Is corruption in Turkey so commonplace even journalists are inured?

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The US trial of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, featuring the notorious Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab as a witness, has Turks glued to twitter. Zarrab testified Nov. 29 that he bribed Turkey’s former Economic Minister Mehmet Zafer Caglayan in 2012 by paying him more than $50 million to help Iran evade US economic sanctions.

The amount of alleged bribes would most likely be sufficient to generate serious political turmoil in any given democracy. The allegations of corruption reach all the way up the political ladder. On Nov. 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced he will resign if the main opposition party can prove its accusations that the Erdogan family is hiding millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts. Where does all this money come from? What is the wealth of the Erdogan family and senior politicians? These questions are difficult for the Turkish media to pose under the government’s watchful eye. So rather than ask, some prominent journalists are arguing that the public doesn’t care all that much about corruption — despite the Zarrab case going viral on social media.

Turkish media is frequently in the news regarding censorship, imprisonment of journalists and the burgeoning pro-government media apparatus dominating any news in the Turkish language. But there’s another aspect that might help us understand, to an extent, why and how these journalists think the Turkish public is numb to outrageous corruption allegations.

On Nov. 20, Faruk Bildirici, the ombudsman for the Hurriyet daily, carried out an informal investigation after a reader’s letter red-flagged the Instagram account of one of the paper’s own writers. Onur Basturk, a lifestyle columnist with a strong following on social media, had shared photos of himself in 11 different locations over 4½ months. The title of Bildirici’s piece was “Vacation With a Loaner Car,” about a car company giving Basturk a vehicle to “test drive.”

So Bildirici asked Basturk the following questions: Why would a columnist who is not an automotive journalist test drive a vehicle? Why would a company loan a vehicle to a columnist? Is it for advertisement? Why would a columnist periodically share photos of the car in the style of a product-placement advertisement?

Bildirici then shared parts of Basturk’s letter of response, which shows how freebies are now seen as normal in Turkish journalism. Basturk did not see an ethical issue with this. He wrote that he shares his travels, memories, moments, experiences, cocktails, his songs and even his Pilates poses whenever he chooses on Instagram. It seems natural to him to share photos of the car he was testing on his travels. He was curious about electric cars and wanted to learn about them. Basturk ended his note to Bildirici by saying his posts are about the experiences he lives, not promotion of any goods.

Yet Bildirici wasn’t satisfied. He highlighted that most of the time, cars are loaned to testers for a maximum of 72 hours — not four-plus months. Since Basturk has not written a professional analysis of the car’s qualities, Bildirici concluded Basturk’s posts were nothing but product promotion, which is against several sections of the Dogan Publishing Ethics Code. (Hurriyet is one of the publications of Dogan Publishing Corp.) Basturk is still listed as a columnist at the paper, and there are no signs of any sort of official warning against him.

Bildirici declined to provide a comment for this article.

So it is fair to say that Dogan’s publishing ethics are ignored and have little to no binding power? Freebies of airline tickets, hotel rooms, lavish restaurant visits and goods ranging from haute couture shoes to purses to cosmetics have become the norm in Turkish media, so much so that columnists who regularly pen political columns see no concern in dedicating parts of their columns to their own personal shopping lists for Black Friday. A quick scanning of popular journalists’ Instagram accounts gives us clues about why Basturk was not worried about driving a free car for months. The excuses are all too familiar: “Everyone else does it” and “That’s what famous people do.”

A senior banker who deals with senior journalists’ accounts told Al-Monitor on strict condition of anonymity, “Freebies have evolved from a free meal to free membership at health clubs, or at private high schools or even colleges for the sons and daughters of famous journalists. In return for the parent’s campus appearances, speeches and photo ops, the tuition is waived. As long as we have parents who want to send their children to the same school as the columnist they enjoy, schools will use these journalists as recruitment agents. We have seen respectable journalists who get flats in premium neighborhoods with serious discounts, then get their whole houses decorated professionally. In return they provide Instagram accounts filled with their home photos. It is all out in the open. Frankly, I am not sure if they can just be called journalists, because most of them are celebrities who wear multiple hats.”

So who approaches whom? A manager at a car retailer told Al-Monitor, “It goes both ways. We follow high-profile social media phenomenon types, and sometimes we will approach them. But more often they will come to us as customers, then try to bargain a deal.” As Hurriyet daily’s ombudsman frequently emphasizes in his writing, these freebies are cheaper than buying ads in the newspaper. So while popular columnists benefit from this gratis upscale lifestyle, the media overall loses income.

Freebies [given to journalists] are cheaper than buying ads in the newspaper. So while popular columnists benefit from this gratis upscale lifestyle, the media overall loses income.

In addition to freebies, moonlighting is common for those who have well-read columns and a decent number of followers on different social media platforms. Sports writers are known to accept additional employment from different soccer clubs or act as mediators between the clubs and the athletes. Journalists with access to senior politicians have accused each other of being on the payroll of prominent businessmen — that is, getting paid to mediate between a politician and businessman to remove legal obstacles. For example, Omer Turan, a journalist known for his close links to the government, has accused columnist Nagehan Alci and her husband for receiving payments from Zarrab, the Iranian-Turkish businessman.

These are just a few recent examples of the deep culture of freebies and moonlighting in Turkish media. No one has resigned or been fired exclusively on the basis of accepting freebies or moonlighting. A seasoned journalist who has been following cases of ethics violations in Turkey told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity that accepting free products and services along with second employment has in a few cases paved the way for the newspaper to terminate contracts

That said, the harshest criticism also comes from Turkish journalists, which still gives us hope. For example, prominent independent journalist Unsal Unlu, who runs his own show on Periscope with crowdsourcing, told his viewers that accepting freebies goes against journalism ethics. He shared his own experience of returning gifts, and even though the person who gave the gift (in some cases a politician) could be upset, it is crucial for journalists not to accept any sort of freebies, Unsal stated.

Melis Alphan, another prominent Hurriyet columnist, in June revealed that she was contacted by a car company to retweet one of their videos. In return they offered to pay her 6,000 Turkish liras (some $1,550). Alphan not only declined but also openly criticized her colleagues who accept such bribes so often that these kinds of offers have become commonplace. Alphan said, “Journalists can have financial hardships, but they should not be advertising products.”

The brave journalists should be applauded for standing up to protect the reputation of journalism, but some media companies, despite having rules and regulations, seem to turn a blind eye to the depth of corruption among their own. 

So while there are strict rules against bribes, freebies and all sorts of corruption, there is little to no enforcement. Allowing people to flout “strict” rules harms the reputation of the legal and ethical system. This seems to be the standard in the media sector these days and also in government. Hence, it might not be fair to say the public is apathetic toward corruption, when corruption is accepted as the norm by the most prominent public figures.



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