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By now, the basics are well known. The mainstream Turkish media was found to be woefully inadequate when it came to reporting the enormous anti-government protests that recently erupted across the country. As Turks took to the streets to confront ruthless security forces armed with gallons of tear gas, pressurized water, tanks and batons, those still at home turned to TV news stations only to find nature documentaries and panel shows discussing liposuction.

It’s fair to say that the protests still ongoing across Turkey have not been the Turkish media’s finest hour. In fact, these events – perhaps more than any previously – have exposed for domestic and international observers just how compromised the Turkish media has become. (As many have observed, this comes with a bitter taste for Kurds, who ask why many now protesting did little when the Kurds were complaining about scant media coverage of their own troubles.) Ironically enough, the lack of TV coverage appears only to have inspired more protests. According to a Bilgi University survey among 3,000 young Gezi Park protesters, 84% cited muted media coverage as one of the main reasons for taking to the streets. This also explains the graffiti around Istanbul lambasting the “sold-out” media, the satirical memes circulating like wildfire on the internet, and the NTV broadcast van trashed and overturned in the middle of Taksim Square.

As is now well documented, where mainstream media failed, social media stepped in. It is estimated that more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests after midnight on May 31; Twitter hashtags telling the Turkish media to do its job were trending worldwide, while CNN Türk was airing a documentary about penguins. This also resulted in large demonstrations being organised outside the Habertürk and NTV offices in the following days, which, in a grim irony, NTV ended up reporting on.

Indeed, Twitter became the only place to go to for information (and disinformation) as events unfolded; exposing the enormous chasm that now exists between independent new media and the toothless media corporations in Turkey. While this was no real revelation, (the same happened after the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, when live tweeters at the scene bypassed and shamed the established media groups), the scale of the awareness that the latest events stirred is unprecedented. Reflecting the government’s frustration at being unable to do much about what gets posted online, Erdoğan described social media as a “trouble” full of “unmitigated lies” (if he was referring to the deluded Twitter ramblings of Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek he may have had a point). One day later, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç declared that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but didn’t.” Still, there were other ways for the government to make its point, as 33 protesters were detained in the western city of İzmir for tweets they had posted.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

Turkey-watchers are familiar with the country’s chronic press freedom problems. One of the root causes is related to the ownership structures of Turkish media companies, which opens them up to political pressure, an issue that Yavuz Baydar repeatedly – and convincingly – returns to. One small example of this which I didn’t see anyone else pick up on came with a report, released in April, by respected think-tank the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), titled “Policy Suggestions for Free and Independent Media in Turkey.” The report was thorough and fair, particularly focusing on the crippling conflict of interest that comes when major media outlets are owned by large holding companies involved in other sectors. Although the report was covered by the Gülen-affiliated Zaman newspapers, no newspapers from the Doğan Media Group (owned by billionaire Aydın Doğan – perhaps Exhibit A of the above problem) – Hürriyet, its English language arm Hürriyet Daily News, or Radikal – mentioned it.

With the large media companies so obviously unfit to perform their Fourth Estate function, the focus is shifting to new online independent media. Along with the agenda-setting Twitter, the website T24 has also developed quite a reputation in providing brave, reliable, independent reporting. Veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, for example, after being controversially fired by daily Milliyet, was taken on by T24 and has since written a series of articles based on time spent with the retreating Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in southeast Turkey, including an interview with military head of the PKK, Murat Karayılan. The Demirören Holding-owned Milliyet would not touch such a daring project. Freely-available online and with little advertising, I’m not sure how T24 is actually funded (if anybody does, please do let me know), or whether it’s a viable long-term model for more serious journalism in Turkey, bypassing the established news organisations. Still, with mainstream media having so thoroughly discredited itself throughout the Gezi Park protests, the void will have to be filled by something if Turkey is to become more democratic.

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The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just released its annual report on the number of journalists imprisoned globally – a gloomy read. This year, the global tally reached its highest point since the CPJ began surveys in 1990, with a total of 232 individuals counted as being behind bars, an increase of 53 since 2011. Unsurprising to most in the country, Turkey tops the list this year – followed by Iran and China – with the CPJ counting 49 currently in Turkish prisons for their journalistic activity, (still lower than its last count of 61). A complete list featuring detailed accounts of all imprisoned journalists worldwide is available to view via the CPJ here, while a “path forward” for Turkey, drawn by CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, can be read here. The CPJ recently focused on the situation in Turkey in a detailed report released in October, which I wrote about on this blog at the time.

