South African and Turkish editors join forces
Challenges facing the media in reconciliation and democracy in both Turkey and South Africa came under the spotlight at a media seminar held at the University of Johannesburg this week.
The seminar was a part of a series of dialogues under the auspices of the South African Editors' Forum (Sanef) and the Turquoise Harmony Institute.
The partnership is aimed at promoting better understanding of the media, facilitating debates around tolerance, cross-culturalism and reconciliation, and sharing best practice experiences from both countries.
The two organizations are also facilitating internship opportunities for young journalists from both countries.
Editor of Turkey’s largest daily English newspaper, Today's Zaman, Bulent Kenes says that despite the presence of nearly 40 newspapers and dozens of television stations, his country's media can be broken down into two main tracks.
"The conventional segment of Turkish media takes the bureaucracy, state and military as its centre, looks out for the elite instead of the public and aims to defend the status quo of the tutelage of the military and high judiciary instead of democracy, freedoms, human rights, the supremacy of law and the will of the people," says Kenes.
He adds that the other side is 'more respectful of public values, more pluralistic, pacifist, pro-change, libertarian, more respectful and aware of individual rights and freedom'. It is also democratic, in favour of legal equality for all, at peace with the world, prioritises the public over the state and favours transparency and the holding of account of all institutions and establishments to the public.
Old and new media
Kenes says that Turkey is one in which old and new are in serious conflict. He says atrocities committed in the past are today being investigated by the media. The old media, says Kenes, is trying to cover up, water down and trivialize the coup plans and military plots. But, despite this the nation is still headed toward being freer and more transparent, civilian, pluralistic and democratic.
Kenes is confident that the new media will overcome the old media and 'the Turkish media's contribution to the reconciliation, dialogue efforts and solution of problems between nations, societies and cultures will grow'.
Turkish sociologist and columnist Ali Bayramoglu say his country is facing a time of transformation where there is a growing demand in terms of freedom. He too says that the media is divided. He says media owners censor their journalists but Turkey is making progress in overcoming this.
He adds that the role of the media is important in bringing people of different backgrounds together.
Similarities between Turkey and SA
Meanwhile, Sanef deputy chairperson Henry Jeffreys says the challenges confronting SA and the media are no different from Turkey.
"Turkey and South Africa have a common multi-cultural history. Both countries are grappling with the need to enhance a culture and climate of tolerance, while coping with clashes between modernity and tradition, and simultaneously ensuring peaceful coexistence," said Jeffreys.
He hopes the discussion and exchange of ideas will help foster better understanding and relationships between journalists and their countries.
Jeffreys says that during his visit to Turkey last year and through the many discussions held, he was inspired by the 'commitment to establish a vibrant, modern society based on the principles of tolerance and the power of peaceful dialogue'.
He says the media in South Africa had to rapidly change and adapt to the changes and transformations which 'swept like a veritable tsunami across our political, economic and social landscapes'.
"Transformation is not easy. The ongoing transformation of our society is not without its difficulties. On the political front the government and ruling party did many things right, but also got a lot of things wrong. Under former President Nelson Mandela the reconciliation project was a priority. Under his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, it got lost in a labyrinth of confused ideological thinking and policy-making. Reconciliation as a theme seems to back under President Jacob Zuma, but the utterings of key ANC leaders, are perceived and felt to promote quite the opposite."
Jeffreys says that the South African media played a pivotal role in disseminating information on the transformations that accompanied the advent of democracy. "The media was freed from the repressions placed upon it during the apartheid era. It reported on the process of democracy and analysed and interpreted the meaning of it."
He adds that the media in South Africa is fortunate in that it occupies a constitutionally entrenched position in society. "In South Africa we are fortunate to have in place a Constitution which represents the rule of law and a Constitutional Court which is the highest and final authority on the law. Its decisions are binding on all sectors of society including Government. Our Constitution, together with the Bill of Rights, is the highest law in the land and guarantees freedom of speech and of the media."
This freedom is not only for the media but it is the freedom of the nation and any threat to it is a threat to all, and will in the end impoverish and destroy democracy. It is therefore crucial for the media to not only capture the ongoing path of democracy and reconciliation but also to continue to fulfill the primary role of watchdog over South Africa’s constitutional democracy, he said.
Telling the story
South African editor and author, Janet Smith says that journalists in South Africa play a substantial role in deciphering the geo-strategic importance of the country to its media consumers and likewise the same is done in Turkey.
She told her Turkish counterparts, "Like you, we are constantly re-examining and reporting on the role of the judiciary. We evaluate Constitutional Court judgments very critically, and we measure them against the thermometer of a rather more conservative public which would probably support the death penalty if there was a referendum on it, and may well have issues with abortion and same-sex unions if this was put to them for a vote."
Smith points out that journalists under the age of 30 in South Africa did not attend high school in a segregated environment, and often struggle to understand the full weight of that terrible climate. "They don't always know the past or the characters very well. Yet this is so important in developing their analytical skills and their empathy."
She adds: "Most of them simply don't have histories with any politicians or bureaucrats who were in what we call The Struggle during apartheid, so they battle to forge contacts in government. But we are all trying."
"We work in a true democratic environment where we cover everything, irrespective of our race, religion, political persuasion or gender. We cherish that truth, but it can be rough," says Smith.
She appealed: "We must continue to bravely tell those stories and reveal with honour what has happened to us, and to learn from each other as to how we do that is a beautiful prospect."