A responsible media: Is it possible?

Writer    :     A responsible media: Is it possible?        A responsible media: Is it possible? Abdülhamit Bilici , General Manager of Cihan News Agency;   Media Panel: Reportism in Conflict by Ufuk Dialogue Foundation and Nigerian Turkish Nile University held on Monday, January 21, 2013 at School of Communication, Lagos State University, Lagos. &  January 22, 2013 Nigerian at Turkish Nile University,Abuja     It is a great pleasure to attend this conference. I would like to express my gratitude to the organizers of the event who invited me. I will try to explain the role of the media in conflicts and our experience in Turkey as the Zaman Media Group. There is no need to reiterate that the media have become a part of our lives. It is present in every field -- in politics, sports, entertainment -- and it is everywhere -- at home, in the office and in the street. The media not only influence our private lives, but also give shape to our social relations. It can bring different political opinions, beliefs or cultures closer or tear them away from each other. It can even make countries enemies or make them close friends. Sometimes a phrase, a word or even a letter used in the media can become incredibly important. Allow me to share with you a tragicomic but true story: It was 2005. A US congressional website announced that the US had conducted nuclear tests in Sudan between 1962 and 1970. When newspapers in Sudan reported this statement, it sparked reactions of disbelief throughout the country. The media noted a rate of increase in instances of cancer at that time, and this fueled anger toward the US. The Sudanese foreign minister demanded that the US provide an immediate explanation. The US Embassy in Khartoum was taken by surprise. They wondered if there was something they didn't know. A short examination revealed the truth: The statement on the congressional website contained a misspelling. The word "Sudan" should have read "Sedan," the code name for an explosion at the Nevada Test Site. A single letter was able to lead to a crisis between two countries. Of course the media did not do all this on its own, but it sits at the center of almost all relations and assumes an important role. At this point, we must quote the words of James Reston, the former executive editor of The New York Times: "The 19th century was the age of novelists. The next century will be that of journalists." As we all know, one of the basic rules in conventional media is “bad news is good news.” Now, despite this, how can media play a positive role in ethnic, ideological, religious or sectarian conflicts? I divide the principle of “bad news is good news” into two categories: The first category is very real and in most cases unavoidable. Under normal conditions, if a prime minister is healthy, this is not news. If any paper or TV station reports that the prime minister is healthy today, people will laugh or start wondering if there is a hidden message behind all this. But if he faces a health problem, then it becomes news. If a neighborhood is quiet, this is not news. But if there is a fire, then it becomes news. Although there are certain ethical principles in covering these kinds of developments as well, in general the media plays a passive role. The second category involves the case in which the media plays an active role to instigate, deepen or provoke potential problems or conflicts with an economic motivation to increase circulation, ratings, hits, etc. Or with an ideological motivation to take sides with one side against another more as an activist rather than as a journalist. Even if one does not have an intentional political position on a certain issue, the prejudice of the media elite towards an ethnic or religious group in a country can cause terrible problems. Take as an example the initial reaction of the American media to the Breivik case in Norway. Right-wing terror suspect Anders Behring Breivik reportedly killed 76 people in Norway, by all accounts driven by far-right anti-immigrant politics and fervent Islamophobia. But many early media accounts assumed that the perpetrator of the attacks was a Muslim. On news of the first round of attacks -- the bombs in Oslo -- CNN's Tom Lister (July 22, 2011) didn't know who did it, but knew they were Muslims: "It could be a whole range of groups. But the point is that al-Qaeda is not so much an organization now. It's more a spirit for these people. It's a mobilizing factor." And he speculated confidently about their motives: You've only got to look at the target -- the prime minister's office, the headquarters of the major newspaper group next door. Why would that be relevant? Because the Norwegian newspapers republished the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that caused such offense in the Muslim world… That is an issue that still rankles Islamist militants the world over. On Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor (July 22, 2011), guest host Laura Ingraham declared, "Deadly terror attacks in Norway, in what appears to be the work, once again, of Muslim extremists…" An early Wall Street Journal editorial (July 22, 2011) dwelled on the "explanations furnished by jihadist groups to justify their periodic slaughters," before concluding that because of Norway's commitment to tolerance and freedom, "Norwegians have now been made to pay a terrible price." If media is increasingly important in our societies and if the principle of bad news is good news applies, independent and critical media are essential to an informed democracy. But mainstream media are increasingly cozy with the economic and political powers they should be scrutinizing. Then what should be done to find a way out of this deadlock? In my view, our focus should be on the second category, in which the media actively takes part in increasing conflicts. In this regard, responsibility is the key concept. As you know, the models of the media can be listed as follows: the authoritarian model, the libertarian model, the Soviet-Communist model and, finally, the social responsibility model. In my opinion, the solution to most problems lies in the social responsibility model. The emergence of the social responsibility model is essentially an account of the evolution of the media itself. Media organizations could not enjoy freedom in their activities when they were state-controlled. However, as state supervision was lifted, the media started to determine a set of rules based on market conditions. But due to wild market conditions, media organizations started to make economic concessions. Ultimately, media theoreticians developed the social responsibility model, which forbids both state influence and market influence. What does this model advocate? Let there be no external censorship. Let there be no state influence or manipulation of advertisers. Let editors act with social responsibility. This is the responsibility of publishers. In newspapers, on TV, on radio and on the Internet, publishers should act responsibly toward themselves, toward individuals, toward society and toward humanity. If after the publishing of the caricatures in Denmark unjustifiable attacks were made on the Danish Embassy in Syria, then the seriousness of this situation should be understood. One Turkish saying says, "If you repeatedly call a man crazy, he will eventually go crazy." Likewise, if you repeatedly label practitioners of a certain religion as terrorists, you will eventually push them toward marginalization. As you might know, according to a recent Gallup poll conducted by John Esposito, titled "Who Speaks for Islam?" 