Yazuv Baydar analyses the challenges of promoting tolerance in Turkey.

yazuv baydarYazuv Baydar is an Istanbul-based opinion columnist for the Today’s Zaman and the host of a weekly current affairs TV programme. He also serves as the ombudsman for the daily SABAH. He was president of the US-based Organisation of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003-2004. Cherian George interviewed him in Paris on 1 March 2013, on the sidelines of a consultation meeting at the UNESCO headquarters.

While Turkey is a secular republic, we hear reports of intolerance. What is the situation there like, with regards to hate speech and hate crimes?

In the European Union’s progress report, Turkey stands out as the country in Europe more troubled and troublesome than the others, in terms of the frequency and the impact of hate. One concrete example was the assassination of our Armenian-Turkish colleague Hrant Dink in 2007 – and this was partly prepared by continuous hate speech campaigns in certain parts of the media – as well as other examples of people getting wounded, attacked, harassed, frightened, etc.

The Hrant Dink case

Hrant Dink was a prominent ethnic Armenian human rights activist and hrant dinkeditor who was killed in 2007 after speaking out against the massacres of Armenians in 1915. The mass slaughter of Armenian civilians in World War I is beyond doubt, but whether it can be categorised as a genocide is hotly debated.

There are some societies where media are implicated in hate speech because they serve as a neutral conduit for politicians, and other societies where the media are players – they actually encourage and participate in hate speech. What about Turkey?

In Turkey, it has to do with the severe form of nationalism that is internalised in the mindset of the gatekeepers and reporters and editors of the media. It’s been entrenched as an aggressive form of Turkish nationalism, creating xenophobia, anti-ethnic-diversity, all those issues. The enmity is reflected in anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, anti-Armenian, anti-Greek, etc. The fact that there is a considerable number of people belonging to the Armenian minority and a smaller amount of Greek people in Turkey, is making things more complicated.

There is an article in the penal code on incitement of hatred but it is vague, as the European Union in its progress report said repeatedly. Worse than being vague, it is misinterpreted by the prosecutors in a reverse manner, i.e. this article has been implemented as a punitive measure against minority members like Kurds, Armenians or people who are vocally dissenting in favour of their rights. So it was used in an 180-degrees reverse manner.

So, the law is used to uphold majority values instead of protecting minority values?

That’s another way of saying it, yes.

You attributed this to nationalism. You see that as the main driving force, rather than theology or religious belief?

Kurds are almost completely Muslims, so theology doesn’t play an important role in that sense. Anti-Semitism is a regional phenomenon and must be treated as such. Anti-Semitism is pretty widespread in a Christian country like Greece, for example, and also widespread in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East. It has to do with theology, with creed, with religious differences, but this is separate.

Who is combating this trend of intolerance, if not the government? Are NGOs active?

NGOs and civilian actors. There are two or three main civilian platforms that campaign against it, that monitor the breaches.

Do you think they are having an effect?

Not very much. But they keep the subject on the agenda. They issue reports, they work with academia, and they also have access to internet and some commercial media.

Is the lack of success because the aggressors are more powerful, or is it a wider problem of societal culture?

The aggressors enjoy the flaws in the legislation. But also, the Turkish judiciary is traditionally a pro-state judiciary, rather than pro-citizen. It is basically used to habitually operating – through the decades, since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1920 – as a judiciary whose main objective and aim is to protect the state against the citizens, which is now very slowly changing.

Aggressors are feeling some sort of impunity. They act on the belief, successfully, that they can get away with it.

Do they also enjoy mass support?

It depends; it varies from region to region. There are certain areas where the phenomenon is stronger, like some parts of the Black Sea coast for example, where anti-Kurdishness is very strong and entrenched.

How have the larger media behaved – the mainstream newspapers and TV stations?

The mainstream media behaved like radicalised media. Even the most so-called mainstream newspapers or audiovisual outlets let themselves be dragged in.

One of the important issues is Turkey’s special treatment of the columnist. The columnists in Turkey – basically, there are too many. I think there are more than 400 columnists who write every day. And most of those columnists act beyond editorial control. It has become a negative tradition that they see their own columns as liberated areas, with no editorial control.

Even in the most so-called mainstream print media, there are columnists who express extreme ideas, defamation, incitement to hatred in different forms.

So they are acting a bit like extreme bloggers in other societies, but they are in the mainstream press?

Yes, and some of them believe they are normal, that their ideas are mainstream, because they have internalised this severe form of nationalism and anti-otherness so deeply that they are not even aware of it.

Even if the newspaper’s editorial policy is one of tolerance, it may still contain such columns?


Does this happen in Sabah, the newspaper that you are the ombudsman of?

In some cases, I as an ombudsman had to intervene, even though in the ombudsman tradition, we don’t intervene in opinion, because opinion is personal. But in some severe cases of racism, incitement to hatred, degradation or vilification of ethnicity, I interfered – I think four or five times. This, I felt, needed to be done. They weren’t very easy cases to deal with, because you expose yourself as an ombudsman when you intervene in opinion columns.

News ombudsmen

The ombudsman is an independent media accountability mechanism, sometimes called a reader’s representative or reader’s editor. An ombudsman acts as a news organisation’s in-house ethical watchdog, usually disseminating his or her views through a regular, unedited opinion column. See the Organization of News Ombudsmen site.

Yes, in my own ombudsman column, publicly.

And how did the editor and the columnists react?

No reactions from the editor, but the columnists… negatively of course. A couple of them even responded to me in their columns, instead of doing corrections. I stopped there, because I think their responses to the ombudsman exposed them more.

Given an experience like that, are you confident that the airing of this issue, and alerting the public to these sorts of problems through this kind of accountability system that you run is sufficient? Or is this a case where the law needs to step in?

In the case of hate speech, law needs to step in, definitely. I am for proper legislation. Criminalisation of hate speech – including racism, incitement of hatred based on ethnicity, language, religion, anti-Semitism etc – must be made very clear.

Of course the lines distinguishing expressing opinion critically about religion and blasphemy must also be made very clear. This is something that European Court of Human Rights is looking very closely at, based on the European Treaty of Human Rights. So that law must be revised, new legislation is needed, but a very crystal-clearly formulated one.

We need the backing of the law. Individual attempts, in terms of self-regulation, accountability systems limited to a certain newspaper or news outlet, isn’t sufficient. Those only make an impact in a limited space, and perhaps limited time. The lack of collective self-accountability systems like press councils – which is existent in Turkey only on paper but not in practice – makes the situation more difficult to deal with, and most of the so-called mainstream press outlets do not tend to see it as a serious issue.

Awareness is a challenge, but what the parliament can do is through legislation raise the awareness, and people who through their incitement cause radicalisation and polarisation in society must face the law.

You also stated that the law must be clearly defined, so that it is not abused.

Yes, that is a pre-condition, otherwise we will face another phase of misinterpretations by enforcement and prosecutors, and lots of people who are critical in the domain of religion may also face prosecution. That’s not what the need is all about.

That brings us to the second point I wanted to discuss, which is the Turkish government’s position on blasphemy.

It is divided within. The AKP party is a coalition. It is not a monolithic Islamist entity. It is a post-Islamist, very heterogeneous structure at the grassroots level. That’s why it has differing views on how wide the tolerance should be vis a vis religion.

On the prime minister level, we are facing more and more problems as Turkey distances itself from European Union accession process, for which both the European Union and Turkey are to blame. More to blame being the European Union, particularly France.

So the more it distances itself from the European Union, the less the reforms, the more the space for growing intolerance on every level.
Prime Minister Erdogan several times expressed that Islamophobia also must be treated as hate speech, and this is of course on the global level impossible. But he is driving, pushing that idea. On the other hand there are other ministers who display a much more tolerant view.

Can you tell which way Turkey will go?

I think it all depends how strong the relations will be between European Union and Turkey. The closer the relation, the more intense the reform process.

Is the Turkish public also divided on this issue?

Yes, but in general Turkey is strongly influenced by intolerance. It is an intolerant society – in general terms, we can say that. Public surveys consistently show that people are most intolerant to gays, to atheists, etc etc. Those sentiments are very strong and rate very high, urban or rural.

This is of course is something that needs to be challenged by the government and on the local level as well. This is also reflected in the Parliament, which is also an intolerant Parliament. It is what unites Parliament today – a great percentage is intolerance to dissent, to criticism, etc.

It sounds like a clear example where the rule of law is needed to protect society from these mass impulses.

Yes, and guaranteed freedoms and rights. Instead, it is still reflecting to a great deal the mentality of intolerance.

Are there positive examples of education campaigns and so on making a difference?

Slowly. I think we see some spots here and there, small small changes.

So in your view the main struggle is a legal one.

In terms of hate speech? Yes. But at the end of the day even if you cleanse all the laws, you still face a big challenge on the level of mentality – the mentality of the judiciary, operational guidelines of the judges and prosecutors, but also society in general. That’s something that will need at least a generation or more, given that Turkey is on the right course.

And the media reflect these weaknesses in society?

The media reflects a diversity of opinion, but in certain areas it gets narrow-minded. Defending the other’s right to express dissent is not still a very big ideal that people are carrying flags for. It is a “democracy for me, but not to you” type of attitude that is dominant now in Turkey.