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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.

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On Sept. 17, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) hand delivered its latest letter to Turkey’s Ministry of Justice, expressing the group’s deep concern over the “continued press freedom crisis in Turkey.”

The CPJ had previously published a long and detailed special report on media freedom in Turkey in October 2012, and this latest letter, addressed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, explains how the difficulties described in that report remain unresolved. It also discusses the increasingly oppressive environment in the aftermath of the summer’s anti-government Gezi Park protests, paying particular attention to the fact that open threats from officials have become worryingly commonplace, which “emboldens zealous prosecutors to go after critics.”

The letter doesn’t much dwell on the issue of ownership and conflict of interest – by no means the be all and end all, but certainly a crucial issue that must be addressed if improvements are to be made. Other than that, it makes for a good primer on the biggest challenges to freedom across all media in today’s Turkey: imprisoned journalists and associated legal irregularities, the inappropriate use of anti-terrorism laws, censorship and self-censorship, gag orders on sensitive issues, and the threats being issued by government figures with increasing brazenness. Below are some of the most salient points made in the CPJ’s letter:

“While the restrictive laws and prosecutions are central to the media crisis in Turkey, so too is the atmosphere fostered at the top levels of government. When top officials use the term ‘terrorists’ to describe critical journalists they send a disturbing message that could cause others to take action …

“With traditional media under pressure, the Internet, including social media, has become an important outlet for free expression in Turkey. But recent official comments, including threats to restrict the online flow of information, cause concern …

“Time and again, history has proven that, at times of unrest, a well-informed society has a better capacity to restore and heal itself. The government of Turkey ought to encourage a vibrant debate, a diversity of opinions, and independent reporting on news events crucial to the public …

“In mid-June, with tensions running high, you publicly accused the international media of biased coverage of the Gezi Park events, singling out CNN International, the BBC, and Reuters. Before a supporters’ rally, you said the foreign media ‘fabricated news,’ The New York Times reported. ‘You portrayed Turkey differently to the world,’ you reportedly said, referring to international media. ‘You are left alone with your lies.’ We find your suggestion that international coverage was part of a plot to subvert your government highly disturbing.

“In late June, Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek launched a spurious and inflammatory campaign on Twitter against local BBC reporter Selin Girit, labeling her a traitor and a spy in apparent disagreement with the BBC’s coverage of the protests.

“Gökçek created a critical hashtag ‘#ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit,’ which in English means ‘Don’t be a spy in the name of England, Selin Girit’ and urged his followers to popularize it on Twitter. Girit received ‘a large number of threatening messages’ in response to the mayor’s actions, the BBC said in a statement.

“CPJ is also alarmed by reports of numerous firings and forced resignations of critical columnists, editors, and reporters, and in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. According to our colleagues at the Turkish Union of Journalists, an independent media association that documents attacks on the press, at least 22 journalists were fired and another 37 were forced to quit their jobs over their coverage of the anti-government protests. As a result of direct or indirect government pressure, media owners have dismissed many popular journalists and the absence of their voices has been conspicuous.”

The letter can be read in full here.

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