Forest fires draw partisan reports from Turkish press

Michael Mackenzie | Aug 18 2019


After a year when its news agenda has rarely slowed down from its breakneck pace, Turkey had a week of calm for the Feast of the Eid al-Adha holiday last week. During this welcome break from a frenzied political agenda, Turks also received the good news that their tourism sector had capped a strong couple of years with an excellent performance over the holiday period, with hotels in the Aegean and Mediterranean regions reportedly booked to capacity.

So, it was a great shame to see news over the same period of a spate of forest fires in those same regions that turned thousands of trees to ash, adding to the environmental destruction that has been high on the news agenda over the past month and triggering accusations in media reports from all sides.

As the Festival of the Sacrifice began on Sunday, Turkish firefighters were contending with a huge forest fire in Turkey’s western Çanakkale province. By Tuesday, some 27 fires had broken out and spread rapidly thanks to the hot and windy weather, forestry officials said.

Ninety-five percent of these fires in Turkey are caused by human activity, according to the forestry department’s deputy head, Hayati Özgür.

On Monday, a father and son were apprehended for causing one of the largest fires of the period, which broke out on Marmara Island, the second largest island on the Marmara Sea.

There has been no indication so far on whether the detained pair are accused of causing the fire through the carelessness of malicious intent. But journalists have not hesitated to share their theories on the wave of fires.

For BirGün, the key to understanding the 107 reported forest fires in the past month is in looking at the areas they broke out in: the fires, the newspaper quoted an ecological association as saying, have been conspicuously concentrated in areas overlooking the sea.

This, the line of thinking goes, is evidence of yet another attempt to gain profit, as the areas deforested by fires can more easily be acquired for development projects.

The destruction of the environment for profit has made headlines over the past month thanks to a gold mining project in the Kaz mountains that has seen large areas of forest destroyed in preparation for the excavation, triggering large-scale protests.

Environmental destruction is something of an open goal for Turkey’s opposition, given that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power for almost two decades. In that time its economic policies have heavily priorities construction and development over the environment, and it has overseen massive public projects and allowed friendly developers access to protected areas.

Protests against the Kaz mountains excavation have rallied broad support, including from moderate voices at pro-government newspapers such as Hürriyet’s Ahmet Hakan, who devoted columns on the issue on August 8 and 9 demanding that the AKP stop making excuses and start committing itself to protecting Turkey’s forests.

Pro-government media sources responded to the pile-on by offering what they called the “real situation” in an area they said was being exploited by the opposition. In the case of Türkiye on its August 7 front-page story, that meant speaking to locals, who said they welcomed the project and the revenues it brought.

True to form, Sabah’s Hilal Kaplan chose to go on the attack in her column on the same day, questioning the sincerity of opposition politicians who opposed the mining project when she said they had kept mum about similarly destructive projects in opposition-run municipalities.

Taking things a step further, after the wave of fires over the holiday period, Akşam accused the Kurdish political movement of following its “provocation” at the Kaz mountains mine protests with the “sabotage” of burning down Turkish forests.

The second accusation is speculation, but it refers to previous reports: in July, an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was widely reported to have claimed responsibility for setting fires in Muğlu, western Turkey.

If the pro-government press deserves criticism for publishing reports linking forest fires to opponents without evidence, then critical press outlets have been equally guilty.

The reports that the fires have been set by actors seeking profit appear, like those linking them to the PKK, to be based on little more than an appeal to history.

Strikingly absent from these partisan press reports has been the wider context for the fires: wildfires have been blazing across Europe this year, with over 1,600 recorded in the European Union, three times the yearly average up to the month of August.

An 11-year-old Turkish activist has been demonstrating for 21 weeks to inform the public about the severity of the climate crisis. The Turkish press should leave aside partisan reporting on the issue and catch up.