Picture by Carmen Alonso Suarez / Flickr.com (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved.While western technology giants and regulators are plagued by the vast spread of fake news to the extent that foreign actors can meddle with national elections, Turkey is dealing with the disinformation in conventional media which traditionally have strong gatekeeping mechanisms. As legal monitoring mechanisms fade away and press ethics are no longer a reference point for journalism, how to prevent fake news in mass media is becoming an ever more important question in the country.
The Turkish audience witnessed a fierce media ethics debate among renowned journalists in the past months. The hot topic was the alleged incest case of a TV celebrity. The scandal burst when intimate photos of Murat Basoglu, a former TV host, appeared in the media. As the vehement debate went on among the public, Melis Alphan, a columnist for Hurriyet daily, claimed that incest rate among the Turkish population is 40 percent and that the Basoglu case was no exception. Blunt expression of this figure immediately vexed many. Ahmet Hakan Coskun, another columnist of the paper and an influential media figure, objected to the number Alphan mentioned, saying, in a derisive tone, that if the claimed figure is accurate it means that almost half of the Turkish population have domestic sex.
Alphan’s claim was based on a study by an NGO, whose details had never been revealed to the public. She wrote, in her controversial piece, that the only detail the organization shared with the public was that 4 out of every 10 people are in an incest relationship. Accuracy of the figure and how the study was conducted still lie in obscurity.
The last attack on Alphan’s piece came from Ali Haydar Yucesoy, a judge in the Middle Anatolian town of Afyon. Yucesoy called Alphan’s claim irresponsibility, though, pointing to another aspect of the issue. He stated on his Twitter account that “Above all, reporting and commenting based on groundless figures of dubious studies whether scientifically conducted is irresponsibility towards society and the profession of journalism.”
Weaponization of the media is nothing new in Turkey
Alphan’s imprudent claim evoked a fierce controversy around a taboo for Turkish society, to the extent that the journalist said on Twitter that she may face court for insulting the Turkish nation. Despite all this fuss, no one has touched the issue of journalism ethics except Yucesoy. In fact, the incest debate was not the first incident where fake news or insufficiently grounded claims made the headlines. In recent years, predominantly in pro-government media outlets, many news pieces were proven to be false, based on imaginary claims or defamations.
Weaponization of the media is nothing new in Turkey. The outset of the decade witnessed a tremendous abuse of media power by Gulenists. During the notorious Ergenekon and Balyoz cases which shook the Turkish military and intelligentsia between 2008-2011, Gulenist media outlets, among which were Zaman, Taraf, Bugun dailies as well as a couple of TV stations, were quite instrumental in influencing the national public opinion and evoking anti-Kemalist sentiments among the public.
Before the collapse of the alliance between the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania based cleric and the top suspect of the 2016 coup attempt, and Erdogan’s AKP, Gulen’s network, specifically its media wing, was strongly beneficial for the ruling party in eliminating their common enemy: the secular Kemalist elites. They were blamed to be “putschist” without any court decision and adequate evidence and frequently targeted by Gulenist media outlets. Most of the evidence claimed against the suspects was eventually proved false. Through their ties with the judiciary and the police, then another stronghold of Gulenists, they had access to classified information and documents submitted to court. The network’s newspapers even published who would soon be arrested. This period witnessed the misuse of the media power and journalism in the hands of Gulenist media executives.
After the fall of Gulenists from power, especially after the failed coup attempt in 2016, the government backed media established its dominance in the mass communication ecology of Turkey. This swing of power in the media went hand in hand with the adoption of anti-western rhetoric by the government; besides the suppression of political opposition scaled up. The media, accordingly, adapted itself to the political shift.
As seen in the case of Gulenists, the fake news addiction of Turkish media is not a recent issue but dates back to previous decades. However, it has never been as unscrutinized as in the past years. The trend peaked in 2013 when Turkish daily Takvim published an imaginary interview with CNN International journalist Christiane Amanpour, who covered the anti-government Gezi protests in Istanbul. In the fake interview, Amanpour confessed all the “evil plans” she and her team held against the Turkish nation!
The paper published the piece full front page and added an almost invisible note in an inner page, which explains that the story is “unreal like CNN’s journalism.” The interview clearly intended to mislead the audience and most-probably succeeded to a certain extent. Even Amanpour had to comment on Takvim’s fictional piece involving her. Of course, no one has ever questioned why the paper was so much at ease in publishing an obvious fake interview.
Political dissenters have been frequently targeted by the media by headlining ungrounded claims against individuals protesting governmental policies and activist groups. In 2015, for instance, several activists were detained on the grounds of incitement among a group of refugees marching to the border. Some media outlets framed the issue as provocation and portrayed the activists, all non-Turkish citizens, as “agents”, “spies”, and “provocateurs”.
Their passports confiscated by the police somehow happened to land in the hands of journalists. Eventually they were published on front pages with their names and all their personal information visible. After more than two years, they are still accessible online on the website of the newspaper.
Since the 2016 coup attempt, the habit of defamation with baseless accusations culminated and slanderous news coverage of this kind has been commonplace in Turkish media against those critical of the government. In last July, Turkish law enforcement officials detained 12 NGO representatives upon the claim of links with an “armed terrorist organization”.
Legal rights and ethical codes protecting individuals and corporations against fake news dropped off the public attention
Turkish mainstream media, especially its pro-government wing, took on the case as an act of preparation for a coup d’etat. The detained individuals were depicted as spies, foreign agents planning to evoke chaos in the country, even before a trial and without convincing evidence. The same rough and accusing language was in play throughout the period during which the media kept covering the issue. A while ago, a court ordered the release of the detainees, which took place without any considerable news coverage. However, the initial coverage with the disparaging language is still online in internet archives.
Turkey has had established press laws regulating the editorial standards of journalism. Above all the legislation regulating specific issues, Turkish Radio-TV Law states that all radio and TV stations operate under public responsibility. More specifically, the 2004 Press Law, one of the major laws regulating mass media, stipulates that the publisher who conducts a false news coverage slandering individuals must publish a disclaimer.
In addition to the legislation regulating slander issues, professional journalist organizations have set clear ethical rules concerning ungrounded claims about individuals. The Professional Principles Chart of the Press Council, one of the major two organizations, features provisions that ban humiliating, defamatory and slanderous statements against individuals and institutions as well as the publication of a story without confirmation (Articles 4 and 6).
Similarly, the other professional organization, the Association of Journalists warns against libelous, manipulative and incriminating news language in the article 10 of its Declaration of Journalistic Rights and Responsibilities. Although not legally binding, these set the ethical obligations media outlets are expected to adhere to.
However, as the country’s judicial system deteriorated and governmental dominance in every aspect of social and political life, including judiciary, becomes ever more noticeable, legal rights and ethical codes protecting individuals and corporations against fake news dropped off the public attention. In the press ethics now reigns a semi-anomie. Especially pro-government media outlets take advantage of the situation in the form of more fictional stories published without feeling bound to legal scrutiny.
In the post-truth era, where spread of information takes places at an exponential speed online, the editorial autonomy of press is more problematic than ever. In the absence, or with the weakening, of certain standards of journalism, public service principles erode and are eventually replaced by a drive for profit maximization as well as political commitment. To keep press editorially free and responsible in journalistic standards, we need journalists - at all levels - who are respectful of individual rights and aware of the public service mission of journalism.