Sabah, the Turkish newspaper that earlier this summer fired its ombudsman of almost a decade, Yavuz Baydar, has replaced him and responded to the criticism of its firing decision.
As iMediaEthics wrote, Sabah fired Baydar following his July 19 New York Times op-ed that criticized the Turkish media for failing to cover Turkish protests. The European Federation of Journalists and its “affiliate in Turkey, the Türkiye Gazeteciler Sendikasi,” called Sabah’s firing of Baydar a “scandal.” And, Organization for News Ombudsmen president Stephen Pritchard told iMediaEthics by email that he has “requested a meeting with the Turkish ambassador to London” and submitted “a letter of protest” to Sabah but he isn’t sure if his letter was published.
Sabah announced August 5 that Ibrahim Altay, at the time of the firing an editor for Sabah, would be the newspaper’s reader’s representative and handle readers’ complaints. The Sabah report about Altay’s new position explained his role will be full time but will be limited to responding to reader concerns. The report reads:
“Who is a readers’ representative?
“If we take it by the book, it is ‘the person responsible of following complaint reports, and the supervision of content in the name of the reader.’ Well, in other words someone who does not act their own agenda, but instead gets their agenda from the readers.”
Further Sabah said the reader’s representative role “must become the joint that forms between the reader and the paper.” The newspaper also responded to reactions to the firing of Baydar. In a July 26 article on its website, Sabah slammed Baydar’s work for the paper, arguing that his “actions and performance were below par in comparison to the international standards of a readers’ representative.”
The newspaper criticized and accused him of not proposing compromises between reader complaints and the newspaper’s stance. “Baydar, failed to have readers’ reactions and comments reach the editorial members, showing no intention of reaching them, thus preferring to openly offend the journalists,” the paper said. “He was unable to find solutions that both parties would consent to when complaints did come in.”
Partially, the newspaper suggested this could be attributed to his not having any “serious past experience as a journalist” with Sabah causing him to not have “healthy working relationships with his co-workers.” iMediaEthics notes that a true ombudsman is supposed to be independent from the newsroom and therefore not pull punches for friends at the newspaper. Because of this, past ombudsmen have described the job as a very lonely position.
Sabah went on to attack Baydar for his political stances in articles for other publications:
“The second issue is rooted in how Baydar saw himself as both an Ombudsman and a Reader’s Representative. Claiming to be independent, but acting as though a member of the editorial, he alongside this cooperated with other English media sources, (not by doing what he claimed at SABAH) by taking pen to paper in articles that reeked of politics.”
Perhaps most shockingly, Sabah criticized Baydar for criticizing “the newspaper’s editorial section,” which Sabah said broke “the SABAH Newspaper’s Ombudsman rules of practice.”
While Sabah said Baydar was allowed to “publish readers’ comment and criticism if they’re remarkably important, legitimate and up to date, without adding any view of ombudsman own,” he wasn’t supposed to comment on the paper’s editorial positions, such as when he criticized the newspaper for not covering protests.
Sabah continued to levy criticism at Baydar for publishing anonymous or insult-laden criticism of the newspaper and for writing “things that could harm the newspaper’s brand name” and “marketing strategy.” As an example, Sabah cited Baydar’s questioning “why should the readers read this paper?”
Sabah went on to say it was Baydar’s own fault for getting fired because he kept “rebuking his media bosses.” Further, the newspaper asked: “Could you envision the Readers’ Representative of the New York Times behaving like this?”
What Does Baydar Say?
iMediaEthics asked Baydar for a response to the criticism. In a lengthy response (published below in full at Baydar’s request), Baydar rejected the criticism, accused the writer of the report of publishing “factual mistakes” and “lies,” and said that the Sabah story was just the opinion of “one employee.”
Baydar added in an e-mail to iMediaEthics that he “will certainly take the firing decision to court” but that he does “not care about the column a bit.”
iMediaEthics has asked Sabah‘s editor via Facebook for a response to Baydar’s letter and will update with any response.
