A book that the famous Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun wrote 130 years ago about his Istanbul visit has a striking content that sheds light on the origins of Western media's current biased attitude toward Turkey. We had better identify the present situation before conveying some of Hamsun's personal experiences related in the book.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the number of anti-Turkey news articles and columns published in Western media. When these news reports and comments are subjected to discourse analysis, we find a conspicuous lack of accurate information in them. In addition, it is inevitable to be confronted with a disturbing prejudice that is ever-present in these writings. And the combination of the lack of accurate information and prejudice gives birth to writings that are almost as obsessive as smear campaigns. In most of them, there is a prevailing one-sided approach imbued with subjectivity. From newspapers to TV channels, and from news agencies to internet journalism, there is a similar exclusionary and labeling literature in circulation.
The sad truth is, these kinds of publications enjoy a vast audience in the Western world as well as on a global scale (particularly given the prevalence of English). Anti-Turkey circles generate and reproduce these carefully crafted contents in order to create a basis for their policies. And contents with no buyers are there simply for mud-slinging, hoping that some of it will stick.
The media in general and the news contents in particular are not independent of the general foreign policy of the countries, their efforts to expand their influence, and expectations to benefit from those ideologically. This being the case, the connection between the fundamental ethical dynamics that constitute the theory of journalism and the texts produced becomes completely severed.
"It is difficult to know the truth. This is probably due to the 'monophony' of the European press, whose duty it is to tell us the truth. Frankly, one gets a little suspicious. The party that needs to be heard is completely mute," writes Knut Hamsun 130 years ago to describe Western media's "strong allergy" to Turkey. His words are vitally important for they recognize a truth. These statements demonstrate just how far back the European media's black propaganda against the Turkish state and the Turks goes. What is more upsetting is that the reality expressed in Hamsun's words 130 years ago points to what is now an aggravated problem despite all the technological advances in the field of accessing information that is accurate, and that all kinds of disinformation are still able to make their way into media reports easily .
Knut Hamsun's astonishment at the stark contrast between the ideas he had acquired from European newspapers on the Ottoman State and Sultan Abdulhamid II, and the realities he saw for himself when he came to Istanbul is a major testimony.
In the following paragraphs, we will elaborate on his testimony at length and provide examples of how old European media's smearing habit actually is, and how disconnected it is from the realities on the ground.
- European press does not tolerate diversity
Knut Hamsun, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, dedicated a chapter of his book "A Life of Struggles" (Stridende Liv) to his personal accounts of Istanbul. The author called this chapter of the book "Under the Crescent”. It deals with the people and events the author saw during his stay in Istanbul in 1889 -- in the era of Abdulhamid II -- and his impressions of the city.
In this section of the book, Hamsun assesses, from his own perspective, Istanbul's life style, social structure and social dynamics as well as various indicators regarding the form of government. Notwithstanding the typical Orientalist sentences that he intersperses his writing with (stemming from his formerly acquired biases), he does not shy away from making courageous remarks, showing that he has changed his opinions and was amazed by the things he saw in many of the places he visited. In a passage that reveals the amazement he feels even before he set foot on land, Hamsun writes, "What we see is very different from what we have so far thought. Or are we not in Turkey? For thirty years, I have been reading articles about a country 'brought to the brink of bankruptcy by incompetent sultans'. The truth is, our ferry is now making its way in a land of tales with its small towns filled with orchards and gardens that dazzle us with the roses glowing in bright red," showing that the real Istanbul he saw for himself was very different from the perceptions of Istanbul manufactured by European newspapers.
In several places in his book, Hamsun also emphasizes that there is a big difference between the Sultan Abdulhamid II that he had created in his mind based on the things he had read in European newspapers and the Sultan Abdulhamid II that he himself saw and got to know about in Istanbul. Noting that magazines in Europe had, for so many years, been creating an image of a non-human sultan and that articles that did not conform to the stereotypical European judgments on the sultan were too few and far between, Hamsun offers a new set of depictions based on his own observations in several parts of the book.
He writes, "The sultan took care to develop trade in the country, did not object to the reforms in schools, allowed the construction of railways, and reorganized his army. It is said that he is a very hard-working person, wakes up at 5 in the morning, and orders his clerks to spend their nights in the palace so that they are able to respond to his calls immediately in case of urgencies." This a testimony to a smear campaign systematically carried out in the European media.
Hamsun's description of Sultan Abdulhamid, making references in the meantime to General Wallace, Sidney Whitman and Pierre Loti, who knew Istanbul very well, is also important in order to understand the difference between reality and fiction. Hamsun's following lines, where he says, "No European monarch would welcome his guests more respectfully, more politely; he made greater efforts to enlighten his people compared to any of his predecessors and therefore deserves to be praised” and "the 'Armenian massacre' was perpetrated by Armenians themselves and for the purpose of provoking this 'blood bath' in the future," is also a testimony that the content presented as real was actually fictional.
These lines that bear witness to history, are -- with reference to Hamsun again -- but "drops in the ocean of publication".
- Ever ready to produce an 'other'
Turkey's strategic position in the East-West equation and its direction of movement in the flow of history, which has mostly displayed continuity, is undoubtedly not something of a novelty; this has gone on since the Seljuk and Ottoman times. The author's interest also shows this. Therefore, Turkey has always occupied a critical position in the minds of, primarily, Europeans, and then of Americans, who appeared on the stage of history much later. Anatolia has always been closely monitored by the Western public opinion; this was the case at the peak of its power as well as when it showed signs of weakening.
One fact that has remained constant, however, is that the dominant attitude in the media -- the primary instrument in shaping the public opinion -- has been negative. As soon as the first newspapers appeared in the West in the 17th century as content-carrying apparatuses, the Ottoman Empire or Turkey were immediately branded as the "other" in news articles and comments. The increase in the diversity of mass media tools over the course of history, with more and more advanced devices coming on the market every now and then, has resulted in the mere duplication, in copious amounts, of the same perspectives to a large extent instead of introducing a change and balance in the contents.
The most current version of this negative attitude can be traced in the news reports on refugees used against Turkey, whereas Turkey has been hosting some four million Syrian refugees and is a country that has saved millions of Syrian lives through its "open-door" policy. The countries of the Western media institutions that publish such biased pieces have not been doing anything to solve this problem politically, and they do almost nothing to protect the refugees. As such, those whose only source of information is the media have their opinions on Turkey tainted and shaped negatively.
This fact remaining unchanged for quite some time also means that Hamsun's personal accounts of Istanbul and the Ottoman sultan are actually up-to-date even though they were written exactly 130 years ago. This unfortunately shows very clearly that Europe's perception of Turkey has always been imbued with similar biases. Western media carries on its tradition of antagonism against Turkey. Nothing has changed since 1889.
Translated by Omer Colakoglu
By Yusuf Ozkir
The writer is associate professor at the Faculty of Communication at Istanbul Medipol University. He is also the publishing coordinator of Kriter magazine