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    What do journalists do when they can’t write about the news?

    Güven Sak, PhD11 April 2015 - Okunma Sayısı: 1460

    Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying that “the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” For some reason, recently Turkish journalists have been taking that duty on themselves. Why? Well, to begin with, it is safer. All the protagonists are dead, so no one can complain, call your editor, call you a terrorist, sue you, or put you in jail. It’s like a soldier staying at home and playing WWII games all day. You can die as many times as you want without any real consequences. It’s cheap thrills without any of the responsibility. That’s why rewriting history should be the number one item in “The Journalist’s Guide to Survival Under Unseemly Circumstances.” Find documents. No documents? Well, that’s what Photoshop is for.

    The daily Yeni Şafak took away the prize in this category last week. They featured a story on how Atatürk was murdered by İsmet İnönü. İnönü became the second president of the newly established country in 1938, right after Atatürk’s death. Yeni Şafak printed a story with “new evidence” unearthed by an anonymous journalist “proving” how Atatürk was heinously poisoned by İnönü. The documents the paper put on its website appear to be printed on yellow, old-timey paper with water marks on them. Whoever wrote them though, presciently put the matter in a language the average Turk in 2015 can easily understand, in a fake typewriter font that – as other journalists discovered – was designed for Microsoft Word. The Ottoman Empire might have been a latecomer to the printing press, but it turns out we were way ahead of the curve on digital communications.

    Yeni Şafak asked Professor İlber Ortaylı about his views on the alleged documents, and were baffled when the renowned historian said that he thought the matter idiotic. He seemed to think that journalists should focus on writing about the news and leave history to professional historians. “Newspaper do this all the time. They think they are establishing new Turkey. The hell they are,” he said, in my rough translation. To Yeni Şafak’s credit, they did publish what appeared to be their genuine conversation with the historian, even if it was under the headline “İlber Ortaylı exceeded his limits” and that he “couldn’t handle” the new evidence.

    Alas, this story is one example of a developing trend in Turkish journalism. What is really concerning about it is the morbid air in all of these stories. Why does it always have to be murder and deceit? The obvious answer is that it grabs headlines, but does it have to be this weird, even kinky? As a 50+ year-old veteran citizen of the country, I’m worried by the amount of poison, sex and conspiracies I am exposed to on a daily basis.

    The erosion of quality in mainstream news might just have something to do with the environment journalists find themselves in. Turkey, after all, was the world champion in the number of journalists jailed both in 2012 and 2013, incarcerating more than 40 journalists per year. We triumphed over pioneers of freedom of press and expression such as China and Iran in those years. Since 2014, however, Turkey is no longer has the venerable title, but is still among the top ten countries jailing journalists. With 7 journalists jailed in 2014, Turkey is still 9th, which puts it above Bahrain and below Azerbaijan. But journalists know that their country could climb back up that ladder, which puts them in a dilemma: either write about people who still shape events and risk trouble, or write about dead people. It’s a tough profession.

    But there still seem to be some who don’t know what’s good for them. One look at the latest Amnesty International Bulletin this week will give you two pieces of news on Turkey. The good news first: the prosecutor of the Danish journalist Frederika Geerdink, who was tried this week for praising the PKK, asked for acquittal. The bad news: Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya are to be tried for deciding to publish excerpts from Charlie Hebdo magazine. They should have read their copies of the Journalists Guide to Survival Under Unseemly Circumstances more carefully. It would have been the safe thing to do.

    Of course, in some instances, rewriting history might not only be about safety. Orwell put it best: “whoever controls the past, controls the future, and who controls the present, controls the past.”

    This commentary was published in Hürriyet Daily News on 11.04.2015