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Prep school closure is bad news for pro-Gülen media

February 11, 2014

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.

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4 Responses to “Prep school closure is bad news for pro-Gülen media”

  1. Mert Says:

    This piece requires a thorough analysis of financial link between dershanes and Gulenist media. As it stands out now this piece is not more than a hearsay. I highly suspect that dershanes are important financially for the movement. In many places, such as the East and Southeastern part of Turkey, they are free. But for the movement they are certainly important for human resources.

    Moreover, the corruption probes started almost two years before the dershanes conflict. Logically it seems the government started the dershane conflict to stop the corruption probes not the way around.


  2. It would be good to see some hard figures about how much dershanes actually bring in financially. It also seems likely that Gülen schools abroad are more lucrative than domestic ones, but without hard numbers it is indeed all speculation.

    Not sure I follow your point about the corruption probes starting two years before the dershane conflict. Perhaps you mean the collecting of evidence? Preparations for the case had been going on long before Dec.17, and it looks like the dershane closure was the final straw that demanded the Gülenist prosecutors go all in.

  3. Mert Says:

    You are right, I meant the investigation. But once you open an investigation, there is no going back in terms of attracting the wrath of Erdogan. There is always a possibility of leakage and we know now that the government knew about it. Maybe they didn’t know the full extent.

    It doesn’t seem logical that Gulenist prosecutors started the investigation 15 months after Gulenists’ strong support of the AKP in 2011 elections. To me it is more logical that the relationship worsened due to the investigation and the government used the dershane proposition to force the movement to back down which they didn’t. Of course this is a speculation, to me a plausible one.

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