Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief economic advisor, Yiğit Bulut, is both the Flavor Flav to his Chuck D, and the Aristotle to his Alexander the Great; both the “hype man” on stage and “theorist” behind the throne. His appointment to the PM’s inner circle caused mirth last July, amid his suggestion that foreign powers were seeking to kill Erdoğan using telekinesis, but that was just one of many odd theories he has come up with since last summer’s Gezi Park protests. He recently made headlines by declaring that the EU, (Turkey’s number one trading partner), was “finished” and would be superseded by the “new world order” of the “Turkey-Eurasia/Russia-Middle East equation”; while last year he told a TV programme that he would “die for Erdoğan if necessary.” Bulut’s rise is both a symptom and a cause of Erdoğan’s gradual departure from reality, and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) steady descent into paranoia.

People often speculate about whether Erdoğan “really believes” the conspiracy theories that he comes out with, or whether they are just a cynical way of playing to his electoral base in tough times. In fact, both can be true, and insisting only on the latter ignores the deep traces of such currents through the history of Turkey’s Islamist movements, (not least in Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party, where Erdoğan cut his political teeth). When times were easier during the AKP’s first couple of terms, such rhetoric generally remained latent; but it was always ready to surface again when things took a turn for the worse. This was clearly the case after last year’s Gezi protests and the Dec. 17 corruption probe. Erdoğan did indeed play to his base out of electoral calculation, but when the stakes were so high and the alternative was political disaster (and possibly jail), those conspiracies must also have been a lot more convincing to him. It’s probably significant that Bulut was named advisor to Erdoğan shortly after the Gezi protests erupted. It was in those difficult circumstances that his warnings of a Turkey besieged by foreign powers and his political vision of fantasy neo-Ottomanism must have made the most sense to the prime minister.

Bulut was actually once a staunch, nationalist-flavoured critic of the AKP, critical of privatisations, its inability to deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Turkey’s growing debt stock. The Damascus moment came some time before his 2010 divorce from former wife Şule Zeybek, the niece of secularist media tycoon Aydın Doğan, and ever since he has defended Erdoğan with the zeal of a true convert. In June 2012 he became the editor of pro-government 24TV, after which he was rewarded for his now-unswerving loyalty with an appointment to the prime minister’s brain trust. He now juggles his new role with his regular column in daily Star and political talk show appearances on pro-government TV. Indeed, Bulut was at the centre of one of the more amusing episodes from the wiretap leaks released before Turkey’s March 30 local elections: A conversation between the editor of private broadcaster NTV, Nermin Yurteri, and PM Erdoğan’s chief political advisor, Yalçın Akdoğan. In it, Akdoğan demands that Bulut be included as a guest on a news discussion programme, which is desperately resisted by Yurteri, who says her station is willing to accept any other pro-government figure but not the widely ridiculed Bulut.

Advertisement for Yiğit Bulut's pre-election "National Will" lecture tour, arriving in Istanbul's Esenler district.

Advert for Yiğit Bulut’s pre-election “National Will” lecture tour, arriving in Istanbul’s Esenler district.

The crude populism of Bulut’s thrice weekly Star column is reminiscent of Erdoğan’s bombastic public speeches, but the wild adolescent theorising about the “NEW WORLD ORDER” may be less familiar. It’s chilling to think that it’s not the ranting of a frustrated teenage shop assistant in Yozgat, but that of the Turkish prime minister’s chief economic confidant, who has a personal office in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace.

Translated below is one of Bulut’s columns in Star. Hard to believe, it isn’t one of his most spectacular pieces, but it does give a good idea of his surreal intellectual hinterland. It appeared on March 28, as Turkey’s political atmosphere was at fever pitch just two days before the critical local election. In it, we see Aristotle turning his attention to the future challenges facing the “New Turkey” and how the government’s defense policies can best meet these new challenges:

 

What is the biggest danger for the ‘new great Turkey’?

In the days before 2003, when Turkey was still covered up, the question that was asked was this: Which is the biggest threat for Turkey, “fundamentalism” or “separatist terrorism”?

