Foreign media funding: savior or traitor?

Azmi Karaveli writes: There is a smear campaign ongoing against journalist Ruşen Çakır and his media platform Medyascope regarding their ‘receiving foreign funds.’ However, with the pressure of authoritarian regimes over daily life, these funds are a ‘savior’ for journalists whom oppose the government. Within this system, we must ask, can any media really be independent?

Azmi Karaveli

I would like to say a few words about the smear campaign launched against journalist Ruşen Çakır and his media platform Medyascope regarding their ‘receiving foreign media funds.’ The timing was significant.

It was obvious what the outcome would be, because Fahrettin Altun, the Presidency’s Director of Communications, immediately commented on it. However, the issue is a bit complicated. It is a well-known fact that such funds have been behind civil society movements in many countries since the 90s.

Such global funds perhaps played an important role in an aspect of the capital during periods when class wars were replaced by postmodern identity wars. Left-wing movements around the world, instead of questioning the cruelty of capitalism, chose to spend their energy fighting in lesser arenas via such funds. Questioning that capital sovereignty is the main contributor of the paradox in the economic-political world has been replaced by struggle in more niche areas, which undoubtedly constituted some of the most severe destruction of globalization.

While we accept this macro point of view, during the unbearable pressure of authoritarian regimes over the daily life, we experienced how these funds also acted as ‘saviors’ via numerous NGOs and media organizations in the 2000s. Thus, we are dealing with a situation which has more pros than cons.

Let’s discuss the issue of independence with a question: Is it possible to work in global media today and remain truly independent? Or, more generally, is it possible to have an independent media? Is it independent, for example, to work for the Turkish branches of Fox, CNN, and Bloomberg which direct the global media? What about in pro-government newspapers and televisions, for example in Hürriyet Daily or in any television channel? Or is it independence to post via YouTube, Facebook or Instagram, which controls all the information in the world? Is it independent to work in media outlets such as Cumhuriyet Daily or Halk TV, where there are all kinds of power struggles to take over management?  

Let's go back to the primary topic: When you receive funds transparently, not secretly, from the foundations of the United States or other countries, you are suddenly targeted by conservatives and some left-wingers, and are declared a traitor. If you do not receive foreign funds then you are deemed independent and your reputation skyrockets.

Do you believe that any medium that receives advertising from large capital companies is independent? After running an ad from the Koç Group, do you think that the news of an environmental extermination or an occupational accident by the company can be published in the mainstream media? Let’s look at it from a broader perspective.

Everyone has heard that Google’s owner has taken control of the internet and therefore the world via the digital cartel Alphabet’s services. It would not be wrong to say that Alphabet runs our lives via search engine Google, advertising service AdSense, email service Gmail, cloud storage service Google Drive, YouTube, and web browser Chrome. In 2017, the European Commission fined Google 2.42 billion euros for abusing its monopoly on internet searches. Now, when you do business on YouTube or Facebook platforms, you are not doing ‘independent’ business. When you post the smallest message, you are becoming a part of a structure made up of billions of gears. You have a chance to reach Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg via direct message anyway. Not forgetting that he apologized after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, go ahead and ask him what he has done with billions of people’s information and what he is capable of doing and see how he responds.

Today, there are five technology companies among the 10 largest companies in the world. These companies are directing our lives. We assume they provide free services for the benefit of humankind. We used to see only the manufacturing industry companies among the world’s giants. Now, representatives for this digital world with no concrete facilities or factories are the arbiters of our daily lives. We should all be asking, how is it that the market value of these companies is 6 trillion dollars, half the value of the U.S. global technology stock exchange NASDAQ? In an environment where we follow neighborhood gossip on YouTube, it makes sense that this company would give the carrot of ‘independent’ journalism, from the Islamist to the leftist, so that it can keep its ‘big data.’ They are investing billions of dollars every year to further develop this big data phenomenon. And it’s not because they love us.

The New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo, called these five companies ‘the frightful five:’ - Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (owner of Google), Facebook, and Microsoft. He warned that they are stronger than many governments. With their acquisitions, these five companies are continuing their growth and eliminating potential competitors. 
What does this have to do with media funding? Many people who say they don’t get funding so they must be ‘independent’ are posting content on their social media accounts. Don’t fool yourselves. We are slaves to these tech companies with everything from emailing to sharing photos on the Internet. Every sentence, each message of ours is part of the 45 trillion GB of information generated around the world. An idealized, even fetishized, goal of independence is technically impossible. Now it is time to express ourselves with our individual preferences, personal ethical values and with our stance in life.

