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11 November

Pierre Haski: “Nothing justifies Ahmet Altan’s imprisonment"

Situation in Turkey is reprehensive, but not all hope is lost, says the RSF president who is visiting Turkey to monitor the Altans’ trial


In one word, the intensity of the crackdown on Turkish press is “incredible” and one immediately thinks of no other country but Turkey when the phrase “press freedom” is uttered, according to Pierre Haski, President of Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF), who will be in Turkey to monitor the trial of journalists Ahmet and Mehmet Altan on November 13, as part of a journalistic solidarity scheme organized by French journalists.

Haski, a veteran journalist himself as a former foreign correspondent for AFP and Libération, in Johannesburg, Jerusalem and Beijing, and a former deputy editor of the French daily Libération, was matched with Ahmet Altan as part of a campaign in which French journalists closely monitor trials of their Turkish colleagues. That such a scheme has come to life out of concern for what is going on in the country in itself shows the gravity of the situation. Indeed, “Turkey is undergoing a very dark period in terms of press freedom,” as Haski says.

Speaking to P24 ahead of his visit for the trial, Haski has shared his views on a wide variety of topics on whether there is any hope for journalists in Turkish prisons; if it is a good idea for the EU to apply more pressure on Turkey to make it more democratic; what the RSF is doing to help Turkish journalists as well as on problems plaguing journalism everywhere, such as the increasing public perception that journalists are not on the people’s side, but rather on the side of the power elite; the rapid rise of the fake-news era and what can journalists do to counter the threats and save the dignity of their profession.
 
The very first statement you gave as the newly elected president of RSF reads as, “I am aware that it is a great challenge at a time when journalism and freedom to information are under threat everywhere, as in Turkey at the moment.” Why this emphasis on Turkey?
 
We have worries about press freedom in many parts of the world. But Turkey has been just for over a year, since the coup attempt in July 2016, the country that's known as the worst regression in press freedom. The number of journalists that have been jailed, media that has been closed, restrictions to press freedom have been incredible. That's why, at the moment when you think of press freedom in the world, you first think of Turkey. The number of court cases that are going on based on very thin accusations leads people who look at the state of press freedom in the world to think that Turkey is undergoing a very dark period in terms of press freedom.
 
You have undertaken the task of monitoring Ahmet Altan’s case, as part of a campaign initiated by Scam and Prix Albert-Londres and are visiting Turkey to monitor the case. What is your take on Ahmet Altan’s case, and that of Mehmet Altan for that matter?
 
There's been a proposal made to several journalists in France to be a kind of godfather of jailed journalists in Turkey and to monitor more closely than ever their situation and the evolution of their case. I am therefore the godfather, if you may call it, of Ahmet Altan. I got very interested in his personality, in his writing, and the case against him, and obviously that of his brother, because the two are linked and undergoing the same trial. It seems to me that there's nothing at this case that justifies at this stage, from what I hear, the fact that he's been jailed for almost 400 days, over a year. Court cases can take place, but to keep someone in prison and preventive detention, you need to have at least some serious doubt about the fact that he's going to be committing new crimes, or that he's going to escape. That seems to me totally unfounded in the case of Ahmet Altan. From what I hear and see, there's no threat of violence on his side. The way he expresses himself, the way he's organized his defense, the way he's spoken even from the prison where he's been held gives the impression that this is someone that wants to clear his name, someone that wants to fight the injustice that he feels he is being exposed to, and therefore there's no valid reason for keeping him in prison. That's the first point. The second one is that the accusation is really thin against him. I haven't seen anything, from the information we've been sent, that connects him in a tangible way to the coup attempt. That's why we are very worried, and that's why I am coming to this court case to see whether the due process of justice is being respected in his case. Because, from what I hear, he should have been freed long time ago. There is nothing that justifies his imprisonment as a well-known figure in the Turkish press for well over 400 days.
 
What do you expect? Are you optimistic by any chance?
 
To be very honest, there are very worrying signs in the evolution of Turkish justice. But at the same time, there is a process going on. In other cases, some people have been freed. So, it's not without hope that I am coming to this court case. Maybe the fact that lots of people have expressed support and interest for this case all over the world will bring him and his brother out of prison like other people in the past few weeks.
 
You were repeatedly quoted as saying, “France should put more pressure on Turkey.” Many people feel the European Union has turned its back on problems in Turkey for short term interests and the Realpolitik. Do you see any improvement or substantial change on the EU’s end, or France’s approach towards Turkey?
 
No, I don't think so. I think nothing has changed. Because we are in a very strange world, where values are a bit confused at this stage. It's true the relationship between Turkey and the European Union as such, and the member countries of the European Union-because that's two different things- is a mix of so many elements at the moment. You have migrant situation, you have the political mess in the Middle East with the Syria conflict, you have this strange game between NATO, Russia and Turkey, you have Turkey's ambivalence on these issues, and you have the divisions or the contradictions of the attitudes of European countries themselves. France and Germany, and Holland, and other countries haven't had a common approach to this question of rule of law in Turkey. When Germany was in open war of words, between Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Erdoğan a few weeks ago, the other countries kept silent. I think that is a big failure. European Union should have a common voice, should have a common approach, and a balanced approach. It's not a question of declaring war against Turkey, that's not the issue. The issue is how can we establish a relationship between the largest trading partner of the EU, the neighbor, the country that has military alliance with EU countries; all these are to be taken into account when formulating a balanced approach in which human rights, and rule of law have their importance. It is not the only criteria in state-to-state approach obviously, but it cannot be dismissed as it is now.
 
RSF, ever since its foundation in 1985, has been influential around the world not just by monitoring press freedom, but also by building country-specific solutions, such as creating an independent radio station in Africa to broadcast to Eritreans, opening media support center in Haiti, or providing training to journalists in Syria. Do you have such plans for Turkey in the short term?
 
At the moment, the actions towards Turkey are really monitoring, supporting, and advertising, and making advocacy about the fate of journalists. I think that's the most urgent task concerning Turkey, because we have so many journalists in the prison now, and that's really a top priority. I think, Turkish journalists and media are eligible to every single RSF program at this stage. Particularly, RSF just launched a new program last week only, which is of great interest to a country like Turkey, I think. It's called Forbidden Stories. If some journalists are involved in sensitive investigations, either the government or the private bodies or criminals could think that by killing or jailing journalists, you can suppress the investigation. Forbidden Stories is a group of investigative reporters who will take over the investigation when a journalist is incapable of continuing. So, when a journalist is involved in a sensitive investigation, he can put the documents in a safe database that RSF has created which is totally secured, and if anything happens to that journalist, the Forbidden Stories team will take over and continue the investigation, which is a way of telling everyone who wants to suppress journalism that it's useless to attack the reporter himself, because someone else will rise. That's a very important case. Only a few weeks ago, we had a killing in Malta of an investigative reporter. We have more journalists killed in Mexico than anywhere else in the world. At the moment, Forbidden Stories is doing an investigation in Mexico to replace a journalist who was killed. This is the kind of program that I think is important for Turkey, as for many countries in the world.
 
You state that the role of an organization such as RSF is more complex and more indispensable nowadays as opposed to the times of more conventional power relations. What are the new threats to journalism?
 
In the past, RSF or other organizations of that kind were mostly busy with authoritarian regimes doing what Turkey is doing at the moment, to put it shortly, that is putting journalists in jails, closing radios or newspapers, censoring articles. That was the main focus of defending press freedom in the world. Now we have a very complex world, in which you still have that kind of traditional attacks on press freedom, but you also have, for example someone like Donald Trump, accusing media, launching very bitter attacks on the traditional media, accusing the CNN or the New York Times of being fake news, and taking the legitimacy away from journalists. I use that case, because that's the best known and the most visible one around the world. And the third type of threat that we see is obviously everything that has been summarized by this word, “fake news.” Since Trump's election, there have been a lot of talk about fake news, it's one aspect of a very complex issue. You have government propaganda, you have commercial fake news, you have politically motivated fake news; there are different aspects. But the result is confusion, a huge confusion in the media environment. That's a very worrying dimension. And I think an organization like RSF has the duty to address all those threats, and not just the traditional and well-identified one of a journalist being jailed or silenced. It's a big challenge because we are in a very different territory where we don't have a traditional approach to solve these problems. How do you solve these problems? How do you deal with Donald Trump? How do you deal with fake news? How do you deal with Russian propaganda online? That's a tricky one for an organization like RSF. We are working on it at the moment.
 
