” Unluhisarcikli continued. “But this time Germany responded in a way that would not help President Erdogan in the election, but would still hurt him economically.”

At the farewell conference, when reporters pressed Brase and Seibert to say what they thought had happened, they gave general perspectives. “The Turkish government has managed more or less to silence the national media. They’re now trying to do it with the international media, and we should not submit to that,” Brase said.

Seibert said: “Turkey will not succeed in muffling our media.”

Brase and Seibert revealed their editors-in-chief had been approached by the press attaché of the Turkish Embassy in Berlin.

Brase said the attaché told the ZDF editor that “(the press-card denial) is not about ZDF, it’s not about our reporting. He didn’t say it’s about me. He said, ‘if you send another correspondent, we will check his application’.”

In other words, Turkey was prepared to accept other correspondents for ZDF and Tagespiegel. Both Tagesspiegel and ZDF rejected the proposal.
Tagesspiegel editor-in-chief Mathias Muller von Blumencron Von Blumencron said: “Where would we get if all the governments in the world could chose the people who report about them?”

His comment gets to the heart of the matter: the Turkish government does not understand that press freedom means the press is independent.

As Seibert’s wife, Suzanne Gusten, who also writes for Tagesspiegel, told journalists covering her husband’s expulsion: “Both media refused to have their coverage of Turkey arranged by the Turkish Embassy.”