January 10, 2014
The Turkish press has presented a grimmer spectacle than usual since the corruption scandal broke last month. The tendency that I mentioned in my last post has accelerated, with the rival Erdoğan and Gülen-affiliated media gunning for each other, adding a fresh dimension to the more familiar division between pro-government and opposition titles. The Turkish media is becoming increasingly balkanised, separated into mutually exclusive information silos that can’t agree on even the most basic facts. The problem isn’t just that certain information is given through a distorting prism, but that often it is simply not reported. Facts are cheap in an environment of hearsay and rumour mongering, but often they’re not even present in the first place.
Take the case of the resignations from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that followed the breaking of the graft probe story. Five deputies have so far resigned from the AKP over the issue, an unprecedented number and a massive shock to a party that places such a high value on internal party discipline. But the editors of Erdoğanist mass circulation Sabah shielded their readers from the harsh truth as much as they could. While reporting the prime minister’s defiant speech at an opening ceremony in Sakarya on Dec. 27, Sabah simply ignored the resignations of three AKP deputies that were announced earlier on the same day. When it finally mentioned them in the following days, it portrayed them as acts of dishonourable betrayal influenced by nefarious foreign forces. Then there’s the story of the truck that was discovered in Hatay on Jan. 1 heading to Syria loaded with weapons, National Intelligence Organization (MİT) agents, and members of İHH, a humanitarian aid foundation. Again, the pro-government media initially refused to report the revelation, or the borderline-unconstitutional machinations that prevented local prosecutors from inspecting the truck on its discovery. While it made the headlines of many other media outlets, there was no coverage of the news in Sabah other than straight-faced denials from İHH officials and accusations of “black propaganda.” As a final example, I looked through Sabah on Jan. 9, after 15 provincial police chiefs were removed from their positions as part of the government’s purge of suspected disloyal officials. The news of the changes came at the bottom of page 21, and essentially just consisted of a list of those affected, with no indication of the purge’s wider significance, or mention of the 350 police officers that had been relocated the day before.
You might think that with modern technology there can be no covering up of such essential truths, and that eventually people must surely reach a balanced understanding of the facts. But there’s plenty of contrary evidence in Turkey to confound the Internet utopians. I doubt that people read or click more broadly online than they do in print; in fact, the opposite seems to be true. Of course, there are more opportunities to read about things that challenge one’s views online, but there is also more scope to indulge comforting illusions. Ultimately, the Internet is probably exacerbating Turkey’s polarisation. The last few years have seen the emergence of a huge number of popular news websites of questionable origin peddling aggressively pro-government lines. Like Sabah et al, these sites have a tendency to water down or simply ignore the awkward truths and move on. Similarly blinkered opposition news sites also exist, but it is the pro-government ones that have proliferated so noticeably of late. An unhealthy number of media outlets in Turkey are trapped in echo chambers where dubious facts are taken as unquestionable truths.
But I’d also be careful not to overestimate the ability of “facts” to have much of an impact in such a polarised atmosphere. Nobody’s forcing Sabah’s readers to buy it, and if they wanted something else there are plenty of alternatives to choose from. Rather, there’s a very natural human predilection to pay most attention to the information that coheres with one’s own worldview and screen out the rest. Political confirmation bias is a reality everywhere, but it’s particularly conspicuous in Turkey: people tend to work backwards to make the evidence fit their conclusion, rather than the other way around. It all seems to indicate that the country’s dangerously polarised public debate is only likely to become even more bitter and trenchant. More bad news, basically.
June 13, 2013
One of the saddest aspects of the Turkish government’s response to the Gezi Park protests has been its line that the demonstrations are all a part of a “foreign plot” to bring down Turkey. As with everything else, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fired the starting pistol, singling out the phantom international “interest rate lobby” as being behind the unrest. Since then, leading government figures have been falling over themselves to slander the protests as part of a “foreign conspiracy” by forces “jealous of Turkey’s economic success.” Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan said “foreign circles” were trying to “undermine the country’s progress” through the protests: “This is totally an attempt to create a foreign hegemony on Turkey, but we are no fools.” EU Minister Egemen Bağış stated: “It is interesting to have such incidents in Turkey when … economic and development figures are at their best levels. The interest rate lobby and several financial institutions are disturbed by the growth and development of Turkey.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said a deliberate propaganda operation was being conducted by the international media to tarnish Turkey’s image. Delusional? Yes. Seductive for a sizable portion of the Turkish electorate? Undoubtedly.