Full Response from Yavuz Baydar to Sabah Column:
“The views expressed in the article does not represent the views of Sabah as institution, only those of one employee. But the disturbing fact with this is the dark side of culture of journalism in Turkey: in cases of dismissals based on expressing opinion – which happen on daily basis here – smearing and bashing the ‘fallen’ colleagues either voluntarily or on hopes of glory.
“Sadly, it is one of those cases. It explains a lot as to why there is so little solidarity and such sharp polarization in this country; as subject I returned constantly in my time as ombudsman.
“It is utterly remarkable that nowhere in the article there is a mention why the Sabah’s editorial management censored two articles of its ombudsman, with no reason given to me. Mind you that the first article was refused before the publication of my op- ed piece in NYT.
“Another sad point with the article is, it is written by a colleague who did a very poor homework on what ombudsmanship is all about.
“Although I could, I shall not go in detail to correct the factual mistakes. Let me just make one point clear, to illustrate the ignorance pouring out from its lines: if the writer could visit ONO’s website, he would easily grasp that the term ombudsman is a cover for various titles we use globally. Reader’s Editor, Public Editor, Reader’s Defender (as in Hispanic media), Mediateur (in France) and as I have used since 1999, Readers’ Representative.
“The writer does not even know that NYT’s ombudsman is titled Public Editor, not Reader’s Representative. He also wants us to believe that ombudsman and the other titles are somewhat different in work. Let me leave it there.
“Regarding the critique of my work:. First, none of these points were raised since my employment with Sabah in the fall of 2004, although the ground rules would require so. I would have expected that, and would the management feel there was reason, it would have issued a warning or a heads up. On the contrary, whenever I raised the issues in my conversations, all I received was good words, encouragement and praise, such as ‘your column is Sabah’s conscience, please keep on doing what you do’.
“At the point of my employment, my conditions were two-fold: First the name of the internal post and its holder as ombudsman would be put on Sabah’s masthead (to underline a commitment to readers), and that an ‘operational manual for ombudsman and employer’ would be prepared by me for final approval. Both were met, marking the independence strongly required for ombudsman in a thorny professional environment in Turkey.
“From day one, it was made clear that ombudsman columns would include reader views as well as ombudsman’s opinion (as part of universal practice) and if ombudsman saw reasonable ground, he would himself raise issues, his criticism of the newspaper. My record in the past years is filled with many such examples.
“Second, the management from very early on gave its approval for Sabah’s ombudsman to express his views in various media and academia channels.
I could therefore write opinion columns in a daily in English since 2007, appear in TV programmes and often do dispatches for international media.
I did also do a lot of work for UNESCO, OSCE, EuroMed and universities – workshops, training courses and extensive reports; which the management of Sabah was aware of.
“The last four paragraphs of the article are a bizarre blend of ignorance and lies. The writer does not know that any independent ombudsman anywhere in democratic world would have the full spectrum of the newspaper’s content, including the editorial choices for the front page and even hate speech that can appear in columns. The writer does not know that many ombudsmen do act cautiously to print the identities of readers complaining, unless they do wish to appear so. The most important point is the content of the complaint itself: it is what it says to Sabah.
“The writer is shamelessly lying that there was no communication internally.
“It is first of all what the column is all about: to communicate inwards and outwards. Second, the ombudsman always did – despite some resistance – investigate the complaints with reporters and editors, and conveyed their views. Some of them refused, choosing to patronize the public; it was their choice not to communicate. Third, the ombudsman’s office always remained open for further discussion of issues, and not strangely, he was often visited by staff, who asked for opinions or delivered their own.
“As for two censored columns – the first of which is now posted at the website of Reporters Without Borders / RSF thus available for reading – it is exactly what an independent ombudsman should do: listening to a wave of critical views for what the readers saw as clear shortcoming of professional duties, commenting on the poisonous media milieu and call for sound reason. This part of what we are here for.
“The article, whose aim obviously is to discredit the ombudsman, argues as if the failure of duties is the reason for his dismissal. But the reasons in writing handed over to me by Sabah tells a completely different story. ‘You are fired’ it says in short, ‘for expressing your opinion in different publications, in particular for the New York Times.’
“I am, I believe, entitled to believe the latter. So is my lawyer.”