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.
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.
April 16, 2014
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chief economic advisor, Yiğit Bulut, is both the Flavor Flav to his Chuck D, and the Aristotle to his Alexander the Great; both the “hype man” on stage and “theorist” behind the throne. His appointment to the PM’s inner circle caused mirth last July, amid his suggestion that foreign powers were seeking to kill Erdoğan using telekinesis, but that was just one of many odd theories he has come up with since last summer’s Gezi Park protests. He recently made headlines by declaring that the EU, (Turkey’s number one trading partner), was “finished” and would be superseded by the “new world order” of the “Turkey-Eurasia/Russia-Middle East equation”; while last year he told a TV programme that he would “die for Erdoğan if necessary.” Bulut’s rise is both a symptom and a cause of Erdoğan’s gradual departure from reality, and the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) steady descent into paranoia.
People often speculate about whether Erdoğan “really believes” the conspiracy theories that he comes out with, or whether they are just a cynical way of playing to his electoral base in tough times. In fact, both can be true, and insisting only on the latter ignores the deep traces of such currents through the history of Turkey’s Islamist movements, (not least in Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah Party, where Erdoğan cut his political teeth). When times were easier during the AKP’s first couple of terms, such rhetoric generally remained latent; but it was always ready to surface again when things took a turn for the worse. This was clearly the case after last year’s Gezi protests and the Dec. 17 corruption probe. Erdoğan did indeed play to his base out of electoral calculation, but when the stakes were so high and the alternative was political disaster (and possibly jail), those conspiracies must also have been a lot more convincing to him. It’s probably significant that Bulut was named advisor to Erdoğan shortly after the Gezi protests erupted. It was in those difficult circumstances that his warnings of a Turkey besieged by foreign powers and his political vision of fantasy neo-Ottomanism must have made the most sense to the prime minister.
Bulut was actually once a staunch, nationalist-flavoured critic of the AKP, critical of privatisations, its inability to deal with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Turkey’s growing debt stock. The Damascus moment came some time before his 2010 divorce from former wife Şule Zeybek, the niece of secularist media tycoon Aydın Doğan, and ever since he has defended Erdoğan with the zeal of a true convert. In June 2012 he became the editor of pro-government 24TV, after which he was rewarded for his now-unswerving loyalty with an appointment to the prime minister’s brain trust. He now juggles his new role with his regular column in daily Star and political talk show appearances on pro-government TV. Indeed, Bulut was at the centre of one of the more amusing episodes from the wiretap leaks released before Turkey’s March 30 local elections: A conversation between the editor of private broadcaster NTV, Nermin Yurteri, and PM Erdoğan’s chief political advisor, Yalçın Akdoğan. In it, Akdoğan demands that Bulut be included as a guest on a news discussion programme, which is desperately resisted by Yurteri, who says her station is willing to accept any other pro-government figure but not the widely ridiculed Bulut.
The crude populism of Bulut’s thrice weekly Star column is reminiscent of Erdoğan’s bombastic public speeches, but the wild adolescent theorising about the “NEW WORLD ORDER” may be less familiar. It’s chilling to think that it’s not the ranting of a frustrated teenage shop assistant in Yozgat, but that of the Turkish prime minister’s chief economic confidant, who has a personal office in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace.
Translated below is one of Bulut’s columns in Star. Hard to believe, it isn’t one of his most spectacular pieces, but it does give a good idea of his surreal intellectual hinterland. It appeared on March 28, as Turkey’s political atmosphere was at fever pitch just two days before the critical local election. In it, we see Aristotle turning his attention to the future challenges facing the “New Turkey” and how the government’s defense policies can best meet these new challenges:
What is the biggest danger for the ‘new great Turkey’?
In the days before 2003, when Turkey was still covered up, the question that was asked was this: Which is the biggest threat for Turkey, “fundamentalism” or “separatist terrorism”?
