Survey shows Turkish mainstream media reluctant to cover massive human rights violations

Although there were significantly more human rights violations in Turkey in 2017 than in 2015, coverage of the violations declined in the Turkish media, according to a report released jointly by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford on June 26, 2018.

The survey, titled with “Reporting human rights violations in Turkey,” authored by Turkish journalist Kemal Göktaş, a reporter for the critical Cumhuriyet daily, showed that there is widespread self-censorship in the Turkish media. Journalists believe that human rights violations have increased in the last five years, but this has not resulted in a rise in coverage.

“Although there were significantly more human rights violations in 2017, the coverage of the violations declined in pro-government, impartial and nationalist opposition newspapers,” the survey said and added: “Journalists as a whole are not happy with the quality of reporting on human rights and do not trust the information they receive. Journalists also fear being prosecuted or losing their jobs for reporting on human rights violations, and as a result, many choose not to write these stories.”

“The journalists who work for pro-government outlets feel much more afraid than the others and reporting human rights can make it hard for them to find a new job. Political pressure, the ownership of outlets, judicial pressure, and fear of losing the job are main reasons journalists say they avoid reporting on human rights violations,” said the report.

Underlining the fact that pro-government and impartial newspapers tend to defend the state and perpetrators, and emphasise less the violations in their stories under the state of emergency, when the number of violations rises, the report said, “Although the Sözcü, nationalist opposition outlet, emphasised the violations more than 2015, in 2017 it could not report more than 2015.”

“Whilst journalists have more faith in victims, victims’ relatives or their lawyers and human rights organisations than official sources, when reporting on a violation, the newspapers, in comparison, refer to more official sources in the stories of the violations.”

The results of the content analysis in the survey have demonstrated that an increase in human rights violations does not cause an increase in reporting human rights violations in the media: “On the contrary, the increased violations has caused a decline in the number of the stories of violations. Not only the numbers of the stories have reduced, but the visibility of the stories also declined.”

According to the survey, only Cumhuriyet, the leftist opposition newspaper, reported more on violations in 2017 than in 2015 and gave more coverage in terms of square centimetres and number of words in the stories. “The Cumhuriyet refers an abundant source in the violation stories, and it remained unchanging under the state of emergency. The Cumhuriyet also referred more the victims, victims’ relatives and victim’s lawyers than official sources before and during the state of emergency.”

The survey also said the mainstream media in Turkey, under the current state of affairs and with its structure of media ownership and nationalistic view, can never be independent and can never report on violations freely. “Judicial and political pressure on journalists causes self-censorship and avoiding reporting about ‘dangerous’ stories. … To improve journalism and to report on human rights violations in Turkey, there needs to be more independent newspapers. Efforts aiming to finish or reduce human rights violations should prioritise promoting and supporting independent media outlets in Turkey.”

The survey aimed to show the extent of media coverage of human rights violations based on a comparison of two periods, namely the period before an attempted coup of July 15, 2016, and the period after. Four mainstream newspapers were chosen by Göktaş, and the research was focused on their coverage of rights violations. Reflecting the classification of newspapers in Turkey, one pro-government (Sabah), one impartial (Hürriyet) and two opposition newspapers (leftist Cumhuriyet and nationalist Sözcü) were selected.

All the news published in the four newspapers — 25,436 articles in total — in these two periods was scanned, and reports on human rights violations were chosen to see to what extent human rights violations were covered. The frequency of reports on rights violations on the front pages and how visible the reports were to the public were examined. The exposure of differences in the discourse of coverage as it concerns the victims and the perpetrators was examined. The sources and statements of victims as well as officials were studied as well.

The primary conclusion of the examination is that there was a significant decline in reporting human rights violations between 2015 and 2017. Three Turkish newspapers — the pro-government, the impartial and the nationalist opposition — covered human rights violations more in 2015 than in 2017, although there was an increase in violations in 2017. The coverage shrank and the number of words and the number of reports declined in 2017 in all three of these newspapers. Only Cumhuriyet, the leftist opposition newspaper, reported slightly more on violations in 2017 than in 2015.

Turkey is ranked 157th among 180 countries in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). If Turkey falls two more places, it will make it to the list of countries on the blacklist, which have the poorest record in press freedom.

Turkey is the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. The most recent figures documented by SCF show that 243 journalists and media workers were in jail as of June 27, 2018, most in pretrial detention. Of those in prison 184 were under arrest pending trial while only 59 journalists have been convicted and are serving their time. Detention warrants are outstanding for 143 journalists who are living in exile or remain at large in Turkey.

Detaining tens of thousands of people over alleged links to the Gülen movement, the government also closed down some 200 media outlets, including Kurdish news agencies and newspapers, after a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.

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