September 2, 2016
Ece Temelkuran joins Turkey Book Talk to discuss “Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy” (Zed Books), her vivid and personal account of the current state of the country.
Download the episode or listen below.
My review of this one is pending – waiting for it to be published in the TLS before posting in abridged form in Hürriyet.
Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.
August 20, 2016
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).
Download the episode or listen below:
Here’s my review of the book.
If you like Turkey Book Talk and want to support independent podcasting, you can make a small or large monetary donation to the show via Patreon. Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.
December 10, 2014
The foreign media image of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government has shattered over the past 18 months, and in response Turkey has ramped up an international information blitzkrieg.
The tone is becoming increasingly bitter, motivated by a conviction that the foreign media is a propaganda weapon deployed by the West to attack the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Patriotic Turks are called on to rally behind their government in the name of national sovereignty.
This sense of embattled defiance is important to understand, and reveals much about the resentful mindset gripping the state. Suspicion about the foreign press is hardly new in Turkey, but it’s unfortunate to see the worst of such sentiments returning – openly sponsored by Erdoğan and the AKP’s top brass. The president himself is even managing to turn international criticism to his own advantage, as evidence that the West is implacably hostile to Turkey and its fearless, truth-telling leader — a useful populist line ahead of next June’s crucial parliamentary elections.
Read the full article here.
November 14, 2014
I’m breaking my blogging hiatus to present a guest post by my friend Paul Osterlund, who is currently reporting for Today’s Zaman. The piece is a response to a recent apologia for the Turkish government’s press freedom record written by Sabancı University historian Adam McConnel on the Serbestiyet website. Rebuttals are welcome via the comments section.
Late last month, an article titled “Understanding the Turkish Press” appeared on the Turkish website Serbestiyet (The Independent), written by Adam McConnell, an American historian who has lived in Turkey for 15 years and holds a doctoral degree from Istanbul’s Sabancı University.
Despite the website’s moniker, Serbestiyet is comprised primarily of self-fashioned “liberal” journalists and scholars who support President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The website features a cadre of columnists who previously wrote for the Taraf daily, who subsequently jumped ship when that paper adopted a harshly critical stance toward the AKP. These columnists range from those who are unwavering in their support for the AKP to those at who are at least willing to acknowledge many of its authoritarian blunders, nevertheless insisting that the party is Turkey’s only democratizing force.
In his essay, McConnell writes that the Turkish press is a “daily anarchic knock-down, drag-out free-for-all,” where the is no semblance of objectivity, but rather a ragtag collection of pro and anti-government dailies eschewing proper journalistic standards for cheap potshots. While this may be true, it forms the basis for his assertion that “the Turkish press is not under threat from the government, and is not censored,” a position that could only be occupied by one wearing blinders. His idea of a free press resembles Erdoğan’s views on democracy, which Turkey’s president believes in firmly rooted in the ballot box. So long as there are multiple parties competing in relatively free and fair elections, no one has the right to complain. As long as there are a variety of papers taking aim at the government, the opposition, the Gülen movement, and each other, the press should be considered free and healthy.
Such logic painfully overlooks a variety of important factors. One troubling trend that McConnell neglects to mention is Erdoğan’s penchant for publicly chastising journalists. The president has done this time and time again knowing that the journalist in question will receive a deluge of threats. In 2011, Erdoğan accused respected columnist Nuray Mert (without specifically mentioning her name) of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Afterwards, Mert lost her job as a TV show host and was eventually booted from her columnist position at the daily Milliyet. Most recently, Erdoğan singled out professor and columnist İhsan Yılmaz, (though again not by name) calling him a traitor for various remarks Yılmaz had made at a conference in Washington earlier this year. Both Mert and Yılmaz reported fearing for their safety. These are only two among a host of similar incidents. (Erdoğan seems particularly eager to target young female journalists, including Amberin Zaman, Ceylan Yeğinsu, Selin Girit and Rengin Arslan).
The government has levied media owners with hefty tax fines, most famously in 2009 when the Doğan Media Group, which runs the daily Hürriyet and CNN Türk among other outlets—was fined a whopping 4 billion lira. The penalty was later reduced to just under one million, but the penalty was widely believed to have been a punishment for the media group’s critical coverage. As of 2013, more journalists were behind bars in Turkey than in any other country. Erdoğan frequently files criminal complaints against journalists he doesn’t like, and even deported an Azerbaijani journalist early this year for certain tweets he wrote, an incident that may be the first of its kind in history. McConnell mentions none of this, apart from this underwhelming tidbit: “True enough, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently put pressure on some newspapers or journalists, and gotten some people fired, which was obviously not the right thing to do.”
The author proceeds by listing the most prominent Turkish dailies and their respective ideological stances, pointing out that the majority are critical of the government. He takes opposition papers to task for suddenly beginning to cover labor issues, a move which he says amounts to “nauseauting hypocrisy.” Never mind that labor conditions have deteriorated amid a major construction boom and privatization frenzy that has coincided with the AKP’s tenure as Turkey’s ruling party.
Even if it is hypocritical for the opposition papers to revert their focus toward these issues, they have become impossible to ignore, particularly when they are surrounded by hysteria and provocation caused by the AKP itself. An Erdoğan advisor, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed kicking a protestor following a deadly mine disaster that killed 301 workers at the Soma mine in May. Erdoğan himself caused a furor when he said the tragedy was the “nature of the business,” referencing similar disasters in 19th-century England. In the midst of such absurdity, only papers loyal to the government failed to report on these incidents, the kind of scandalous and popcorn-muching fodder that is dream coverage for newspapers.
McConnell, while exhibiting his distaste for what he sees as opposition hypocrisy, conveniently leaves out that pro-government papers routinely print bald-faced lies and anti-Semitic nonsense. Last year Yeni Şafak ran an interview with Noam Chomsky where certain answers were altered (the meticulous Chomsky discovered this himself), whereas Takvim printed an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour that was completely fabricated. Meanwhile, in the midst of Israel’s latest flurry of bomb attacks on Gaza, Yeni Akit featured a word game centered around a picture of Adolf Hitler, with the resulting clue reading “we are longing for you.”
Pressure from the ruling party can even have the power to dramatically influence circulation between the opposition papers. After Hürriyet opted not to print a highly sarcastic piece from Yılmaz Özdil, one of the country’s most popular columnists, Özdil jumped ship to Sözcü, which then immediately took Hürriyet’s spot as the third-most circulated paper in Turkey, moving up from fourth place, although the two papers have traded places since then. Amid increasing pressure from the government, Hürriyet declined to print Özdil’s column as it suggested in a facetious manner slathered with bitter mockery that Erdoğan’s son Bilal should be the country’s prime minister.
In their columns, the Serbestiyet crew has exhibited an extremely paranoid attitude toward the Gezi Park protests, asserting that the movement had been hijacked by Kemalist/neo-nationalist forces. They argued that the protests amounted to a “coup,” and they evaluated the Dec. 17 corruption scandal using the same term. Even the Oct. 6-7 clashes between PKK sympathizers and Islamist groups over Turkey’s indecisiveness over Kobane have been referred to as a coup by some of these columnists. One would think that people who have lived through actual military coups, as tanks rolled through the streets and forcibly seized control, and where dissidents were imprisoned, tortured and killed, would not throw around the term so lightly. They also managed to gloss over the large number of journalists who lost their jobs following the Gezi events. Since they believe any serious threat to the credibility of the AKP must be a coup plotter or secular nationalist, they harbor the same stance toward the opposition press. Any paper or writer who criticizes the government is a bitter, coup-sympathizing elitist who doesn’t understand a monumental social transformation that only the AKP could usher in and see through.
Since McConnell would like his readers to believe that the opposition papers solely exist to take jabs at the AKP, he attempts to minimize their distinct ideological positions and deemphasizes the fact that they are catering to different groups of people. One wouldn’t find an average reader of Sözcü thumbing through the pages of Taraf, as the latter frequently features columnists openly and frankly discussing the Armenian Genocide and the Kurdish settlement process, occupying positions uncomfortable for your average Kemalist. On the other hand a loyal Taraf reader would likely snub their nose at the idea of reading Cumhuriyet or Yurt. (McConnell makes the claim that Taraf has become co-opted by the Gülen movement, a rather conflated accusation that many of its former columnists have echoed. While Taraf’s Mehmet Baransu and Emre Uslu are movement sympathizers, the paper also features gay and trans columnists alongside a host of other writers that would be unwelcome at the Gülenist papers.) Moreover, a reader of Zaman or Bugün, who sympathizes with the Gülen movement, would be unlikely to give Sözcü or Cumhuriyet more than cursory glance, even if Zaman has begun to reference Cumhuriyet reports.
Different opposition papers have specific reasons to criticize the AKP. Left-wing papers such as BirGün and Evrensel go after the government because of its crony capitalist tendencies and sweeping neoliberal urban redevelopment initiatives. The Gülen dailies have come out swinging because the AKP has publically vowed to wipe out the Gülen movement and have taken major initiatives to destroy its financial integrity. The Kemalist dailies sling mud at the AKP whenever they can because they see it is an affront to their “secular lifestyle” and what they interpret as the “secular legacy” of the modern Turkish state.