My dear friends, today the question is different: What is the biggest threat for a Turkey that is making peace with itself and expanding? Is it possible to ignore or even destroy the National Will? I repeat: Is it possible to ignore or even destroy the National Will?

This country had many days, months and years of viewing and being forced to view its own values as a threat. The way we looked at issues was mistaken, and so were the solutions we put forward! Until 2003 we lived in this “blind well,” and with our “mistaken entrances” we always produced “mistaken results”!

Dear friends, today the situation is very different, and when is to be done is clear: Turkey is establishing a new threat perception, appropriate to its understanding of the “new world order”; as a necessity it is forming a “national defense-military technology-production” strategy. It’s not difficult to detail this: Turkey is advancing to become a country capable of reaching the maximum fire power with minimal “human resources,” conducting operations in all areas and – most importantly – meeting its “defense needs” with indigenous technology and even producing “concepts.”

Dear friends, there were once built-in internal and external focuses were imposed on us for years, and the “built-in media” vehicle didn’t even allow us to question this! We even helplessly believed that our own Muslim citizens could be our biggest threat, that our Kurdish-origin citizens could want to divide us… It wasn’t right, it was never right, but we could never remove “this sack from our heads” and realise the true “threat definition”! Today we have ripped off the sacks, and the path we will now embrace is apparent!

Result 1: As Turkey grows, it will see; enemies are not just internal and external. As Turkey GROWS, it will see that its enemies are not only inside the nation, but they also hide and focus in the twists in the path of Turkey’s expansion.

Result 2: Our minds must be very sharp and our thesis must be very clear: In the last 10 years, Turkey has ripped off the “sacks,” saved itself from the “diseased structure” of previous civil-military relations, and is progressing on the path of “becoming a universal state” in the new world order.

Result 3: Turkey is defining a “new national defense concept suitable for a universal state” and is also detailing the technical aspects! Turkey has now revealed itself and there are those who are uncomfortable about this; therefore, a suitable new “NATIONAL STRATEGY” must be very carefully and quickly developed.

Result 4: The NEW TURKEY’s use of military force in diplomacy is inevitable! Instead of a military  focusing its perceptions on vicious internal threats, a country on the path to becoming a global player must have a military that is redefined to deal with global threats.

Result 5: A NEW CONCEPT OF NATIONAL DEFENSE will benefit the Armed Forces in great and strong diplomacy, and can only be revealed with a new political vision.

Result 6: A new concept for the Turkish Armed Forces must be formed. This new concept would replace the one which searched for virtual enemies wanting to drag the country to fundamentalism and which followed its own citizens on suspicion of dividing Turkey. Instead, it would be a concept that would be strong enough to operate in the world arena, to rival America, the EU, Israel, Russia and China. The local defense industry is currently developing, modernisation is increasing, and projects are being realised to build tanks, aircraft, and ships that can operate thousands of miles from Turkish soil. In short, the Turkish military is becoming a world force…

Result 7: All members of the Turkish Armed Forces who can “see the future” are aware that a new concept of the military will suit the concept of a new Turkey. In fact, when you look closely, you see that in this area there is a big clash between the “resisters” and those who want to “open the path.” The BUILT-IN PRESS is working to create the public impression that this is a POLITICAL AUTHORITY-ARMED FORCES clash…

Result 8: The current Global Attack is directly targeting the “national will” and seeks to surrender Turkey’s management to the hands of global governance. What we must do is very clear: Destroy these barriers and continue on our path…

Last word: The whole of Turkey – its people, its government, its state – it currently under a huge attack. Most importantly, it is standing against this attack as a whole and battling to exist. At this point, I ask you: all Turkish citizens must investigate the barriers that stand in the path of the GREAT TURKEY and, in a manner suitable to the new world order, stand as a single body against these attacks! “Fear not, the red flag blowing in the horizon won’t fade.”*

* The opening line of the Turkish national anthem.

Swimming against all economic logic, another new national newspaper appeared on Turkey’s newsstands last month. Karşı means “against” or “anti” in Turkish, and this new daily has a slogan declaring it “Against lies, the newspaper of the truth,” apparently channelling the spirit of Çarşı, (the Beşiktaş football club supporters group whose motto is “against everything”). Karşı has quite a varied team of people working on it, but in many ways it embodies Turkey’s chronic “opposition problem.” The fragmented opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) comprise leftists, liberals, Kemalists, nationalists, communists, environmentalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, and now Gülenists. But together these forces not only fail to make up a majority of the Turkish electorate, they are also handicapped by their diversity; the opposition is so disparate that it can agree on little other than that the AKP is a disaster.

The anti-government Gezi Park protests that raged throughout last summer made this point particularly clearly. The protests were full of energy and ideas, but it was the kind of energy that can’t be channelled through traditional political channels. The variety that made the Gezi movement so strong and impressive is exactly what prevents it from being an effective opposition force in more formal terms. What’s more, all Turkish opposition has to contend with a highly cohesive and disciplined incumbent government, confident in the loyalty of its core conservative constituency and backed by a well-oiled media and electoral machine.

 

Karşı's first front page, reporting PM Erdoğan's call to hapless Habertürk  boss Fatih Saraç to cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

Karşı’s first front page on Feb. 9. The headline reports PM Erdoğan’s order to hapless Habertürk controller Fatih Saraç, demanding that he cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

 

In a recent Reuters piece about the durability of the AKP’s appeal, Hakan Altinay of the Brookings Institution is quoted as saying that there is “no political force to pick up the ingredients and cook a better meal, the opposition has no sense of direction.” Indeed, it is commonly assumed that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is too clumsy and loaded with its own historical baggage to be effective. There’s some truth in this, but it’s hard to see how anyone could channel the disaffection of Turkey’s hugely varied opposition into a single coherent political party, while at the same time outlining a vision that can defeat the AKP at the ballot box. Similarly, Piotr Zalewski wrote last week that the CHP would “have to deliver more than just finger pointing for Turkish voters to entrust it with running the country.” That’s also true, but the party is paralysed by the fact that finger pointing is pretty much the only thing that unites those ranged against the government. A more constructive platform might target wavering AKP voters (however few they are), but that would likely risk losing the CHP’s own wavering voters. It’s an almost impossible balancing act. Of course, none of this is particularly new, but it has become particularly obvious in the lead up to the March 30 local elections.

The new newspaper Karşı – with its diverse but incoherent range of ideas about what is to be done – perhaps embodies the Gezi conundrum. As its editor-in-chief Eren Erdem has said: “The Gezi spirit excites us, and we are talking the same language as the people on the streets during the Gezi resistance. From our writers to our editors, from our printers to our correspondents, we all imagine a free world.” Of course, Karşı is a newspaper, not a political party, but its example does indicate the challenge facing any formal opposition hoping to capitalize on the AKP’s current problems.

The draft bill to “transform” test prep schools (dershanes) into formal private schools was submitted to the Turkish parliament last week. The mooted closure of dershanes – many of which are operated by sympathisers of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen – is widely interpreted as an Erdoğan-lead strike against the Gülen movement, and seems to have been the trigger leading to the Gülenist-led corruption probes that have targeted figures close to the government since December. The precise effects that a closure of the dershanes would have aren’t clear, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would significantly affect the reach of the Gülen movement and its influential media arms. Gülen-affiliated outlets probably aren’t commercially viable as independent entities, but they are useful as public relations arms for the movement’s wider interests. In this sense, the business models of the pro-Gülen media – mostly controlled by either Feza Publications or the Samanyolu Publishing Group - aren’t dissimilar to those of mainstream government-friendly titles: Losses can be accepted in consideration of a bigger picture. Those losses will be far more difficult to sustain without the profits flowing in, directly or indirectly, from dershanes.

As U.S.-based press watchdog Freedom House stated in its report on Turkey published Feb. 3: “Media outlets are used to promote their ownership group’s financial interests … Members of the media and the government alike describe newspapers’ Ankara bureau chiefs as ‘lobbyists’ for their companies.” Owning a media outlet isn’t profitable in itself, but it helps to have one in order to facilitate business in other sectors; at least a dozen newspapers and 10 television stations are owned by conglomerates with energy, construction or mining interests, all sectors heavily dependent on government business. Moguls are willing to temporarily handle the losses involved in owning media groups – and are often encouraged to do so by the government – as they know that other business benefits will follow (in the winning of construction tenders, for example). As such, their number one priority is usually to protect their good relations with the government.

The Gülenist media is useful as a lobbyist for the Gülen movement’s interests in the same way that the pro-Erdoğan media lobbies for the government’s (and their own companies’) interests. Media outlets don’t necessarily have to be profitable to make commercial sense. For example, the pro-Gülen Zaman newspaper has the highest circulation figures of any Turkish newspaper, but these figures are mostly made up of subsidised subscriptions. It’s not uncommon in Turkey to see copies of Zaman left in the lobbies of apartment buildings or tucked into the gates at the entrance of a shop or a residential site. Thousands of copies are also sent, solicited or unsolicited, to businesses with ties (either tight or loose) to Gülen. According to figures that I noticed last year, only a tiny fraction of Zaman’s circulation figures come from actual sales. I don’t know about online and print advertising revenue, but it’s clear that a profit can’t possibly be run when sales are so low and subsidised subscription is so high.

But the value of Zaman lies in more than just headline profits – the paper is part of the broader Gülen movement eco-system. Zaman is owned by Feza Publications, which is a partner organisation of the Samanyolu Publishing Group; between them, they operate dozens of newspapers, websites, TV stations, radio stations and magazines, both in Turkey and abroad. These don’t directly come under the umbrella of a wider holding company operating in other sectors, as most of the mainstream pro-AKP media does, but the relationship is similar. All Gülen media groups are supported directly and indirectly by profits from other Gülenist business interests. Without the financial support provided by the operation of the dershanes, the Gülenist media would find it more difficult to sustain itself.

Joshua Hendrick, the author of the most respected book on the Gülen movement so far available in English, has suggested that the move to close the dershanes primarily aims to “[go] after the existential nature of the movement by destroying its human resources.” The financial ramifications of a closure of dershanes would also be significant. The Gulenists run 2,000 schools in 160 countries, and Hendrick estimates that the Gülen-affiliated charter schools in the U.S. alone bring in around $500 million per year. Although they are primarily seen as a means of attracting new sympathisers, the hundreds of Gülen-affiliated dershanes in Turkey also make up a multimillion-dollar industry. On both human and financial fronts, therefore, a dershane closure - which the draft just submitted to parliament ensures would be completed by September 2015 – would likely have big ramifications for the Gülen-affiliated media.

The Turkish press has presented a grimmer spectacle than usual since the corruption scandal broke last month. The tendency that I mentioned in my last post has accelerated, with the rival Erdoğan and Gülen-affiliated media gunning for each other, adding a fresh dimension to the more familiar division between pro-government and opposition titles. The Turkish media is becoming increasingly balkanised, separated into mutually exclusive information silos that can’t agree on even the most basic facts. The problem isn’t just that certain information is given through a distorting prism, but that often it is simply not reported. Facts are cheap in an environment of hearsay and rumour mongering, but often they’re not even present in the first place.

Take the case of the resignations from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that followed the breaking of the graft probe story. Five deputies have so far resigned from the AKP over the issue, an unprecedented number and a massive shock to a party that places such a high value on internal party discipline. But the editors of Erdoğanist mass circulation Sabah shielded their readers from the harsh truth as much as they could. While reporting the prime minister’s defiant speech at an opening ceremony in Sakarya on Dec. 27, Sabah simply ignored the resignations of three AKP deputies that were announced earlier on the same day. When it finally mentioned them in the following days, it portrayed them as acts of dishonourable betrayal influenced by nefarious foreign forces. Then there’s the story of the truck that was discovered in Hatay on Jan. 1 heading to Syria loaded with weapons, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) agents, and members of İHH, a humanitarian aid foundation. Again, the pro-government media initially refused to report the revelation, or the borderline-unconstitutional machinations that prevented local prosecutors from inspecting the truck on its discovery. While it made the headlines of many other media outlets, there was no coverage of the news in Sabah other than straight-faced denials from İHH officials and accusations of “black propaganda.” As a final example, I looked through Sabah on Jan. 9, after 15 provincial police chiefs were removed from their positions as part of the government’s purge of suspected disloyal officials. The news of the changes came at the bottom of page 21, and essentially just consisted of a list of those affected, with no indication of the purge’s wider significance, or mention of the 350 police officers that had been relocated the day before.

