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Swimming against all economic logic, another new national newspaper appeared on Turkey’s newsstands last month. Karşı means “against” or “anti” in Turkish, and this new daily has a slogan declaring it “Against lies, the newspaper of the truth,” apparently channelling the spirit of Çarşı, (the Beşiktaş football club supporters group whose motto is “against everything”). Karşı has quite a varied team of people working on it, but in many ways it embodies Turkey’s chronic “opposition problem.” The fragmented opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) comprise leftists, liberals, Kemalists, nationalists, communists, environmentalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, and now Gülenists. But together these forces not only fail to make up a majority of the Turkish electorate, they are also handicapped by their diversity; the opposition is so disparate that it can agree on little other than that the AKP is a disaster.

The anti-government Gezi Park protests that raged throughout last summer made this point particularly clearly. The protests were full of energy and ideas, but it was the kind of energy that can’t be channelled through traditional political channels. The variety that made the Gezi movement so strong and impressive is exactly what prevents it from being an effective opposition force in more formal terms. What’s more, all Turkish opposition has to contend with a highly cohesive and disciplined incumbent government, confident in the loyalty of its core conservative constituency and backed by a well-oiled media and electoral machine.

 

Karşı's first front page, reporting PM Erdoğan's call to hapless Habertürk  boss Fatih Saraç to cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

Karşı’s first front page on Feb. 9. The headline reports PM Erdoğan’s order to hapless Habertürk controller Fatih Saraç, demanding that he cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

 

In a recent Reuters piece about the durability of the AKP’s appeal, Hakan Altinay of the Brookings Institution is quoted as saying that there is “no political force to pick up the ingredients and cook a better meal, the opposition has no sense of direction.” Indeed, it is commonly assumed that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is too clumsy and loaded with its own historical baggage to be effective. There’s some truth in this, but it’s hard to see how anyone could channel the disaffection of Turkey’s hugely varied opposition into a single coherent political party, while at the same time outlining a vision that can defeat the AKP at the ballot box. Similarly, Piotr Zalewski wrote last week that the CHP would “have to deliver more than just finger pointing for Turkish voters to entrust it with running the country.” That’s also true, but the party is paralysed by the fact that finger pointing is pretty much the only thing that unites those ranged against the government. A more constructive platform might target wavering AKP voters (however few they are), but that would likely risk losing the CHP’s own wavering voters. It’s an almost impossible balancing act. Of course, none of this is particularly new, but it has become particularly obvious in the lead up to the March 30 local elections.

The new newspaper Karşı – with its diverse but incoherent range of ideas about what is to be done – perhaps embodies the Gezi conundrum. As its editor-in-chief Eren Erdem has said: “The Gezi spirit excites us, and we are talking the same language as the people on the streets during the Gezi resistance. From our writers to our editors, from our printers to our correspondents, we all imagine a free world.” Of course, Karşı is a newspaper, not a political party, but its example does indicate the challenge facing any formal opposition hoping to capitalize on the AKP’s current problems.

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.

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.

 

Habertürk parroting the prime minister on Nov. 9. With unintended irony, the headline quotes Erdoğan’s response to Deputy PM Bülent Arınç’s criticism of the mixed-sex student housing debate: ‘I don’t discuss these things in front of the media’.

Habertürk parroting the prime minister on Nov. 9. With unintended irony, the headline quotes Erdoğan’s response to Deputy PM Bülent Arınç’s criticism of the mixed-sex student housing debate: ‘I don’t discuss these things in front of the media.’

 

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.

Commentary vs. Reporting

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.

On Sept. 17, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) hand delivered its latest letter to Turkey’s Ministry of Justice, expressing the group’s deep concern over the “continued press freedom crisis in Turkey.”

The CPJ had previously published a long and detailed special report on media freedom in Turkey in October 2012, and this latest letter, addressed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, explains how the difficulties described in that report remain unresolved. It also discusses the increasingly oppressive environment in the aftermath of the summer’s anti-government Gezi Park protests, paying particular attention to the fact that open threats from officials have become worryingly commonplace, which “emboldens zealous prosecutors to go after critics.”

