On this day two years ago the Turkish people defied a coup attempt to preserve their democracy. In keeping with history, the vast majority of the Western press that constantly advocates for democracy aligned with undemocratic forces.
There seems to be a dilemma in the relationship between Western mainstream media and democracy. On the one hand, these media outlets spend a lot of airtime and print space lecturing about the merits of democracy. On the other hand, the same organisations have a long history in whitewashing dictators in Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
It is crucial to consider the larger context to navigate such complexity. Samuel Huntington, whose (unsubstantiated) theory was eagerly adopted by Western officialdom, wrote in his book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order: “the West is attempting and will continue to attempt to sustain its preeminent position and defend its interests by defining those interests as the interests of the ‘world community.’ […] Hypocrisy, double standards, and ‘but nots’ are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; non-proliferation is preached to Iran but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue with China but not with Saudi Arabia […]. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle”.
The ambiguous relationship between the West, democracy, and coups in the Middle East was first experienced during the era of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran. This leader, who aimed to place Iran on the path of democracy and establish Iranian control over Iranian resources, was overthrown by a U.S.-led putsch in 1953.
The Shah, an absolute ruler, was brought back to power and celebrated as an “enlightened” and “modern” monarch by renowned Western newspapers at that time like the London Times. Similarly, the New York Times put forward an editorial on August 6, 1954, in which it was stated: “It is perhaps too much to hope that Iran’s experience will prevent the rise of Mossadeghs in other countries, but that experience may at least strengthen the hands of more reasonable and more far-seeing leaders”. Hence, the US sent a clear message to the world that it was less interested in democracy than in a compliant regime.
Some could argue that this was part of the Cold War dynamics. However, seven decades later, very little has changed. When General Sisi engineered a coup d’etat on July 3, 2013, and toppled the first democratically elected leader in Egypt, gross abuses of human rights occurred right in front of television cameras. Horrific episodes like the Rabaa Square massacre, which was by far Egypt’s worse massacre in its modern history, shocked millions of viewers around the world. The consequences of this putsch were terrible: since 2013 at least 70,000 political prisoners were incarcerated, 23 new prisons were built, thousands of people executed extra-judicially, along with the systematic use of torture, enforced disappearances, and increase in death sentences.
Nonetheless, Western governments offered their political support to the Egyptian junta (despite some initial cosmetic measures) as well as a full arsenal of assistance. The US administration provided the regime with aid, money, and weapons, even when its abuses became more severe.
In this context, Time published on January 27, 2014, a piece on Sisi titled “The Field Marshal Who Could Be Pharaoh”, promoting the junta’s narrative blatantly and claiming that Egyptians not only adore al-Sisi but are also very comfortable under military rule. Later on, The New York Times on August 2, 2015wrote that the U.S. officials “would not let their concerns with human rights stand in the way of increased security cooperation with Egypt”.
When the attempted putsch targeted Turkey’s democracy in July 2016, Western mainstream media appeared to support this operation. For example, the Wall Street Journal on 17 July 2016 titled “Turkey Faces Its Iran 1979 Moment”.
This piece deceitfully drew parallels with the Shah’s absolute monarchy, portrayed the coup as “revolution”, and condemned the people who stood up for democracy in the streets. Likewise, Fox News declared “Friday night’s failed coup was Turkey’s last hope to stop the Islamization of its government and the degradation of its society”, circulating blatant lies about the nature of Turkey’s governance and the country’s commendable economic growth in the past two decades.
Overall, in their coverage of the coup attempt of July 2016, the Western media masked Turkey’s democratic reality. They also obscured the horrible consequences the coup would have on democracy itself, obfuscated the tragedy provoked by the coup attempt itself, and concealed the heavy human toll it inflicted on innocent civilians and non-combatants through the use of F-16 jets, tanks, and attack helicopters. Instead, the main narrative concentrated on the so-called “vigilante vengeance”.
In the light of the above, perhaps there is no dilemma after all. Double standard is not an anomaly, it is simply a standard; one that reflects a broader Western system of domination. Hence, the media of the Global South have to not only expose such hypocritical stances, but also to uphold higher moral values and journalistic standards to protect the public sphere from the taint of biased communication.