A look at the coverage of Biden’s visit to Turkey and the implications of his visit for the peace process with the Kurdish minority and Academics for Peace Initiative
U.S. Vice President Biden’s visit to Turkey last Friday and Saturday (Jan 22-23) was provocative for a number of reasons and further polarized the stances of various groups in Turkey, from pro-government media institutions to those who want the armed clashes between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerrillas to end, including the ‘Academics for Peace’ signatories. During his visit, Biden addressed the unfair attacks against initially 1128, and now over 2000, Turkish academics who are being accused of aiding terrorist organizations through a petition calling for an end to Turkey’s military operations in a number of southeastern provinces. Unsurprisingly, the government and pro-government media ended up using this opportunity to target the signatories further and to spin Biden’s words toward their advantage.
Prior to his official meetings with government officials, Biden met with three journalists who lost their jobs for speaking out, a professor of law and the head of an NGO to discuss the state of freedom of expression in Turkey, in which he chided Turkey over freedom of expression and criticized the treason charges that the academics are facing. Even Turkey’s Anatolian Agency (AA), a state-owned and controlled news agency, which upholds official state and ruling government interests, reported Biden’s clear stance on Turkey’s numerous freedom of speech violations and backing of Academics for Peace albeit with an interesting headline that read “US Vice President hails Turkish democracy.”
Biden also met with the wives of slain Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink and Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elçi, which further indicated his stance on the need for remedying Turkey’s growing freedom of speech violations record. Almost all of these individuals and groups he met on Friday are known to be critical of the government and/or belong to the opposition groups. Biden’s remarks were welcomed with enthusiasm by many journalists and civil society organizations, who have being suffering through President Erdogan’s targeting of them in the past 5-6 years. However, Biden’s meeting about Turkey’s human rights violations caused quite a bit of backlash also. Those who met with Biden were chastised by pro-government media and groups for their ‘complaints about Turkey to their American masters’, ‘having a colonialist mindset,’ and embracing the U.S. like a savior despite its own records of human rights violations. Two of the journalists, who were at the off-the-record, exclusive meeting with Biden, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Kadri Gürsel, were perceived as bragging and ridiculed on social media when they publicly displayed their hope and encouragement after the meeting. A number of journalists from pro-government media even published a press release criticizing Biden for meeting with only four journalists, all with a similar worldview, while ignoring the voices coming from the majority of Turkish media, which they suggested would have offered a wider variety of political views than was represented at the meeting.
During Biden’s Saturday meetings with President Erdogan and PM Davutoğlu, however, the tone of what was reported regarding Biden’s official stance on issues changed drastically due to two reasons. First was related to leaders’ greater emphasis on Syria, which was the main goal of Biden’s official visit to Turkey. The second and most significant reason was that Erdogan’s 2.5 hour-long meeting with Biden was closed to press –a scheduled press conference was cancelled– and as a result, Turkish newspapers covered the meeting from the official press release provided by the President’s Office and AA’s reporting almost verbatim. When we look at mainstream Turkish newspapers and AA’s coverage, it is easy to see why both Davutoğlu and Erdogan went to great lengths to make sure only their side of the story is heard regarding the military operations in Southeast and why the Academics for Peace deserve to be punished for terror propaganda. In these damage control efforts aimed at counteracting Biden, AA and pro-government media proved to be instrumental to the Turkish state. Instead of reporting the content of the press release with skepticism and counter arguments, the overwhelming majority of the media outlets in Turkey– which have been suppressed via tax punishments, silenced through lucrative government tenders, or bought out by individuals having close ties with the party members in power (AKP)– chose to comply. There were a few exceptions, such as Hurriyet Daily News, which included in their reporting both the claims made in the press release and what Biden had said the day before to journalists and NGO representatives.
A simple comparison between the White House readout and Turkish presidency’s press release covered by AA might help illustrate discrepancies between two accounts of what was discussed. According to AA’s story which was published with the following headline “Biden reiterates US support for Turkey’s war on terror,” “Biden said the U.S. supported Turkey’s fight against terrorism including against the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the EU, U.S. and Turkey.” The story then details Erdogan’s remarks and positions on the issue in a way that suggests Biden’s acceptance or even endorsement of Erdogan’s stance. However, according to the White House readout, “Recognizing PKK is a terrorist organization, the Vice President expressed concern about the ongoing violence in southeastern Turkey, and urged Turkish leadership to engage in dialogue with all of the country’s communities who seek a peaceful resolution.”
In addition to omitting Biden’s remarks about the necessity for a peaceful resolution, AA included Erdogan’s response to why the actions taken against Academics for Peace are justified and claimed that Biden also criticized the petition for being one-sided:
“Presidential sources quoted Erdogan as saying that Turkey is a state of law just like the U.S. and making terrorist propaganda or issuing statements that support acts of terrorism cannot be considered within the domain of freedom of thought. The sources also cited Biden criticizing the manifesto for not mentioning PKK terrorism.”
The claim that Biden criticized the manifesto is hard to believe considering all his remarks the day before about the Academics for Peace. What is even more surprising here is that Turkish Presidency’s press release only reports the first sentence in the above block quote not the so-called Biden response. AA clearly published a fabricated statement claiming to be uttered by Biden.
There is also a significant difference between the English and Turkish versions of the same news story on AA including the headlines used. Turkish one does not address Syria or training camps in Bashika as much as the English one does but it reserves a repetitive and misleading sub section devoted to Academics for Peace where it discusses why the petition should be considered a terror propaganda instead of a freedom of speech issue according to the President. The Turkish version was published with the headline that read “Biden’dan akademisyenlerin bildirisine eleştiri (Biden criticizes academics’ manifesto)” where as the English version’s headline read “Biden reiterates US support for Turkey’s war on terror.”
The news agencies that belong to nation-states are known to frame issues according to official interests. However, AA’s fabricated reporting and other mainstream media following suit in times critical like these –where civilians lose their lives and thousands of academics are investigated and being fired– should not be tolerated as usual occurrences of simple framing or spinning. Holding AA and other pro-government media accountable through public pressure and legal means for engaging in fabrication, targeting, and all other forms of intimidation and smear campaigns against dissenting voices becomes crucial as we do not want the growing support for a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict in Southeast and the Academics for Peace to vanish.
The illustration below is a poignant one regarding Turkish media outlets’ inability to cover the war and destruction in Southeast Turkey since mid August of 2015: