Press freedom in Turkey and Sözcü newspaper
September 7, 2012
I’ve been meaning to write something about press freedom in Turkey with reference to daily newspaper Sözcü for quite a while. Then, a couple of days ago, I caught sight of the back page of the paper’s Sept. 4 edition and, like a gift, my primary material was there waiting for me.
The page carried the headline “Turkey’s daily sunshade,” and sarcastically described itself in the top corner as “the kind of journalism that Tayyip wants.” This was in reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent request for the Turkish media “not to exaggerate terror incidents.” The mock stories written underneath therefore contained nothing but praise for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and all its wonderful achievements. One was about how the monster of inflation had been miraculously defeated, another was about how Istanbul’s chronic traffic problem had been eradicated (by the way, I can tell you from bitter experience that it hasn’t), another featured a mother who had happily heeded Erdoğan’s advice that all women should give birth to “at least three children,” another described how Syrian refugees had started naming their new born babies “Tayyip” in honour of the heroic Turkish PM.
In fact, the page was relatively mild compared to the populist tub-thumping Sözcü (“spokesman” or “mouthpiece” in English) usually serves up. Its front page typically features some kind of outraged headline about the latest treachery committed by betrayers of the Turkish nation. A short, choleric editorial in the bottom left corner is included every day under the subtle title “Tokmak” (“hammer” or “mallet” in English – apt enough), invariably fuming about some latest disgrace and usually pointing the finger directly at the AKP government. The tone does not get much higher throughout the remaining 19 pages. Recently, the paper has been having almost daily seizures about the government’s Syria policy and its backing for the anti-Assad opposition. These are mostly prompted by fears about how such a policy may facilitate some kind of autonomous Kurdish region stretching from northern Syria to northern Iraq, and conceivably into southeastern Turkey – anathema to the kind of nationalist gallery that Sözcü plays to.
As far as circulation figures go, Sözcü has certainly been one of the undeniable success stories in the Turkish newspaper roster over the last couple of years. When it started printing just over five years ago, it sold around 60,000 copies. This figure has risen steadily ever since, and the paper recently announced it had hit national sales figures of 300,000, making it the fifth-highest selling daily newspaper in the country.
With regard to the state of freedom of expression in today’s Turkey, Sözcü is certainly an interesting phenomenon to consider. Surely, in contrast to the many recent suggestions that freedom of expression is under attack in the country, doesn’t the existence of such a paper indicate that the range of perspectives available on Turkish newsstands is healthily broad? Well, not exactly – the condition of the Turkish media has more fundamental problems that must be taken into account.
In its annual Press Freedom Index for 2011, released in January this year, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders, or RSF) ranked Turkey 148th out of 179 countries worldwide, down from 138th in 2010. This was the fifth year in succession that Turkey had slipped down the RSF rankings. Over 100 Turkish journalists are currently in jail, a figure higher than China. The number of journalists sacked or sued for what they have written, reported, or even drawn, climbs by the month, and many journalists and editors freely admit to practicing self-censorship to avoid trouble.
One of the most significant and much-discussed episodes took place in September 2009, when Doğan Publishing, then the largest media group in Turkey, was hit with over $3.2 billion in fines for tax irregularities by the Turkish treasury (equivalent to more than four fifths of the combined market value of Doğan Holding and Doğan Publishing).The hugely excessive size of the fines seemed to suggest government disapproval of the group’s newspapers’ reporting of an embezzlement scandal at the “Deniz Feneri” Islamic charity in Germany. It was the biggest charity corruption case in German history, and Doğan newspapers alleged that billions of dollars raised by the charity had somehow found their way into AKP coffers back in Turkey. After the fines were levied, Doğan’s media outlets significantly toned down their reporting of the scandal, as well as their broader criticism of the government. A number of their anti-AKP columnists were sacked, and many of their newspapers were sold off in order to pay the exorbitant fine, which was subsequently lessened after appeal.
There are numerous other examples of similarly shady processes being undertaken by the government. Their effectiveness can perhaps be attributed to one of the more fundamental flaws in the country’s media landscape. As Svante E. Cornell wrote in Turkey Analyst back in January 2010, this is the fact that the Turkish media is overly dominated by large holding companies:
“As a result, major newspapers and television channels are owned by firms with broad and substantial economic interests. For many, winning government tenders is a chief objective. This means that owners of media outlets seldom see these as their main preoccupation, but often as assets they can use for leverage – either by using their assets to pressure incumbents to win favors – or by appeasing the powers that be.”
Those organs wishing to maintain good business relations with the government must toe the line. However, there are still many who simply don’t care about such things, and Sözcü is perhaps the most prominent print example of that today. The case of Emin Çolaşan is a neat symbolic example to consider here. Çolaşan used to write for daily Hürriyet – part of the Doğan media empire – before he was fired in 2007 after 22 years’ service. His sacking was believed to be because of his fierce criticism of the AKP government. Within weeks of leaving Hürriyet, Çolaşan was picked up by Sözcü, where he now writes a reliably bellicose daily column. Evidently, Sözcü doesn’t have quite the same concerns about offending the AKP government that Hürriyet now has.
Still, there is far more to a free and healthy press than simply having a few columnists in certain newspapers feeling free to throw as many tantrums about the government as they want. A well-functioning Fourth Estate should, through rigorous investigative reporting, effectively hold whatever government is in power to account. Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence of this in Turkey’s press landscape. In an excellent piece on “The Deteriorating State of Media Freedom in Turkey,” again in Turkey Analyst, Gareth Jenkins has described this parlous situation thus:
“Unlike in many other countries, Turkish newspapers are dominated not by reporters but by columnists. With a few notable exceptions, journalistic standards in Turkey have always been very low. Little attempt is made to substantiate news reports, with the result that rumor and gossip are often given equal status to undeniable facts … The situation is arguably even worse amongst the columnists, most of whom merely react to something they have heard or read elsewhere in the media without trying to investigate or assess its veracity. The result is that most columnists generate more sound than sense, using invective rather than reasoning to make their voices heard.
… Nor does Turkey have a tradition of investigative journalism. What passes for investigative journalism – and which today mostly appears in book form rather than in newspapers or on television – tends to consist of a compendium of reports and rumors selected to support the author’s preconceptions; and is riddled with the same lack of substantiation that characterizes newspaper and television news reports.”
Sözcü, perhaps unsurprisingly, exemplifies suchshallow prioritizing of reactive opinion over genuinely thoughtful, reflective, investigative writing. Over 50 percent of its “news” pages are filled with belligerent opinion columns from the paper’s popular commentators.
Some might take the overwhelming predominance of highly critical “rent-a-mouths” in almost all Turkish newspapers as proof of the Turkish media’s bustling vitality. However, while Sözcü may get away with its fierce daily anti-AKP invective, that’s a million miles away from contributing to a genuinely effective Fourth Estate. Ultimately, the latter’s development is of critical importance to the future direction of Turkish democracy.