The Turkish mainstream media and general population view American media as intrinsically hostile to Turkey, to its government and to its people. It’s as if The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and any other media institution is in constant search for an excuse to criticize and attack the Turkish government with the ultimate objective of toppling it down. “Why do they always see the bad deeds and turn a blind eye to the good deeds we do?” This is a common complaint one hears among pro-government circles, and opposition ones.
This is what “we” do not get about the American media. From the American perspective, though, this is exactly what the media should do. As Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once wrote: “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”
The press is free to protect democracy and can fulfill that role by freely surveilling the government, not pleasing it. The American press is not intrinsically hostile to the government. It is intrinsically critical of the government.
It is not that journalists and other media workers in Turkey do not know this. But they are also expected to praise the government for its good work and remarkable achievements.
The broader culture is at work here. Criticism is taken personally in Turkey and must be carefully worded not to offend the party that is its target. One way to do it without offending the target is to embed criticism within words of compliments. Another common phrase on hears: “We accept constructive criticism, not destructive criticism.” And constructive criticism is meant to also acknowledge the good deeds of the target.
Yet, the American culture is different. The media is expected to be critical without complimenting the target for some other deeds. It is expected to challenge the people in power. It is expected to be objective and factual, even if those facts are come across harshly. It is because the Turkish general population lacks this culture, it views every critical report or piece from an American media outlet as “too harsh,” “too unfair” or “too biased.”
The harms of focusing too much on disinformation
Is “disinformation” the most serious threat to journalism in the United States and beyond? If you talk to American journalists, you get the impression that it is. No doubt. Disinformation is a serious risk to journalism, and democracy as well. But its severity seems to be greatly exaggerated. And that comes with a cost for it leads governments elsewhere in the world to take action to fight disinformation. So far it seems innocuous. But, “fighting disinformation” can also be an excuse, or a cover, to impose stricter censorship over the media.
That happened in Turkey. According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Communications Director, Fahrettin Altun, Turkey is the country exposed to disinformation the most in the world and it was the government’s duty to fight it. To this end, the Turkish government passed a law in October last year, which made spreading disinformation a crime punishable up to three years in prison.
Tellingly, however, the disinformation law came to be called the “censorship law.” The fear is that the government can use the law to punish those who they believe spread facts, statistics, or interpretations that are different than those the government is propagating.
Authoritarian governments do not run short of excuses to impose censorship on public debate. This time the international community that focuses too much and too exclusively on disinformation gives them a hint.