The freedom of the press

The famous English writer George Orwell finished writing Animal Farm, his allegorical novel criticising the events of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath towards the end of 1943. Yet he could not find a publishing house to publish his novel. After being turned down by four publishers, the novel was finally published two years later in August 1945.

Orwell considered the attitude of publishers as a form of censorship and wrote a preface entitled “The Freedom of the Press” to be published in the first edition of the novel. The preface somehow vanished and was not published in the first edition. It was only discovered in 1971 and published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1972 with an introduction by Sir Bernard Crick.

According to Orwell, the biggest obstacle to the freedom of the press and expression is not state-led censorship:

“If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country, intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary,” Orwell wrote.

It is quite sad that this text, written 75 years ago in wartime England, fits so well the Turkey of 2018. We all know the statistics; a Turkey that ranks 157th among 180 countries according to the Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders and is listed among the countries where the press is not free according to the 2017 report of Freedom House.

What is even more painful is that much of this censorship is voluntary. A business world that purchases newspapers and changes their editorial policy to favour the government in order to get a greater share of public tenders; journalists who abstain from writing the realities for fear of losing their jobs; a readership that does not read or, even when it reads, uncritically accepts everything presented as the truth.

In such a voluntarily constructed dystopian world, journalism is not easy. You have to be financially self-sufficient; you should have a management that does not impose its own editorial preferences upon you; you have to take the risk of being prosecuted, even imprisoned unless you have the means to live abroad; and last but not least, you should have a thick skin to remain unscathed in the face of defamation and smear campaigns not only by government controlled media, but also the opposition groups.

When Ahval’s editor Yavuz Baydar called me about a year ago to telling me he was planning to create an independent news portal similar to Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept, asking me to contribute to it, I had to think of all of the above myself.

Firstly, I was neither a journalist, nor a columnist. I didn’t know whether I wanted to follow current events in Turkey or to write on a regular basis. Moreover, my son had serious health problems, hence I might not have been able to contribute as much as I would have liked to.

Secondly, I didn’t know who financed Ahval and with what purpose, Yavuz’s reassurances with regards to editorial independence notwithstanding. True, I was not based in Turkey, the paranoia that prevailed in the country was affecting me. Could the Gülen movement be behind Ahval for example?

Thirdly, I wasn’t sure I was willing to be dragged into unnecessary polemics because of the platform I was contributing to. Was I ready to be labelled this or that for writing for Ahval?

After some thinking, I have decided to give it a try. I had things to say about the “new Turkey”, and writing on a regular basis would give me a chance to pen these opinions without delay, laying the groundwork for my future academic work.

In a similar vein, I was not against newspapers or other media outlets having a political stance. All major respected newspapers in the world have an ideological stance that directs their editorial policy. What was more important for me was whether I had sympathy for this stance or not. I couldn’t write on, say, a Kemalist, nationalist, or Islamist platform. Ahval seemed to have a liberal editorial line. What counted at this stage was the issue of editorial independence. Thus, for instance, would I be able to criticise prevailing understandings of liberalism or the choices of liberals in Turkey? Could I criticise the owner of Ahval should circumstances require? Yavuz guaranteed that there would not be any intervention in my articles.

And for the first time in my life, my work was valued. By valued, I don’t mean the amount paid per piece, but sound editorial checks and having articles translated into different languages, including when the topic demands, into Arabic.

All that remained was to trace the source of the money. The owner of the news outlet is Dr. Haitham El-Zobaidi, who also owns the London-based media outlet Al-Arab Publishing House. I had this information confirmed by other sources as well, without telling Yavuz. Just like everyone else, I was extra sensitive about the Gülen Movement and Fethullah Gülen himself after the botched July 2016 coup. Yavuz told me they aimed to publish something where every political group and/or view would be criticised, including the Gülen Movement.

I thus left my paranoias behind and started writing at Ahval. After a little while, the site published a series of articles by the Istanbul-based Canadian freelance journalist Nick Ashdown on the dissolution of the Gülen Movement after the coup attempt. Later, Gökhan Bacık, one of the former ideologues of the Gülen movement and co-founder of Kıtalararası news analysis website, who had also broken with Gülen, joined the Ahval family and started writing critical and highly informative pieces on both the Gülen movement and Islamic conservatism. For me, the question of Gülenism was over.

I was happy with writing at Ahval. I could write whatever I wanted and however I wanted. The only problem was not being able to write on a regular basis but, as I said before, I wasn’t a columnist. My relationship with writing was special; I couldn’t write just for the sake of writing.

After a while, I couldn’t write at all. My son’s condition was getting critical. Let alone writing, even living had become a burden. And … You know the rest of the story. First, I disappeared. Then to be able to go on living, I started writing again.

At first, I was writing for my personal blog. But Yavuz and the other editors, Ergün Babahan and Ilhan Tanır, started publishing these pieces at Ahval and helped me reach a larger audience. I wasn’t expecting that; I was happily surprised.

I am not an easy person. When my editors ask me “would you like to write on this topic?”, I mostly refuse. Often, I don’t even allow anyone to touch a single word or comma in my pieces. They put up with all my whims. But most importantly, the Ahval family stood by me during the most difficult period of my life.

For this reason, this time I’m writing the piece Yavuz asked for. Because I feel grateful to the Ahval family.

Happy anniversary!

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