Is Turkey’s SETA a Think Tank or Political Hitman?

SETA’s media survey is less a think tank report than a detailed intelligence study, revealing extensive information about journalists and exposing them to great risk and peril.

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In 2000, Turkey was rattled by a revelation by veteran journalist Nazli Ilicak (now in prison) about a study (and exposé) by the intelligence department of the Turkish military headquarters to blacklist journalists who were critical of the military’s handling of the Kurdish conflict and other key national security matters. The list of journalists was published by the Hurriyet daily two years before, in 1998, and originally based on a fabricated testimony of a captured senior PKK figure, Ilicak revealed, unearthing the startling nature of the practice by soldiers. The piece was infamously called “andic” (memorandum) and later became a catchphrase to describe authorities’ clandestine or subtle efforts to categorize critical media figures.

As time went by, people tended to assume that the dark legacy of that practice vanished and receded into eternal irrelevance. But they could not be more wrong.

A recent report by the Istanbul branch of Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), a think tank that is associated with the government, baffled the media community, journalists and Turkey observers over its unabashed profiling, blacklisting and targeting of journalists. It was less a scientific study than McCarthy-style blacklisting usually conducted by intelligence services or government commissions in times of divisive political crises.

The report, in its expressed objective, examines how international media outlets established footholds in Turkey and how they cover political affairs in this country. But beneath the facade of a “scientifically conducted” study, an unpleasant reality sinks in when someone delves into the 202 pages of the report filled with detailed personal information and social media activities of certain journalists working for foreign media.

Poring over the pages, one cannot fail to see how the authors of the study, Ismail Caglar, Kevser Hulya Akdemir and Seca Toker, blatantly or fatuously blurred the lines of analysis and profiling. What they did, according to people from very different quarters of the political spectrum, was not a typical work of a think tank institution, but a record probably designed for potential prosecutorial action in a new spree of a crackdown on journalists. (Turkey is, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, already the world’s top jailer of journalists.)

Even before devouring its controversial content, someone would get a glimpse of what the report is about by dissecting the report’s title, which is a politically loaded term with negative connotations. The way how the report frames foreign media outlets’ presence in Turkey as “extension” conjures up the theme of “fifth column,” something that frequently cropped up during the Cold War and other historical contexts to describe the perceived subversion and infiltration efforts of enemy countries, whoever they correspondingly might be at the time. This phrase conveys an ideological relic of a bygone era, but its re-appearance in political discourse suggests the return of old demons of paranoia and witch-hunt that suffocate free expression and press freedom. The truth, if the recurring cycle of chicaneries of power holders indicate anything, is that the practice of “andic” has never totally disappeared. In one form or another, it was always with us, deeply wired into Turkey’s national ethos, regardless of the alteration of political setting.

SETA’s Blacklisting of Journalists

Before allowing ourselves to wrestle with the logical flip-flops and mediocre argument that define the major contours of the SETA report, a context and perspective are essential to grasp why a government-affiliated think tank felt an urgency to deal with the issue. In this respect, SETA entrusted itself with understanding (or “unearthing the sinister”) motivations of foreign media outlets’ forays into Turkey’s fluctuating media market. In doing so, it attempted to offer its account into why the Turkish media world has recently become so attractive for foreign investment.

Over the span of the past two decades, Turkey’s media space has shrunk either by subtle political meddling, the rapidly shifting financial ground or outright takeover and shutdowns by the government before or after the coup. (Needless to say that 160 media outlets have been shut down in the post-coup clampdown and nearly 150 journalists currently are in jail.)

Amid gradual but steady disappearance of once influential traditional mainstream outlets, Turkish news consumers began to drift away from national media and look elsewhere for a reliable source of information.

The depreciation of credibility and erosion of trust in media, combining with Turkish readers’ growing disenchantment, in this regard, sparked a flow of foreign outlets. Deutsche Welle Turkce, Sputnik Turkey, BBC Turkce, Euronews Turkce, Independent Turkce and Voice of America are a few examples among a dozen more outlets, which, quite understandably, detected an emerging body of opportunities in Turkey to expand their media business. This new pivot indicates how and why Turkey’s educated segments came to write off traditional media outlets as a response to the government’s penchant for excessive control over the press.

But foreign press organizations’ growing posture in Turkey’s media landscape is not without controversy and ramifications. Here, SETA enters the fray. Its report represents an ill-conceived attempt for comprehensive documentation to cull and categorize who works for whom and why in a McCarthy style blacklisting of journalists.

It is like a “Big Brother is watching you” response on behalf of the Turkish authorities, a veiled threat to journalists working for those outlets in Turkey.

To get a full grasp of this point, the report’s methodology suffices to demonstrate the depth of the problem: SETA report gives full biographic information of the people who work for foreign media outlets, what they did in the past, where they worked during their entire careers, and what kind of tweets they posted on social media. It goes without saying that this systematic documentation has less to do with an academic study than its authors and SETA claim it to be.

Yet, SETA President Burhanettin Duran and the report’s director Ismail Caglar were unapologetic in their defense of the work in the face of a torrent of reaction from the public and critical media. Duran outright dismissed the criticism, while Caglar was less reserved in his fierce counter-attack on the report’s discontents.

Contemporary Journalists’ Association (CGD) described the SETA report as a new media “andic.”

In its blunt criticism of the report, the CGD exposes the mindset of a witch-hunt and blacklist that shaped its content. From a liberal vantage point, the report is an existential threat to the free conduct of journalism.

At the end of each section examining the coverage of the outlets, the SETA study concludes that the majority of the news reports produced by the mentioned press organizations contained an “anti-government language.”

The SETA devotes particular attention to the outlets’ coverage of the fall in the Turkish currency, the mass arrests of People’s Democracy Party (HDP) lawmakers or members, July 15, 2016 coup attempt, the construction of the third bridge and a new airport in Istanbul. News reports on those topics, SETA argues, were biased and one-sided. One cannot fail to see that the SETA tasks itself with mapping out who said what regarding those matters and offers an extensive record chart on journalists’ positions at particular moments and topics.

By doing so, SETA even infuriated supporters of the government. Cemile Bayraktar fumed over SETA’s blacklisting of journalists whom she lamented were torn between the ever-present threat of unemployment and condoning to their bosses to appease the government. When they work for foreign media, then they are blacklisted, she wrote on Twitter.

The afterlife of the report is destined to have profoundly negative flavors and memories. It will go down in history as a shameful chapter in journalism. It will also be a perpetual stain for its authors, something that will haunt them for the rest of their careers.

For SETA, the stain is already there. The institution once aspired to be a respected think tank in world standards. But it has instead allowed itself to be a mouthpiece of an authoritarian regime, whitewashing its crushing of rule of law and opponents by offering pseudo-scientific reports in betrayal of its founding principle.

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