The Destruction of Understanding Trump, Erdogan and the Assault on the Free Press

Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan demand reverence rather than truthfulness, and both are mounting dangerous attacks on the free press. The threat is real and the media must hold its ground.

Protesters at a rally in Berlin call for the release of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel.
DPA

Protesters at a rally in Berlin call for the release of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel.

A DER SPIEGEL Editorial By


"The immediate causes of the unrest in Berlin are directly related to the latest developments in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). The enemies of the GDR in West Germany understand that the practical implementation of the new course for our party and government -- the course of raising the living standards for the broadest possible masses and the strengthening of legal certainty -- will represent a serious setback for them and, out of necessity, will lead to disaster for them. They even admitted that themselves."

That was the beginning of an editorial in the June 18, 1953, issue of Neues Deutschland, the official organ of the East German communist party, addressing the popular revolt in the GDR at the time. The paper claimed that the West was fomenting the resistance in the East because the West couldn't stand the East's success. And, yes, journalists are capable of twisting their words to that degree -- if the aim is for facts to be bent to mean the opposite, if words are meant to manipulate, denounce and create instability rather than enlighten people, and if there is no longer freedom of the press.

That freedom is once again imperiled, and all -- journalists, readers and especially citizens -- who consider the West and its liberal democracies to be things worthy of protection should stand up to defend it in the face of a confluence of factors that are now coming into simultaneous play.

It is truly great that digitalization now enables us to spread enlightening information for barely any cost. It allows people to publish without a costly staff, without printing and distribution, studios or satellite trucks. To be a web publisher, the only thing you need is a smartphone. No despot and no tax evader can ever feel entirely safe these days because there is a constant danger that the truth will come out -- and at full force.

But there are also lies, and that's the sad part. It's easier than ever to circulate fabrications and propaganda. Today, people can disseminate stories on the internet without taking the steps that define serious journalism: real reporting, fact-checking, expertise and attentive detail to language. Anyone can make any claim and then post it online -- everything from conspiracy theories and insults to incitement -- and, because it has been packaged to look like journalism, it can also have an impact.

Constant New Uncertainties

But other forces are also at play. Indeed, entire societies are now threatened because digitalization has transformed life so quickly, because equal opportunity is disappearing, because of the failure of some states and because climate change and globalized mass migration are constantly creating new uncertainties.

And now leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump are conducting assaults on the media. Erdogan has ordered the arrest of around 150 journalists and the closure of 170 media companies. Can Dündar, the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, had to flee his country to Germany, but his wife has not been allowed to leave Turkey. Deniz Yücel, a correspondent of Turkish-German origin for the daily Die Welt, is currently being held by police in Turkey because he did precisely what his vocation as a journalist calls on him to do, which is to travel, ask questions, get answers, analyze and assess them and then put those thoughts to paper.

In Putin's Russia, critical journalists are being murdered. In Orbán's Hungary, they are losing their jobs and falling into poverty.

Growing Disorientation

In Trump's America, meanwhile, the press has been declared an "enemy of the people." "You are fake news," the president says when he sees a CNN reporter. A colleague at The Washington Post recently described how the White House no longer answers any of his questions but blasts insults every time a story is published. It isn't until that point that the president's spokesman actually bothers to return his call, only to say, "Fuck you, asshole. We're going to make your life hell." The effect of all of this is that truth and lies are being blurred, the public is growing disoriented and, exhausted, it is tuning out.

This, in turn, aids the wrong people. Erdogan and Trump are positioning themselves as the only ones capable of truly understanding the people and speaking for them. It's their view that freedom of the press does not protect democracy and that the press isn't reverent enough to them and is therefore useless. They believe that the words that come from their mouths as powerful leaders are the truth and that the media, when it strays from them, is telling lies. That's autocratic thinking -- and it is how you sustain a dictatorship.

The idea of freedom of speech first came into being hundreds of years ago. The poet John Milton issued a plea for the "liberty of unlicensed printing" in 1644. "The destruction of a good book ends not in the slaying of an elemental life," he wrote, "but strikes at that ethereal and fifth essence, the breath of reason itself." This planted the seed: England moved to eliminate censorship in 1695. In 1776, the state of Virginia in the United States established the freedom of the press in America. The move was bold, enlightened and precious, making it that much more astonishing that some Turks and Americans now allow themselves to be lied to or have simply become too lazy to think critically.

