Misunderstanding the Turkish press
November 14, 2014
I’m breaking my blogging hiatus to present a guest post by my friend Paul Osterlund, who is currently reporting for Today’s Zaman. The piece is a response to a recent apologia for the Turkish government’s press freedom record written by Sabancı University historian Adam McConnel on the Serbestiyet website. Rebuttals are welcome via the comments section.
Late last month, an article titled “Understanding the Turkish Press” appeared on the Turkish website Serbestiyet (The Independent), written by Adam McConnell, an American historian who has lived in Turkey for 15 years and holds a doctoral degree from Istanbul’s Sabancı University.
Despite the website’s moniker, Serbestiyet is comprised primarily of self-fashioned “liberal” journalists and scholars who support President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The website features a cadre of columnists who previously wrote for the Taraf daily, who subsequently jumped ship when that paper adopted a harshly critical stance toward the AKP. These columnists range from those who are unwavering in their support for the AKP to those at who are at least willing to acknowledge many of its authoritarian blunders, nevertheless insisting that the party is Turkey’s only democratizing force.
In his essay, McConnell writes that the Turkish press is a “daily anarchic knock-down, drag-out free-for-all,” where the is no semblance of objectivity, but rather a ragtag collection of pro and anti-government dailies eschewing proper journalistic standards for cheap potshots. While this may be true, it forms the basis for his assertion that “the Turkish press is not under threat from the government, and is not censored,” a position that could only be occupied by one wearing blinders. His idea of a free press resembles Erdoğan’s views on democracy, which Turkey’s president believes in firmly rooted in the ballot box. So long as there are multiple parties competing in relatively free and fair elections, no one has the right to complain. As long as there are a variety of papers taking aim at the government, the opposition, the Gülen movement, and each other, the press should be considered free and healthy.
Such logic painfully overlooks a variety of important factors. One troubling trend that McConnell neglects to mention is Erdoğan’s penchant for publicly chastising journalists. The president has done this time and time again knowing that the journalist in question will receive a deluge of threats. In 2011, Erdoğan accused respected columnist Nuray Mert (without specifically mentioning her name) of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Afterwards, Mert lost her job as a TV show host and was eventually booted from her columnist position at the daily Milliyet. Most recently, Erdoğan singled out professor and columnist İhsan Yılmaz, (though again not by name) calling him a traitor for various remarks Yılmaz had made at a conference in Washington earlier this year. Both Mert and Yılmaz reported fearing for their safety. These are only two among a host of similar incidents. (Erdoğan seems particularly eager to target young female journalists, including Amberin Zaman, Ceylan Yeğinsu, Selin Girit and Rengin Arslan).
The government has levied media owners with hefty tax fines, most famously in 2009 when the Doğan Media Group, which runs the daily Hürriyet and CNN Türk among other outlets—was fined a whopping 4 billion lira. The penalty was later reduced to just under one million, but the penalty was widely believed to have been a punishment for the media group’s critical coverage. As of 2013, more journalists were behind bars in Turkey than in any other country. Erdoğan frequently files criminal complaints against journalists he doesn’t like, and even deported an Azerbaijani journalist early this year for certain tweets he wrote, an incident that may be the first of its kind in history. McConnell mentions none of this, apart from this underwhelming tidbit: “True enough, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently put pressure on some newspapers or journalists, and gotten some people fired, which was obviously not the right thing to do.”
The author proceeds by listing the most prominent Turkish dailies and their respective ideological stances, pointing out that the majority are critical of the government. He takes opposition papers to task for suddenly beginning to cover labor issues, a move which he says amounts to “nauseauting hypocrisy.” Never mind that labor conditions have deteriorated amid a major construction boom and privatization frenzy that has coincided with the AKP’s tenure as Turkey’s ruling party.
Even if it is hypocritical for the opposition papers to revert their focus toward these issues, they have become impossible to ignore, particularly when they are surrounded by hysteria and provocation caused by the AKP itself. An Erdoğan advisor, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed kicking a protestor following a deadly mine disaster that killed 301 workers at the Soma mine in May. Erdoğan himself caused a furor when he said the tragedy was the “nature of the business,” referencing similar disasters in 19th-century England. In the midst of such absurdity, only papers loyal to the government failed to report on these incidents, the kind of scandalous and popcorn-muching fodder that is dream coverage for newspapers.
McConnell, while exhibiting his distaste for what he sees as opposition hypocrisy, conveniently leaves out that pro-government papers routinely print bald-faced lies and anti-Semitic nonsense. Last year Yeni Şafak ran an interview with Noam Chomsky where certain answers were altered (the meticulous Chomsky discovered this himself), whereas Takvim printed an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour that was completely fabricated. Meanwhile, in the midst of Israel’s latest flurry of bomb attacks on Gaza, Yeni Akit featured a word game centered around a picture of Adolf Hitler, with the resulting clue reading “we are longing for you.”