You might think that with modern technology there can be no covering up of such essential truths, and that eventually people must surely reach a balanced understanding of the facts. But there’s plenty of contrary evidence in Turkey to confound the Internet utopians. I doubt that people read or click more broadly online than they do in print; in fact, the opposite seems to be true. Of course, there are more opportunities to read about things that challenge one’s views online, but there is also more scope to indulge comforting illusions. Ultimately, the Internet is probably exacerbating Turkey’s polarisation. The last few years have seen the emergence of a huge number of popular news websites of questionable origin peddling aggressively pro-government lines. Like Sabah et al, these sites have a tendency to water down or simply ignore the awkward truths and move on. Similarly blinkered opposition news sites also exist, but it is the pro-government ones that have proliferated so noticeably of late. An unhealthy number of media outlets in Turkey are trapped in echo chambers where dubious facts are taken as unquestionable truths.

But I’d also be careful not to overestimate the ability of “facts” to have much of an impact in such a polarised atmosphere. Nobody’s forcing Sabah’s readers to buy it, and if they wanted something else there are plenty of alternatives to choose from. Rather, there’s a very natural human predilection to pay most attention to the information that coheres with one’s own worldview and screen out the rest. Political confirmation bias is a reality everywhere, but it’s particularly conspicuous in Turkey: people tend to work backwards to make the evidence fit their conclusion, rather than the other way around. It all seems to indicate that the country’s dangerously polarised public debate is only likely to become even more bitter and trenchant. More bad news, basically.

The spat between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the movement of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen has seen tension between erstwhile allies in the Turkish media boil over into open hostility. Among many other things, the public drawing of swords – ostensibly over the closure of private examination schools (dershanes) – has exposed the extent to which PM Erdoğan has successfully built himself a support network of personally loyal media outlets. This network was already clear to see, but its guns have never before been so openly turned on the Gülenists.

Of particular note is the staunchly pro-Erdoğan line taken these days by daily Akşam, which was among the assets seized from Çukurova Holding by the state-run Savings Deposit and Insurance Fund (TMSF) over debt issues in May. After the seizing of Akşam, former editor-in-chief İsmail Küçükkaya was fired and the TMSF appointed a former Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy in his place, while major changes were also made to the paper’s wider editorial team. Its previously centrist tone changed immediately, and Akşam became one of the most reliable supporters of the government throughout the summer’s Gezi Park protests. After the prep school polemic exploded, Akşam again rallied behind Erdoğan, taking its place alongside Sabah, Star, Türkiye, Yeni Şafak, Yeni Akit, Takvim, and Habertürk, in the ranks of pro-government newspapers launching unprecedented attacks on the Gülen movement. As with the others, this is clear simply from the number of front page headlines repeating whatever belligerent words the prime minister said on the subject on the previous day.

Echoing Erdoğan: "No step back from dershane reform"

Echoing Erdoğan: “No step back from dershane reform”

Although the new editorial board shifted Akşam’s position months ago, it was actually only sold to businessman Ethem Sancak last month, (along with TV station SkyTürk360, also seized from Çukurova Holding). Sancak once described himself as being “lovesick for the prime minister,” and openly declared that he had “entered the media sector to support Erdoğan.” He previously bought daily Star and news station Kanal TV back in 2006, transforming them into firmly pro-AKP voices before selling them on soon afterwards. Both processes resemble the way that Sabah, one of Turkey’s top-selling newspapers, was sold to the prime minister’s son-in-law in 2007, since when it has taken perhaps the most unswervingly pro-Erdoğan line of all mainstream newspapers. Through such moves, Erdoğan has gradually built up a media base completely loyal to himself, without which he would never have been able to achieve a position of such authority in the country. It has been a conscious effort; the bitter power struggles that have marked Erdoğan’s political career have convinced him of the need for a reliant and disciplined media support network, and the intertwining interests of business and political elites in Turkey allowed this network to be cultivated. This new, rigidly “Erdoğan-ist” media base has been more apparent than ever during the row with the Gülen movement.

