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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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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.

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.

Commentary vs. Reporting

October 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to post about the imbalance between undervalued journalists and overvalued commentators in the Turkish media landscape for a while. The aftermath of the Gezi Park protests saw an unprecedented purging of critical columnists from various newspapers, but such bloodspilling tends to receive attention only when it is a recognisable, big name figure who has been fired. Although it’s less discussed, intense pressure is also being exerted on the few embattled investigative reporters working these days, and in the long run this pressure may prove even more damaging to the country’s fourth estate than the silencing of some columnists.

A recent controversy involving daily Radikal reporter İsmail Saymaz illustrated this pressure with particular clarity. Saymaz had written a series of pieces in the aftermath of the killing of Gezi protester Ali İsmail Korkmaz in the Central Anatolian city of Eskişehir, about which he received an extraordinary email from the provincial governor in the early hours of Oct. 2.  In the email, Governor Azim Tuna demanded that the “dishonourable” Saymaz stop his “vile and inglorious” reporting, adding that he “shouldn’t forget the underground” (after death), where they would both meet each other in the end.

Usually, pressure from the authorities doesn’t come so openly. Saymaz has done some excellent work in Radikal, but for him – like most others – there are plenty of untouchable subjects. He himself learnt that back in 2010, when he was charged with “interfering in the judicial process” over stories he had written on the notorious arrest of Erzincan’s chief prosecutor, İlhan Cihaner, an arrest that was widely seen as part of the government’s moves to combat the “deep state.” Shortly before being charged, Saymaz had published a book about the Gülen movement’s involvement in the prosecution of the Ergenekon coup plot case, and ended up facing charges that could have lead to 45 years in jail.  Such cases seem to have had the desired effect; the major news organisations’ reporting of issues such as Ergenekon, official corruption, and the Gülen movement, has become increasingly tame, if not non-existent. As Saymaz himself has said, “We, as reporters, both censor our minds and bite our tongues while we are reporting.” Without a rigorous media doing its bit to hold the authorities to account, can it be surprising when the government behaves with such impunity?

The lack of corruption exposure in the Turkish media was also recently indicated after Milliyet published an interview with Ateş Ünal Erzen, the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) mayor for the Istanbul district of Bakırköy. In the interview, Erzen indirectly admitted to systematic corruption in his municipality, which caused a tiny stir before dropping off the agenda completely. The fact that the revelation effectively came as a result of a slip of the tongue, the handwringing that followed it, and the lack of any deeper subsequent investigation, all point to the Turkish media’s ineffectiveness when it comes to investigating corruption. It’s probably also worth mentioning again here the much-cited example of Hürriyet halting its reporting on the Deniz Feneri charity embezzlement scandal, after being landed with a multi-billion dollar tax fine in 2009. Through such measures, the investigative potential of journalists at major Turkish news outlets has been steadily hollowed out.

The emphasis on commentary over proper reporting should be considered in this context. Columns are indeed cheap and easy to churn out, but the prioritising of columnists over reporters is not just an economic calculation; opinions are not only cheaper, they are also less dangerous than deep reporting, less threatening than labour-intensive original journalism. Everyone has an opinion, and almost anyone can write out their views in a few hundred words, (and looking at the standard on offer, almost anyone does). This range of columnists in the Turkish media allows pro-government voices to claim with a straight face that the continued existence of the popular and rabidly anti-AKP commentary-heavy Sözcü, for example, is proof of the healthy variety of journalism on offer. Not only does this argument ignore the countless cases of sackings and news manipulation based on direct pressure from the authorities, but it also fails to address the crippling government-imposed handicaps on serious investigative journalism.

Of course, (here’s the usual disclaimer), it’s important not to look back on an imagined halcyon age of journalism in Turkey. Things have often been much worse: Jenny White recently described a visit to the offices of Milliyet in the 1990s, when she found that the paper was surviving on a grant from the state, which was handing “black lists” to the paper’s owners about who should be fired and promoted from the editorial staff. But while it’s true that things have never been perfect, it’s alarming to see the heavy hand of the amorphous deep state simply replaced by a similarly overbearing civilian authority.

Concerns about the health of the Turkish media are well-justified, but many expressions of this concern fail to appreciate that infringements on press freedom don’t just involve restrictions on what ten-a-penny columnists can write about. Equally damaging, if not more so, are restrictions on what can be reported, and the depth to which journalists can probe sensitive issues. The cacophony of news commentary in Turkey, while indicative of a vibrant and energetic society, does not in itself make for a healthy fourth estate.

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.

Yet another international organisation has issued a report on Turkey’s dolorous press freedom record, with Amnesty International this week publishing “Decriminalize dissent: Time to deliver on the right to freedom of expression.”

The particular focus of this latest report is the “fourth package” of judicial reforms that was submitted to the Turkish parliament at the beginning of this month. The package follows a previous set of reforms that went into effect last July, and has been presented by the government as a move to deepen democracy and reduce the number of cases brought against Turkey at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). However, Amnesty says the package “fail[s] to make the necessary legislative amendments to bring national law in line with international human rights standards.” That conclusion is based on research including trial observations, the review of hundreds of criminal cases, and “interviews with civil society organizations, lawyers, academics, individuals under prosecution and public officials.”

A familiar charge sheet is presented by Amnesty regarding recent developments, including “the increasingly arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws to prosecute legitimate activities including political speeches, critical writing, attendance of demonstrations and association with recognised political groups and organizations.”

The report continues:

“Government statements initially indicated that the ‘Fourth judicial package’ would seek to bring prosecutions of expression related offences in line with international human rights standards and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights. However, the draft law, currently before Parliament does not go nearly far enough. It proposes amendments to five offences frequently used in ways that violate the right to freedom of expression. The proposals leave on the statute a number of laws that directly limit the right to freedom of expression that should be repealed entirely. Other offences that threaten the right to freedom of expression through their overly broad wording are not brought into line with international standards on the right to freedom of expression under the current proposals. If passed by Parliament in its present form, the ‘Fourth judicial package’ would represent another missed opportunity to deliver genuine human rights reform.”

Voting on articles in the fourth judicial package is expected to start in parliament next week. The full PDF of the Amnesty report can be accessed here.

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