Between ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Turkey passed one more important “democratic maturity” test yesterday. It was known that the referendum was not a simple yes/no distinction. Newspapers, which have been stuck in between principle and partisanship, had the greatest difficulty to decide between these two options.

After a holiday break, we are back and together with SABAH readers again. Country’s agenda is quite busy like every summer; journalists spent this season under work pressure, working non-stop and following up important agenda items such as SMC (Supreme Military Council) crisis and referendum, and also squeezed the holiday in.

After a long and tense period, the country voted for the constitution reform package yesterday and a new milestone has been reached in Turkey’s vigorous, exciting, and tiring politics which is also full of ups and downs.

Not every referendum is like that, but the one that took place yesterday was an incident beyond a quiet and ordinary yes or no vote, which covered all fields of politics and sort of had the nature of vote of confidence before a large segment of the society. Principal characteristics of media such as integrity, fairness, honesty and impartiality pass a real test during the elections; the situation does not change in referendums that “get over themselves” like this as well.

A part of the media, which has found itself in a radical identity and perception depression regarding relating itself to democracy and locating itself professionally in accordance with democracy in Turkey that has been facing the gripes of normalization and change for years; disintegrated and dispersed over this basic distinction, and partly drifted into publications over pragmatism and manipulation instead of principles, threw itself this time on the mercy of its old habits.

Because of the dispersion, wordy warfares and manipulations outweighed wide range of flow of information and exchange of opinions regarding content of the package voted.

Of course, each and every newspaper is responsible for the recurrent habits and mistakes in different levels and aspects. I wish a vicious cycle was broken and starting from today – as the results of voting was announced – all of them would have admitted to an internal feud for principled journalism instead of economic pragmatism and corporate benefit/self-seeking by also taking into account that the democratization process would not be cut easily.

We can do this for SABAH in general as it is a part of the ombudsman institution.

It is true that “Yes” and “No” – and also boycott attitude – made the polarization in the society more obvious regarding the way of change and its content. Of course, the apparentness/visibility was also very clear in the last month for the media that has been a tool for this disintegration/differentiation.

I always write: As the antagonism is very normal during the election period, so are the newspapers’ attitudes during the periods such as elections and referendums stating their preferences in terms of political parties or votes. Especially print media intercedes the tendencies of different segments of the society, highlights them and takes part in the discussion due to its tradition and function. This is normal as well as being close or distant to certain parties. Moreover, the reader wants to know where his/her newspaper stands.

SABAH supported “yes” clearly and obviously in this referendum. Readers realized this most distinctly through the columns. Columns that defended “No” were in the minority.

Nothing can be said about the attitude that has become clear through the comments. However, a newspaper does not only consist of columns. The principal function is enabling the citizens (readers) to reach accurate and sophisticated information and arguments that also contain oppositions/contradictions and have comprehensive knowledge of them during democratic decision making processes.

This is the “journalism” side of the business.

When we look from the viewpoint of professional ethics, a certain balance should be established among opinions and discussions and news regarding different options in the referendum. It is always very difficult to establish this balance. A part of the readers of two newspapers like The New York Times or Daily Telegraph – one of them being liberal and the other being conservative – certainly began to scream like “partial/biased news!” no matter how much effort do these two newspapers spend on being balanced and fair in their news about elections and voting.

It is impossible to have absolute justice in the news but some effort should be spent on a reasonable/possible balance. Having high circulation rates and being a newspaper of mass media make these efforts more important. An important/significant section of a popular newspaper like SABAH may support “yes”, but readers who support “no” or have boycott tendency are loyal to this newspaper as well.

Did selection and presentation of news reflect these efforts? When we have a look at the situation of the newspaper during the last month before September 12, it would be good to emphasize a few points.

The campaign took place among the leaders and notables of four political parties; two in the foreground and two a little more in the background. In the news regarding public meetings and battle of words that were quoted in detail on inner pages, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been the main subject of the news standing out among his rivals by far. After August 24, the period when the campaign came to the boil, a photograph or news of Erdoğan – some of them hitting the headlines – certainly had taken place on the front page. Discourses/speeches of other leaders were not able to find a place on the front page or were conveyed through insignificant news. This attracted attention. Second one is about the arguments of the parties. There is no doubt that there is a significant difference between the discussions broadcasted on TV channels and discussions of the print media in terms of persistence. Spoken words fly away, written words remain. (Verba volant, scripta manent)

During the period close to voting, SABAH should have issued comprehensive/extensive interviews of all four political actors, who have the power to determine fate of the votes, that are prepared very well, meticulous, digging and questioning. The full page interview with Prime Minister Erdoğan by Erdal Şafak, editor-in-chief, dated September 8, had significant contribution to understanding the arguments regarding the “yes” side, but similar interviews with Kılıçdaroğlu, Bahçeli and Demirtaş should have been issued with a comprehensive scope consecutively.

Third point is that the incoming/received messages from the readers indisputably showed that the emphasis on the word “yes” that was reflected to the headlines caused a reaction against “imposing of ideas” (so, biased journalism) among a certain segment of readers. SABAH readers do not want to have the feeling of “being dictated”.

On the other hand, economy being in the first place, viewpoints of professional and non-governmental organizations regarding the referendum as well as news-analyses including information explaining what will the articles, which were proposed to be changed, change and how they will do it are the positive facts.

This column was originally published in Sabah on Sept. 20, 2010.

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