Pressure from the ruling party can even have the power to dramatically influence circulation between the opposition papers. After Hürriyet opted not to print a highly sarcastic piece from Yılmaz Özdil, one of the country’s most popular columnists, Özdil jumped ship to Sözcü, which then immediately took Hürriyet’s spot as the third-most circulated paper in Turkey, moving up from fourth place, although the two papers have traded places since then. Amid increasing pressure from the government, Hürriyet declined to print Özdil’s column as it suggested in a facetious manner slathered with bitter mockery that Erdoğan’s son Bilal should be the country’s prime minister.
In their columns, the Serbestiyet crew has exhibited an extremely paranoid attitude toward the Gezi Park protests, asserting that the movement had been hijacked by Kemalist/neo-nationalist forces. They argued that the protests amounted to a “coup,” and they evaluated the Dec. 17 corruption scandal using the same term. Even the Oct. 6-7 clashes between PKK sympathizers and Islamist groups over Turkey’s indecisiveness over Kobane have been referred to as a coup by some of these columnists. One would think that people who have lived through actual military coups, as tanks rolled through the streets and forcibly seized control, and where dissidents were imprisoned, tortured and killed, would not throw around the term so lightly. They also managed to gloss over the large number of journalists who lost their jobs following the Gezi events. Since they believe any serious threat to the credibility of the AKP must be a coup plotter or secular nationalist, they harbor the same stance toward the opposition press. Any paper or writer who criticizes the government is a bitter, coup-sympathizing elitist who doesn’t understand a monumental social transformation that only the AKP could usher in and see through.
Since McConnell would like his readers to believe that the opposition papers solely exist to take jabs at the AKP, he attempts to minimize their distinct ideological positions and deemphasizes the fact that they are catering to different groups of people. One wouldn’t find an average reader of Sözcü thumbing through the pages of Taraf, as the latter frequently features columnists openly and frankly discussing the Armenian Genocide and the Kurdish settlement process, occupying positions uncomfortable for your average Kemalist. On the other hand a loyal Taraf reader would likely snub their nose at the idea of reading Cumhuriyet or Yurt. (McConnell makes the claim that Taraf has become co-opted by the Gülen movement, a rather conflated accusation that many of its former columnists have echoed. While Taraf’s Mehmet Baransu and Emre Uslu are movement sympathizers, the paper also features gay and trans columnists alongside a host of other writers that would be unwelcome at the Gülenist papers.) Moreover, a reader of Zaman or Bugün, who sympathizes with the Gülen movement, would be unlikely to give Sözcü or Cumhuriyet more than cursory glance, even if Zaman has begun to reference Cumhuriyet reports.
Different opposition papers have specific reasons to criticize the AKP. Left-wing papers such as BirGün and Evrensel go after the government because of its crony capitalist tendencies and sweeping neoliberal urban redevelopment initiatives. The Gülen dailies have come out swinging because the AKP has publically vowed to wipe out the Gülen movement and have taken major initiatives to destroy its financial integrity. The Kemalist dailies sling mud at the AKP whenever they can because they see it is an affront to their “secular lifestyle” and what they interpret as the “secular legacy” of the modern Turkish state.
The pro-government press, on the other hand, exists for a solitary purpose: to act as the mouthpiece of Erdoğan and the AKP. These outlets come in different flavors, but they are all equally loyal in their unquestioning devotion to the president and the government. On several occasions, pro-government dailies have featured nearly identical headlines, indicating that they are the result of top-down instructions. If the present state of the Turkish press can be considered an all-out slugfest between papers that have very distinct reasons for taking potshots at the government and the pro-government press, it is because these conditions have been fostered and encouraged by the government’s polarizing rhetoric, zero tolerance policy regarding criticism, its eagerness to personally single out “troublesome” journalists and its encouragement of corporate allies to buy media outlets to broaden the range of its mouthpiece. The current condition of the Turkish media cannot be understood separately from the ever-increasing authoritarian maneuvering of Erdoğan and the AKP.
The Turkish press, like the country it tries to represent, is highly dynamic and full of twists and turns. But despite the fact that Turkey can technically be considered a democracy, it is not a healthy one. And while pro and anti-government papers may duke it out freely with obnoxious headlines that often amount to little more than insults, the Turkish press is far from free. For one to begin to “understand” the Turkish press, they must be aware of the constant and diligent interventions staged by Tayyip Erdoğan, conducted to intimidate and delegitimize any and all who rattle his cage.