In Turkey, most of the newspapers hostile to the government included pieces on the report, with the reliably bellicose Sözcü referring ironically to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in its Nov. 12 front page headline: “THE MASTER BREAKS THE RECORD: Turkey is the world champion in imprisoned journalists.” Also tongue-in-cheek, daily Taraf dolefully headlined its article on the report: “Again we’re the world’s first!” However, news of the CPJ report was conspicuous by its absence in the Pollyannaish pro-government press – nowhere to be found in Zaman, Sabah, Bugün, Türkiye, Yeni Asya, Yeni Şafak, or Star. Bearing in mind the Doğan Group’s history with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, it is also perhaps worth mentioning that neither of its remaining Turkish-language titles, Hürriyet and Radikal, mentioned the report in their print versions either (although both did feature online articles).

Of course, the October CPJ report on Turkey was far more detailed than this latest one, which focused only on the global numbers of journalists in jail. Indeed, the real question of press freedom in the country is rather more complicated than simply a headline figure alone, as I have written before, both here and here. Still, however hypocritical many of the protests on the issue coming from the direction of newspapers like Sözcü are, the situation is certainly deplorable. Complicated as the issue may be, comparing the coverage (or non-coverage) of the CPJ report in the Turkish press at least gives some impression of quite how polarized the media in Turkey really is. Looking at some of the newspapers here, it’s often hard to believe they can be describing the same country.

I’ve been meaning to write something about press freedom in Turkey with reference to daily newspaper Sözcü for quite a while. Then, a couple of days ago, I caught sight of the back page of the paper’s Sept. 4 edition and, like a gift, my primary material was there waiting for me.

The page carried the headline “Turkey’s daily sunshade,” and sarcastically described itself in the top corner as “the kind of journalism that Tayyip wants.” This was in reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent request for the Turkish media “not to exaggerate terror incidents.” The mock stories written underneath therefore contained nothing but praise for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and all its wonderful achievements. One was about how the monster of inflation had been miraculously defeated, another was about how Istanbul’s chronic traffic problem had been eradicated (by the way, I can tell you from bitter experience that it hasn’t), another featured a mother who had happily heeded Erdoğan’s advice that all women should give birth to “at least three children,” another described how Syrian refugees had started naming their new born babies “Tayyip” in honour of the heroic Turkish PM.

In fact, the page was relatively mild compared to the populist tub-thumping Sözcü (“spokesman” or “mouthpiece” in English) usually serves up. Its front page typically features some kind of outraged headline about the latest treachery committed by betrayers of the Turkish nation. A short, choleric editorial in the bottom left corner is included every day under the subtle title “Tokmak” (“hammer” or “mallet” in English – apt enough), invariably fuming about some latest disgrace and usually pointing the finger directly at the AKP government. The tone does not get much higher throughout the remaining 19 pages. Recently, the paper has been having almost daily seizures about the government’s Syria policy and its backing for the anti-Assad opposition. These are mostly prompted by fears about how such a policy may facilitate some kind of autonomous Kurdish region stretching from northern Syria to northern Iraq, and conceivably into southeastern Turkey – anathema to the kind of nationalist gallery that Sözcü plays to.

As far as circulation figures go, Sözcü has certainly been one of the undeniable success stories in the Turkish newspaper roster over the last couple of years. When it started printing just over five years ago, it sold around 60,000 copies. This figure has risen steadily ever since, and the paper recently announced it had hit national sales figures of 300,000, making it the fifth-highest selling daily newspaper in the country.

With regard to the state of freedom of expression in today’s Turkey, Sözcü is certainly an interesting phenomenon to consider. Surely, in contrast to the many recent suggestions that freedom of expression is under attack in the country, doesn’t the existence of such a paper indicate that the range of perspectives available on Turkish newsstands is healthily broad? Well, not exactly – the condition of the Turkish media has more fundamental problems that must be taken into account.

In its annual Press Freedom Index for 2011, released in January this year, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders, or RSF) ranked Turkey 148th out of 179 countries worldwide, down from 138th in 2010. This was the fifth year in succession that Turkey had slipped down the RSF rankings. Over 100 Turkish journalists are currently in jail, a figure higher than China. The number of journalists sacked or sued for what they have written, reported, or even drawn, climbs by the month, and many journalists and editors freely admit to practicing self-censorship to avoid trouble.

One of the most significant and much-discussed episodes took place in September 2009, when Doğan Publishing, then the largest media group in Turkey, was hit with over $3.2 billion in fines for tax irregularities by the Turkish treasury (equivalent to more than four fifths of the combined market value of Doğan Holding and Doğan Publishing).The hugely excessive size of the fines seemed to suggest government disapproval of the group’s newspapers’ reporting of an embezzlement scandal at the “Deniz Feneri” Islamic charity in Germany. It was the biggest charity corruption case in German history, and Doğan newspapers alleged that billions of dollars raised by the charity had somehow found their way into AKP coffers back in Turkey. After the fines were levied, Doğan’s media outlets significantly toned down their reporting of the scandal, as well as their broader criticism of the government. A number of their anti-AKP columnists were sacked, and many of their newspapers were sold off in order to pay the exorbitant fine, which was subsequently lessened after appeal.

There are numerous other examples of similarly shady processes being undertaken by the government. Their effectiveness can perhaps be attributed to one of the more fundamental flaws in the country’s media landscape. As Svante E. Cornell wrote in Turkey Analyst back in January 2010, this is the fact that the Turkish media is overly dominated by large holding companies:

“As a result, major newspapers and television channels are owned by firms with broad and substantial economic interests. For many, winning government tenders is a chief objective. This means that owners of media outlets seldom see these as their main preoccupation, but often as assets they can use for leverage – either by using their assets to pressure incumbents to win favors – or by appeasing the powers that be.”

Those organs wishing to maintain good business relations with the government must toe the line. However, there are still many who simply don’t care about such things, and Sözcü is perhaps the most prominent print example of that today. The case of Emin Çolaşan is a neat symbolic example to consider here. Çolaşan used to write for daily Hürriyet – part of the Doğan media empire – before he was fired in 2007 after 22 years’ service. His sacking was believed to be because of his fierce criticism of the AKP government. Within weeks of leaving Hürriyet, Çolaşan was picked up by Sözcü, where he now writes a reliably bellicose daily column. Evidently, Sözcü doesn’t have quite the same concerns about offending the AKP government that Hürriyet now has.

Still, there is far more to a free and healthy press than simply having a few columnists in certain newspapers feeling free to throw as many tantrums about the government as they want. A well-functioning Fourth Estate should, through rigorous investigative reporting, effectively hold whatever government is in power to account. Unfortunately, there is precious little evidence of this in Turkey’s press landscape. In an excellent piece on “The Deteriorating State of Media Freedom in Turkey,” again in Turkey Analyst, Gareth Jenkins has described this parlous situation thus:

“Unlike in many other countries, Turkish newspapers are dominated not by reporters but by columnists. With a few notable exceptions, journalistic standards in Turkey have always been very low. Little attempt is made to substantiate news reports, with the result that rumor and gossip are often given equal status to undeniable facts … The situation is arguably even worse amongst the columnists, most of whom merely react to something they have heard or read elsewhere in the media without trying to investigate or assess its veracity. The result is that most columnists generate more sound than sense, using invective rather than reasoning to make their voices heard.

… Nor does Turkey have a tradition of investigative journalism. What passes for investigative journalism – and which today mostly appears in book form rather than in newspapers or on television – tends to consist of a compendium of reports and rumors selected to support the author’s preconceptions; and is riddled with the same lack of substantiation that characterizes newspaper and television news reports.”

Sözcü, perhaps unsurprisingly, exemplifies suchshallow prioritizing of reactive opinion over genuinely thoughtful, reflective, investigative writing. Over 50 percent of its “news” pages are filled with belligerent opinion columns from the paper’s popular commentators.

Some might take the overwhelming predominance of highly critical “rent-a-mouths” in almost all Turkish newspapers as proof of the Turkish media’s bustling vitality. However, while Sözcü may get away with its fierce daily anti-AKP invective, that’s a million miles away from contributing to a genuinely effective Fourth Estate. Ultimately, the latter’s development is of critical importance to the future direction of Turkish democracy.

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