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1st Prize High School Category, "Moral Leadership" Essay Contest, 2013

By Deniz Dutz

January 31, 2014

Deniz Dutz

Deniz Dutz is 16 years old and a junior student at Saint Albans High School, Washington, DC. "I am passionate about politics, economics, and the media. One current passion I have is understanding the role of public policy towards public broadcasting, especially in countries such as Turkey, my mother's home country, where the government is becoming increasingly autocratic."

Essay Topic: What Does Moral Leadership Mean to You?

Media's Critical Moral Leadership Role: Helping Set Sparks Ablaze

With close to 100 journalists imprisoned, Turkey now has the highest number of incarcerated journalists in the world as it continues down a path of increasingly authoritarian media censorship. "Anyone who criticizes the [Turkish] government either stops or finds him or herself in jail," lamented Faruk Loğoğlu, vice-chairperson of the opposition Republican People’s Party in charge of foreign relations. Thousands of miles away, and now with over two million officials employed by the government to monitor the internet’s web activity, China continues to censor freedom of the press both online and in traditional media. In a world where journalism and freedom of expression are crucial in shining a light on inappropriate and immoral actions by both local and national governments, countries such as Turkey and China are unfortunately fighting to restrict and censor the media. Yet despite such censorship, journalists continue to report on unfolding events. Despite threats of losing their jobs and being imprisoned, these journalists risk everything in the name of freedom. Truly, these journalists display moral leadership.

What is moral leadership? Moral leadership means leading by example and serving others in the public interest. Moral leaders not only differentiate between what is right and wrong, but possess an ethical compass to determine the correct approach to a situation, no matter the consequences to themselves. Along with this moral stance comes thoughtfulness. Moral leaders understand the importance of the decisions they make and are conscious of their effects. A moral leader's name may be unknown, but his or her actions cause ripples across a country, a continent, and maybe even the world. Finally, moral leadership is being humble while knowing that any action will set a precedent for others and for the world. This means being willing to go to jail or be arrested if that is the cost of doing what is right. This means continuing to report on events despite threats, including threats from their own government. This means fighting for freedom. Fighting for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Being of Turkish descent, I closely followed the daily news concerning the Gezi Park Protests during the summer of 2013. My Turkish pride was wounded as the country until recently referred to as an economic and democratic model for the Muslim world became known for oppressing its media’s moral leadership role—the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists. I lamented when Ibrahim Melih Gökҫek, the mayor of Ankara, threatened BBC reporter Selin Girit for covering the Gezi Park Protests. I grieved for Turkey when I heard Prime Minister Erdoğan brand the Gezi Park Protests as a plot "hatched by traitors and their foreign accomplices." When the protests first broke out, CNN international broadcasted to world viewers the violence of the federal police pushing back against the protests. Meanwhile, CNN Turk (the Turkish version of CNN) was forced by governmental interference to show to Turkish viewers back-to-back replays of a National Geographic-style nature documentary on penguins. Moral leadership was non-existent in these parts of the Turkish government. Rather, it was amoral political leadership via oppression.

I found solace in the actions of the protesters and journalists in Turkey who, at the cost of their jobs and health, fought for what they believe in. This is moral leadership. It is exemplified by journalists such as Osman Orsal, who works for the Reuters international news agency. On May 28, 2013, Orsal captured an iconic image of a young protestor in a red dress as she was being sprayed with tear gas by a policeman. The picture was quickly dubbed the "woman in red." It spread across the internet like wildfire. Orsal, the journalist who captured this show of excessive force, received little recognition. In fact, his name only appears in small font under the picture. However, the photograph became an iconic image of the protest, and has been used in subsequent protests and posted all over the net. The following day, Orsal was injured when a policeman struck him in the head with a gas canister while he was reporting. A photograph of Orsal, his face covered in blood, was widely distributed and further acted as a unifying symbol for the protestors. Through these actions, Orsal defined himself as a moral leader. He may lack the political authority or fame of a president. But, through the iconic photos of not only his own sacrifices but also of the sacrifices of others, Orsal managed to successfully bring immense attention to the Gezi Park Protests and unite the protestors and the world under a single banner of moral outrage. Orsal displayed moral leadership as he was driven in his cause for freedom in the media. Most of us do not know of Orsal’s courage or of the many individual journalists who risked their jobs and well-being to fight for freedom. But their contributions, such as the iconic "woman in red," have stoked the embers of freedom not only in Turkey but throughout the world.

As Turkey’s current prime minister continues to veer towards autocracy and as media freedom is increasingly being suppressed, Turkey is being associated more and more with China. According to the Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries on media freedom, Turkey is ranked 154th out of 179 countries in 2013, an enormous drop from its 103rd position in 2007. And no longer very far from China, which is ranked 173rd—as the Communist Party, which governs China, continues to heavily censor both the web and printed media. Yet again, moral leadership is not found within the top echelons of government. Rather, it is found in those representatives of the media who risk threats from officials and even imprisonment as they truthfully report on acts of repression of individual freedom.

Two journalists who exemplify such values are Shi Tao and Liu Hu. Shi Tao is a Chinese journalist and writer who was imprisoned in 2005 for releasing to overseas websites a document sent to him by the Communist Party. On April 20, 2004, Shi received a document from the Communist Party warning him not to report on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a heavily censored subject in China. Furthermore, the document stated that media journalists should "never release any opinions that are inconsistent with central [government] policies." Shi sent this document to overseas websites via Yahoo! Mail to reveal the censorship of the Chinese Regime and to seek support in promoting freedom of the press. The Chinese government’s censorship of the media was further emphasized when it requested Yahoo! to reveal who sent the document. Yahoo! revealed Shi’s name out of fear of being denied the ability to do business in China. For his actions, Mr. Tao was sentenced to ten years imprisonment, with all members of his family also facing harassment by governmental authorities. Through his sacrifice, Mr. Tao revealed to the world oppressive elements within the Chinese government in regards to censorship of the media. Following the release of the document and Mr. Tao’s arrest, NGOs around the world protested China’s actions, calling the arrest an "outrage" and naming Mr. Tao a "human rights defender." Mr. Tao was released on September 5, 2013 after spending more than eight years in prison. Liu Hu, another Chinese journalist, was detained by the police in August 2013 for "rumor-mongering." According to the BBC, Liu Hu "blogged details of alleged corruption involving high-ranking officials." In order to halt such criticism of the Communist Party, the Chinese government deleted Mr. Hu’s blogs and detained him.

As more and more journalists fear retribution, free media is facing troubled times ahead. Osman Orsal, Shi Tao, Liu Hu, and other similar-minded journalists around the world demonstrated moral leadership by supporting media freedom. These moral leaders neither succumbed to self-censorship in response to incessant threats, nor bowed down to direct suppression from their respective governments. Through the efforts of such journalists, sparks continue to be lit—sparks started by these moral leaders that, if properly supported by a majority of citizens, can blossom into a mighty fire that delivers freedom. Through these moral leaders, the sparks continue to be ignited and the calls are heard across the world. The question remains: will global citizens listen to the calls set forth by such moral leaders and help set the sparks ablaze?

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