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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.

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.

milliyet_2013-02-28

Milliyet’s front page on Feb. 28, announcing the leaked details of the İmralı island prison meeting between Abdullah Öcalan and a parliamentary delegation from the BDP.

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.

Meanwhile, the International Press Institute issued a statement condemning Erdoğan’s comments and warning about the troubled state of media freedom in Turkey:

“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.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent comments that Turkey could give up its EU membership bid and instead pursue membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) are still reverberating in much of the Turkish media. Speaking Jan. 25 on TV station 24TV, Erdoğan said: “The EU does not want to include a Muslim country … Of course, if things go so poorly then, as a prime minister of 75 million people, you seek other paths … The Shanghai Five is better, much stronger.” Last year, Erdoğan had said something similar after a diplomatic visit to Moscow: “I said to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, ‘You tease us, saying “What is Turkey doing in the EU?” Now I’m teasing you: include us in the Shanghai Five, and we’ll forget about the EU.’”

The “Shanghai Five” was created by Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 1996 in an attempt to counter U.S. influence in Asia, and was later joined by Uzbekistan and renamed the SCO in 2001. It has been described as “a vehicle for human rights violations” by the International Federation for Human Rights. Erdoğan’s latest pronouncements on the group were immediately picked up by much of the Turkish commentariat as significant indications of Turkey’s shifting priorities. In Radikal, columnist Cengiz Candar wrote that the prime minister had dropped a “geopolitical bomb.” Hürriyet’s Sedat Ergin has so far spent three days worrying over the remarks, writing that Erdoğan’s words amounted to “one of the most significant foreign policy moves since he took office 10 years ago, maybe the most important.”

For me, the way these latest statements were reported merely highlighted once again the unhealthy intensity with which the Turkish media hangs on every single word uttered by the prime minister. The smallest pronouncement can be seized upon to set the agenda and send the media into a tailspin. It’s a little discussed symptom of a wider (and more discussed) problem – the increasing concentration of power in one pair of hands.

This is the pattern of how an address or press conference given by Erdoğan is typically reflected in the Turkish media: it is broadcast uninterrupted by every major television news station; the words are transcribed and posted immediately on internet news portals, with the only journalistic interjection in each paragraph being “the prime minister said”; the next day’s newspapers feature prominent news stories on the speech, perhaps as the front page headline; finally, the chorus of daily columnists set to work dissecting whatever the prime minister has decided should be the subject of the moment. As Fehmi Koru wrote in Star on Jan. 29: “Erdoğan is a master at forcing an issue, bluffing and occupying others with his own agenda … We have not yet seen one of the opposition parties able to force the country to debate a single topic. They jump into the agendas set by the head or members of the ruling party.” The prime minister is a master at manipulating how news is covered, and the producers of that news coverage are often more than happy to be manipulated.

This week’s episode of the BBC’s Start the Week, where the discussion centred around George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” brought the issue into even sharper relief for me. In the programme, Phil Collins, one time speechwriter for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, spoke about how he was always acutely aware when writing speeches of the low level of coverage that any public address by a prime minister could today expect to receive in the U.K. press. “Once upon a time your whole speech would be printed verbatim in The Times the next day, but that’s not the case anymore … You’re talking into an atmosphere in which you’re only going to get six seconds on the evening news, whether you like it or not,” he said. This seems to be the inverse of the Turkish problem: symptomatic of a corrosively cynical British public, disengaged from the political process and instinctively suspicious about the public utterances of any elected official.

Of course, there are many such cynics in Turkey, but they are little represented in the conventional large media corporations.

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.”

A related piece by Baydar, called “Another Gloomy Report,” was published in Today’s Zaman on Oct. 21:

“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.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) held its key congress on Sunday (Sept. 30), the slogan of which was “Büyük Millet, Büyük Güç, Hedef 2023” (Great Nation, Great Strength, Target 2023). Throughout his emotional two-and-a-half hour speech, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in full neo-Ottoman mode. He told the 10,000 delegates packed into the Ankara arena that the government was following the same path as Sultan Mehmet II (the conqueror of Constantinople) and Selim I (“The Grim,” who expanded Ottoman territories to the east during the 16th century). He even went so far as to declare – tongue only half in cheek – that the AKP’s new target was 2071, linking the party back to the first Turkish Anatolian state-builders of the 11th century, 2071 being the 1,000th anniversary of Seljuk Turkish leader Alp Arslan’s entry into Anatolia.

