A tearful goodbye has raised serious question about the freedom of the press in Turkey. On Tuesday, Turkey bid farewell to ۱۲ of its soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan last week. The funeral was a time for the nation to become united over the pain of losing its sons; however, a long-standing General Staff practice which refuses to give accreditation to some TV stations and newspapers to cover military funerals of the soldiers killed in battle has overshadowed the spirit of unity and raised fears about the freedom of the press in the country.
The General Staff on Tuesday prevented a number of media outlets from covering the funeral of ۱۲ soldiers at a military facility in Ankara
Reporters from newspapers such as Zaman, Yeni Akit, Bugün, Taraf and Birgün as well as TV stations like Samanyolu TV, Samanyolu Haber, Bugün TV, Kanaltürk, Ülke TV and the Cihan news agency were not allowed to enter the ۴th Army Corps Command in Ankara, where the funerals of the soldiers were being held. The media outlets were denied accreditation by the General Staff. Zaman and Today's Zaman daily reporters Ali Ünal and Emre Soncan were also denied entry to the area.
Today's Zaman contacted the General Staff about the practice and was told that an explanation would be made available, but no statement was provided by the time Today's Zaman went to print. Some other journalists from media outlets out are discriminated against who came to the area with the hope that the General Staff may allow them to cover the funerals were disappointed when they were denied entry to the Gen. Eşref Akıncı Military Barracks in Mamak, where the funerals were held. The journalists went to the Kocatepe Mosque to cover the funeral there later in the day as there were no restrictions on the press there.
The General Staff has long been imposing a media accreditation ban on a number of TV stations and newspapers, including Today’s Zaman, since the Feb. ۲۸, ۱۹۹۷, military intervention, known as the postmodern coup. The coup resulted in the toppling of the coalition government led by the now-defunct Welfare Party (RP) and introduced a wide range of bans on the media and social life in the country. The discriminatory accreditation practice of the General Staff is strongly criticized not only by its victims but also by the European Union, as it runs contrary to the principle of the rule of law and freedom of the press.
Zaman Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mehmet Kamış said he thinks discriminating against people due to their beliefs and lifestyle does not befit an institution such as the TSK. Kamış added that Zaman has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the country and does not need the approval of any institution when it has so much public support behind it.
“What matters to us is not the TSK’s disapproval of us but rather that our right to have access to a news source is being violated. With a circulation of ۱ million, Zaman does not need to be approved by any institution. When the entire country is mourning for the soldiers, it is very thought-provoking that the TSK must waste time on an outdated and discriminatory practice,” he told Today’s Zaman.
Metin Yıkar, editor-in-chief of the Samanyolu Haber news channel, a TV station which has for many years been unable to receive TSK accreditation, told Today’s Zaman that it is really difficult to understand why the TSK continues this practice even in times such as funerals of soldiers killed in battle, when the entire nation is in mourning.
“These are the sons of this nation and our channel is a channel of the nation. Samanyolu Haber news bulletins reach out to ۵ million viewers each day. It is one of the most popular TV channels in the country, and countless research has proven its trustworthiness and objectivity. For the love of the nation, it is impossible to understand the TSK’s refusal to accredit this channel,” said Yıkar.
The journalist called on the General Staff to end this discriminatory practice, which he said deals a heavy blow to freedom of the press.
“If a media or press organ does it job of informing the nation in accordance with the law, it should be allowed to do so. I really do not know what the TSK’s answer will be when we ask it about the reason for not accrediting our channel,” added Yıkar.
The General Staff refuses to announce its criteria for accreditation for journalists and says those who abide by press ethics and principles are given accreditation.
Alper Görmüş, a media critic and a journalist from the Taraf daily, said it is unacceptable for a state institution to discriminate against the society, a part of which he said is the media. “This is an unjust and wrong practice. It is hard to understand,” he said of the General Staff’s accreditation practice, adding that it is based on daily and tactical decisions rather than on any principles. According to Görmüş, the General Staff’s accreditation practice is not only against the principles of democracy but also opens to debate the seriousness of a big state institution such as the TSK.
“Although the TSK from time to time accepts it is wrong in instituting this practice, it continues to make this same mistake over and over again,” he noted.
In a move which raised hopes the TSK may totally give up its discriminatory accreditation practice, former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ invited reporters from the Star and Yeni Şafak dailies, which were previously not given accreditation, to participate in a meeting in ۲۰۰۸. Nevertheless, the restrictions on other newspapers and TV stations, such as Zaman, Bugün and the Kanaltürk TV station, continue.
As the product of the Feb. ۲۸, ۱۹۹۷ military intervention, Bugün daily Editor-in-Chief Erhan Başyurt said the General Staff’s accreditation practice is totally anti-democratic and based on subjective assessments rather than predetermined criteria. “It is saddening that this practice still continues today. This shows that there are still remnants of the post-modern coup which need to be cleared away,” he said.
When asked about the problems faced by his daily due to the military’s restrictions on his staff, he said this practice creates problems in their access to news sources; however, he said it is the TSK, more than the discriminated media outlets, which is damaged by this practice, as it hurts the institution’s relations with the public the most.
Turkish people strongly condemned the General Staff when a general refused to bring a Cihan news agency reporter down from a mountain by military helicopter in freezing cold weather in ۲۰۰۹ because the journalist did not have press accreditation from the General Staff.
Cihan reporter Lütfi Akyurt faced this discrimination while covering the tragic death of Grand Unity Party (BBP) leader Muhsin Yazııoğlu and five others in a helicopter crash in the mountains of the southern province of Kahramanmaraş in March ۲۰۰۹.
The incident, which received extensive coverage in the media, led to public outrage, with many describing it as “inhumane.”
Salih Memecan, president of the Media Association, said it is very shameful that the General Staff has retained its discriminatory practice against certain media institutions, which he said are all credible institutions. “This practice is against the public’s right to have access to information. And a solution to it has been delayed,” Memecan told Today’s Zaman.
The General Staff’s insistence on its discriminatory accreditation practices at Tuesday’s funeral ceremony was also the target of criticism on social media.
Kanaltürk news manager Tarık Toros wrote on his Twitter account on Tuesday: “I am not an enemy of the military, I suffered much at the hands of the military, but I did not develop hostile feelings about it, but the military does not give accreditation to my friends, it does not allow them to enter its doors. Do you know, on this day, when our ۱۲ martyrs have been bid farewell, some news teams were not allowed in the Army Corps Command? I just want to ask who has hostile feelings against whom?”
In the meantime, a search on Tuesday by terror and bomb experts of Samanyolu Haber news station’s outside broadcast vehicle as it was waiting outside the Gen. Eşref Akıncı Military Barracks spurred reactions from the channel’s news team because no other such trucks were searched.