Angry Birds: Freedom of the Press in Israel and Turkey

“Freedom of the press” has been a hot topic this week in Turkey and Israel. Although the conversation in each country is unique, and the tactics employed to limit media freedom varies, it is nevertheless discouraging to witness the fragility of democracy when executive power goes unchecked.

Let’s start in Israel, where former Maariv political correspondent Tal Schneider pointed out on her site “The Plog” that although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has appeared numerous times on TV in the United States, and has agreed to be interviewed by the foreign media, it has been over a year since he gave an on-the-record interview with the Israeli press.

This prompted Schneider to launch a ticker, marking the passing seconds in Netanyahu’s snub.

Netanyahu’s difficult relationship with the Israeli press is well documented. In fact, it is popular belief (and deservedly so) that Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper that is now the country’s most widely read, was created to promote his political agenda.

Still, how can the same leader who ceaselessly references the quality of Israeli democracy neglect his own media? Even Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad managed to cross off that box this year.

But in Turkey, Netanyahu’s cold shoulder could almost be confused as a warm embrace.

On February 7th, Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist at Today’s Zaman, was deported.  Zeynalov claims that his deportation was the result of a series of critical tweets he directed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Posted on December 25 2013, the tweets referred to the graft scandal that has gripped the country in recent weeks.

A criminal complaint was filed by Erdoğan against the Azerbaijani national, so it should have come as no surprise to the journalist when, upon applying for an extension of his press card,  it got “lost in the mail” as the authorities moved in to deport him.

Zeynalov and his wife decided to leave on their own, preempting the arrival of the police.

The details are still surfacing, but it is clear that Zeynalov, who legally had another month of residency in Turkey and whose wife is a full citizen, must have touched a sensitive nerveNot that Erdoğan is willing to admit  this. Instead, he retorted, “They say he tweeted against me. I don’t follow twitter. I don’t have free time.”

A colorful portrayal of Erdoğan's current frustration with social media.

A colorful portrayal of Erdoğan’s current frustration with social media.

The story does not end there. Today’s Zaman is run by followers of Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric who until recently was one of Erdoğan’s most important political allies. Much of the graft scandal has been attributed to the dispute between the two men and their supporters. Zeynalov may have simply been caught in the crossfire.

I am no fan of  Zeynalov’s political views, specifically as they relate to Israel. I even doubt his integrity as a journalist. Despite this, his deportation is reprehensible. No one in the media should feel threatened to report a story (or offer commentary on events) in a particular manner because of government pressure, no matter what the country or who the leader. In short, freedom of the press is one of the pillars of democracy and its absence or dismissal is a worrying sign.

This is not meant to be a comparative analysis: Freedom House awarded Israel a 31 out of 100 (0 being the best and 100 being the worst) as a press freedom score – a ranking Israel has more or less kept over the last decade. Turkey, on the other hand, scored a 56 and has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world. They are is different leagues.

That being said, heads of state who are not sufficiently challenged by an coherent opposition may centralize enough power to limit the media’s role. This is certainly the case in Turkey, where freedom of the press has often been violated. The question is whether we are witnessing similar trends in Israel.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey