May 28, 2014
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s recent tactic to feed its supporters a steady diet of enemies has turned its focus on Germany over the last few weeks. The green light came with the verbal joust between German President Joachim Gauck and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during the former’s visit to Ankara at the end of April. After Gauck sharply criticised the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey, Erdoğan responded in reliably pugnacious style, declaring that the Lutheran Gauck “still thinks of himself as a pastor” and “cannot interfere in our country’s internal affairs.”
Equally reliably, the pro-government media has zealously taken up Erdoğan’s cause, gorging itself on anti-German material over the last couple of weeks including moronic, depressingly predictable Nazi analogies. Germany has thus taken its place alongside Jews, Masons, Atheists, Britain, the U.S., the “interest rate lobby,” the “parallel state,” and assorted domestic collaborators, in a “dirty alliance” to bring down Erdoğan and his government. This media campaign has been thrown a fair amount of red meat by a few ill-advised stories and headlines in Germany. Ahead of the prime minister’s much-anticipated rally in Cologne on May 24, for example, popular tabloid Bild carried a front page headline addressed to Erdoğan, declaring: “You’re not welcome.” The AKP-friendly media took full advantage, describing this as the latest evidence that Germany is frightened of Turkey’s unstoppable rise and is trying to sabotage Erdoğan’s political career (and thus Turkey’s path to a glorious future). Some of this stuff has been harmless tabloid fare, while some of it has been more worrying. Last week, German news magazine Der Speigel announced that it was withdrawing its Turkey correspondent, Hasnain Kazim, after he received over 10,000 threatening messages from online pro-government trolls, including death threats. His crime was to quote in a headline the reaction of a protesting miner in the disaster-struck town of Soma, who reportedly said, “Go to hell, Erdoğan.”
One of the more thoughtful interventions in this sad state of affairs came in the short interview given to T24 by Cem Özdemir, the Turkish-origin co-leader of Germany’s Green Party, on May 26. Putting aside his questionable sideburns, Özdemir had some eminently reasonable things to say, but PM Erdoğan still found things to object to. During his typically tub-thumping weekly AKP parliamentary group speech on Tuesday, he slammed Özdemir as a “so-called Turk, a co-head of a political party over there. The words he used before and after our meeting were very ugly. How are you a democrat? … Are you so disturbed by the prime minister of the Turkish Republic going there? You have no right to talk to the prime minister of your country of origin, of which you are a member, in this way. It doesn’t matter where you are an MP, first you will know your place.” You can decide for yourself whether that was a proportional response to Özdemir’s measured words to T24, which I’ve translated below:
How do you assess Prime Minister Erdoğan’s speech in Cologne?
From now on, no matter what he does, unfortunately we’ve come to the point where it can’t really change anything … The Soma mine disaster and his earlier speeches have formed such a bad picture. From now on, Erdoğan won’t easily be able to change this image. He’s also negatively affecting Turkey’s image. In recent years here, there was a positive image. But that has completely collapsed, it has reversed and a negative image of Turkey has been formed. Erdoğan has become a symbol of this negative image.
Isn’t the German public’s reaction to Erdoğan very exaggerated?
Both his supporters and his critics are exaggerating. His supporters completely idolize him, and see him as a completely faultless, flawless person; while a section of his critics are making a big mistake by comparing him to Hitler. The comparison with Vladimir Putin is better because Erdoğan really is transforming Turkey into an authoritarian regime. But the Hitler comparison is very excessive. So, without generalizing, both sides are making mistakes. These exaggerated approaches are having a very negative effect on the perception of Turkey here in Germany.
In Erdoğan’s speech, Angela Merkel was booed in the hall.
This booing of Merkel’s name leaves a very bad impression. It was very ugly, and it will stay in people’s minds. We will be the ones to pay the price for this. It gives the message: You’re living here, you’re eating its bread, your taxes are paid here, your children are going to school here, you’re benefiting from the welfare state. At the same time, you are booing this country’s prime minister and worshipping another country’s prime minister. It brings the question of loyalty back onto the agenda. We have been struggling for 50 years. “We are loyal citizens,” we say. “Trust us, there’s no need to worry.” This is brought down by the image left by those who went to that rally.
Erdoğan actually had a lot of different groups booed in the rally.
The crowd was transformed as if it was living on enemy soil. There is no such partisanship in German politics; they support politicians but they don’t worship. In the end we are just people; all of us will depart this world one day. To worship someone in such a way both amazes and scares people. In addition, those German Turks who were demonstrating against Erdoğan’s visit pumped up fears about whether “Turkey’s internal problems are being brought here.” In the past there was polarisation between Turk and Kurd, right and left; now the worry is spreading about whether the new polarisation is between Erdoğan’s supporters and his opponents.
Erdoğan’s image in Europe was very positive for many years. How is it now after this speech?
He’s destroying his own successes.
As a Turkish-origin politician, what do you say to the German public?
In the past, we used to say things like, “Probably he meant to say this; if he knew the details he would have spoken differently.” But we’ve gone beyond that, there’s nothing we can defend anymore. Even those ministers in Germany who were previously most positive [about Turkey] are now saying, “This is more than enough.” Erdoğan has 100 percent lost Germany.
