Shouldn’t we protect journalism?

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On September 20, the media reported a detention operation by the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office against the administrators of some social media accounts. According to the news reports, 27 social media users, including the administrators of the social media accounts Aykırı, Muhbir and Haber Report, were detained on charges of “public incitement to hatred and hostility” and “publicly spreading misleading information”.

The administrators of the social media accounts, which I had criticized in a previous article for practicing “crumb journalism”, were not only detained, but after 3 days of interrogation, Batuhan Çolak, the editor-in-chief of the social media (X) account and news website Aykırı, Süha Çardaklı, the administrator of the social media (X) account Muhbir, and Furkan Güngör, the owner of the social media (X) account Haber Report, were arrested.

asylum seeker, refugee, migrant, irregular migrant, temporary protection
Due to its geographical location, Turkey has become either a transit country or a destination country for foreigners who have left their countries for various reasons in recent years. On May 24, 2023, according to a news report by Anadolu Agency, the Migration Administration had reported that there were 5 million foreigners in Turkey. According to the current statistical data on the website of the Directorate General of Migration Management, there are 3 million 284 thousand 679 Syrians under temporary protection, 1 million 183 thousand 710 regular migrants with residence permits, 300 thousand 720 under international protection (refugee, conditional refugee, subsidiary protection) and 4 million 769 thousand 109 foreigners excluding irregular migrants.

Naturally, journalists have a difficult job. I have written an article on this subject before and reminded that the concepts should be used correctly. I find it useful to quote it once again here.

A migrant is a person who voluntarily leaves his/her country and chooses to live in another country in order to find a job and better economic conditions. Foreigners staying in Turkey with a residence permit have migrant status. According to data from the Migration Management Administration, the distribution of foreigners with this status in Turkey according to their nationalities is as follows.

An irregular migrant is a migrant who enters the country illegally or enters the country legally but does not leave the country within the legal period and continues to stay in the country without authorization. Irregular migration is one of the most important problems Turkey faces. It is not possible to know the number of irregular migrants in the country at the moment. The Migration Administration announces the number of irregular migrants apprehended, but it is not clear how many of the apprehended irregular migrants are sent back and how many continue to stay in the country. Moreover, it is not clear whether the number of undetected irregular migrants is 1 million or 5 million.

The irregular migrants apprehended are mostly from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Yemen and Iraq.

Temporary protection

Temporary protection is defined on the website of the Migration Management Authority as “a form of protection developed to find urgent solutions in cases of mass influx”. In fact, Syrians who took refuge in Turkey after the civil war in Syria that started in 2012 are referred to by this name because they are not recognized as refugees. In other words, it is a concept used only for Syrian asylum seekers. However, it is probably more accurate to call Syrians in Turkey asylum seekers.

An asylum seeker is a person who leaves their home country and seeks asylum in another country because of war, floods, threats of death, etc. These people can apply for refugee status if the law allows. Therefore, an asylum seeker is in essence the status granted to a person before refugee status.

Refugee is an international status defined by the UN Geneva Convention. Adopted in 1951, the convention defines a refugee as follows: “A person who, owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Turkey is a signatory to the Geneva Convention but has also introduced regional restrictions: “Refugee status shall be granted to a foreigner who, owing to events occurring in a European country and having a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or to a stateless person who, as a result of such events, is outside his former country of residence and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” In other words, only those coming from Europe are granted refugee status. I don’t know if there is anyone in Turkey who has been officially granted refugee status. I couldn’t find any information on this issue. Maybe those who fled the war in Ukraine and took refuge in our country may have applied for this status.

Is being anti-asylum seeker enough to be arrested?

Due to the increasing number of irregular migrants (Afghans, Pakistanis, Africans, etc.) and Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey in recent years, we have to say that there is a growing foreigner discontent/hostility in the society. Of course, economic problems and unemployment also play a big role in this. Especially since Syrians and Afghans are seen as cheap labor, the reaction of unemployed citizens is directed towards them. Because the two most populous groups are from these two countries. Journalists who make a living by sharing news on social media were frequently mentioned in news reports as “anti-refugee”. Consequently, a perception was created as if being anti-refugee was a sufficient reason to be arrested. For example, the title of Medyascope’s arrest news was as follows: “The administrators of anti-refugee accounts including Aykırı, Muhbir and Haber Report were arrested.”

