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The draft bill to “transform” test prep schools (dershanes) into formal private schools was submitted to the Turkish parliament last week. The mooted closure of dershanes – many of which are operated by sympathisers of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen – is widely interpreted as an Erdoğan-lead strike against the Gülen movement, and seems to have been the trigger leading to the Gülenist-led corruption probes that have targeted figures close to the government since December. The precise effects that a closure of the dershanes would have aren’t clear, but it’s reasonable to assume that it would significantly affect the reach of the Gülen movement and its influential media arms. Gülen-affiliated outlets probably aren’t commercially viable as independent entities, but they are useful as public relations arms for the movement’s wider interests. In this sense, the business models of the pro-Gülen media – mostly controlled by either Feza Publications or the Samanyolu Publishing Group – aren’t dissimilar to those of mainstream government-friendly titles: Losses can be accepted in consideration of a bigger picture. Those losses will be far more difficult to sustain without the profits flowing in, directly or indirectly, from dershanes.

As U.S.-based press watchdog Freedom House stated in its report on Turkey published Feb. 3: “Media outlets are used to promote their ownership group’s financial interests … Members of the media and the government alike describe newspapers’ Ankara bureau chiefs as ‘lobbyists’ for their companies.” Owning a media outlet isn’t profitable in itself, but it helps to have one in order to facilitate business in other sectors; at least a dozen newspapers and 10 television stations are owned by conglomerates with energy, construction or mining interests, all sectors heavily dependent on government business. Moguls are willing to temporarily handle the losses involved in owning media groups – and are often encouraged to do so by the government – as they know that other business benefits will follow (in the winning of construction tenders, for example). As such, their number one priority is usually to protect their good relations with the government.

The Gülenist media is useful as a lobbyist for the Gülen movement’s interests in the same way that the pro-Erdoğan media lobbies for the government’s (and their own companies’) interests. Media outlets don’t necessarily have to be profitable to make commercial sense. For example, the pro-Gülen Zaman newspaper has the highest circulation figures of any Turkish newspaper, but these figures are mostly made up of subsidised subscriptions. It’s not uncommon in Turkey to see copies of Zaman left in the lobbies of apartment buildings or tucked into the gates at the entrance of a shop or a residential site. Thousands of copies are also sent, solicited or unsolicited, to businesses with ties (either tight or loose) to Gülen. According to figures that I noticed last year, only a tiny fraction of Zaman’s circulation figures come from actual sales. I don’t know about online and print advertising revenue, but it’s clear that a profit can’t possibly be run when sales are so low and subsidised subscription is so high.

But the value of Zaman lies in more than just headline profits – the paper is part of the broader Gülen movement eco-system. Zaman is owned by Feza Publications, which is a partner organisation of the Samanyolu Publishing Group; between them, they operate dozens of newspapers, websites, TV stations, radio stations and magazines, both in Turkey and abroad. These don’t directly come under the umbrella of a wider holding company operating in other sectors, as most of the mainstream pro-AKP media does, but the relationship is similar. All Gülen media groups are supported directly and indirectly by profits from other Gülenist business interests. Without the financial support provided by the operation of the dershanes, the Gülenist media would find it more difficult to sustain itself.

Joshua Hendrick, the author of the most respected book on the Gülen movement so far available in English, has suggested that the move to close the dershanes primarily aims to “[go] after the existential nature of the movement by destroying its human resources.” The financial ramifications of a closure of dershanes would also be significant. The Gulenists run 2,000 schools in 160 countries, and Hendrick estimates that the Gülen-affiliated charter schools in the U.S. alone bring in around $500 million per year. Although they are primarily seen as a means of attracting new sympathisers, the hundreds of Gülen-affiliated dershanes in Turkey also make up a multimillion-dollar industry. On both human and financial fronts, therefore, a dershane closure – which the draft just submitted to parliament ensures would be completed by September 2015 – would likely have big ramifications for the Gülen-affiliated media.

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.

A new episode in the covert Erdoğan-Gülen power struggle bubbled quietly to the surface last week. The fault line was apparently once again Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to change Turkey to a presidential political system. I was alerted to this latest possible rift by the May 9 front page of arch-secularist Cumhuriyet, which brandished two recent pieces of evidence: The first was veiled criticism issued by influential U.S.-based religious preacher Fethullah Gülen, broadcast recently on the major Gülenist television station Samanyolu; the second was a column published in the Gülen-affiliated newspaper Zaman, written by “Gülen mouthpiece” Hüseyin Gülerce.

According to the Cumhuriyet article, titled “Heavy hints from Gülen to Erdoğan,” Gülen suggested the following in a recent Samanyolu broadcast:

“Sometimes power makes a person arrogant. Even if they are a believer, they may morally be a pharaoh … Sometimes, blessings constantly pour from above and in that way a person can become a Nimrod, or a pharaoh … An ordinary person can arrive, take advantage of certain possibilities, and is able to sit at the helm of power. But after being at the helm for a while, he may come to lose respect for those who he has brought so far in the vehicle. He may always look at the people from on high, telling them ‘stay in your place.’ If others say anything, he may reply with something like, ‘Shut up. You don’t understand this business. Whatever I say goes.’”