The AKP government has sought to take the sting out of the dershane issue, announcing that the “transformation” of prep schools into private schools doesn’t have to be completed until September 2015 (conveniently after the three upcoming elections). The electoral effects of the Erdoğan-Gülen rift are still being speculated on, but it’s clear that although a detente has been declared for now, the knives will be even sharper when they inevitably come out again.

The title will be familiar to any follower of news in Turkish. Every day, “news” stories consisting of unedited transcripts of words spoken by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are published online under that headline by the major newspapers. The recent storm over Erdoğan’s opposition to mixed-sex student accommodation was only the latest example showing that Turkey’s entire news agenda is increasingly becoming subject to the whims of his unpredictable tongue. He opens his mouth and whichever subject he has chosen then dictates the national conversation. When the media is so completely dependent on politicians, how can be expected to hold those same politicians to account?

This problem cuts across the internet, the television, and the printed press. It almost feels like an act of rebellion when a TV station chooses not to cut to a live broadcast of any public utterances from “The Master.” I only came to Turkey in 2009, so I can’t say whether this has always been the case, but I suspect that the situation has only deteriorated of late. The fact is that you can’t get much safer than a “news” story simply providing a transcript of words spoken by the prime minister. What’s more, depressingly, I’ve been told that these articles usually get the most “hits” for websites. This fixation on Erdoğan’s every word is not only extremely distorting, but also exacerbates the bizarre cult of personality that has developed around him amongst his supporters.

 

Habertürk parroting the prime minister on Nov. 9. With unintended irony, the headline quotes Erdoğan’s response to Deputy PM Bülent Arınç’s criticism of the mixed-sex student housing debate: ‘I don’t discuss these things in front of the media’.

Habertürk parroting the prime minister on Nov. 9. With unintended irony, the headline quotes Erdoğan’s response to Deputy PM Bülent Arınç’s criticism of the mixed-sex student housing debate: ‘I don’t discuss these things in front of the media.’

 

But while this obsequiousness is lamentable, those official pronouncements in fact are very important. The centralization of decision making is so chronic that Erdoğan’s words, whatever they are, really do have the power to shape the agenda of the country, decide the laws that then get passed, and at what speed. As Adana Governor Hüseyin Avni Coş said shortly after Erdoğan’s utterances on co-ed housing: “We see the prime minister’s words as orders.” Policy is increasingly being shaped on an ad-hoc basis around Erdoğan’s statements; the centralization of power around him now is such that there is a genuine justification for reporters broadcasting and publishing every single thing he says. The vicious cycle is thus reinforced.

That’s why the controversy that is periodically caused by the firing of prominent critical columnists from newspapers often misses the point. Many people’s understanding of news seems to be little deeper than a “who said what?”  bish-bash-bosh, responded to by a flood of commentary. As I wrote in my last post, few seem to value deeper investigative reporting, and none ever mention the inherent problem with “stories” consisting of nothing more than an indiscriminate transcript of a minister’s speech. Editors who are encouraging “Important statements from the prime minister” articles are contributing to this dangerous imbalance. Far from the media being a check on power, PM Erdoğan’s tongue is the driving force behind the media.

Commentary vs. Reporting

October 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to post about the imbalance between undervalued journalists and overvalued commentators in the Turkish media landscape for a while. The aftermath of the Gezi Park protests saw an unprecedented purging of critical columnists from various newspapers, but such bloodspilling tends to receive attention only when it is a recognisable, big name figure who has been fired. Although it’s less discussed, intense pressure is also being exerted on the few embattled investigative reporters working these days, and in the long run this pressure may prove even more damaging to the country’s fourth estate than the silencing of some columnists.