The letter doesn’t much dwell on the issue of ownership and conflict of interest – by no means the be all and end all, but certainly a crucial issue that must be addressed if improvements are to be made. Other than that, it makes for a good primer on the biggest challenges to freedom across all media in today’s Turkey: imprisoned journalists and associated legal irregularities, the inappropriate use of anti-terrorism laws, censorship and self-censorship, gag orders on sensitive issues, and the threats being issued by government figures with increasing brazenness. Below are some of the most salient points made in the CPJ’s letter:

“While the restrictive laws and prosecutions are central to the media crisis in Turkey, so too is the atmosphere fostered at the top levels of government. When top officials use the term ‘terrorists’ to describe critical journalists they send a disturbing message that could cause others to take action …

“With traditional media under pressure, the Internet, including social media, has become an important outlet for free expression in Turkey. But recent official comments, including threats to restrict the online flow of information, cause concern …

“Time and again, history has proven that, at times of unrest, a well-informed society has a better capacity to restore and heal itself. The government of Turkey ought to encourage a vibrant debate, a diversity of opinions, and independent reporting on news events crucial to the public …

“In mid-June, with tensions running high, you publicly accused the international media of biased coverage of the Gezi Park events, singling out CNN International, the BBC, and Reuters. Before a supporters’ rally, you said the foreign media ‘fabricated news,’ The New York Times reported. ‘You portrayed Turkey differently to the world,’ you reportedly said, referring to international media. ‘You are left alone with your lies.’ We find your suggestion that international coverage was part of a plot to subvert your government highly disturbing.

“In late June, Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek launched a spurious and inflammatory campaign on Twitter against local BBC reporter Selin Girit, labeling her a traitor and a spy in apparent disagreement with the BBC’s coverage of the protests.

“Gökçek created a critical hashtag ‘#ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit,’ which in English means ‘Don’t be a spy in the name of England, Selin Girit’ and urged his followers to popularize it on Twitter. Girit received ‘a large number of threatening messages’ in response to the mayor’s actions, the BBC said in a statement.

“CPJ is also alarmed by reports of numerous firings and forced resignations of critical columnists, editors, and reporters, and in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. According to our colleagues at the Turkish Union of Journalists, an independent media association that documents attacks on the press, at least 22 journalists were fired and another 37 were forced to quit their jobs over their coverage of the anti-government protests. As a result of direct or indirect government pressure, media owners have dismissed many popular journalists and the absence of their voices has been conspicuous.”

The letter can be read in full here.

I recently spotted three curious newspaper pieces that neatly illustrate how the ruling mentality in Turkey approaches the “Alevi question.” Each one frames the issue in terms of “love,” “unity,” and “brotherhood,” but the underlying assumptions behind these words – ubiquitous and sacrosanct as they are in Turkish political culture – are worth investigating. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to be robust enough when it comes to answering the Alevi question.

The first example was published two weeks ago in mass circulation pro-government daily Sabah, written by columnist Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı. In two columns published on consecutive days, Kütahayalı argued that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should heed “serious recent intelligence reports” suggesting that “outside forces” were planning to “exploit” Turkey’s Alevi citizens: “Outside forces and their inside co-operators are planning a new chaos plan. The intelligence for this is very serious … They want to drag Alevi citizens into a violent rebellion.” Then, in a spectacular example of drawing the right conclusions from a hopelessly misguided route, Kütahyalı went on to suggest that these threats were reasons for the government to take steps to heed the Alevis’ democratic demands:

“If the AK Parti government takes brave steps to solve the Alevi problem, as it has done with the Kurdish problem, then nobody will be able to construct a chaos scenario using the Alevis … The Alevis’ demands on rights and freedoms are very important, and the government should do whatever it takes to meet these demands.”

Kütahyalı’s argument was almost identical to the one in the Today’s Zaman column by Abdullah Bozkurt that I mentioned in my previous post. In that article, Bozkurt explicitly stated that Iran was looking to use Alevis, (as well as spies disguised as LGBT people), to foment sectarian war in Turkey. He then went on to say that this potential danger was why Turkey should be extra careful and now grant Alevis more rights:

“The Turkish government should be more vigilant than ever over Iranian activities and hasten the process of addressing Alevi demands, including the recognition of their places of worship (cemevi) and the provision of fair-share subsidies from taxpayers’ money. Alevis, who number over 10 million, should be able to establish and train their own clergy and the government should provide financial support for that.”

Hüseyin Gülerce also engaged in similar mental acrobatics in one of his Zaman columns in June. In it, he repeated the official government view that the Gezi Park protests were all part of a grand unpatriotic plot aimed at foiling Turkey’s economic ambitions, but he went even further: “The plan, the project, is based on exploiting, on exacerbating the Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi and secular-religious divides. Unfortunately, the Gezi Park events have turned best friends into antagonists.” Like Kütahyalı and Bozkurt, Gülerce used this logic to justify “further democratization”:

“We need to overcome these divides … Democratization must not be halted. The democratic front must be strengthened, progressing to universal democratic standards … Starting with the prime minister, we have to come together in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation.”

