Erdoğan’s shocking response to Soma disaster conditioned by the media
May 16, 2014
It’s extremely sad to see how quickly the tragic Soma mining disaster has become the latest material to be used in Turkey’s political turf war. Soon after news of the country’s worst ever industrial disaster broke I was appalled by the immediate politicising of the incident; perhaps naively I thought that the time for recriminations could follow after a period of respectful mourning for the hundreds of dead miners. However, events quickly took on a momentum of their own; it became hard to talk about “not politicising” the tragedy after the prime minister and his entourage attacked grieving and angry locals in the town, and when there is such a shocking lack of accountability from either the mining company or the government.
A heavy burden of responsibility for this lack of accountability falls on the shoulders of Turkey’s supplicant mainstream media. There is plenty of talk of “yes men” in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle, but Turkey’s entire mainstream news media acts in a similar way. Watching the major TV “news” stations – ATV, NTV, 24TV, CNN Türk, Habertürk – in the aftermath of the disaster has been depressing and infuriating: A procession of ministers giving statements, interviewers desperately trying to avoid asking difficult questions, and a complete unwillingness to report many of the most significant incidents that happen. Why the lack of numbers of those still inside the mine three days after the explosion? Why the lack of exact numbers of those who went down into the mine in the first place? Why the confusion over the cause of the disaster three days later? Why the confusion over the official death toll? Why did it take three days to get any official statement from the mine’s owner, Soma Holding? Why no resignations? Erdoğan’s disastrous May 14 visit to the town – during which he delivered a shockingly insensitive speech, was heckled by the crowds, and then attacked grieving protesters along with one of his advisers – was also shamelessly covered up by all major TV stations. This was particularly ironic, as they are usually so keen to slavishly report every single word that comes out of the prime minister’s mouth.
But Erdoğan’s apparent lack of sympathy doesn’t just come from nowhere; indeed, his dreadful response to the tragedy has been conditioned by his “yes man” media, which is often little more than an echo chamber of his own words. When the PM never has to respond to a tough question, gives “interviews” with genuflecting, hand-picked interviewers, and holds stage-managed televised rallies in front of hundreds of thousands of bussed in supporters, how will he respond when faced with spontaneous grass-roots opposition holding him to account? When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is surrounded by a media establishment simply reinforcing its narrative on every single issue, it isn’t surprising to see it respond with anger and confusion when confronted by events beyond its control.
The Turkish media is flawed because it doesn’t inform the public properly. But its soft-touch failure to hold the ruling authorities to account is actually harming Prime Minister Erdoğan in a more subtle way. Such pandering has made him sloppy, complacent, and blinkered, so that when a “black swan” event like the disaster in Soma occurs, he is simply not conditioned to respond adequately. One of the less recognised effects of the AKP’s castrating of the mainstream media is to make it less responsive to such incidents. Ultimately, while they may seem to help the government in the short term, the AKP’s echo chambers have actually isolated Erdoğan, damaging his ability to think and reason clearly, and contributing to his utter inability to sympathise with those who aren’t like him. The Soma disaster is only the latest example of this; it’s certainly the saddest.