93 percent of the Islamic world disapproves of violence. Western values are still attractive to the Islamic world. This should not be forgotten; people in Egypt, in Tunisia and in Syria are asking for democracy and the rule of law. The Zaman Media Group has for 25 years been an important and successful example of responsible media. One could list its core principles as telling the truth, in every article giving the accused a chance to explain their side, active support for peace and dialogue initiatives, no denigration, no defamation, no sensationalism, supporting positive principles and not certain political parties, and encouraging good news while also not ignoring bad news. Everyone has shining principles, everyone says they are for peace and love. The important point is not words but deeds. How then do we turn those principles into action despite pressure from the conventional media’s established habits. -- The Zaman Media Group’s editorial line can be defined as progressive conservative. It is a synthesis of Turkish, Islamic, traditional values and universal principles like democracy and the rule of law. We support polyphony by giving a platform to columnists from very different ideological, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their common denominator is democracy. They can write articles against the editorial policy so long as it is not against universal principles. For instance, they cannot encourage violence. Some of them are conservative, some are liberal, some social democrat, some Christian, some Islamists. -- We have a clear position on terrorism and violence. Irrespective of the motive, we condemn any terrorist act, whether it is al-Qaeda or ethnically oriented separatist PKK terrorism. We do not hide our Islamic identity, but we do place a distance between Islam and terrorism. Prominent figures such as Fethullah Gülen condemned such terrorist acts in the name of Islam and we have publish this several times as a headline story despite death threats. -- The Zaman Media Group strongly supports initiatives for dialogue among different cultures, religions and civilizations. We invite representatives of such groups to our conferences and editorial meetings. -- Since Islam is always in the headlines, we give a moderate, enlightened interpretation of Islam in our papers, magazines and TV programs. Every week we dedicate one full page to the ideas of Fethullah Gülen, who is the mentor of a faith-based global social movement very active in education both in Turkey and in over 140 countries around the world. -- We place special emphasis on increasing the standards of democracy in Turkey and we have a very strong position against anti-democratic forces, be they in the civilian or military bureaucracy, in politics or in the media. Unfortunately, Turkey has had five military interventions in the last 60 years, and despite many positive steps, we still have a constitution that was prepared by the military after the 1980 coup. Unfortunately, conventional media played a very negative role in this regard. We see democracy as an important element in the cure for many conflicts and the lack of democracy as the reason for several problems. In that respect, we support Turkey’s bid to join the EU. Indeed, we represent the majority of Turkish society, which has been the victim of authoritarianism. -- Democracy and freedom is not enough if they are not supported by education, economic welfare, equal opportunities and transparency. As a result, we also focus on the fight against corruption, encourage the strong economy policies of the government, and Turkey’s opening up to the world. We give a lot space to successful business projects, especially those of medium-sized companies. -- We aim to serve as a reference paper of the country with serious news and analyses, with three opinion pages every day (something found only in Zaman among the Turkish media). We don’t have an elitist approach towards society. As editors and columnists, we have a strong relationship with our readers, holding town meetings, conferences, etc. Every year we have two campaigns where columnists and editors visit several cities to meet and talk with readers. This active strategy also helps us reach segments of society that have lost their trust or interest in the media. We increase the number of people who read newspapers. This method has helped our Turkish daily, Zaman, become the highest-circulated daily in Turkey. In Turkey’s most violent region, the circulation of Zaman is twice as high as that of all the other dailies combined. -- The Zaman Media Group, in such a global and interdependent world, fully realizes that telling your correct story within national boundaries is not enough. You should react to the world as well. So six years ago we began publishing an English daily. Since the very day Today’s Zaman launched, it has exerted great effort to promote the democratization of Turkey, with the hopes that it will transform into a more transparent country governed by the rule of law. It has not only attained record-breaking daily circulation figures -- over 10,000 -- in the English language daily publication area, but it has also become a publication closely monitored by millions of people around the world thanks to the web-based and digital-first editorial policy it launched in May 2011. According to the 2012 statistics, Today’s Zaman’s website (todayszaman.com) was accessed by 3.1 million unique users from various countries and received about 30 million web page visits in one year. -- If you do not have trusted sources of news and information, you can easily be fooled or could be obliged to follow what one or two monopolistic international news agencies are telling you about everything. As a result, 20 years ago, the Zaman Media Group established the Cihan news agency, in order to get news and be a source of news for others in Turkey and around the world. It covers Turkey and 65 countries and has a news service in four languages. It serves the Zaman Media Group’s media outlets but also all Turkish papers, TV stations, websites and many international media companies on a subscription basis. The gist of all this is that we are a trusted source of news for Turkish society and media. Ninety-four local TV stations set aside their news hours each day to Cihan for quality bulletins, trusting our editorial principles. Cihan’s news service is also available to the Nigerian media. That said, this does not mean that we are perfect. Turkey and Nigeria of course both have similarities and differences. But I would be more than happy if you could benefit from our experience even a little.

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