The mentality that essentially sees Alevis as a threat that should be handled with care is shared by all three columns, and it is echoed by many government officials. It was also there in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent warnings against “sectarian division,” when he declared that “if being Alevi means loving the Caliph Ali, then I’m a perfect Alevi.”  In similar tones, ministers constantly repeat how Alevis should never worry about the government, as they are “brothers and sisters” who see “difference as a richness.”

It sounds nice, but it was refreshing to see a piece on T24 by Alper Görmüş last week that took aim at such patronising discourse. In it, Görmüş questioned the glib “embracing brotherliness” displayed by the AKP, saying that Alevis wanted not simply “love” and “brotherhood,” but “equality” and “respect”:

“In families, it’s always the elders who emphasise ‘brotherhood’ and ‘unity’… Alevis know that the Sunnis who use these terms are the strong, advantaged ‘family elders,’ and this does not suggest ‘equality’ and ‘respect’ to them.

“The prime minister’s emphasis on ‘love,’ ‘brotherhood,’ and ‘affection’ basically translates for the broader Sunni mass as meaning: ‘Alevism is not as authentic or respected as our beliefs, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love or feel affection for Alevis themselves.’

“Genuine, lasting brotherhood is not built on ‘affection’ alone. A brotherhood that doesn’t contain equality, cannot be considered genuine brotherhood, and isn’t sustainable … Just like the Kurdish issue, the Alevi question cannot be solved by approaching Alevis without ‘equality,’ and without a genuine respect for their beliefs.”

This seems fairly watertight to me. It’s easy for the Sunni “family elders” to talk blithely of love and brotherhood, but it all rings a bit hollow when some still consider Alevis as “potential threats,” and when the state still only spends tax money on Sunni mosques, without even recognising Alevi cemevis as separate houses of worship. As Görmüş suggested, the AKP still has a long way to go before truly gaining the trust of Alevis.

A new episode in the covert Erdoğan-Gülen power struggle bubbled quietly to the surface last week. The fault line was apparently once again Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plan to change Turkey to a presidential political system. I was alerted to this latest possible rift by the May 9 front page of arch-secularist Cumhuriyet, which brandished two recent pieces of evidence: The first was veiled criticism issued by influential U.S.-based religious preacher Fethullah Gülen, broadcast recently on the major Gülenist television station Samanyolu; the second was a column published in the Gülen-affiliated newspaper Zaman, written by “Gülen mouthpiece” Hüseyin Gülerce.

According to the Cumhuriyet article, titled “Heavy hints from Gülen to Erdoğan,” Gülen suggested the following in a recent Samanyolu broadcast:

“Sometimes power makes a person arrogant. Even if they are a believer, they may morally be a pharaoh … Sometimes, blessings constantly pour from above and in that way a person can become a Nimrod, or a pharaoh … An ordinary person can arrive, take advantage of certain possibilities, and is able to sit at the helm of power. But after being at the helm for a while, he may come to lose respect for those who he has brought so far in the vehicle. He may always look at the people from on high, telling them ‘stay in your place.’ If others say anything, he may reply with something like, ‘Shut up. You don’t understand this business. Whatever I say goes.’”

Cumhuriyet linked these cryptic words to an equally cryptic column by Hüseyin Gülerce, published in the Turkish and English language versions of Zaman on May 7 and 8. In it, Gülerce wrote about the possible changes to the political system, and appeared to advise against Erdoğan putting himself forward as a candidate for either a newly-empowered executive presidential chair, or a party-affiliated one:

“The impression that the AK Party negotiated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in return for the presidential system cannot be fixed … It does not seem possible for the AK Party to convince the people and other stakeholders that the presidential or semi-presidential system is the best option after all these developments.

“The only thing the AK Party will insist on at this point is a partisan president … [But] a surprise move … may be that the prime minister does not run for the presidency. The prime minister has not so far publicly announced that he will run for the presidency. There will be no need for a partisan president in the event that he does not become a candidate in the election.”

Of course, tension between the Gülen movement and Erdoğan has long been speculated on. In a smart recent piece for Turkey Analyst, Svante E. Cornell suggested that growing numbers within the movement are switching their allegiances to current President Abdullah Gül, frustrated at Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian and personality-driven political style. Still, it’s striking that the issue is considered such a taboo that it is rarely mentioned openly in the mainstream Turkish media. An issue of such significance to the country’s political future is therefore discussed only through whispers, rumours and conjecture. Whatever truth comes from such speculation, smoke and mirrors certainly don’t help ease concerns about the movement’s lack of transparency, or its “hidden agenda.”

In another plot twist, the vice president of the Gülen-affiliated Journalists and Writers Foundation, Cemal Usak, recently suggested that Gülen “may return to Turkey” if a “civil and democratic constitution” is adopted. Whatever that means in the grand scheme of things, it seems likely that heads will continue to be scratched over the whole issue for a while yet.

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