July 24, 2014
As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flies around on his apparently never-ending election campaign, the symbolism of “Erdoğan’s jet” and who he invites onboard is coming under increasing scrutiny. These days, only reporters from the most craven pro-government media outlets – the usual suspects of Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Star, Akşam, Türkiye, Yeni Akit – tend to be given the golden ticket to fly on Erdoğan’s private “ANA” jet; a place on board is almost used as a carrot to reward docile behaviour. As daily Hürriyet’s ombudsman Faruk Bildirici wrote in a piece last month, the reporters accepted onto the plane are guaranteed not to ask difficult questions, choosing to do little more substantial than perform as the AKP’s media arm, “as assistants to help Erdoğan comfortably transmit whatever message he wants to the public.”
An increasingly narrow coterie of trusted media figures is being granted access to the prime minister. The effect isn’t only seen in who Erdoğan accepts onto his plane; it is also there in the TV stations and newspapers that he and other prominent government figures choose to grant interviews to, and in the hand-picking of interlocutors during these exchanges. Of course, democratic governments across the world have media groups to which they are closer and which, to some extent, they rely on; indeed, the opposition parties in Turkey also have their own “reliable” media camps. But there’s something blatantly unfair about the mutually supportive state-private network that is reinforcing the AKP government in power today. The cosiness of the prime minister and the media accepted onto his jet is just one of the most obvious examples of this favouritism.
Last week, the Nielsen Company’s AdEx advertising information report caused quite a stir in Turkey, revealing how advertising provided by state companies was weighted heavily in favour of government-friendly media groups. According to the report, of the 18 national newspapers examined, the three that received the most public advertising slots in the first six months of 2014 were the pro-government Sabah, Star and Milliyet dailies. The bottom five, meanwhile, were all broadly AKP sceptics, despite two of them – Posta and Zaman – having the highest circulation figures in the country. The two newspapers known as being close to the movement of ally-turned-bête noir Fethullah Gülen – Bugün and Zaman – received almost zero advertising from state institutions. Similarly, TV stations that are known to be closer to the government received far more advertising from public bodies in the first half of the year. Two pro-Gülen television channels – Samanyolu and Bugün TV – received no advertising revenue whatsoever from state companies. While much of the recent focus has been on public broadcaster TRT’s hugely imbalanced coverage in favour of Erdoğan ahead of next month’s presidential election, the way that state institutions are marching in lock-step with government-friendly private companies also has perilous consequences.
The issue of who gets to travel on the prime minister’s private jet is only one symptom of a Turkish media stuck in a broader partisan malaise. Indeed, while those who get invited onto the PM’s plane see their role as only being to transmit whatever the prime minister says, the myopic fixation on every word uttered by Erdoğan is unfortunately shared across pro- and anti-government outlets (as I have previously written). With important exceptions, all sides are sucked into an endless, meaningless argument about where they stand on whatever Erdoğan’s latest utterances and positions are – those positions are the fuel motoring 80 percent of Turkish media’s shallow news agenda. “Important Statements from the Prime Minister” stories are only becoming more common as power becomes more centralized around one man, and the situation isn’t likely to improve after Erdoğan is elected president next month.
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.
November 11, 2013
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.
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.
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.
May 1, 2013
Once again, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to single-handedly dictate Turkey’s agenda, this time with comments made last weekend suggesting that ayran, rather than the alcoholic rakı, should be considered Turkey’s “national drink.” It was only the latest in the long list of examples demonstrating the same unfortunate point, which has become increasingly obvious throughout the current peace negotiations. Another little-mentioned illustration of the government’s authority over the media came early last month, when Erdoğan was asked at a press conference to comment on the sentencing of Fazıl Say, a day after the famous pianist was handed a 10-month jail term for tweeting anti-Islamic Omar Khayyam couplets. He simply brushed off the question, responding: “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” With hardly a voice of protest from those reporting the event, the prime minister was thus able to completely avoid answering a question on an awkward issue, despite the fact that it had grabbed headlines in both the domestic and international media. The episode chillingly highlighted not only the complacent mentality of the ruling authorities in Turkey, but also the necessary obsequiousness of the reporters attending the press conference. As fellow Turkey-watcher Aaron Stein has tweeted, Erdoğan “is the sun around which the Turkish media rotates.”
In a column written last December, the late Mehmet Ali Birand admonished his colleagues for asking genuflectory questions to elected officials. The examples he gave were as follows:
“Esteemed Prime Minister, you have an extremely correct Middle East policy. Are you going to take new steps in the next term?
“Esteemed Prime Minister, I also believe that the presidential system will solve Turkey’s problems. I know you also want this. Do you know why the opposition opposes it?
“You want to change the structure of the U.N. It’s true that the U.N. has a very anti-democratic structure. The vetoes of the five countries should be overcome. Do European leaders support you in this democratic demand of yours?”
As Birand went on to write, “Questions of this tone do not suit journalism. You are journalists. You do not need to butter up the PM. Your duty is to ask questions impartially and without losing your manners. Please don’t forget this.” Unfortunately, with a high-profile newspaper firing seeming to come every other week in Turkey, it’s hardly surprising that Birand’s words seem to have gone on deaf ears.
The situation in Turkey is worth comparing to the one prevailing these days in the U.K. Erdoğan’s casual batting away of the Fazıl Say question immediately contrasted in my mind with a now-infamous interview with London Mayor Boris Johnson that aired on BBC television last month. The interview coincided with the broadcast of an admiring Sunday evening documentary focusing on Johnson, but interviewer Eddie Mair pulled no punches, relentlessly posing uncomfortable questions about the London mayor’s integrity and previous professional misdemeanors. The exchange ended with Mair calling Johnson a “nasty piece of work,” while the latter simply squirmed in his seat opposite and offered barely a word of protest. He seemed to implicitly agree that this is what interviewers are there to do.
Viewed from Turkey, where reporters at news conferences feel obliged to “go soft” on whichever government figure is presented to them, the U.K.’s no-nonsense approach naturally seems healthier. But I’m not sure that either is flattered by the comparison. I really don’t want to be witness for the defense for politicians, but I’m suspicious of the pseudo-robust questioning demonstrated by some in the British media whenever an elected official is placed in front of them. There’s a hysterical, arm-waving phoniness about it, something forced and artificial; as if holding power to account is about little more than treating elected officials with barely concealed contempt, asking reductive yes/no questions, and then not waiting for an answer. I’d suggest that this is simply one unhappy symptom of the dangerous cynicism felt by an increasing number of Brits about the entire political process.
Needless to say, a robust and properly-functioning fourth estate is crucial for the health of any democracy. While the situation in the U.K. on this issue is certainly preferable to that in Turkey, it’s fair to say that neither gets the balance exactly right.