Let us look at what has happened in the recent past. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) 19-year reign has gradually transformed those institutions that make up the state, such as the judiciary and the bureaucracy, and made them dependent on it. The media was one of the most obvious case. The media, except for about 10 newspapers, television channels, and websites, went under the control of the government. Even in the Bilgin-Doğan media was unable to hear diverse voices in programs such as “32. Gün” and “Siyaset Meydanı.” Today, in the mainstream media, almost every day, the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is discussed without calling a person from the HDP. There is not even one opposing voice in the pro-government network of the media.

Unfortunately, concepts have become vague. As in most other professions, the deontological codes were turned upside down. However, when the situation is like this, it is absurd to attack Ruşen Çakır over the funding issue as if we had solved a big secret, as if we had no other problems, while the future of not only newspapers but the profession of journalism in the next 5-10 years is uncertain.

Let’s talk about the state of the media from other angles. In 2019, according to the July 2019 Statistics of the Ministry of Family, Labor and Social Services, 11,157 journalists were unable to find work. According to the Ministry of Justice, there were 12,000 journalists on trial between 2003 and 2018. Some 12,000 journalists were interrogated for what they wrote and what they did. There are 3,804 journalists whose press cards have been revoked in recent years. In other words, the number of cancelled press cards is more than the total number of valid press cards (Data may not be up-to-date, there are 3,211 press cards). There is no need to say that we are at the bottom of the world press freedom rankings. Speaking of unemployment, maybe thousands of students from the 70-odd communication faculties all around the country graduate every year. Where are these people? Almost all of them are unemployed. Neither the national press nor the local press has the human resources demand to meet such a labor supply. What should these people do? Should they not seek alternative solutions, but rather die of hunger?

A media environment was created from a single center in the image of its creator. Advertisement revenue was already minimal. Thus, newspapers became objects of nostalgia bought by those over 50. Do you ever see a young person around you who reads newspapers? We are in a different era; this is a period when our conventional thinking patterns are succumbing to time. Please do not take my evaluation of the destruction caused by the rapid change as my insulting journalism. The change in the media and the ownership system are frightening, but at the same time the digital world offers all kinds of opportunities within journalism. The presence of funds such as Patreon, where the viewer or reader can directly support, or any other kind of fund are a blessing for journalists looking for alternative methods. There are journalists who want to maintain the universal qualities of the profession, who want to uphold their principles, and who are struggling to survive in the current environment.

For these reasons, it is not right to criticize journalists who have nowhere to go and nowhere to do their work, when they can secure funding from open sources. We all know how the pro-government TV channels and media are funded, but we cannot prove it because we don’t have evidence. Did the Medyascope or other media outlets ‘flatter’ the foundations or countries they received funds from? Has Ruşen Çakır, for instance, implied a U.S. mandate in his comments? If so, show us concrete examples, and we could agree with you. If not, conservatives who criticize the funds should answer the question, “How are so many channels and newspapers able to exist, which pamper the government every minute?”

In a country where the repressive regime has been institutionalized, no one has the right to disapprove of anyone because of funds. Otherwise, we need to look for answers to the questions regarding how clean YouTube is, which is running the world’s data thanks to our contributions. I must ask one last question: Is Doğu Perinçek, a Turkish politician, independent?

We started with independence; now, let’s go further. Even as you read these lines, you are contributing to these five technology companies that run ‘big data’ with your digital footprint. In this chaotic world, being able to remain ‘independent’ in the middle of this repressive regime should not be our top priority. As long as you do your job properly, stick to your principles, do not restrict your words, and produce quality work that fills the professional gap that exists, I do not care that your money comes from YouTube, foreign funds, or elsewhere.

From Aydın Selcen and Ayşe Çavdar to Kemal Can and Önder Algedik, several GazeteDuvar columnists are also contributing to Medyascope, which is an oasis in this desert. It will be Ruşen Çakır and Medyascope, which you are criticizing today and leading a defamation campaign, who will be defending your rights when the day comes.