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Turkey Book Talk is back after a one month hiatus.

We return with a good one: Bilge Yeşil speaks about her book “Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State” (University of Illinois Press).

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Here’s my review of the book.

Media

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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.”

Takvim's legendary interview with a tree, which appeared during last year's Gezi protests.

Pro-government tabloid Takvim‘s legendary interview with a tree during last year’s Gezi protests.

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.

A long and revealing interview with Doğan Ertuğrul, the former senior news editor of the staunchly pro-government daily Star, appeared on the news website T24 on May 5. Ertuğrul resigned from the newspaper in March, issuing a statement complaining that it had descended into the realm of “black propaganda”:

In the state of insanity that Turkey is currently experiencing, the media has suffered more than its share. ‘News’ papers and TV stations that don’t observe news values and instead aim for perception management – or, more accurately, black propaganda – have become routine.I have held the same position at Star for years, but I feel there is no longer any possibility there to do responsible and balanced journalism.

One wonders why it took so long to come to this conclusion, but Ertuğrul candidly explained his thoughts to T24‘s Hazal Özvarış.

Star is one of the pillars of the friendly new media establishment that has developed around Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since it came to power in 2002. As comes through in the interview with Ertuğrul, it sees itself as more intellectual that the higher-circulation Sabah, though you have to ask just how highbrow a title featuring bi-weekly columns from PM Erdoğan’s economic advisor and telekinesis-detector Yiğit Bulut can be. Along with its sister TV station, Kanal 24, Star was bought by businessman Ethem Sancak in 2007, with Sancak declaring soon afterwards that he had entered the media sector “to serve the prime minister.” Kanal 24 is now equally devoted to the government as Star, and is probably even more influential, reaching a much wider audience while remaining just as partisan. After selling both off in 2009 (having made the necessary editorial adjustments), Sancak bought them back last month.

 

Star's front page headline on May 4, slamming Washington-based think tank Freedom House for it's recent press freedom report that described the Turkish media as "Not free." The subheading criticises Freedom House for alleged links to "Israel lobbies" and "famous speculator George Soros." The text underneath stresses that its president is Jewish.

Star’s front page headline on May 4, slamming Washington-based think tank Freedom House for it’s recent press freedom report describing the Turkish media as “Not free.” The subheading says Freedom House has links to “Israel lobbies” as well as “famous speculator George Soros,” while the text underneath emphasises that its president, David Kramer, is a Jew.

 

Back in 2007, Sancak declared himself “lovesick for the prime minister,” adding that Erdoğan was his “most important idol.” He is one of the wealthiest and most prominent members of the AKP’s new constructocracy, with economic interests intertwining closely with the political interests of the government. Money can’t be made from owning a newspaper, but Sancak knows that owning an AKP-friendly media company is a necessary overhead to win contracts in other areas, (just last week his firm won the tender for armoured vehicle and bus manufacturer BMC).

He first bought the Star Media Group at a time when Turkey’s “old elite” was applying a huge amount of pressure against Erdoğan and the AKP over Abdullah Gül’s presidential candidacy in 2007, and just one year before the closure case against the party was to be brought to the Constitutional Court. The AKP became convinced that a new, friendly media was needed to defend it against such attacks, so it actively went about fostering this. In light of the harsh atmosphere of the period and as part of the narrative of Turkey’s “normalisation,” there was actually a defendable case to be made for such a move. However, as in many other areas, it has all gone too far. Pressure is now being applied to media across the spectrum, and the core group of pro-government titles has descended into blatant distortion, parrot-like repetition of AKP public statements, and vitriolic character assassinations. As Henri Barkey recently wrote, Turkey’s slavishly devoted pro-government media now resembles “Pravda on steroids.”

T24’s interview with Ertuğrul highlights his revelation about how an interview with President Gül was censored by Star in order to not disturb PM Erdoğan. However, it is perhaps more interesting for the glimpse that Ertuğrul gives into the inner workings of the newspaper; none of it comes as a surprise, but it is quite unusual for an “insider” to go public in such a way. Translated below are some of the most important points, which I think speak for themselves:

My colleagues at Star used to jokingly call me “Brother ethics” because of my concern about journalistic principles. I used to hold many of the same ideals as the AK Parti government, but when the party started to abandon these principles, the media that is close to the government also started to follow the same path. My first realisation of this was during the Gezi protests. I went to Gezi and so did my children. I had the opportunity to see both the groups using violence, and also those with ordinary, democratic demands. For this reason I found the attitude taken against Gezi by the government and the government media very disturbing.