December 16, 2013
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.
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 dust has almost settled after the fallout from daily Milliyet’s controversial publication of the “İmralı leaks.” The paper’s reporting of leaked details of the meeting between imprisoned PKK head Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation shook the media agenda two weeks ago, and was widely condemned by government officials as an attempt to “sabotage” the ongoing peace process. In fact, the episode has not had this effect, but it has managed to expose the fragile state of media freedom in Turkey once again – it’s regretful that such bold government criticism of the media has become increasingly familiar of late.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led the reactions from the front, repeatedly singling out Milliyet in the days following the leaks. “If that’s how you’re doing your journalism, shame on you! The media will say [the same thing] again: The prime minister is attacking us. But whoever tries to spoil the process in the media is against me and my government. There cannot be limitless freedom,” he said, before calling on the media only to report “in the national interest.” Of course, given Erdoğan’s past record on such matters it’s not surprising to hear him once again hitting out at media coverage that he considers inconvenient. However, the apparent emotion behind the outbursts on this occasion is probably related to the fact that his personal political destiny depends to a large extent on the success of the current peace talks.
Rumours circulated that sackings and resignations from Milliyet would follow the leaks, but editor-in-chief Derya Sazak wrote a robust defense on the Monday following Erdoğan’s words: “If the story is accurate, which it is, we print it. We do not take the prime minister’s words upon us.” Nevertheless, the criticism evidently had an effect, as veteran writer Hasan Pulur’s column did not appear on the same day, and it was also widely reported that the paper’s owner wanted government critics Can Dündar and Hasan Cemal to be removed on the prime minister’s order. Indeed, Cemal has not appeared in Milliyet for two weeks since the İmralı leaks, although no official announcement has been made. Dündar and Cemal are perhaps surprising names for Erdoğan to target, as – despite often being critical of the ruling AKP – both have expressed their support for its current peace process.
Although many government-supporting voices in the media unsurprisingly joined Erdoğan in condemning Milliyet’s “sabotage” attempts, there were many others defending the principle of media independence. In her daily Habertürk column, The Economist’s Turkey correspondent Amberin Zaman described Milliyet’s responsibility to print the İmralı meeting details as being a journalistic duty in the public interest:
“A journalist’s job is to find the truth and then inform the public; to protect the citizen from the state … By publishing the İmralı minutes, did Milliyet give Turkey’s enemies advantageous operational information? No. Did it put the sources’ lives at risk? No. Was sharing the talks between Öcalan and the BDP something that would injure the national interest? No. In the end, Milliyet was only doing journalism.”
In an interview with daily Akşam, Alper Görmüş – the editor-in-chief of political journal Nokta when it was closed down under military pressure in 2007 – also said Milliyet was right to print the leaked minutes, stating that he too would have published them if he was in the same situation.
“The principle criterion of journalism is honest reporting. The fact that no party has refuted Milliyet’s story on the ‘Imrali transcripts’ and that almost all of Turkey’s newspapers quoted the story the following day show that it was true … The public has been informed truthfully about a process that it has an interest in learning about. This is honest and proper journalism …
“The media has no mission to side with the political power. It should stand by the truth. A contribution to the process of a solution can only be realized by writing the truth and the facts, not by hiding them or by exercising self-censorship.
“Indeed, governing a country and practicing journalism are different things. In a country where those who govern try to teach journalists how to do their job and where journalists attempt to govern, it cannot be possible for democracy to stand on its feet.”
A thoughtful response to the events also came from Today’s Zaman’s Yavuz Baydar, who again returned to the effect of media ownership structures on press freedom in Turkey – one of the most crucial (but less discussed) aspects of the issue:
“Jail and detention have been the focus with regards to Turkey, but the real threat to the media remains (under an old, well-known dark shadow of the power) owner-induced censorship and self-censorship, including being banned from writing on specific subjects.
“Whether one denies it or not, ownership issues dominate the freedom and independence of our media today. If we in emerging democracies need to defend both of these issues, we need new ownership models.”
In the same paper, Orhan Kemal Cengiz bemoaned the more immediate issue of direct government pressure on the media with respect to Milliyet’s İmralı leaks:
“Yes, it is true; the publishing of these leaked notes has damaged the peace process … But it is a level of damage which is absolutely nothing when compared to the damage that would occur to our democracy and freedoms if our media suddenly starts censuring itself out of fear from ‘what will the government say?’ every time it encounters a newsworthy and important document it wants to print.”
Actually, the situation is rather more urgent than Cengiz suggests. The fact is that the damage that “would” come from self-censorship has already been occurring for quite some time.
On Monday (Oct. 22), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released a detailed report on the state of press freedom in Turkey, under the gloomy title: “Turkey’s Press Freedom Crisis – The Dark Days of Jailing Journalists and Criminalizing Dissent.” Although it seems like reports on the subject are released every month, this one received a huge amount of attention, both domestically and internationally. It describes the numerous instances of restrictions on media freedom, citing the familiar examples of the Ergenekon case, the endless prosecutions of journalists writing on Kurdish matters, the increasingly widespread practices of intimidation and self-censorship, as well as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s rising intolerance of dissent.
Bloomberg published a sensible commentary on the same day that the CPJ report was released:
“The committee had come under fire for reporting lower estimates of the number of jailed journalists than other human rights organizations. Turkey’s government has long maintained that only a handful of the journalists were charged with offenses related to their jobs, and because the CPJ hadn’t read all the indictments, it had erred on the side of caution.
“Now it has read the indictments and determined that 61 of the reporters and editors in detention are there because of things they wrote or said in the course of their work. In letters accompanying the report, the Turkish government disputes that characterization and asserts that it is striving to balance the need to prevent ‘the praising of violence and terrorist propaganda, and the need to expand freedom of speech.’
“What’s becoming all too clear during the Justice and Development Party’s third term in office is that despite its claims that the government is now liberalizing press laws and continuing the country’s march toward a European-style democracy, the opposite is happening. …
“Instead of fixing the legal system, the government has used it to repress opponents and intimidate the media. The “insult” laws, as well as the special anti-terrorism courts and laws, should be repealed. They are not worthy of a modern democracy, and they shouldn’t be a model for anyone.”
The report was widely covered in the Turkish media. The Oct. 23 edition of daily Taraf featured the report as its front page headline. It included an interview with Ragıp Zarakolu, a legendary figure in Turkish publishing, who has long written and published bravely on subjects that many others wouldn’t touch. He has spent a significant amount of time in prison over the years for things written or published, and he had some predictably doleful things to say:
“The fact that Turkey is found on these kinds of lists saddens me greatly. Turkey has to go beyond this, but in order to do this a change in mentality is necessary … In the existing system the state’s interests are always seen as more important than the citizen’s interests. For this reason, I don’t believe any changes can come in the end without a process of change in mentality. …
“I’ve been writing in the Kurdish press for 20 years. I witnessed the killing of a 72-year-old editor. Such things aren’t experienced any more. But should we be thankful simply for the fact that we’re not killed, or like Uğur Mumcu we’re not assassinated? Turkey is currently at the end of a 10 year process. But despite constant reforms and improvements being spoken of for 10 years, journalists are still in jail for political reasons, and there are still people who have been in prison for 30 years for political reasons. We have to examine this.”
While it’s imperative to identify the areas in which the current government has attacked press freedom, it’s also important to identify the deeper structural problems undermining freedom of expression in Turkey, too. (I touched on the issue a couple of months ago on this blog.) Also included in the CPJ report is an interview with journalist Yavuz Baydar, in which he discusses some of these problems:
“While the rules of the game in the media landscape remain unchanged, unreformed, what changes are the actors, new proprietors. Turkey’s media owners are – like drug addicts – dependent on the powers in Ankara because they are in all sorts of businesses, need approvals for growth and investments, etc., and therefore keep their media outlets either as weapons for extortion or, at best, at the service of governments. …
“The media owners of these outlets acting as ‘the coalition of the willing’ that openly act submissively to the government and security bureaucracy. I can only refer to a key meeting between the PM and all the media proprietors last autumn, during which media owners went as far as proposing themselves to the PM that they can build a “censor commission” among themselves, to be chaired by a cabinet minister. The PM declined the offer, but the message was taken well. In the case of Uludere, where 34 Kurdish smugglers were bombed to death due to a tragic mistake, there was a full blackout in that media for 17 hours while the news flow was instant and heavy in social media. This pattern of blocking is now the norm.”
“The greatest source of censorship and increasing self-censorship today [is] the ‘unholy alliance’ between the proprietors of big media groups and the powers in Ankara – a deal that connects mutual greed in terms of money and propaganda. This [will] continue to pollute the climate of good journalism, and even if the government resolved the issue of ‘jailed journalists’ it would leave journalism under huge pressure …
“Turkey’s media, vibrant, diverse, still bold, keen on struggling for its independence, will remain easy prey for those with money and political power.”
Nevertheless, the most immediate threat to freedom of expression still comes directly from the government. Ali Özkaya, a lawyer for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was quoted in daily Akşam on Oct. 23, and his words should be alarming to any sentient observer:
“We have to underline that cases we’ve opened against press have been quite a deterrent; the wording of columnists has noticeably changed especially since 2003. Reporters and columnists do not exceed the dose when making criticisms anymore; insulting comments or columns have been reduced to minimum.”
August 25, 2012
I came back to Istanbul this week, after spending three weeks at home in the UK. On my return I was greeted by airport newsstands full of papers with headlines focusing on the funerals of the nine “martyrs” killed in the recent terror attacks in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. Of course, I kept vaguely up-to-date with events while I was away, but the contrast between Turkey – currently in one of those periodic bouts of nationalist hysteria that always follow clashes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – and Britain – which is still basking in the fuzzy, generous, inclusive afterglow of the London Olympics – was nevertheless striking.
Although there are serious doubts as to whether the PKK was actually responsible for this latest attack, the Turkish press did not hesitate in reverting to predictable form. For a flavour of the current mood, here is a selection of newspaper front pages from Thursday (Aug. 23), focusing on the previous day’s funerals.