The pro-government press, on the other hand, exists for a solitary purpose: to act as the mouthpiece of Erdoğan and the AKP. These outlets come in different flavors, but they are all equally loyal in their unquestioning devotion to the president and the government. On several occasions, pro-government dailies have featured nearly identical headlines, indicating that they are the result of top-down instructions. If the present state of the Turkish press can be considered an all-out slugfest between papers that have very distinct reasons for taking potshots at the government and the pro-government press, it is because these conditions have been fostered and encouraged by the government’s polarizing rhetoric, zero tolerance policy regarding criticism, its eagerness to personally single out “troublesome” journalists and its encouragement of corporate allies to buy media outlets to broaden the range of its mouthpiece. The current condition of the Turkish media cannot be understood separately from the ever-increasing authoritarian maneuvering of Erdoğan and the AKP.
The Turkish press, like the country it tries to represent, is highly dynamic and full of twists and turns. But despite the fact that Turkey can technically be considered a democracy, it is not a healthy one. And while pro and anti-government papers may duke it out freely with obnoxious headlines that often amount to little more than insults, the Turkish press is far from free. For one to begin to “understand” the Turkish press, they must be aware of the constant and diligent interventions staged by Tayyip Erdoğan, conducted to intimidate and delegitimize any and all who rattle his cage.
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.
May 28, 2014
The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s recent tactic to feed its supporters a steady diet of enemies has turned its focus on Germany over the last few weeks. The green light came with the verbal joust between German President Joachim Gauck and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during the former’s visit to Ankara at the end of April. After Gauck sharply criticised the state of press freedom and freedom of expression in Turkey, Erdoğan responded in reliably pugnacious style, declaring that the Lutheran Gauck “still thinks of himself as a pastor” and “cannot interfere in our country’s internal affairs.”
Equally reliably, the pro-government media has zealously taken up Erdoğan’s cause, gorging itself on anti-German material over the last couple of weeks including moronic, depressingly predictable Nazi analogies. Germany has thus taken its place alongside Jews, Masons, Atheists, Britain, the U.S., the “interest rate lobby,” the “parallel state,” and assorted domestic collaborators, in a “dirty alliance” to bring down Erdoğan and his government. This media campaign has been thrown a fair amount of red meat by a few ill-advised stories and headlines in Germany. Ahead of the prime minister’s much-anticipated rally in Cologne on May 24, for example, popular tabloid Bild carried a front page headline addressed to Erdoğan, declaring: “You’re not welcome.” The AKP-friendly media took full advantage, describing this as the latest evidence that Germany is frightened of Turkey’s unstoppable rise and is trying to sabotage Erdoğan’s political career (and thus Turkey’s path to a glorious future). Some of this stuff has been harmless tabloid fare, while some of it has been more worrying. Last week, German news magazine Der Speigel announced that it was withdrawing its Turkey correspondent, Hasnain Kazim, after he received over 10,000 threatening messages from online pro-government trolls, including death threats. His crime was to quote in a headline the reaction of a protesting miner in the disaster-struck town of Soma, who reportedly said, “Go to hell, Erdoğan.”
One of the more thoughtful interventions in this sad state of affairs came in the short interview given to T24 by Cem Özdemir, the Turkish-origin co-leader of Germany’s Green Party, on May 26. Putting aside his questionable sideburns, Özdemir had some eminently reasonable things to say, but PM Erdoğan still found things to object to. During his typically tub-thumping weekly AKP parliamentary group speech on Tuesday, he slammed Özdemir as a “so-called Turk, a co-head of a political party over there. The words he used before and after our meeting were very ugly. How are you a democrat? … Are you so disturbed by the prime minister of the Turkish Republic going there? You have no right to talk to the prime minister of your country of origin, of which you are a member, in this way. It doesn’t matter where you are an MP, first you will know your place.” You can decide for yourself whether that was a proportional response to Özdemir’s measured words to T24, which I’ve translated below:
How do you assess Prime Minister Erdoğan’s speech in Cologne?
From now on, no matter what he does, unfortunately we’ve come to the point where it can’t really change anything … The Soma mine disaster and his earlier speeches have formed such a bad picture. From now on, Erdoğan won’t easily be able to change this image. He’s also negatively affecting Turkey’s image. In recent years here, there was a positive image. But that has completely collapsed, it has reversed and a negative image of Turkey has been formed. Erdoğan has become a symbol of this negative image.
Isn’t the German public’s reaction to Erdoğan very exaggerated?
Both his supporters and his critics are exaggerating. His supporters completely idolize him, and see him as a completely faultless, flawless person; while a section of his critics are making a big mistake by comparing him to Hitler. The comparison with Vladimir Putin is better because Erdoğan really is transforming Turkey into an authoritarian regime. But the Hitler comparison is very excessive. So, without generalizing, both sides are making mistakes. These exaggerated approaches are having a very negative effect on the perception of Turkey here in Germany.
In Erdoğan’s speech, Angela Merkel was booed in the hall.
This booing of Merkel’s name leaves a very bad impression. It was very ugly, and it will stay in people’s minds. We will be the ones to pay the price for this. It gives the message: You’re living here, you’re eating its bread, your taxes are paid here, your children are going to school here, you’re benefiting from the welfare state. At the same time, you are booing this country’s prime minister and worshipping another country’s prime minister. It brings the question of loyalty back onto the agenda. We have been struggling for 50 years. “We are loyal citizens,” we say. “Trust us, there’s no need to worry.” This is brought down by the image left by those who went to that rally.
Erdoğan actually had a lot of different groups booed in the rally.
The crowd was transformed as if it was living on enemy soil. There is no such partisanship in German politics; they support politicians but they don’t worship. In the end we are just people; all of us will depart this world one day. To worship someone in such a way both amazes and scares people. In addition, those German Turks who were demonstrating against Erdoğan’s visit pumped up fears about whether “Turkey’s internal problems are being brought here.” In the past there was polarisation between Turk and Kurd, right and left; now the worry is spreading about whether the new polarisation is between Erdoğan’s supporters and his opponents.
Erdoğan’s image in Europe was very positive for many years. How is it now after this speech?
He’s destroying his own successes.
As a Turkish-origin politician, what do you say to the German public?
In the past, we used to say things like, “Probably he meant to say this; if he knew the details he would have spoken differently.” But we’ve gone beyond that, there’s nothing we can defend anymore. Even those ministers in Germany who were previously most positive [about Turkey] are now saying, “This is more than enough.” Erdoğan has 100 percent lost Germany.
It’s extremely sad to see how quickly the tragic Soma mining disaster has become the latest material to be used in Turkey’s political turf war. Soon after news of the country’s worst ever industrial disaster broke I was appalled by the immediate politicising of the incident; perhaps naively I thought that the time for recriminations could follow after a period of respectful mourning for the hundreds of dead miners. However, events quickly took on a momentum of their own; it became hard to talk about “not politicising” the tragedy after the prime minister and his entourage attacked grieving and angry locals in the town, and when there is such a shocking lack of accountability from either the mining company or the government.
A heavy burden of responsibility for this lack of accountability falls on the shoulders of Turkey’s supplicant mainstream media. There is plenty of talk of “yes men” in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle, but Turkey’s entire mainstream news media acts in a similar way. Watching the major TV “news” stations – ATV, NTV, 24TV, CNN Türk, Habertürk – in the aftermath of the disaster has been depressing and infuriating: A procession of ministers giving statements, interviewers desperately trying to avoid asking difficult questions, and a complete unwillingness to report many of the most significant incidents that happen. Why the lack of numbers of those still inside the mine three days after the explosion? Why the lack of exact numbers of those who went down into the mine in the first place? Why the confusion over the cause of the disaster three days later? Why the confusion over the official death toll? Why did it take three days to get any official statement from the mine’s owner, Soma Holding? Why no resignations? Erdoğan’s disastrous May 14 visit to the town – during which he delivered a shockingly insensitive speech, was heckled by the crowds, and then attacked grieving protesters along with one of his advisers – was also shamelessly covered up by all major TV stations. This was particularly ironic, as they are usually so keen to slavishly report every single word that comes out of the prime minister’s mouth.
But Erdoğan’s apparent lack of sympathy doesn’t just come from nowhere; indeed, his dreadful response to the tragedy has been conditioned by his “yes man” media, which is often little more than an echo chamber of his own words. When the PM never has to respond to a tough question, gives “interviews” with genuflecting, hand-picked interviewers, and holds stage-managed televised rallies in front of hundreds of thousands of bussed in supporters, how will he respond when faced with spontaneous grass-roots opposition holding him to account? When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is surrounded by a media establishment simply reinforcing its narrative on every single issue, it isn’t surprising to see it respond with anger and confusion when confronted by events beyond its control.
The Turkish media is flawed because it doesn’t inform the public properly. But its soft-touch failure to hold the ruling authorities to account is actually harming Prime Minister Erdoğan in a more subtle way. Such pandering has made him sloppy, complacent, and blinkered, so that when a “black swan” event like the disaster in Soma occurs, he is simply not conditioned to respond adequately. One of the less recognised effects of the AKP’s castrating of the mainstream media is to make it less responsive to such incidents. Ultimately, while they may seem to help the government in the short term, the AKP’s echo chambers have actually isolated Erdoğan, damaging his ability to think and reason clearly, and contributing to his utter inability to sympathise with those who aren’t like him. The Soma disaster is only the latest example of this; it’s certainly the saddest.