Turkey’s constitutional referendum is now two weeks away. On 16 April, Turkish voters will decide whether to support a change from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential democracy. Even though the material of Turkey’s referendum is nothing extraordinary, especially in comparison to what Turkish society has suffered over the past 60 years, one would not know this if he or she looks at the international press. Both in Europe and across the Atlantic, the press depicts a nightmarish scene of impending religious totalitarianism if the referendum is approved. The international perception and the domestic Turkish reality are completely different.
When British historian Mark Mazower published Dark Continent, his study of Europe’s 20th century, few readers needed to have the title’s meaning explained to them. That was 1998, in the years following the USSR’s disintegration. The many regional confrontations spawned by the Soviet Union’s end were still playing out. Because the Cold War had ended only a few years previously, no one had forgotten what that nightmarish era meant, or the horrific, murderous conflicts which were the Cold War’s prelude.
But a generation has passed since that time and memories of the 20th century’s catastrophes seem to have faded. Continent-wide, Europe now experiences a resurgence of the old racially based populist politics that plagued it 100 years ago. And the new focus of Europe’s right-wing nationalists is a primordial foe, useful for inspiring fear during much of the past 600 years: the “Terrible Turk”.
Rising hysteria concerning Turkey has been evident in Europe’s media for many years, and not only in its right-wing outlets. Apparently, the prospect of a Turkey led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan being admitted to the E.U. is equivalent to opening Vienna’s gates to Sultan Suleyman. European media’s feverish depictions of Turkey long ago abandoned any semblance of objectivity. Instead, even progressive publications provide fright coverage for their readers, portraying a rising “Islamic dictatorship,” inimical to all European values, threatening to overwhelm Europe’s enlightened civilization.
Europe’s distorted perception of Turkey does not stem from a lack of information, but objective articles about Turkey are now extremely difficult to find in the European press. Most writing on Turkey for international platforms has malevolent intentions and purposefully chooses to focus on negative, one-sided content for their readers. The situation is so extreme that the coverage those writers think is “neutral” is not actually so, and when those journalists are criticized for what they write, the critic is demonized. This means that both ill-will and an intellectual/mental bubble are present.
Subsequently, the information regarding Turkey that most foreigners, whether in Europe or elsewhere, have access to is either biased or incomplete. The partisan content purposefully interprets Turkey in a negative manner in order to affect the readers’ perceptions. The deficient information provides only one perspective on any particular event, fails to include the full range of facts known about that event, or does not describe the historical, political, or social context for the event, which might cause the reader to understand the situation differently.
One frequently encountered argument is that journalism, especially as it is practiced in today’s Internet-saturated, 24-hour news cycle, cannot or should not provide such in-depth content. I would argue that such comprehensive information is exactly what readers want, and that it is journalists’ (and their publications, on whatever platform) professional responsibility to provide detailed, thoroughly contextualized information. In fact, in-depth information is even more important in today’s world of frenetic, hyper-globalized news coverage.
I can mention a simple example: if one were to ask a typical person on the street in Europe or North America what kind of political system Turkey possessed, most likely that person would answer that Turkey was under some sort of authoritarian dictatorship, probably religious. That person would then be surprised to learn that Turkey has enjoyed free, fair, open, and transparent elections since 1950. That person’s lack of knowledge about Turkey can only be partially blamed on the education that they received because they probably encountered little-to-no information about Turkey in school.
In other words, the basic misapprehension about Turkey’s political system can only be blamed on the contemporary international press, and the media that transmits the international press’ content to the local level. How frequently, for example, does the New York Times mention the fact that Turkey is, and remains, a democracy in which citizens cast their votes freely and those votes are tallied publicly? This is a fundamental fact, as any person who examines the actual mechanisms of Turkish democracy will quickly see for themselves.
But the reason that the NYT and other international publications neglect the democratic nature of Turkish elections is easy to surmise. The logical implications run like this: first, if Turkish elections are democratic, then the political leaders do actually represent the citizens. Second, if the same Turkish political party repeatedly wins democratic elections by large margins, then most Turkish citizens clearly are not unhappy with that party. Third, because alternatives for Turkish voters do exist but receive far smaller vote shares than the governing party, those alternatives are not preferable for most Turkish voters. And finally, given all of the above, if foreign journalists tell their readers that the Turkish government is awful for one reason or another, then those journalists must have other motivations for expressing such ideas to their readers. Obviously, Turkish voters do not agree with these foreign journalists’ assessments.
If the reader knows that Turkish elections are actually democratic, then he or she can easily work through the same logic, and will eventually question the motivation of the journalists and their publications. So both the journalists and their publications avoid discussing Turkey’s electoral system in detail other than to suggest that something, somewhere must be rigged. Rumors that Turkey’s electoral system was somehow compromised first emerged during the June 2013 Gezi Park protests. Those rumors were then picked up by the international press and elaborated. This is the easy cop-out that international publications, such as the NYT, resorted to in the past four years.
But lately, as the Turkish referendum and several other national elections in Europe approached, the rhetoric aimed at Turkey across the continent, from Bulgaria to France, has become more overtly bigoted, racist, and even violent. Several months ago, Europe’s media and political leadership decided that Turkey’s constitutional referendum fell within their jurisdiction. The results have included wild claims of an encroaching Islamic dictatorship, racist caricatures in various countries’ press or public events, an uptick in PKK and DHKP-C rallies (the PKK is designated “terrorist” by the EU), and even threats of violence against Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdoğan. Racial instincts once again dominate Europe’s mental processes.
So the old questions about Europe’s ability to overcome its ancient, chauvinistic tendencies have come flooding back. Just as Europe’s religious wars did not end interfaith violence, the world wars and Nazism did not end its racism or racially fueled politics. And notably, this disturbing development is seen in the international press only from a broad “rise in Europe’s right-wing” perspective, and the specific anti-Turkish aspects are largely ignored.
So when the democratically elected leader of a 65-year NATO ally is depicted with a gun to his head at a rally in a European country, how can the NYT completely ignore the incident? And when the organization calling for that leader’s assassination is also officially designated “terrorist” by the U.S. and the EU, isn’t there something for the Times or the European press to report on? Finally, when Turkish citizens see this blatant double standard in the NYT and other international press sources, who can blame them for feeling suspicion about those publications’ ultimate aims?