Abdulhamit Bilici, Former Editor-in-Chief, Zaman News, Journalist | USA

Abdulhamit Bilici is the Former Editor-in-Chief of the now-closed Zaman Newspaper. He was also the Chief Executive Officer of its English-language version, Today`s Zaman. Mr. Bilici was the General Director of Cihan News Agency and the Editor of Aksiyon Weekly Magazine. He has a Master`s Degree from Department of Economics at Istanbul University and has an MBA degree from Faculty of Management at Fatih University. Abdulhamit Bilici has been living in exile as a journalist in the USA after the failed-coup attempt in Turkey. Mr. Bilici is an expert on Turkish politics and continues his journalism career by writing freelance articles for various media outlets.


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Event Title: SDGs Conference 2023 Date: Sept 20, 2023


The role of a free and independent media for electoral democracies

To present my case will be very easy because if I introduce myself, it will be sufficient to tell how awful the situation is when there is no press freedom. I used to be Editor-in-Chief of the largest Turkish newspaper, which does not exist anymore, so it is not even a yellow journal. It is not a mouthpiece newspaper and even our archives are deleted. I used to write in that newspaper column twice per week and now I can not find those articles. Still, this is the smallest part of it because some of my colleagues are still in jail. I am lucky; although I have been in exile for seven years and of course, even that does not describe the situation because it is not just my newspaper but 200 media outlets that have been shut down in the last seven years, especially after the 2016 coup attempt. 

Turkey became the biggest jailer of journalists in the world. I would like to underline that the relationship between human rights in any country and press freedom is very significant. Those who follow international relations will remember Turkey was a rising star just 10 years ago, not a long distance. It was a model of a rising democracy. It was an economic success story in a very volatile, very chaotic world; it is not the case now. I will share two statistics to help you in making a conclusion for yourself. 

What is the relationship between press freedom and the rule of law, human rights, or justice? Turkey now ranks 165 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom according to the World Press Freedom Index. Turkey was 59th out of 126 countries on the Rule of Law Index, a global index telling us about the quality of justice in any country. Turkey was in the mid-level but now after seven years of the destruction of the press freedom, where is it now in that index? It is now 117th out of 139, almost 50 to 40 countries down in terms of quality of justice, rule of law, and human rights. 

When I listen to my colleagues’ observations about the United States, Greece, and New Zealand, I am learning that there are always some problems to focus on and to talk about and work on in regard to progress. There is a very important quote from George Orwell: “Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want to be printed. Any other thing is public relations.” 

If journalism is to print something that some people do not like to be printed, it is a default fact that you will be targeted. So, this is kind of given for a real journalist if we do our job but the scale of being targeted, being attacked, being not liked, may be different. In my case, my newspaper was shut down and I went into exile. In some French cases, they are being killed just because of writing facts that some sources of power do not like. It may be a government, a political leader, a mafia boss, a leader of a company, or a tribe. The nature of journalism has that intrinsic in it. 

You may not think that is disturbing some people. There are different levels of threat, damage, and problems but as I said, there is a strong relationship between press freedom, human rights, and the rule of law but of course, it is not a one-way street. If there is press freedom, journalists must respect the rule of law and human rights; however, this is not the case. There was relative freedom of media in Turkey but it did not support human rights but eventually destroyed it.

An Armenian colleague of mine who was a journalist was assassinated by an ultranationalist group but they have been targeted first by a very mainstream newspaper. As a result of a silly story, they put him on target. This was the starting point of him being killed and at the end of the process. There was a very popular singer, the Turkish audience will know very well, Ahmet Kaya, whose exile process and his death in Paris, happened after him being targeted by the media. So, there have been some other prominent journalists and intellectuals who have been targeted in cooperation with the security agencies of the Turkish state. 

These stories were published by mainstream media. Even when there is freedom of the press, it does not mean that all journalists and media will use it to support human rights. In my former newspaper, we had special policies. There are different groups and minorities that are oppressed by the state`s ideology. So what we did was, we had some intentional policies to contribute to human rights, not to eliminate it. One of those attempts was to invite columnists, and reporters from different backgrounds to be present in our newsrooms and to write their views in the newspaper. 

In Turkey, we have an Armenian minority, a Greek minority, of course, a very big majority of Kurds, but still a minority. We had intellectuals from these groups representing their views freely in the newspaper which was a training and education for us, for all our staff. We need to empathize and understand their situation as they were raising awareness of the violations that they were subjected to. Other than the established media in Turkey, 90 to 95 percent of it was controlled by two families. 

That was a big problem. Whenever we see a story that looks fabricated or fake, we could send a reporter to investigate the truth about it. The first book that we published in the newspaper was a collection of those fake stories and their correct versions as a book. My newspaper was established in the 1980s or mid-1980s but we have newspapers with 80 years of history. We had our reporters trained in human rights awareness. Journalists are not angels, so we may have some biases as well. Thus, we need to have all this education and training to not make mistakes or to make mistakes. 

It is not possible in journalism to be mistake-free. Sometimes we make mistakes without being aware of what we are doing. It is very important to be able to reach out to different people who are living in the same society. So that was a very big problem and for the founders of my newspapers, one of the priorities was to change perspective in the media and to reach out to other people that were neglected before, not to be populist, but just to give them a chance to express themselves. 

My newspaper’s history goes back to before Erdogan and AKP but first, when it was established, it was attacked by the seculars because it was an outsider and new player in the game. It was a tiny newspaper when it started but it became the largest newspaper in 10 to 15 years. We had strong relations, and this was appreciated by the community. In the case of Zaman, the newspaper shows that it is possible, even if you are not happy with the existing media’s establishment, you can start something from scratch but you need to have good principles. When AKP was founded and Erdogaan was the leader of that party, we thought their approach and their perspective were very close to ours. 

They had some pious backgrounds but they were open to the world. They were pushing for Turkey to be a European Union member. They were progressive; and had a conservative background but progressive policies. We gave full support to this party and to this leader until 2013, the year that an extensive state corruption scandal was discovered. We had to cover and write about that and that was the beginning of the decline of Turkish democracy including my victimhood.

Turkey in 2013 and in 2023 is like day and night. My conclusion is that Turkey was becoming a good example of Muslim democracy rising in a very troubled area but now it is also another example of how press freedom, democracy, and human rights are very interdependent on one another. A state can not have a democracy without upholding human rights for all first.

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