Interview

German Media and Turkey

Media is not a global vending machine, where you go and want something. If you want something, you need to get it done yourself.
13 min read

Do you think the mainstream media in Germany is getting more and more obsessed with the current Turkish government? Are they disturbed of the Turkish government or of the religious or conservative values of the Turkish people who brought this political party to power?

I would like to answer your question with offering a different perspective. I think that this is right for a segment of German mainstream media, for certain ideologically driven media outlets and for those who want urgently sell copies. Because presenting the Turkish government in a critical way is very easy and there are always customers for such an approach. But there are other serious publications, not just necessarily the daily press, but also radio and television as well as specialized press which try to maintain a more objective view and have at least a balanced view.Given the recent agreements between the European Union or – respectively – the German and Turkish governments, there is an understanding that Germany now, either voluntarily or reluctantly, needs Turkey and Turkey needs Germany. On the governmental level, there is a balanced situation now. Coming to the other part of your question as to why there is a more critical view on the Turkish government: simply, the reason is mainly that Turkey has become more independent, more powerful and more incisive.

Coming to the other part of your question as to why there is a more critical view on the Turkish government: simply, the reason is mainly that Turkey has become more independent, more powerful and more incisive.

With regard to the religious or conservative values of the Turkish people, I think, yes, this is very important: one should not forget that everything that president Erdoğan did when he was a prime minister was on the basis of the secular constitution from 1982. Even though, Erdoğan is very unfairly portrayed as a “Sultan” or an “Islamist,” he clearly followed secular politics. There is neither an Islamic constitution in Turkey nor even is it likely one will come soon. So the constant mentioning of Islam and of the Muslim identity of the Turkish people does not reflect the true course of things. Commentators and journalists in Germany should know this fact well but just prefer to ignore it. I definitely agree with you that for a section of our media landscape there is a radicalization and polarization.

So, do you think the reason behind negative attitude is bad journalism or deliberate manipulation? Are we talking about ideologically charged and detached quarters, commentators or journalists?

I think we have both. We have definitely a dissolving and a lowering of journalist professional standards and equally an economic pressure in the production of media. This is definitely one reason and I think this an important one. But not all media is under financial pressure. Money is not always the chief reason. It also has something to do with the domestic politics of Germany as well as with ideological motives. There are ideologically driven people who color or taint the coverage of Turkish issues in accordance with their ideology. That is definitely true.

I think when people write about Turkey, they are actually writing about themselves.

I might be wrong but I think that when people write about Turkey, they are actually writing about themselves. You know the famous legal axiom that “the enemy is one owns’ question as ‘Gestalt’”. That means, when we deal with issues regarding Turkish politics, we put Islam and Muslims into the same package. Of course, these questions are not irrelevant for European and German identity. Since German society is in an identity crisis, it is easier to deal with this crises by reflecting it on the other.

And yes, we have ideologically charged and entangled writers, commentators and journalists. I don’t want to list them one by one, but we certainly have them. They have been to Turkey, they wrote and commented about it. Reasons and intentions are mixed. Some of those people come from the former conservative right. Maybe the background of their negative handling of Turkey is also related to the issue pertaining to Islam, to Muslims, to immigration. So it is a kind of proxy war. You see? We have people, who come from a left wing background. For them it is easier to relate the issue to “international solidarity” and supposed “human rights.” We should also keep in mind that some people just report what you perceive negative or critical because that is the truth as they perceive it.

When it comes to making news about foreign countries, do you think German media prefers to act in unison with the German government? Or how frequently do they diverge? As far as I remember there were plenty of negative news and comments about the Iranian government when economic sanctions were applied to Iran just couple of years ago. It was a habit, in this regard, to lift up the voices of Iranian opposition vis-à-vis the Iranian government officials. But now Germany is trying to establish a good relationship with the Iranian government and German officials and private companies are signing economic agreements during their visits to Iran. Did the perspective of the German mainstream media changed accordingly with the change of the government policy towards Iran? And importantly, can you compare reflections of the former Iranian and current Turkish cases on German mainstream media?

That might have been the case in the fifties and sixties when we still had remnants of old German authoritarianism in the German society during the post war period. But nowadays, I don’t see it. I think it is rather the other way around. I think rather the politicians are interested in finding a public mood. To find it, they go to the media. And they diverge quite often. German media has its blind spots.

We all know the situation in Turkey over the past decade. I cannot remember in the nineties and eighties that the issue of human rights or even the issues of Kurdish minority was a big subject for the German policy, not at all. They didn’t care about it. Turkey was a NATO member, Turkey was a foreign state, Turkey was important for defense of the southern NATO front and we didn’t care about the rest. I find it quite hypocritical that suddenly they are interested in human rights in Turkey. It is very hypocritical.

Now suddenly the Saudis are becoming the bad guys. Two or three years ago, Saudi Arabia was the best friend but suddenly they’re vilified.

You’re giving the Iranian example. It is actually a very interesting one. I realize when I speak to people from the region that the change of the perception of Iran is not something exclusively German. This process is initiated by American foreign policy. The Obama government pushed the lifting of sanctions. They want to draw back from the Gulf. They want to engage now their limited forces in East Asia. The Americans accepted Iran as being a limited hegemon in the Persian Gulf region and this is an overall Western thing and nowadays I think with some unjustification, now suddenly the Saudis are becoming the bad guys. Two or three years ago, Saudi Arabia was the best friend but suddenly they’re vilified.

I think the case is more representative. Let’s say for modern media or western media, then of international media because that’s actually the position of the Russian and Chinese media too. That would be my comment of it. But also it does not necessarily mean that they embrace Iran or the Iranian policy. They just shift their positions in a way so Teheran could be a partner of interest because Iran is a big market. Some people say that it could become the biggest steel producer in the world. Everybody is waiting that the doors are opening so they can invest and make a lot of money while the Saudi market is saturated and also the Saudis now announce a reform program that they want to produce more and more of their own stuff.

After the nuclear deal, Germany was one of the first countries to sign economic agreements with Iran, which shows where their concerns lie. Right?

Ethical foreign policy only applies to weak governments. Our president, for example, was in Myanmar and didn’t mention the treatment of the Muslim minority in Myanmar with a single word.

It’s one of the arguments to show that the so called ethical foreign policy which was initiated by Joschka Fischer only applies to weak governments. You cannot or do not apply it to places like China, or to any country where you have strategic and economic interests. I mean for example the behavior of the German foreign policy towards Uzbekistan, which is a dreadful government. It is a case in point. Or Myanmar, our president was in Myanmar and didn’t mention the treatment of the Muslim minority in Myanmar with a single word. The German foreign, let’s say, the human rights oriented German foreign policy is quite selective.

There is a recent debate on the Böhmermann affair and this happened after you submitted your very article about the same subject for Insight Turkey. Would you like to comment on that? None talked about what he said. Do you think the press freedom can be debated separately from the content of the news itself?

This case needs a bit of clear thinking. Let’s take politics and diplomacy out and try to consider the issue only from a legal perspective. The offended party is the Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan. According to law he has the right to go to trial himself. None can do it for him. I think the president has very good cause and reason to do it. And that’s it. I think that would have been the best situation. I don’t want to comment on the content of what he said. Because it leads to a kind of interpretation. Some people say no, it was just a media comment. Imagine what would happen, if the same thing would have happened with Benyamin Netanyahu!

Imagine what would happen, if the Böhmermann affair would have happened with Benyamin Netanyahu!

In Germany, normally – except some rare cases – politicians don’t go to trial with satirists. Helmut Kohl, for instance, had a lot of enemies and for sixteen years he was viciously attacked. But he never put someone to trial. Bringing the issue to the court was an option as much as keeping silent. Because what these satirists cannot stand is silence. You just don’t mention or comment on them. Just silence. Alternatively it would have also been an option to bring issue to the court and then remain silent. No statements to press, no comment, just say – this is a legal case. In German inner politics it would have functioned like this.

Do you think press freedom can be debated separately from the content of the news?

I am very much in favor of press freedom. But I like to see strong libel laws. It’s basically the old British model that they had for more than a century or two. They have total press freedom, but they also have libel laws, which means if a person was libeled s/he could go to court with quite tough sanctions like money and prison sentences. On the other hand, if we do not separate it, then the law could become subjective. Then one can make rules arbitrarily. This is a dangerous road. I am speaking as a German Muslim, because there are attempts to silence us and to limit our freedom of speech. And I don’t want my freedom of speech limited. So I have to give the same freedom to the opponent. In Germany, when Muslims speak freely, they are not put on to trial, but there is a media campaign against them. But there is nothing to do against such media campaigns. I think it is good as it is. One can and should stand it.

And how about the question from where one has to draw limit or how to limit power of journalist?

We really wish financially powerful Individuals or companies in the Muslim world like Turkey or Malaysia would invest in genuine European Muslim projects.

In Europe, there are certain tendencies in the legal system. For example, there were, as far as I know, between seventeen and twenty cases who went to the European court in Strasbourg concerning the competing rights of religious and press freedom. And in every case, press and media freedom won. This is almost a tradition. Even if the lower echelons of the law might give you positive decisions, the upper one will not. Because that is how it is. I think at the end, the only way to do it is by hard work – and by good PR work. Even by buying a newspaper. There are some newspapers on sale in Germany. Buy a newspaper and turn it slowly into the direction you want! That is a legitimate thing. There is nothing illegal. Just make your own media presence. We really wish financially powerful Individuals or companies in the Muslim world like Turkey or Malaysia would realize this and invest seriously in genuine European Muslim projects.

And coming to our last question, what is your prospect for future where the position of “oppositional” German media is in sharp contrast to Turkish government or critical and revisionist outlook is predominating?

It depends on certain issues like the outcome of the Syrian refugee crises or the handling of the EU-Turkish accord. How it is handled, how it is dealt with, how it is practiced. I think Turkey is successful. And success is itself always a good argument. If the economic policies continue and the numbers remain positive, the Turkish government can make the use of it.

When people speak about the government of president Erdogan, they never mention his quite successful fight against inflation, which is the biggest killer of the small people, of the poor.

Say whatever you think about us, in fourteen years Ankara created a far more adjusted society compared to the decades before of corruption and mistreatment of resources and politics, and inflation.

I mean one interesting thing is, when people speak about the government of president Erdogan, and then prime minister, they never mention his quite successful fight against inflation, which is the biggest killer of the small people, of the poor. Likewise, they won’t mention a large chunk of the foreign debts, which is in fact a huge success and should be promoted for a greater public. I mean look where Turkey is and where Greece is. You have to understand that media is not a global vending machine, where you go and want something. If you want something, you need to get it done yourself.

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Sulaiman Wilms was in born 1970. He studied history, philosophy, German literature & pedagogics. He is the co-founder of Muslim monthly Islamische Zeitung in 1995 and editor-in-chief since 2002. Wilms engaged in European Muslim Union since 2005 and he is responsible for media relations & communications.