Mar 25, 2009

Honor Killing in Turkey

Rarely do my feminist, journalist, and civil libertarian selves all experience cardiac arrest at the same time. But a recent article in Today's Zaman, a Turkish newspaper, has induced that response. [A PDF is also available]

The article is about honor killing. You know that civilized practice in which girls and women are murdered by their male relatives for wearing makeup or inappropriate dress, for talking to men who aren't related to them, or for wanting a divorce? (Recently, the term has also been used to describe familial murders of gays and lesbians.)

The headline on this story reads: "Media help escalate honor killings, study reveals." Usually, the opposite is true. Shining light on a social problem can raise the sort of awareness that eventually changes attitudes and laws, establishes support services, and encourages prevention.

So where's the evidence for such a startling claim? It turns out, no academic study was ever undertaken. Rather, Turkey's Ministry of Education conducted a public opinion poll.

In the process of surveying 440 high school students and their parents, it discovered alarming things. 13% of the parents and 10% of the students said they had personally witnessed an honor-killing. Yes, you heard that right. One in ten Turkish high school students have witnessed a murder.

Moreover, 25% of both parents and students said they support honor killings.

Then there's the data that gave birth to the headline: 23% of the parents and 29% of the students happen to believe that media reporting of honor-killings increases the incidence of such crimes.

Whatever the original intent of this poll, it's clear the results will now be used against the Turkish press. The geniuses running the country didn't actually investigate whether media attentions hurts or helps. Nor do they seem concerned about the damage done to young people who witness murder firsthand.

Instead, the government is preoccupied with how the media portrays such events. The press is being urged to cover honor killings "with the utmost prudence so as not to negatively affect children." Moreover, the government now says proper education of the "reporters who are covering such stories" is important. Right.

In Turkey, the media is obviously in the wrong if high school students don't consider "the programs aired or the stories be impartial or close to reality." Perish the thought that the students might be less-than-fully-informed.

Its application to join the European Union notwithstanding, freedom-of-the-press is still a distant dream in Turkey. Imagine North American newspapers being instructed to "stress the outcomes - not the causes" when describing certain kinds of murders.

I've never been to Turkey. But speaking as someone who was a print journalist for more than a decade, this translates as: Never mind that a teenage girl was murdered simply because she talked to a boy. What matters is that lots of people think she deserved to have her skull bashed in.