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The Ombudsman Column

Turkey: A Tough Place for a Tough Ombudsman

This posting has nothing to do with PBS or with mail to the ombudsman. Rather, it is simply to report on the situation surrounding one member of the small band of brothers and sisters around the world who serve as news ombudsmen, public editors, readers' representatives and other related descriptions.

That person is Yavuz Baydar, a veteran journalist who has just been fired from his position as readers' editor at the Turkish daily newspaper Sabah. According to the news report, the Sabah editorial board censored some Baydar columns and refused to publish others that were critical of press reporting, media ownership and the government's handling of the recent large-scale, anti-government protests in Istanbul and other Turkish cities last month.


These have not been great times for ombudsmen, especially in this country. Since the recession took hold in 2008, some 14 positions at U.S. news organizations have been eliminated, roughly half of the former total here. The latest, and biggest single blow, came in March when The Washington Post announced that, after 43 years, it was ending the role of an independent ombudsman.

The good news is that membership in the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO — appropriately pronounced as Oh, No) is growing elsewhere in the world and four new members have been added in the U.S.

But axing ombudsmen for cost reasons, or some other explanation, is one thing. Firing an ombudsman for attacking press coverage is quite another, especially in the midst of turmoil.

Full disclosure: Baydar is a longtime friend and colleague. That, of course, is no reason to call attention to him. But I felt readers of this column would be interested for a couple of reasons.

Most importantly, Turkey is a big and very important country, a parliamentary democracy of some 80 million people, almost all of them Muslims. It is a growing political and economic powerhouse that sits astride Europe and Asia, is a US ally, member of NATO and wannabe member of the European Union. So the degree to which the press is free — or controlled — in that country is very important.

Also, his dismissal came within days of the publication in The New York Times of a lengthy and stinging critique by Baydar of "the shameful role of Turkey's media conglomerates in subverting press freedom."

In the aftermath of his firing, the editor of the Times' editorial and opinion pages, Andrew Rosenthal, posted his own commentary titled, "Punishing Journalists, Subverting Press Freedom." The president of ONO, Stephen Pritchard of Britain's The Observer newspaper, described it in a statement as "another example of heavy-handed attempts by Turkish media to silence their own journalists and is totally counter to all the principles of ethical journalism." And the European Commission, without naming Baydar, said it was concerned about measures taken against some journalists such as dismissals and criminal sanctions.

Here's the New York Times comment by Andrew Rosenthal:

When Yavuz Baydar, the Turkish journalist, offered us his Op-Ed on what he called the "shameful role of Turkey's media conglomerates in subverting press freedom," Mr. Baydar knew he was putting his job at risk. He was right.

Within a few days of our publishing his article on July 19, he was fired by Sabah, the Turkish newspaper for which Mr. Baydar was, ironically enough, serving as ombudsman.

We were appalled to hear of his dismissal, but it only served to underscore the truth of what he wrote after Turkey's television networks ran documentaries — including one about penguins — instead of covering the civil unrest that all residents of Istanbul could see and hear outside their windows.

Mr. Baydar wrote about how the owners of the Turkish media have their fortunes in other areas, like banking and construction, and receive major favors in exchange for keeping their news offerings in line with government policy and sometimes with government propaganda.

It is always tragic when repressive governments muzzle the press, which is often the only check on their excesses. But it is doubly so when it happens in a country like Turkey, which so desperately wants to be taken seriously by the West, and to be a member, finally, of the European Union.

The Turkish government over-reacted horribly to the recent protests in Istanbul. Now Sabah (which is a client of the New York Times news services division) is guilty of the same.

Here's More of Stephen Pritchard's Statement:

Mr. Baydar is recognised internationally as a staunch advocate of press freedom in Turkey. His recent reporting on the close ties that exist between media owners and the Turkish government has exposed depressing levels of corruption that are seriously damaging to democracy. Turkey cannot describe itself as a democracy while such behaviour continues. We call for his immediate reinstatement.