Exchange street, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2001. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade.

Exchange street, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2001. Photo by Bikem Ekberzade.

Show me the money

Just as we were wondering how much lower the integrity of Turkish media could get, the bomb fell when a young Turkish journalist, Sultan Akten, working for the conservative pro-government channel TGRT asked for pocket money from the Prime Minister. No, it was not in protest of the meager wages paid to Turkish reporters, nor did she think she was doing anything wrong by asking for hard cash from her subject. Moreover she thought it would look “cute” on camera to reenact a Turkish custom. The problem? Well, the custom is for children to kiss the hands of elders during Eid, in exchange for pocket money which is then spent on candy, chocolate and soda throughout the holidays – not reporters in the field covering news.

The act immediately flared up a discussion of ethics. To her critics, Akten callously announced that she didn’t think what she did was wrong. Neither personally, nor journalistically, she claimed. In response, Progressive Journalists Association (PJA) made an official announcement, calling the act “ignorant, decadent and an act of treason”. However they were not the only ones criticising this disturbing exchange of money between a journalist and her subject.

The “prudent” & “ethical” lot of the mainstream Turkish press, and not necessarily with a sparkling clean slate, started to yell from the sidelines, loudly ragging on the act and the person. Godspeed, you say, no? Afterall what Akten did was not professional, nor ethical, and certainly not surprising in today’s Turkish media going through a never-ending cycle of growing pains coupled with lack of proper journalistic education, a clear understanding of ethics and what being a journalist constitutes. Add into the mix a dose of covert (and at times overt) censorship, media barons who are concurrently business people (with at times shady backgrounds), you get yourself one Sultan Akten; and one Kadri Gursel, one of the harshest critics of the act and the person, and apparently the representative of International Press Institute in Turkey.

But before we go any further with Akten and Gursel, this:

Rule 1 of the book of the journalist reads: “thou shall not receive handouts from your subjects which may cause others to question your impartiality”.

And much to Gursel’s dismay (and demise of the perception of his journalism) handouts do come in many forms. As he criticised Akten, his followers on social media were quick to remind him that he himself had been the recipient of handout in the past, I.e. an “all expenses paid” invitation to cover the politico-religious Gulen society’s (read: cemaat) conference in the US.

This allegation – which Gursel accepted by declaring from his twitter feed that “regardless of who pays for my travel expenses, the views I write are my own”, a pathetic and clichΓ© defense – is not surprising. In Turkey, neither journalists, nor their media bosses think twice when confronted with a paid invitation to cover a lobbying group’s event, business or political. And most do not think this is unethical. However journalism ethics are not region specific, nor can they be bent or reshaped.

So, much to Gursel’s kicking and screaming otherwise, the trip paid by Gulen Cemaat to cover their event which he took part in is as much a handout as the 200 TRY (roughly 100 USD) which Akten pocketed, and a clear breach of journalistic code. Saying otherwise would be an offense and a downright denouncement of the values of most of us journalists trying to stick to a very strict and equally clear ethical code.

If what Gursel did could be accepted then we would be fools to pay from our own pockets, or that of our agencies’, trying to convince our editors to come up with the budget to have us sent to cover stories. And were Gursel be right, then possibly Anthony (Shadid) would still be with us as Tyler (Hicks) would merely ask for one of the factions in Syria to finance their passage instead of carrying his colleague on his shoulders across combat-land.

And were he to be right, then Newsweek, Boston Phoenix, and several other outlets of true journalism would still be open and running and not shutdown as a result of financial downsizing.

Gursel’s denial of the fact that what he did is immoral, journalistically unacceptable and in breach of ethical values, is as dangerous if not more than the cheap approach of Akten towards a coverage of PM during Eid holidays. It shows an insidious sell-out of the Turkish media, and near justifies all the libel and slander inherent and at times indistinguishable within its organs.

However, this is the sex lives of penguins after all, isn’t it? I often seem to forget…


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