It was a speech high in stirring rhetoric. The day after, government supporting newspapers fawned over the “renewal” and “refreshing” emphasis of a new “ustalık” (mastership) era. Daily Sabah focused on what it called the embracing, inclusive nature of Erdoğan’s speech and his words on the Kurdish issue: “Let’s draw a new roadmap together.” Zaman’s front page headline enthusiastically quoted a line from Erdoğan’s speech: “Come, let’s open a new page, let’s say ‘no to terror.’”

The contentious presence of Iraqi Kurdistan Regional leader Massoud Barzani at the congress was rather less trumpeted by Sabah and Zaman. He even gave a speech to the delegates, but the announcer in the arena refrained from using the word “Kurdistan” when introducing him. Indeed, rather than Barzani, it was Erdoğan’s words on the Kurds that received most attention in the pro-government press. This reminded me of one of Nuray Mert’s recent columns in the Hürriyet Daily News:

“The idea of the Ottoman Empire has induced a nostalgic longing for the days when Turkish sultans ruled diverse people in vast lands. For Ottomanists, the idea of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic haven for diverse cultures and populations is rather misleading, since the basic idea has always been to recall the times when diverse populations lived under ‘Turkish rule.’”

The conspicuously Islamic nature of the congress was also much discussed in the Turkish press – both by those approving and those dissenting. Beside its headline declaring “Great Strength Manifesto,” Islamist daily Yeni Şafak featured an admiring front page box quoting Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, controversially (or perhaps not) invited to speak at the event: “‘You are not just the leader of Turkey, but also the leader of the Islamic world,’ Meshaal said, receiving extended applause from the crowd.” Indeed, when announced to the audience Mashaal received some of the loudest cheers of the day, (the EU dignitary who was introduced after him didn’t stand a chance!)

Liberal daily Taraf agreed that the congress constituted a Turkish-Islamic “minifesto,” but struck a rather more sceptical tone: “There was a strong Turkish and Muslim emphasis, a mouse with its face turned to the East was born,” (in Turkish, “a mouse was born” means that something underwhelming took place). The paper also noted plaintively that Erdoğan had failed to mention the European Union even once during his speech.

Meanwhile, seven national newspapers were refused accreditation to attend: Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel, Birgün, Aydınlık, Yeniçağ, and Özgür Gündem. These publications have diverse sympathies: from left to right wing, from Turkish to Kurdish nationalism. The only thing shared by all is antipathy towards the government.

In response, Monday’s Cumhuriyet included a front page editorial titled “From Cumhuriyet to Public Opinion,” which said some unsurprisingly harsh things:

“Established six months after the founding of the Turkish Republic, our newspaper has been published for 88 years. During periods in the past when democracy has been suspended by the ruling powers our newspaper has been closed down, but outside of this we have always published under the principles of freedom of the press, in the name of people’s right to know. In 21st century Turkey, our newspaper is now exposed to censorship by the ruling powers.

“We will not stay quiet in the face of the anti-democratic implementations applied against us that violate both the constitution and the law.”

The piece went on to detail two constitutional and legal articles that it alleges the congress ban violated: Article no. 69 of the Turkish constitution, which states that internal political party activities, arrangements, and workings must not run counter to the principles of democracy; and Article no. 93 of the Law on Political Parties, which states that decisions taken and actions performed by party central administrations and affiliated groups must not run counter to the principles of democracy.

The International Press Institute’s Turkish National Committee issued a statement about the issue on the day of the AKP Congress, on behalf of the Freedom for Journalists Platform, an umbrella group representing local and national media organisations in Turkey:

“The news that reporters and journalists from some press organs are not allowed to enter the AK Party’s Congress is very worrying.

“Monitoring this historical event of the ruling government party on the spot and transferring it to its readers and viewers are primary duties of news media.

“We have previously protested the accreditation limitations at other institutions. But now, it is very disappointing that the same accreditation is being applied by a political party whose existence depends on democracy.”

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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