Overturning every stone only to find a nefarious foreign plot hidden underneath is one of Turkey’s less attractive national pastimes. Considering the past 200 years of the country’s history, it’s understandable, if not excusable. The current government was supposed to have broken with this paradigm. It had opened the country out to its region – both Europe and the Middle East – and was open-minded about doing business abroad and attracting investment for domestic infrastructure projects. The old embattled Turkish borders seemed to be opening to the world. However, the government’s reaction to the Gezi protests has laid bare all its latent insecurity and resentment, which has been most clear in the verbal attacks on the international coverage of the events. While mainstream domestic media has been brought (almost) completely under the thumb of the authorities, one gets the impression that the AKP’s open anger at the international media is now a kind of reflex action, indicating its frustrated inability to control what is being reported. The BBC must have been exaggerating the scale of the protests, as it wasn’t showing a penguin documentary.
Pro-government news outlets have been keen to assist in framing this paranoid narrative. While it was certainly no secret before, the Gezi protests have exposed the full extent of AKP control over the state news agency, Anadolu Ajansı, which has carried some utterly ridiculous The Onion-like headlines about foreign plots and jealous foreign powers. Pro-government newspapers have also loyally joined in, here’s daily Sabah applauding the aforementioned Anatolia for “sending a missile” to Reuters and CNN, by tweeting that 3G services had been cut in London, preventing them from broadcasting coverage of the police operation on the anti-G8 protests. Which to believe: Reuters or Anadolu Ajansı?
I also feel that this embattled sense is probably compounded by the shock of having international media ask genuinely tough questions of Turkish government representatives. Not only does this surprise AKP figures conditioned to having it easy with domestic journalists, but it also reinforces the sense among many government supporters that the international media is now “out to get” it (and, by extension, bring Turkey down). CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour was criticised by many pro-government Turks, (and praised by many protesters), simply for asking (not unusually) tough questions of Erdoğan’s advisor İbrahim Kalın. In fact, she did nothing out of the ordinary, but it must have been striking for anyone accustomed to toothless “interviews” such as the one conducted by Fatih Altaylı with Erdoğan on June 2.
Still, although they may make no logical sense, countering conspiracy theories with rational facts is a fool’s errand. David Aaronovitch wrote in a recent book on the subject that conspiracists tend to be on the “losing side” and conspiracy theories are mostly an expression of their insecurity; it’s therefore both strange and sad that rumours of “foreign plots” behind Turkey’s protests are being spread by a government that won 50% in the last election.
January 9, 2013
Daily Zaman is often described as Turkey’s most read newspaper, with its circulation having recently tipped over the 1 million mark. It was therefore rather interesting to see a recent chart on medyatava.com indicating that this figure is made up almost entirely of subscribers, with only around 20,000 copies actually bought in shops every day.
This isn’t a complete surprise – for all its faults Zaman has never really been a “populist” newspaper, always self-consciously higher brow than the average fare on the Turkish newsstands. It’s pretty rare to see the local simitçi walking around Istanbul with a copy of Zaman tucked under his arm – at least in comparison with Sabah, Posta, Hürriyet, etc.
The high proportion of subscriptions can almost certainly be ascribed to Zaman’s links to the Fethullah Gülen religious movement (cemaat). Copies of the paper are delivered to most businesses/schools/individuals/hotels associated with the cemaat, which would account for the disproportionately high subscription number. As the “wikileaked” Stratfor intelligence agency cable explained back in 2009:
“FGC [Fethullah Gülen Community] businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels and shop at FGC-owned stores and invest in FGC financial institutions. Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gulen.”
A similar pattern can be observed at Today’s Zaman, the English-language arm of Zaman, which has 8,500 subscribers to just 1,900 sales.