My dear friends, today the question is different: What is the biggest threat for a Turkey that is making peace with itself and expanding? Is it possible to ignore or even destroy the National Will? I repeat: Is it possible to ignore or even destroy the National Will?
This country had many days, months and years of viewing and being forced to view its own values as a threat. The way we looked at issues was mistaken, and so were the solutions we put forward! Until 2003 we lived in this “blind well,” and with our “mistaken entrances” we always produced “mistaken results”!
Dear friends, today the situation is very different, and when is to be done is clear: Turkey is establishing a new threat perception, appropriate to its understanding of the “new world order”; as a necessity it is forming a “national defense-military technology-production” strategy. It’s not difficult to detail this: Turkey is advancing to become a country capable of reaching the maximum fire power with minimal “human resources,” conducting operations in all areas and – most importantly – meeting its “defense needs” with indigenous technology and even producing “concepts.”
Dear friends, there were once built-in internal and external focuses were imposed on us for years, and the “built-in media” vehicle didn’t even allow us to question this! We even helplessly believed that our own Muslim citizens could be our biggest threat, that our Kurdish-origin citizens could want to divide us… It wasn’t right, it was never right, but we could never remove “this sack from our heads” and realise the true “threat definition”! Today we have ripped off the sacks, and the path we will now embrace is apparent!
Result 1: As Turkey grows, it will see; enemies are not just internal and external. As Turkey GROWS, it will see that its enemies are not only inside the nation, but they also hide and focus in the twists in the path of Turkey’s expansion.
Result 2: Our minds must be very sharp and our thesis must be very clear: In the last 10 years, Turkey has ripped off the “sacks,” saved itself from the “diseased structure” of previous civil-military relations, and is progressing on the path of “becoming a universal state” in the new world order.
Result 3: Turkey is defining a “new national defense concept suitable for a universal state” and is also detailing the technical aspects! Turkey has now revealed itself and there are those who are uncomfortable about this; therefore, a suitable new “NATIONAL STRATEGY” must be very carefully and quickly developed.
Result 4: The NEW TURKEY’s use of military force in diplomacy is inevitable! Instead of a military focusing its perceptions on vicious internal threats, a country on the path to becoming a global player must have a military that is redefined to deal with global threats.
Result 5: A NEW CONCEPT OF NATIONAL DEFENSE will benefit the Armed Forces in great and strong diplomacy, and can only be revealed with a new political vision.
Result 6: A new concept for the Turkish Armed Forces must be formed. This new concept would replace the one which searched for virtual enemies wanting to drag the country to fundamentalism and which followed its own citizens on suspicion of dividing Turkey. Instead, it would be a concept that would be strong enough to operate in the world arena, to rival America, the EU, Israel, Russia and China. The local defense industry is currently developing, modernisation is increasing, and projects are being realised to build tanks, aircraft, and ships that can operate thousands of miles from Turkish soil. In short, the Turkish military is becoming a world force…
Result 7: All members of the Turkish Armed Forces who can “see the future” are aware that a new concept of the military will suit the concept of a new Turkey. In fact, when you look closely, you see that in this area there is a big clash between the “resisters” and those who want to “open the path.” The BUILT-IN PRESS is working to create the public impression that this is a POLITICAL AUTHORITY-ARMED FORCES clash…
Result 8: The current Global Attack is directly targeting the “national will” and seeks to surrender Turkey’s management to the hands of global governance. What we must do is very clear: Destroy these barriers and continue on our path…
Last word: The whole of Turkey – its people, its government, its state – it currently under a huge attack. Most importantly, it is standing against this attack as a whole and battling to exist. At this point, I ask you: all Turkish citizens must investigate the barriers that stand in the path of the GREAT TURKEY and, in a manner suitable to the new world order, stand as a single body against these attacks! “Fear not, the red flag blowing in the horizon won’t fade.”*
* The opening line of the Turkish national anthem.
January 31, 2013
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.
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.