A recent controversy involving daily Radikal reporter İsmail Saymaz illustrated this pressure with particular clarity. Saymaz had written a series of pieces in the aftermath of the killing of Gezi protester Ali İsmail Korkmaz in the Central Anatolian city of Eskişehir, about which he received an extraordinary email from the provincial governor in the early hours of Oct. 2.  In the email, Governor Azim Tuna demanded that the “dishonourable” Saymaz stop his “vile and inglorious” reporting, adding that he “shouldn’t forget the underground” (after death), where they would both meet each other in the end.

Usually, pressure from the authorities doesn’t come so openly. Saymaz has done some excellent work in Radikal, but for him – like most others – there are plenty of untouchable subjects. He himself learnt that back in 2010, when he was charged with “interfering in the judicial process” over stories he had written on the notorious arrest of Erzincan’s chief prosecutor, İlhan Cihaner, an arrest that was widely seen as part of the government’s moves to combat the “deep state.” Shortly before being charged, Saymaz had published a book about the Gülen movement’s involvement in the prosecution of the Ergenekon coup plot case, and ended up facing charges that could have lead to 45 years in jail.  Such cases seem to have had the desired effect; the major news organisations’ reporting of issues such as Ergenekon, official corruption, and the Gülen movement, has become increasingly tame, if not non-existent. As Saymaz himself has said, “We, as reporters, both censor our minds and bite our tongues while we are reporting.” Without a rigorous media doing its bit to hold the authorities to account, can it be surprising when the government behaves with such impunity?

The lack of corruption exposure in the Turkish media was also recently indicated after Milliyet published an interview with Ateş Ünal Erzen, the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) mayor for the Istanbul district of Bakırköy. In the interview, Erzen indirectly admitted to systematic corruption in his municipality, which caused a tiny stir before dropping off the agenda completely. The fact that the revelation effectively came as a result of a slip of the tongue, the handwringing that followed it, and the lack of any deeper subsequent investigation, all point to the Turkish media’s ineffectiveness when it comes to investigating corruption. It’s probably also worth mentioning again here the much-cited example of Hürriyet halting its reporting on the Deniz Feneri charity embezzlement scandal, after being landed with a multi-billion dollar tax fine in 2009. Through such measures, the investigative potential of journalists at major Turkish news outlets has been steadily hollowed out.

The emphasis on commentary over proper reporting should be considered in this context. Columns are indeed cheap and easy to churn out, but the prioritising of columnists over reporters is not just an economic calculation; opinions are not only cheaper, they are also less dangerous than deep reporting, less threatening than labour-intensive original journalism. Everyone has an opinion, and almost anyone can write out their views in a few hundred words, (and looking at the standard on offer, almost anyone does). This range of columnists in the Turkish media allows pro-government voices to claim with a straight face that the continued existence of the popular and rabidly anti-AKP commentary-heavy Sözcü, for example, is proof of the healthy variety of journalism on offer. Not only does this argument ignore the countless cases of sackings and news manipulation based on direct pressure from the authorities, but it also fails to address the crippling government-imposed handicaps on serious investigative journalism.

Of course, (here’s the usual disclaimer), it’s important not to look back on an imagined halcyon age of journalism in Turkey. Things have often been much worse: Jenny White recently described a visit to the offices of Milliyet in the 1990s, when she found that the paper was surviving on a grant from the state, which was handing “black lists” to the paper’s owners about who should be fired and promoted from the editorial staff. But while it’s true that things have never been perfect, it’s alarming to see the heavy hand of the amorphous deep state simply replaced by a similarly overbearing civilian authority.

Concerns about the health of the Turkish media are well-justified, but many expressions of this concern fail to appreciate that infringements on press freedom don’t just involve restrictions on what ten-a-penny columnists can write about. Equally damaging, if not more so, are restrictions on what can be reported, and the depth to which journalists can probe sensitive issues. The cacophony of news commentary in Turkey, while indicative of a vibrant and energetic society, does not in itself make for a healthy fourth estate.

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