Home

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.

Advertisements

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 spat between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the movement of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen has seen tension between erstwhile allies in the Turkish media boil over into open hostility. Among many other things, the public drawing of swords – ostensibly over the closure of private examination schools (dershanes) – has exposed the extent to which PM Erdoğan has successfully built himself a support network of personally loyal media outlets. This network was already clear to see, but its guns have never before been so openly turned on the Gülenists.

Of particular note is the staunchly pro-Erdoğan line taken these days by daily Akşam, which was among the assets seized from Çukurova Holding by the state-run Savings Deposit and Insurance Fund (TMSF) over debt issues in May. After the seizing of Akşam, former editor-in-chief İsmail Küçükkaya was fired and the TMSF appointed a former Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy in his place, while major changes were also made to the paper’s wider editorial team. Its previously centrist tone changed immediately, and Akşam became one of the most reliable supporters of the government throughout the summer’s Gezi Park protests. After the prep school polemic exploded, Akşam again rallied behind Erdoğan, taking its place alongside Sabah, Star, Türkiye, Yeni Şafak, Yeni Akit, Takvim, and Habertürk, in the ranks of pro-government newspapers launching unprecedented attacks on the Gülen movement. As with the others, this is clear simply from the number of front page headlines repeating whatever belligerent words the prime minister said on the subject on the previous day.

Echoing Erdoğan: "No step back from dershane reform"

Echoing Erdoğan: “No step back from dershane reform”

Although the new editorial board shifted Akşam’s position months ago, it was actually only sold to businessman Ethem Sancak last month, (along with TV station SkyTürk360, also seized from Çukurova Holding). Sancak once described himself as being “lovesick for the prime minister,” and openly declared that he had “entered the media sector to support Erdoğan.” He previously bought daily Star and news station Kanal TV back in 2006, transforming them into firmly pro-AKP voices before selling them on soon afterwards. Both processes resemble the way that Sabah, one of Turkey’s top-selling newspapers, was sold to the prime minister’s son-in-law in 2007, since when it has taken perhaps the most unswervingly pro-Erdoğan line of all mainstream newspapers. Through such moves, Erdoğan has gradually built up a media base completely loyal to himself, without which he would never have been able to achieve a position of such authority in the country. It has been a conscious effort; the bitter power struggles that have marked Erdoğan’s political career have convinced him of the need for a reliant and disciplined media support network, and the intertwining interests of business and political elites in Turkey allowed this network to be cultivated. This new, rigidly “Erdoğan-ist” media base has been more apparent than ever during the row with the Gülen movement.

The AKP government has sought to take the sting out of the dershane issue, announcing that the “transformation” of prep schools into private schools doesn’t have to be completed until September 2015 (conveniently after the three upcoming elections). The electoral effects of the Erdoğan-Gülen rift are still being speculated on, but it’s clear that although a detente has been declared for now, the knives will be even sharper when they inevitably come out again.

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.

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.

Not so many years ago, a strategic partnership between Turkey and Iran seemed to be developing into one of the region’s more unexpected modern developments. Turkey was vaunted as a mediator in negotiations between the West and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program, and the relationship was reinforced by crucial oil and gas sales from Iran to Turkey. Those days feel rather long ago. The two countries now find themselves at loggerheads backing opposite sides of the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria, with fears of a regional sectarian conflagration steadily turning into an apocalyptic reality. A marker of the Syrian crisis’ deleterious effect on the Turkey-Iran relationship came with the diplomatic spat that followed the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles on Turkey’s southern border earlier this year, which lead the Iranian army’s chief of staff to declare that the move could be a prelude to “world war.” Less spectacular, but also very important, is Iran’s clear unease with Turkey’s delicate ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which involves the rebel group withdrawing its militants from Turkish soil to their bases in northern Iraq. Tehran is concerned that the withdrawal could result in the militants joining forces with the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), which is the PKK’s offshoot in Iran.

The schism between Turkey and Iran widened to such an extent that Patrick Cockburn recently described relations between the two as “poisonous,” and this is increasingly being reflected in the rising levels of anti-Iran sentiment in Turkey’s Islamist press. In addition to countless pieces targeting Iran for supporting the al-Assad regime in Syria , it has also been striking to see the AKP media include Iranians among the dark “outside forces” stoking the recent Gezi Park protests, supposedly out of discomfort with Turkey’s economic success. In the early days of the demonstrations, it was eagerly reported in all government-supporting media outlets that an “Iranian agent” had been arrested on suspicion of being a “provocateur” behind protests in Ankara. It later emerged in more sceptical news organisations that the individual concerned, Shayan Shamloo, was in fact a rapper who was living in Turkey as a refugee.

Soon afterwards – in one of those truly befuddling Today’s Zaman stories – Abdullah Bozkurt wrote a column titled “Iran plays a subversive role in Turkey,” in which he argued with a straight face (pardon the pun) that Iran was using the protests to infiltrate Turkey with spies disguised as LGBT people in an attempt to bring down the government:

“Recent protests exposed, among other things, the depth of Iranian infiltration into Turkey … [During the protests] about a dozen Iranian agents who were trying to turn rallies into violent anti-government demonstrations were caught by the police… Since it is difficult to distinguish legitimate non-Muslim minority or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from spies, Iranian intelligence often uses them as a cover to infiltrate Turkey and third countries.”

However weird, Bozkurt’s column wasn’t an outlier in pointing the finger at Iran for Turkey’s problems. Indeed, Zaman and Today’s Zaman have recently been publishing a steady stream of articles and columns critical of negative Iranian influence in the region, and it’s probably also worth noting here that the Today’s Zaman editor, Bülent Keneş, wrote a book on Iran’s links to international terrorism last year.

Much of the Iran-bashing in the Turkish press goes hand in hand with pieces on Turkey’s Alevi minority. The Alevis are an offshoot of Shiism, (distinct from the Alawites in Syria), and have historically been associated by some in Turkey as dangerous fifth columnists with divided loyalties to Iran. Indeed, that association goes back as far as Bosphorus bridge-commemorated Sultan Selim the Grim, whose decision to kill tens of thousands of Alevis was taken during a military campaign against the Persian Safavid Empire in the 16th century.

Some of the most enthusiastic and unpleasant examples negatively associating Alevis with Iran come from the extreme Islamist daily Yeni Akit. For two consecutive days in June, for example, Yeni Akit carried front page headline stories claiming that Iranian authorities had invited Alevi religious leaders across the border to visit Ayatollah Khamenei in an attempt to foment sectarian war in Turkey. The headline of the first day’s story, “Iran is playing with fire” (İran, ateşle oynuyor), was a stomach-turning play on the Turkish term for “flame” (ateş), in reference the fire often used in Alevi rituals. Of course, it should be stressed that Yeni Akit is far from representative of majority sentiment in Turkey, but it probably isn’t quite as marginal as most people like to think. In fact, a few months ago Erdoğan even put two of its writers – including editor-in-chief Hasan Karakaya – on his “Wise Men Commission,” charged with the august task of repeating whatever he said about the ongoing Kurdish peace process.

It all adds up to a worrying picture. With the Syrian crisis having exploded into a wider geopolitical struggle splitting the region on sectarian lines, it’s increasingly clear that the growing schism between majority-Sunni Turkey and majority-Shia Iran is more than just a temporary trend.

%d bloggers like this: