[Interview] Index on Censorship will continue to monitor government suppression of the media in Turkey

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Author and journalist Jemimah Steinfeld said in an interview with the Stockholm Center for Freedom that the jailing of journalists in Turkey is worrying and that Index on Censorship has been closely following the country for 10 years and will continue to do so in the future. “What is happening in Turkey has obviously been very upsetting. In countries like Turkey there is, of course, a lack of plurality of the press, and the circumstances are very challenging. We will continue to monitor Turkey and highlight problems associated with press freedom in the future,” she said.

As part of SCF’s interview series “Freedom Talks,” our research director Dr. Merve R. Kayıkcı talked to Jemimah Steinfeld about freedom of press and the suppression of journalists in Turkey.

Steinfeld is the head of content at Index on Censorship, a nonprofit that campaigns for freedom expression worldwide and publish work by censored writers and artists. She has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing, where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship. She is the author of “Little Emperors and Material Girls: Sex and Youth in Modern China,” which was described by Financial Times as “meticulously researched and highly readable.” Steinfeld has freelanced for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Vice, CNN, Time Out and the Huffington Post. She has a degree in history from Bristol University and went on to earn an MA in Chinese studies at SOAS University of London.

You work at Index on Censorship. How are organizations like yours important in monitoring media freedom and advocating for improvement?

The first issue of our magazine came out in 1972. The organization was founded in 1971, and right from the start it has been about addressing censorship in all forms, while some of the early foundations of Index and the idea behind Index was to smuggle writings from and work with writers from Iron Curtain countries. We look at censorship in its entirety. Censorship is not a right problem or a left problem. We look at it globally and from the top down, for instance, an autocrat imprisoning a writer. But also, from the bottom up, for instance, we’ve had cases with LGBT people from China who don’t feel like they can come out to their parents because there is too much pressure on them to have kids. Freedom of speech is probably the most important human right because without free speech you cannot talk about other human rights. Media freedom really sits at the center of free speech because journalists really are the people who hold power to account in the most visible, open way — they are the ones who investigate what’s going on. Journalists are so crucial to free speech that they are quite often the first people to be punished when there is a dictatorship. They are the first people to be arrested and to be told that their words need to be changed. Therefore, media freedom fits in the broader structures of power and coercion.

We have a magazine, where in each issue we work with up to 40 journalists and we pay everyone because we see that as really, really important to media freedom. I mean, one of the things that’s happened in the last few decades, especially with the increasing use of the Internet, is that journalists often don’t get paid for their work. And that in and of itself is a way of silencing journalists and making it incredibly hard to be a journalist. Paying journalists is really key to treating them with respect.

Do you think media freedom is at the point it should be in liberal countries, or are there still steps that can be taken for improvement?

It would really depend on the different countries. Even in liberal countries there are laws that can be very punishing to journalists. For instance, at the moment we are leading an initiative called SLAPP, which is short for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.

One of the most important cases is that of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed on October 17, 2017. She got into her car outside her home, and it exploded. Killing her basically silenced her because she was a very daring, courageous and brilliant journalist who had been exposing a lot of corruption. Around the time she died there were 40 lawsuits against her.

Powerful individuals and organizations resort to these lawsuits with the aim of physically and financially exhausting journalists even if there isn’t really a case against them. They want to intimidate journalists into silence, and other journalists who witness such lawsuits may self-censor to avoid them. Such lawsuits are currently perfectly legal in many countries.

Of course, the situation is still better than in places like China. I’ve worked in a newsroom in China that was censored, and I have worked in newsrooms in the UK. I have seen what happens, and it is not the same thing. However, that does not mean we are at a perfect place in the UK.

A final thing is lots of journalists — and particularly female journalists — in places like the UK and the US are subjected to online harassment. Such harassment is vicious, and it’s particularly vicious to women. Journalism is a more high-profile profession, and lots of journalists are putting their names and faces out there in the public.

They are uncovering things that people don’t always want to read and hear. Therefore, the online world has made it easier for journalists to be harassed. I have heard of journalists in the UK who have quit their jobs because of this. I think the harassment women face is quite often more problematic than what men face because it can be particularly vicious for the women.

If a journalist is working on exposing corruption and taking a very critical lens to aspects of society, I would not say this is an easy job even in places like the UK. However, it is still a lot easier than in authoritarian countries.

A worrying trend especially in Turkey is broadcasting bans, particularly when it comes to sensitive topics like femicide or child abuse. Almost every time there is an incident concerning women or children, the media is not allowed to broadcast details of the news. Why is it that authorities issue such bans? Doesn’t the public have a right to know, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable members of society?

They [the authorities] often make out that there’s some moral reason behind broadcasting bans, but it’s often quite convenient for them. They don’t want such news to be shown because maybe it reflects badly on the government in some way, or because they’re trying to control, and police, society.

Index on Censorship condones broadcast bans. We don’t think that just anything should be broadcast at any time. I wouldn’t want my three-year-old son to be watching certain things. So I’m absolutely fine for certain things to come on at an hour when kids will probably be in bed so that they’re not exposed.

But I think that broadcasting bans need to go through a rigorous, open, transparent decision-making process. There should be external regulators as part of the decision-making process as well. One of the biggest problems with many countries where there are broadcast bans is that the broadcasters are often tied to the state. So the decisions are directly linked to the government.

Essentially, if the decision is made in a transparent way from an external regulator that has no vested political interest, then that is less problematic than the reverse, which is what quite often happens with these bans.

Turkey is currently one of the world’s biggest jailers of professional journalists and is ranked 153rd among 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Would you like to reflect on the current state of journalism in Turkey?

Turkey has been one of our focus countries for several years at Index on Censorship. By several years, I mean at least 10 years. We have a wonderful contributing editor to the magazine called Kaya Genç, who writes in every issue. What is happening in Turkey has obviously been very upsetting.

As you rightly point out Turkey is one of the main jailers of journalists. It’s not the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist. Such places usually include Mexico, for instance, where a journalist is more likely to get killed.

But in countries like Turkey there is of course a lack of plurality of the press, and the circumstances are very challenging. We will continue to monitor Turkey and highlight problems associated with press freedom in the future.

 Many journalists critical of the Turkish government and its regime are being imprisoned for terrorism. When we look at the accusations, they usually include aspects of their journalistic work. What can the international community, civil society and journalists outside of Turkey do to protect their colleagues and make their plight heard?

People can sign petitions and raise their voices. We also publish work from Turkish journalists on our website. We try to offer them outlets for their stories, because sometimes writing for non-Turkish outlets may be easier and less dangerous. We also want to make sure they can still find work through these outlets and their stories are heard.

One of the worrying things in such countries where media freedom is in peril is that people stop hearing about the countries and the terrible things that are going on. As people hear less about it, the situation gets worse, and we see a vicious cycle.

How important are social media platforms and online news sites in ensuring that the public stays informed? Do Twitter, Facebook and other platforms really have a positive impact on people’s access to news and also their access a variety of coverage of the news?

I think social media is one hundred percent important in ensuring the public stays informed. Especially with Twitter, we cannot underestimate its news sourcing. Also, young people are increasingly using social media.

Twitter and Facebook have been instrumental in changing the proliferation and the access to news. And that puts them in such a difficult place because they are both serving the public and acting as a publishing platform. So they have to straddle being both private and public. While this is quite troublesome, it’s also exciting as we try and figure out what role they have and how we should work with them to ensure that all the brilliant stuff can stay and be celebrated, whereas the more challenging aspects are improved.

How has feminism reshaped media, or has it? Is feminist journalism possible and what would it look like?

Thanks to the “Me Too” movement there has been quite an awakening. Also, 40 to 50 years ago there weren’t many female journalists in the UK. The entire feminist awakening has helped women get into journalism. But there are still important problems. For instance, some aspects of journalism, such as political and foreign correspondence is very punishing on family life. This creates quite a pressure on female journalists because unfortunately we do not live in an equal world, and women still do more of the housework. This means that they might not always be in a position to take those jobs.

We work with lots of countries where it’s still very hard to work in media as a woman. We are doing quite a lot on Afghanistan at the moment. Since the Taliban takeover in August, the number of women in the workforce has dwindled. Change is not always linear. So although “Me Too” and feminism have improved some conditions for women, there is still a lot of work to do.

Finally, it is important that we are holding conversations about [online] harassment against female journalists and other forms of pressure.

 In a previous article you say that we need to increase awareness around the world about the current state of press freedom during the coronavirus crisis, as well as to raise awareness more broadly about the importance of media freedom and the challenges that journalists face. But how can we do this? How can we mobilize to protect freedom of the media, especially in contexts where violence against journalists is commonplace and journalists face serious risks of being prosecuted for their journalistic activities?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? As I said earlier journalists are often first in the firing line. This is usually because someone very powerful, high up, is worried what they will expose, such as corruption and inconsistencies. What happened, especially at the beginning of COVID-19, was that people were being told things they didn’t want to hear.

As a result, it was very easy to target the media. The government obviously doesn’t want journalists in the room because if they are mishandling the situation, then journalists can expose them. There were plenty of countries that were claiming they had no COVID-19 cases. There were journalists who proved this to be wrong. Of course, governments were furious about this. However, ordinary people, too, blamed the media and accused them of blowing the issue out of proportion. They said that the media was stirring this up and it was the media to blame for the crises.

I think as a solution one of the main things to do is to educate people in media literacy. Ideally, it should be something that’s taught at a young age in school. I hate it when people use the term, the media is one monolithic group, because there is a huge difference between all the different newspapers and magazines that are out there. And they have very different editorial processes, although the majority of them are brilliant. So even if you just assume all media is great, people need to see the rich diversity within the media. Some media has a less rigorous editorial process than others. There is a tendency that if there is one bad news story amongst millions, then all the media gets dragged down by that one news story.

And this is again where it comes back to media literacy. If people were trained – even for a short period – to know what to trust or not trust and to know what to be looking for in a news source, that would really be helpful.

We should also keep praising media organizations and stressing the importance of media freedom. We clapped for healthcare workers during the pandemic. In a similar way we could clap for journalists who are out there day in and day out reporting stories and putting themselves on the line. I think people don’t necessarily see this. They don’t associate what they’re reading with these challenging situations.

The Nobel Peace Prize this year went to journalists, which shows that what journalists are doing is amazing.

How can ordinary people support organizations like Index on Censorship?

People can support organizations like ours in two main ways. They can donate to our organization. We are a not-for-profit and nongovernmental organization, and we therefore rely on charitable donations, grants and the goodwill of people.

So we encourage people to give as little or as much as they can. These donations go to keeping Index in business.

The other way is to subscribe to our magazine, and you will be supporting the magazine and also getting a really good read. Apart from its importance in human rights advocacy, the magazine also includes some of the world’s best writers, such as Margaret Atwood. There are other less famous but equally good writers who also contribute to the magazine.

Finally, people can support our causes by following us on Twitter or Facebook, and sharing our content. People can sign our petitions when we mention a petition.

Do you think press freedom can rebound after an authoritarian rule is over?

I said earlier that change is not always linear so it can go backwards but it can also go forward. One of the ironies of Index on Censorship is that we’re all a generally cheerful bunch. We, work with these really depressing stories, but we work with the most brilliant people all around the world in really hard situations.

But whilst there are brilliant people, we can always dream there will be progress. We’ve seen plenty of places that have come out of authoritarianism to have more freedoms. For instance, ever since Donald Trump left office, have we heard a story about a journalist being kicked out of the press room?

This is not to say that everything is perfect. There were problems in the US with press freedoms prior to Donald Trump. And there are problems still today. But we can go into dark times and can come out. So we shouldn’t give up hope.

Hope is what moves us forward, it’s the human condition.

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