Adding insult to the injury, beside the fact that power groups delegitimize journalists, we are witnessing, partly in Turkey but also everywhere else -so far as I can see- a great decline in the trust in media. How can the media that has lost public trust can solve such problems?
 
I agree with you, it's a major issue, and that's affecting very different societies. We have the same problem in France, same in the US. You are calling me in Beirut, I was taking part in a conference on the media in Beirut; someone mentioned a recent study that only 18% of population in Beirut trust in media. We have this phenomenon all over the world. You have to take into account several factors. First one is I think journalists are probably part of the discredit that they suffer. There is a gap that has appeared in the past maybe 20-30 years in the perception that public opinion has of the media. In the ideals of public and in the mythology of journalism, journalists are supposed to be a counter power, they are supposed to be defending the oppressed against the powerful. More and more journalists are seen as part of the elites, as having joint forces with the political and the economic elite. That has provoked this gap. As journalists, we often think that this is unfair, that we are doing our best to do our job, some people are being jailed or killed for making that job, and that's unfair. But that's the way people look at us, and we have to question our responsibilities. We also have to look at the fact that, and I think most people fail to see that journalism is undergoing a huge transformation. The digital revolution has fragilized the media companies, there's been a huge transformation of this industry- because it is an industry- in the past 10 years. A lot of companies in the media industry have lost the capacity to do their job. Because they are losing revenues, advertisements, they are losing readers. That's something we have to take into account.
 
Third thing that has happened in the past decade or the 15 years is the rise of social media, which has a very positive side and a dark side. The positive side is that it has democratized speech; everybody can express themselves. It has a drawback in the sense that there was this illusion that therefore everybody is a journalist. Everybody can be a witness or a commentator on news. When they see something and then post it to Facebook, or Twitter, then they become a journalist. I think that illusion has created a lot of damage, because journalism is a profession that has rules, ethics, and not everybody is supposed to deliver to that. We are to check news, give a hierarchy to news, to give it a context, and extra information that makes a news meaningful. That's lost in the chaos of social media. Social media should not be detrimental to journalism.
 
How can the media recover people’s trust?
 
That is the key question. The answer to the crisis of journalism is journalism. We have to do more journalism, better journalism. And prove to dubious readers or viewers this is useful to society. Look at what's happened in the past few days with the Paradise Papers. You have this grouping of 400 journalists from 96 different media, over 60 countries involved who have had access to a leak of millions of data on tax evasion by big corporations, by influential people. One single media or a journalist could not have done that; 400 journalists teamed together, shared their powerful connections, and information, and produced something that has a lot of meaning for our societies. That's something where journalism is at its best. I think that's the way we can really recover trust. People understand that this is something for which we need professional journalists.
 
According to RSF, half of the world population still has no access to freely-reported news and information. Would you say, in the great scheme of things and drawing on the environment you’ve just described, the task of a journalist has changed?
 
First of all, we have to think freedom of the press and journalism as a barometer of the state of our societies. Journalism is not an isolated item from another planet. It is part and parcel of the political environment. When you suppress or try to suppress press freedom, it is a reflection on the state of our political system. We see in many parts of the world, and Turkey is a good example, the rise of what has been called illiberal democracies or authotarian regimes. That's a very worrying side, because when this happens, the first targets are press freedom and the independence of the judiciary. These are the two potential counter powers that are seen as a threat by these regimes. Journalism is not isolated from that. What has not changed is that journalism responds certain rules, as I said. What has changed fundamentally is the technological environment, the way news is being circulated. For example, big platforms such as Facebook have emerged as a kind of gatekeeper of information. When these people make deals with authoritarian governments, it is a supplemental threat to press freedom. It was reported recently in the New York Times that Facebook was negotiating with the government of Vietnam to respond very quickly to any demand that the government is making to suppress content on Facebook. These are the new threats to circulation of information. That's what we have to understand. If we don't understand what we are facing, we will definitely lose.
 

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