Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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Billboards display Turkish President and People's Alliance's presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in Istanbul, Türkiye, on Wednesday, April 19, 2023 [Francisco Seco/AP]

The correspondent's job: Ask people, don't tell them

Should foreign correspondents and their media organisations ever take a stand on another country’s political divisions?


This week, the prestigious British weekly, The Economist, devoted its front page to the upcoming elections in Türkiye, describing them as the most important of 2023. With this I might agree. But The Economist also included a call to vote and the words: "Erdoğan must go". This strikes me as running counter to journalistic ethics. 

"Light and stenographers" are the basic tenets of democracy, as Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Maura famously said in the early decades of the 20th century. By "stenographers", he meant the employees of Parliament charged with transcribing all speeches delivered by politicians during the sessions, so people would be able to check proposals and promises made by their elected representatives and hold them accountable. The concept is nowadays considered shorthand for a free press, able to transmit accurately what is happening in the political sphere. 

With many countries in the world ruled by not-so-democratic regimes, foreign correspondents often see themselves in the role of the stenographer, with the duty of shining a light on the realm of politics and telling their audience what exactly takes place there. This is true even in a democratic country like Türkiye, where there are many good local journalists who do this job. Despite a low ranking in the world press freedom index published annually by Reporters Without Borders, where Türkiye ranks 165 out of 180 countries, there is still a free press in the country, with outspoken oppositional newspapers not only mushrooming online but also sold at the average newspaper stand in the street. However, their readership is small - 90 percent of the media is in the hands of businesspeople close to the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is seeking re-election next Sunday, May 14. And it goes without saying that these media outlets repeat everything the president says, without ever doing much fact-checking of the details. 

I am routinely asked for my own opinion when asking citizens for theirs. And I never give a straight answer


Unfortunately, the opposition press does not do much fact-checking either and its attempts to counter the Government's discourse are often more emotionally driven than analytical. This is the result of a society so deeply divided today between Erdoğan's supporters and opposition voters that there is barely any space left for rational discussion. Followers of the president will refuse to doubt his words and adversaries will not bother to separate grains of truth and falsehood in a narrative they consider anyhow an all-round imposture. This, of course, makes opposition media a no-more-trustworthy source of news for those who feel caught in the middle or are doubtful. 

In this situation, foreign correspondents are often considered an impartial or at least level-headed arbiter, even by many locals who are no longer sure who to trust. When covering the election campaign - but even long before, because in Türkiye, the last few years have felt like a prolonged election campaign - I am routinely asked for my own opinion when asking citizens for theirs. And I never give a straight answer. Not just because I don't want people to give me the answers they assume I want to hear, but because it goes against our work ethics. As a journalist, and specifically as a foreign one, you are not supposed to influence the situation you are observing and describing.

This is not always easy, because being a long-term correspondent is somewhat different from covering an election as a reporter sent on a one-off mission. Of course, when going to a foreign country to report about elections, everybody will already have chosen his or her side, even if unconsciously, so being impartial or at least keeping the appearance of being it, will always require effort. But on the one hand, journalists on a short mission must be always open to changing their mind as information unfolds, and then, they have not really a stake in what is happening - after the votes are counted and the result announced, there is a flight ticket back home. 

For a long-term correspondent, the situation is different. Perhaps there is no "home" to go to, or at least not without the great effort of a job change. I have lived in Türkiye for more than a decade, as have many other foreign journalists in Istanbul. Theoretically, we are entitled to apply for citizenship, but all the journalists I know have avoided doing it - one of the assets of being a foreign correspondent is precisely being foreign. Of course we have a stake in what is happening in this country, which we love and where we have chosen to live. This is not only emotional, because the victory of one side or the other can make the life of all journalists, both local and foreign, easier or more difficult. But it is emotional, too. Being a journalist does not mean being insensitive and not caring about what is happening around you. It just means you don’t show it while you are working. But you will soon understand that the term "work" covers everything you write or do in public. 

Being a journalist does not mean being insensitive and not caring about what is happening around you. It just means you don’t show it while you are working


Back in Spain - my country - I used to go to protest marches as a citizen fulfilling my duty of political participation in a democracy. I have never gone to any in Türkiye. That is, as a protester. I have of course gone to hundreds with the camera in one hand and a notepad in the other. Asking questions, taking pictures and writing news. But never shouting a slogan. This sometimes needs some self-control. I remember the Gezi protests in Istanbul in 2013, when tens of thousands of citizens, mostly young people, men and women, flocked to Taksim square, turning a small environmentalist sit-in in a huge rally that can probably only be compared to the 1968 student rebellion in Paris. Or so it felt for many of us who had not been born at that time but kept a cultural memory of "Paris 68" as a turning point in European politics and youth movements. In any case, it seemed to be a historical moment for Türkiye, too, and to witness it was a privilege. 

But witnessing is the word: we, as journalists, are not part of the protest. We choose not to be. We carry no flags or banners. We shut our mouths when others are speaking. It is a matter of principle: either you cover a protest for news or you take part, but you can’t do both things at the same time. And you soon discover that you cannot do it at other times either, because once you are a foreign correspondent, you cannot leave that aspect of your life to one side for an hour or a day.  

As journalists, we are often proud of being on call 24 hours a day - and not only literally, ready to pick up the phone at any time, but also metaphorically: every person we meet might be a future source for doing news, every conversation we have, be it during shopping or dancing in a bar, will add something to our knowledge of the country and shape the background of what we write. You never really disconnect because observing reality is your job. And we have to realise that reality does observe us, too. Whatever we do will be done in our quality as foreign journalists. And our job is to tell how the country is doing, not to tell the country what it should do.

That is the same attitude I try to keep up during this election campaign, probably the most polarised ever seen in a country which started being polarised 10 years ago, precisely after the Gezi protests had been quelled. Of course I know which party I would like to see win. But I will not tell you. I'll tell you what people think, on one side of the political spectrum and on the other, and I'll give you the facts of how the country is doing right now, but I'll stop there. Therefore, I think The Economist made a mistake on its frontpage. I know that UK and American newspapers have a tradition of officially endorsing one candidate in the elections, and that might be fair, because most papers have their specific ideological outlook and it is okay to express it openly. But when it comes to the democratic exercise of a foreign country, telling its citizens for whom they should vote is not okay. Not only because an impartial analysis in the foreign press is valued precisely for being impartial, but also because it shows a lack of respect for Turkish voters: do they really need a British news organisation to tell them what to do with their country?

Ilya U Topper is a Spanish journalist based in Istanbul


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance


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