Cumhuriyet linked these cryptic words to an equally cryptic column by Hüseyin Gülerce, published in the Turkish and English language versions of Zaman on May 7 and 8. In it, Gülerce wrote about the possible changes to the political system, and appeared to advise against Erdoğan putting himself forward as a candidate for either a newly-empowered executive presidential chair, or a party-affiliated one:

“The impression that the AK Party negotiated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in return for the presidential system cannot be fixed … It does not seem possible for the AK Party to convince the people and other stakeholders that the presidential or semi-presidential system is the best option after all these developments.

“The only thing the AK Party will insist on at this point is a partisan president … [But] a surprise move … may be that the prime minister does not run for the presidency. The prime minister has not so far publicly announced that he will run for the presidency. There will be no need for a partisan president in the event that he does not become a candidate in the election.”

Of course, tension between the Gülen movement and Erdoğan has long been speculated on. In a smart recent piece for Turkey Analyst, Svante E. Cornell suggested that growing numbers within the movement are switching their allegiances to current President Abdullah Gül, frustrated at Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian and personality-driven political style. Still, it’s striking that the issue is considered such a taboo that it is rarely mentioned openly in the mainstream Turkish media. An issue of such significance to the country’s political future is therefore discussed only through whispers, rumours and conjecture. Whatever truth comes from such speculation, smoke and mirrors certainly don’t help ease concerns about the movement’s lack of transparency, or its “hidden agenda.”

In another plot twist, the vice president of the Gülen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation, Cemal Usak, recently suggested that Gülen “may return to Turkey” if a “civil and democratic constitution” is adopted. Whatever that means in the grand scheme of things, it seems likely that heads will continue to be scratched over the whole issue for a while yet.

Having lead a government that has spent much of the last 10 years in a bitter tug-of-war for power with the military establishment, it has recently become clear that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now attempting to secure rapprochement with the Turkish armed forces. The latest indication came with his visit on Feb. 9 to the hospital bedside of retired general Ergin Saygun, whose 18-year prison sentence in the Balyoz (Sledgehammer) coup plot trial was suspended on Feb. 7 following a medical report. Saygun is now undergoing critical heart treatment in Istanbul.

The hospital visit was just the latest in a series of moves that indicate Erdoğan’s changed approach. In recent months, he has repeatedly expressed frustration at the long detention times of military officers and even at the alleged excesses in the ongoing Ergenekon coup plot investigation. Two weeks ago he complained in a live television interview: “There are currently 400 retired commissioned or non-commissioned officers. Most of them are detained … If the evidence is indisputable, give a verdict. If you consider hundreds of officers and the [former] chief of staff to be members of an illegal organization this would destroy the morale of the armed forces. How will these people be able to fight terrorism?” Indeed, with so many detained or facing trial, there have also been rumours of growing organisational chaos inside the armed forces due to the lack of staff; as many as a fifth of Turkey’s top military chiefs are currently languishing behind bars. (In an unfortunate gaff, one opposition deputy recently bemoaned the lack of serving generals currently available to conduct a military coup.)

The Fethullah Gülen religious movement (cemaat) is the strongest and most powerful advocate of the ongoing coup plot trials. As Dani Rodrik, a fierce critic of the Ergenekon/Balyoz cases, has written: “[Erdoğan’s] Gülenist allies … have been the key driving force behind the sham trials. It is Gülen’s disciples in the police, judiciary and media who have launched and stage-managed these trials and bear the lion’s share of responsibility.” Below the surface, it is therefore becoming clear that Erdoğan’s recent moves to normalise relations  with the military constitute the latest steps in the power struggle between himself and the cemaat. As a leader with impeccable political antennae, Erdoğan also probably recognises the political importance of “moving on” with the military. Despite all the reputational damage it has suffered over the last 10 years, the national armed forces still retain considerable loyalty among the Turkish public.

As the newspaper most closely affiliated with the Gülen movement, it is thus interesting to observe how daily Zaman is reporting Erdoğan’s search for a settlement. On the day after Erdoğan’s hospital visit to Saygun, the paper’s front page carried a picture of him standing at the former general’s bedside, with an innocuous story inside titled “Surprising visit to Ergin Saygun.” However, it is also worth noting that Zaman’s front page headline on the same day focused on the recent three-day summit of the (Gülen-affiliated) “Abant Platform,” which came out in strong support for Turkey’s continued EU membership negotiations. The piece mentioned the “hardening attitude” within the EU and unfair visa restrictions, but also included criticism of the recent public declarations of some Turkish officials, which it said “lead the way to opposition to EU membership among the public.” Erdoğan has been leading the charge in negative statements about the EU process in recent weeks, so Zaman’s emphasis was perhaps not without significance, hinting cryptically at the growing Gülen-Erdoğan split.

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Zaman headline Feb. 10: ‘Support to EU process from the Abant Platform’

 

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