….

There was a complicated process during the “Kabataş assault” story during Gezi. At the editorial meeting I came out and said this story was fantastical and unconvincing. Many other editors expressed similar views. I said it was wrong to publish news without any evidence at all, based only on the claims of the young headscarved mother. But I couldn’t prevent the story from being published … After the camera footage emerged showing what really happened in Kabataş we even debated writing a formal apology at the editorial meeting; but as the prime minister’s attitude became clearer, this became impossible to publish.

….

I had already been objecting to a lot of things, and my objections were always taken into consideration. However, by the end the number of these objections being considered dropped … We had a responsibility to the public before our responsibility to Erdoğan. But that threshold was passed long ago.

The prime minister doesn’t see anyone’s position as “enough.” This happened in a lot of incidents with us. After saying to ourselves, “This [language] is very tough, let’s not put it in the headline,” we then saw Sabah’s headline the next day and we said to ourselves jokingly, “Ah, the prime minister will now criticize us by saying, ‘Look, have you seen this?’”

In the government’s media there is no need for “Alo Fatih” calls interfering in the editorial process. There, people already know the reflexes of the prime minister and the government. In this sense, Star is a comfortable newspaper … The editors know what they have to do, what will or will not upset the government. There’s a kind of shared mind-set that doesn’t exist in somewhere like Habertürk, for example … I can’t speak for elsewhere, but I can speak clearly about the situation in Star. [PM Erdoğan’s economic advisor] Yiğit Bulut is a writer there, and before he was a TV station’s director; [Erdoğan’s political advisor] Yalçın Akdoğan also writes in Star. Both of them very regularly visit the newspaper. Therefore, caricature-like “Alo Fatih” phone calls are not even necessary at Star.

The issue isn’t just about patronage. These newspapers also have directors. If we look at just bosses, we can see that Yeni Şafak’s boss has his own personal agenda. For example, despite the prime minister’s support, Yeni Şafak ran a campaign to prevent Mehmet Görmez from becoming the Religious Affairs minister. For some reason or another, the paper’s boss doesn’t like Görmez. In other newspapers, the most important thing is to consider which minister or which prime minister’s assistant they are close to, and what kind of closeness they have.

It’s possible that many journalists are supporting the government both out of the opportunities this offers and also because they share its ideology. The AK Parti has created its own ideology; call it AK Parti-ism or Erdoğanism. The business environment is connected to the government, so is the media, so is the judiciary, so is the bureaucracy. This is a summary of the Turkey of Tayyip Erdoğan’s dreams.

A coterie has developed that uses the political and economic opportunities provided by the government. In the media at the moment there are people supporting the government, but a large number of these will curse Erdoğan when his government declines. There are a lot of people behind him who have no real sympathy for him.

During the Gezi protests and especially after Dec. 17 [corruption probe] there were dozens of headlines that unfortunately didn’t conform with proper news criteria and were published for propaganda purposes. It’s no longer difficult to see how the government is the source behind a lot of news and a lot of journalists. Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Star, and Akşam haven’t published a single line about the claims in the Dec. 17 investigations. There hasn’t been a single piece of news about what the claims actually were. At the same time, we read propaganda in the government media about the Gezi protesters’ “global terror links,” about Israel being behind Dec. 17, and even debates about the Gülen movement’s Islamic-ness.

There were a lot of former police chiefs, bureaucrats, and politicians found guilty in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases who started to feature in Star headline stories just because they took the same positions as the prime minister. People like Emin Aslan, Sabri Uzun, Hanefi Avcı. Once upon a time the accusations against them were widely reported in the newspaper. As that was the case, what were we doing back then? And what are we doing now?

While I still worked at Star, I struggled to keep doing the things that I believed were correct in the name of journalism. I asked myself whether I should quit, or stay and struggle. In order to change things you must struggle. I objected to what was being done, I did what I could, and when I saw that I wouldn’t be able to do it any more I quit. I wondered about whether the insane atmosphere in Turkey would end after the local elections in March … But I saw how the country and Star became even harsher after the elections.

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.

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.

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