While on the dull subject of newspaper circulation figures, it’s worth taking the opportunity to note that since last month’s shock resignations from Taraf, the paper has seen its circulation increase substantially. While Taraf had previously hovered around 50,000, this figure is now approaching close to 70,000. Whether or not the resignations were good from a journalistic perspective, they certainly seem to have made economic sense.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just released its annual report on the number of journalists imprisoned globally – a gloomy read. This year, the global tally reached its highest point since the CPJ began surveys in 1990, with a total of 232 individuals counted as being behind bars, an increase of 53 since 2011. Unsurprising to most in the country, Turkey tops the list this year – followed by Iran and China – with the CPJ counting 49 currently in Turkish prisons for their journalistic activity, (still lower than its last count of 61). A complete list featuring detailed accounts of all imprisoned journalists worldwide is available to view via the CPJ here, while a “path forward” for Turkey, drawn by CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon, can be read here. The CPJ recently focused on the situation in Turkey in a detailed report released in October, which I wrote about on this blog at the time.
In Turkey, most of the newspapers hostile to the government included pieces on the report, with the reliably bellicose Sözcü referring ironically to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in its Nov. 12 front page headline: “THE MASTER BREAKS THE RECORD: Turkey is the world champion in imprisoned journalists.” Also tongue-in-cheek, daily Taraf dolefully headlined its article on the report: “Again we’re the world’s first!” However, news of the CPJ report was conspicuous by its absence in the Pollyannaish pro-government press – nowhere to be found in Zaman, Sabah, Bugün, Türkiye, Yeni Asya, Yeni Şafak, or Star. Bearing in mind the Doğan Group’s history with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, it is also perhaps worth mentioning that neither of its remaining Turkish-language titles, Hürriyet and Radikal, mentioned the report in their print versions either (although both did feature online articles).
Of course, the October CPJ report on Turkey was far more detailed than this latest one, which focused only on the global numbers of journalists in jail. Indeed, the real question of press freedom in the country is rather more complicated than simply a headline figure alone, as I have written before, both here and here. Still, however hypocritical many of the protests on the issue coming from the direction of newspapers like Sözcü are, the situation is certainly deplorable. Complicated as the issue may be, comparing the coverage (or non-coverage) of the CPJ report in the Turkish press at least gives some impression of quite how polarized the media in Turkey really is. Looking at some of the newspapers here, it’s often hard to believe they can be describing the same country.
November 7, 2012
The hunger strikes of 682 Turkish prisoners are entering their 57th day. The way that they – and the broader issues related to them – are being reported by media outlets known to be close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) clearly reflects the direction that the government’s Kurdish policy has recently taken.
With the government’s “Kurdish initiative” apparently having run out of steam, the conflict between the Turkish security forces and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has become increasingly bloody over the last 12 months, and chances for a political solution seem to be ever more remote. The latest bloody incident in south-eastern Turkey took place in the Şemdinli district of Hakkari province on Nov. 4, when a car bomb targeting a military vehicle killed 11-year-old boy Faris Demircan and wounded 26 others. Although there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the PKK is widely thought to be behind the blast.
On Nov. 5, the Gülen-affiliated Cihan news agency reported that pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) Hakkari deputy, Esat Canan, tried to visit the family of the deceased to offer his condolences, but was refused entry to the family home. However, no sources were referenced and no quotations on the incident from the family were included in the report. What’s more, no other news agencies mentioned this and local media in the area reported quite the opposite, saying that Canan had in fact been welcomed in to “share the pain.”
Those known to be close to the government, or the Gülen movement, were the only national newspapers to feature Cihan’s story. Zaman included it as their main front page story, under the headline: “Family of 11-year-old Faris respond to the BDP: ‘You killed our child, how dare you come here’”.
Star included the same story on its front page, alongside news claiming that local traders in Şemdinli were closed in protest against the incident. The headline read: “Şemdinli’s shutters closed against the PKK.”
Strongly Islamist daily Yeni Şafak carried a front page headline declaring: “BDP driven from the door”, included under which was a subtle subtitle: “God damn them.” Popular pro-government daily Sabah also featured the same story at the bottom of its front page under the headline: “You murdered my son.”
BDP deputy Canan has written a formal letter of complaint – which I have read (anybody interested can contact me) – to Cihan news agency about its “baseless” report. In the letter, he says that his visit was in fact accepted by the family of the deceased, and he claims that Cihan’s news was written without any examination of the area and without any correspondent on the ground. He demands a retraction and an apology, warning that he will exercise his full legal rights to pursue the case if he does not receive one.
October 2, 2012
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.
“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.”