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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.

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The European Commission published the 15th(!) annual “progress report” on Turkey’s EU accession bid on Oct. 10. It makes for depressing reading – not only because it is 87 more pages of EU bureaucracy, but because it comes at such an inauspicious time, with Turkey’s EU accession process having slid into something worse than just abeyance.

It has been widely interpreted as the harshest report on Turkey issued by the EU yet, criticising familiar enough failures: the lack of further steps towards a political solution to the Kurdish conflict, concerns about restrictions on freedom of expression and press self-censorship, judicial deficiencies, gender inequality, and worrying signs of rising discrimination against Alevis.

Once upon a time, these progress reports would dominate the Turkish media’s agenda, but no longer. Numerous dailies had no coverage at all of the report on their Oct. 11 front pages. Daily Milliyet, a newspaper that has always tended to show more interest than most in Turkey’s EU accession process, was the only major newspaper to focus on the issue for its main front page story. Under a headline titled “From the EU to its members: Don’t block Turkey,” Milliyet emphasised the words of the European commissioner in charge of enlargement, Stefan Füle, commenting after the release of the report. Füle laid most responsibility for the lack of progress squarely at the door of those EU members opposed to Turkish membership, such as France and South Cyprus. He described Turkey as a “key country” for the union and said that its future membership was ultimately “in the interest of all members.”

I was not surprised to see that newspapers known to be friendly to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) generally responded to the report with government-sanctioned indifference. Zaman included a low-key article on page 18 under the headline, “What kind of progress report is this?” listing the criticisms levelled and particularly focussing on the words of EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee member Helene Flautre, who said:

“It is deceptive to describe this report as a ‘progress report’ on Turkey’s EU accession process when there is no progress …  With Turkey in the process of discussing a new constitution, the EU could hardly have picked a worse time to abdicate its influence on reforms in the country.”

While it no doubt feels some resentment about Turkey being lectured to by the European Union, nationalist anti-AKP daily Sözcü seized the opportunity to once again slam the government, a banner on its front page declaring: “Sledgehammer from Europe to the AKP” (clearly referencing the controversial “Balyoz,” or Sledgehammer case). “The EU hasn’t swallowed Tayyip’s ‘advanced democracy’ tale,” it said.

Meanwhile, the EU report caused barely a ripple among the army of Turkish newspaper columnists, who are generally all preoccupied with the ongoing Syrian crisis. Still, Taraf’s Ahmet Altan addressed the issue and struck a faintly desperate note on Oct. 11, writing one of his characteristic editorials – somehow pulling off the miraculous trick of combining onanism with self-flagellation:

 “I don’t think it’s very complicated. In Turkey, all disagreements return to two basic questions: Do we want European standards of democracy, or not? In Turkey, do we believe we are worthy of European standards of democracy, or not?

“… This is a time when Albania can be recommended for EU membership ahead of us. If you’re not uncomfortable with our own distance from EU standards then you’re welcome to continue with demagoguery, nonsense, and humming and hawing.”

In response to the report, Turkish Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bağış described it as “disappointing,” and “unbalanced.” “The EU’s broken mirror is far away from reflecting the truth. The report is only a reflection of efforts to delay Turkey’s EU membership, since the EU is in an economic and political crisis,” he said.

Anyway, two weeks before the official unveiling of the report, Bağış had announced that he “no longer took [the progress reports] seriously.” Somewhat alarmingly, he said that he gave more importance to the government’s own self-produced assessment: “At the end of the year we will prepare our own progress report.  For us, the progress report we prepare for ourselves is the most important one.”

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.

I came back to Istanbul this week, after spending three weeks at home in the UK. On my return I was greeted by airport newsstands full of papers with headlines focusing on the funerals of the nine “martyrs” killed in the recent terror attacks in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep. Of course, I kept vaguely up-to-date with events while I was away, but the contrast between Turkey – currently in one of those periodic bouts of nationalist hysteria that always follow clashes with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – and Britain – which is still basking in the fuzzy, generous, inclusive afterglow of the London Olympics – was nevertheless striking.

Although there are serious doubts as to whether the PKK was actually responsible for this latest attack, the Turkish press did not hesitate in reverting to predictable form. For a flavour of the current mood, here is a selection of newspaper front pages from Thursday (Aug. 23), focusing on the previous day’s funerals.

Like many others, nationalist daily Sözcü showed a photo from one of the funerals, with a coffin wrapped in the Turkish flag in the foreground. The funeral was attended by various state heavyweights, including the leaders of all three main political parties, all of whom were shown in mourning in front of the coffin. Above this, a larger picture showed the face of one-year-old Almina Melisa, whose mother and father were both killed in the Gaziantep bomb. Addressing the political figures in the picture below, the headline challenged: “Almina, will she forgive you?”

Islamist daily Yeni Şafak’s main photo also showed the same funeral. The headline above read: “70 million people on the same side”.

Daily Akşam: “You cannot divide”

Finally, here is the reassuring front page of tabloid daily Güneş’s Friday edition. The headline referred to counter operations conducted against the PKK by the Turkish military in the southeastern province of Hakkari: “30 Traitors Killed”.

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