One may ask, “Well, aren’t these accounts anti-refugee accounts, what’s wrong with emphasizing them in news headlines? First, when these accounts are examined in detail, it will be seen that very few of their posts are news about asylum seekers and irregular migrants. Therefore, just as we do not label newspapers and TV channels that share the same news as anti-asylum seekers, we should not label these accounts as such. Secondly, we have to take into account that the growing anti-asylum seeker and anti-immigrant sentiment in the country will make these accounts even more popular when the label “anti-asylum seeker” is used. In other words, the account owners may even be happy to use this label.

Press freedom under threat

On September 23rd, journalist Murat Ağırel shared on his X account the accusations against arrested Aykırı Editor-in-Chief Batuhan Çolak and the news reports cited as evidence. When we look at these shared news reports, even if there are ethical concerns such as, for example, that it is wrong to specify nationality in news about asylum seekers involved in crimes and that it can lead to hate speech, it cannot be said that it is a criminal presentation of news. I have not included the news articles in question here because they are characterized as criminal elements in the case file. If you wish, you can look at Murat Ağırel’s posts.

There are two criminal charges related to these news posts. The first is the crime of “public incitement to hatred and hostility”. In other words, it is alleged that these accounts deliberately shared the news in question to incite the public against foreigners. Obviously, we will see how the prosecutor will prove this in court. The social media accounts in question share an average of 30-40 “bits of news” a day. It is problematic to select 5-10 of them out of thousands of posts and say that they publicly incite the public to hatred and hostility. Moreover, if an investigation is conducted, it will be seen that many other media outlets also share news about the events in question. Murat Ağırel has already given examples in his posts.

The second charge is even more problematic. This crime is defined as “the crime of publicly disseminating misleading information”. In other words, the administrators of these accounts are accused of deliberately spreading fake news to mislead the public. The offense was added to the Turkish Penal Code in 2022. What were the defenders of this article saying? There is a lot of disinformation on social media, we need to prevent it. They were saying one more thing. Journalists could not be charged with this crime so easily. There were certain conditions. AK Party Group Deputy Chairman Mahir Ünal spoke to Hande Fırat and said the following: “For the formation of the crime, the existence of exactly five items, all five of them, will be sought. That is; 1) The news disseminated will not be true. 2) There will be untrue news about the country’s security and public health. 3) It will be intended to cause panic, fear and anxiety among the public. 4) It will be conducive to disturbing public peace. 5) These will be done publicly. I underline, the five elements must be together. If three of these five elements are present, it will not constitute a crime.” I am repeating these quotes over and over again so that we do not forget what happened in the past, what was said, what was spoken.

This is a case against journalism

Of course, the media and journalists should pay attention to ethical principles when reporting on asylum seekers and migrants, and even existing ethical principles should be reviewed. I am writing here some ethical principles that may be guiding in reporting on asylum seekers and migrants:

⇒ It is wrong to describe asylum-seekers or migrants with adjectives such as “illegal immigrant” or “illegal immigrant”, reflecting them as criminals. The term “irregular migrant” should be used instead of “illegal migrant”.

⇒ Hate speech against asylum-seekers and migrants should be strictly avoided, and careful language should be used when reporting the statements of news sources containing hate speech. It is best not to include hate speech at all.

⇒ News should not be reported in a way that justifies and encourages violence against asylum-seekers and migrants.

⇒ Reporting the nationality or ethnic identity of asylum-seekers and migrants in crime news means associating everyone with that identity with crime.

⇒ Asylum-seekers and migrants should not be marginalized in the news; characterizing them as “threat” or “enemy” should be avoided; the problems they face should be mentioned.

⇒ Asylum-seekers and migrants should not be reported as if they are the sole cause of problems such as unemployment and poverty in the country.

Trying to silence journalists through lawsuits instead of emphasizing ethical principles is incompatible with democracy and freedom of the press. Frankly, I found it very problematic that press organizations did not make any statement in the latest incident. It may be that the journalists who own these accounts are not considered credible or even journalists. But even so, it should be the duty of every journalist to oppose the prosecution of what should be seen as a purely journalistic activity.

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