Turkey is shutting out information when it needs it most

The first day of testimony in the case of Reza Zarrab, defendant turned key witness, had several moments of intense drama.

The case is being followed closely both in the United States where it is taking place, and in Turkey, where the key names who are accused of evading international sanctions and corruption, come from.

Legal systems of Turkey and the US, and their political and cultural circumstances could not be more different.

Criminal trials are often very complex, even when you are familiar with both names and the circumstances. The challenge of reporting and commenting on a case with multiple international financial and political layers has been greater than usual.

The case of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an official with Halkbank, a Turkish state bank, has the potential for causing serious economic and reputational damage to Turkey. It may also lead to further investigations in the US as part of a line of inquiry regarding President Trump’s  former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his lobbying efforts on behalf of Turkey.

Given the overriding importance and grave implications of the case, one would expect an overwhelming interest and wide publicity by the Turkish media.

Open justice is a well-established and accepted principal of the US legal system and a clear and detailed coverage of the trial by members of the media is the norm.

Yet, the pro-government media in Turkey has chosen to ignore serious allegations implicating leading public figures in Turkey completely.  There are hardly any Turkish journalists from the  main media outlets following the case in New York. Neither the Turkish state broadcaster TRT nor the semi-official Anatolian News Agency reported on the testimony.

Only a handful of journalists from the conventional media have been present , reporting anything at all on legal proceedings. Hurriyet, one of Turkey’s best-selling newspapers that employs an experienced and competent correspondent in the US, has been selective in its reporting. They censored Zarrab’s testimony implicating the President.

In absence of timely, accurate and impartial coverage, audiences have turned to social media. Instant translations of tweets by American journalists and online broadcasts by unemployed professionals  or self-appointed citizen journalists have become the main sources of information for the Turkish public.

A New York-based Turkish professional following the case has become a social media phenomenon overnight. Zeyno Erkan has been taking minute-by-minute notes from the trial and sharing it during the intervals by YouTube and Facebook.  She has been attracting hundreds of thousands of Turkish viewers, as well as large numbers of pro-government trolls.

Respect for the presumption of innocence is not a principle that the pro-government media observes in Turkey; but for the trial in New York, they went one step further. Even before it started, they made their mind about both the accused and the accuser. They declared the trial ‘a conspiracy, a coup attempt’, a hostile act to bring down the Turkish government.

Journalists’ role of providing accurate and verified information on a subject of such crucial national importance, and their responsibility to function as watchdogs on behalf of the public, have never been more important than today. Unfortunately, this is also the darkest period in the history of Turkish censorship.

This post is also available in: Turkish

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