Journalists and publishers cannot allow the same to happen to them. Whether the press can retain its importance on a daily basis will be determined by the seriousness and quality of its work -- its veracity, fearlessness and eloquence and the skill shown in developing a story. As journalists, we should not be offended -- we should maintain our composure -- but we also need to take the situation as seriously as it is. For if we as the media start insulting or disparaging other members of the media rather that reporting on the issues that actually matter or if we instead start criticizing victims like Yücel* rather than perpetrators like Erdogan, we make things easier for the autocrats.

* Editor's note: Following the arrest of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel in Turkey two weeks ago, a writer at one leading German newspaper sparked a heated debate after suggesting in an editorial that Turkish-Germans couldn't write objectively about Turkey and questioning the decision by Yücel's employer, the newspaper Die Welt, to send him there as a correspondent in the first place.

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Cal_105 02/28/2017
1.
The leftist media in German seems to be falling for the party line of the left in the US. Trump is not doing anything that Obama did not do during his eight years in office. The main difference is that 90% of the media in the US was in the tank with Obama and that same media now is hostile to Trump. The media can come out with fake stores and outright lies, and if they are contradicted then the freedom of the press is in jeopardy. I can assure you that the "freedom of the press" is not endangered in the US. We have a constitution that guarantees it even for the lying media. Trump has a right to set the record straight and give his opinion even when it goes against the left's diatribe. Get a grip comrades and don't accept everything coming out of the Washington DC beltway media as gospel. The press lives in a bubble there and has no ideal what is going on the the country outside DC.. As for President Erdogan of Turkey, he is dealing with a hostile media also most of the time. The only real problem I have with him is that he is ignoring the precepts and principles set down by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk the founder of the Republic of Turkey, There was a time not so long ago that if a politician in Turkey chose to ignore Atatürk's principles he was committing suicide. Not sure what is going on there now, but the country is really transforming from the Turkey I know. Ataturk must be rolling over in his grave?
bicester55 02/28/2017
2. Lets not blame other countries for our own woes.
On 10th Feb Spiegel said: "The European Union should launch its own broadcasting channel to counter the lies". Great, I don't even watch the BBC its news is no neutered. Who in the past would have ever believed that in 2016 by far the best English language news channel would operate out of Qatar! Merkel has promised 6 billion to Turkey to control Syrian refugees. The primary reason advantage of handing a European task to Turkey being that turkey could do it without journalistic oversight. Indeed a major Turkish newspaper was taken over within a day of the second 3 billion tranche. Europe needs to look at itself more rather than concentrating on Trump and Putin's and even N Korea's shenanigans over which we definitely have no influence.
Inglenda2 02/28/2017
3. Is Deniz Yücel being used to blackmail Germany?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be put in the same category as U.S. President Donald Trump. The first two are very clever, but not wise. The efforts they make to increase their own personal power are very successful, but damage the countries they lead. Trump also damages the USA, but certainly not with intelligence! Germany is quite different, the leaders there, like to sleep their way through the troubles of this world. They do not even wake up, when Germans with a Turkish background, vote for the oppressor Erdogan. Thereby, the question should urgently be raised, as to whether someone who votes for a dictator can at the same time be loyal to the German written constitution.
Vxx 02/28/2017
4. Free Press?
The author fails to recognize that when the number of independent news companies fall to a low and in the West 6 corporations control the mass media and political and economic forces now control what is read or even available. When national government themselves censor and dilute the news for political gain; claiming "free Press"/free speech and expression is not the total truth. When those same governments for decides have stifled the truth to the citizen. Then it is that all need to be criticized. We in The US are suspicious of main stream News as we know they mislead. Never give the real background information which allows understanding. The news media themselves are to blame.
American for Trump 2016 02/28/2017
5. Hypocrites
As an American I find it really insulting to be lectured by a German who is from a country that does not have freedom of speech or the press. Your hate speech laws are anti free speech and anti free press. Trump is right the press constantly distorts facts and lies by omission to further the leftist ideology. Your mainstream press are just mad because Trump is moving in on your action. The Swedish refugee problem is the prime example of leftist politicians and the mainstream press trying to tell us there is no crime problem with the refugees coming into Europe. Hey if you guys want to commit national suicide that is your business but don't criticize Americans for wanting to protect our way of life that is completely incompatible with these third world refugees. By the way you guys are loosing a lot of tourism dollars from America because we are afraid to go to Europe because of the terrorist attacks going on there, for example, Paris lost 1.3 billion Euros in tourism already. Keep telling yourselves that the open borders thing is great.
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