Lab Report

Either With Us or Against Us

As Turkey's ruling party consolidates its power, the space for free expression narrows. The third in our series of Lab Reports on Turkey.

Top image: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images
Top image: OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

“A militant in the guise of a journalist — a shameless woman. Know your place!” This is how three-term Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan chose to describe Amberin Zaman, the Economist‘s longtime Turkey correspondent, during a campaign rally on Aug. 7, just three days before he won the country’s first-ever direct presidential election. Erdogan lashed out at Zaman for having allegedly “insulted” Muslims in an interview with opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu on the 24-hour TV news channel CNN Turk — and she was likewise vilified in the conservative press and aggressively harassed online by Erdogan supporters.

Democracy Lab’s In-Depth Reports on Turkey

  • LAB REPORT 1: The Height of Hubris, by Cenk Sidar
  • LAB REPORT 2: Turkey’s Economy: Now for the Hard Part, by Murat Ucer
  • LAB REPORT 3: Either With Us or Against Us, by Vanessa H. Larson

The next day, Enis Berberoglu, editor in chief of Hurriyet, one of the country’s highest-circulating dailies, abruptly resigned. Because Hurriyet is owned by Dogan, the same media group that owns CNN Turk, many doubted that Berberoglu’s move was coincidental. Erdogan went on to win the election with 52 percent of the vote. By the time of his inauguration at the end of August, several journalists at other newspapers had also lost their jobs — for reasons widely regarded as political.

These events followed a pattern that has become disturbingly familiar in recent years. As Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has grown increasingly entrenched since it first came to power in 2002, the space for free expression has narrowed perceptibly. This trend has been particularly evident over the past 15 months, starting with the protests that began in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and which then swept the country in the summer of 2013, when dozens of journalists were fired or forced to resign after expressing critical viewpoints. Most recently, Turkey’s trouble with press freedom made headlines this weekend when Erdogan denounced the New York Times for, he said, implying that the Turkish state was connected with Islamic State (IS) militants.

In 2013, Turkey remained the world’s top jailer of journalists (followed by Iran and China) for the second year in a row. As of the end of the year there were 40 reporters behind bars — one of several factors that led Freedom House to downgrade the country from “partly free” to “not free” in its 2014 press freedom rankings. Turkey came in 134th out of 197 countries.

Social media has not been spared. In the lead-up to local elections on March 30, the Turkish government shut down Twitter for two weeks and YouTube for 67 days in an effort to suppress the leak of damning wiretapped recordings that surfaced in a police and judicial investigation into government corruption at the highest levels. (The photo above shows an activist using social media to catch up on the news during midnight protests in Gezi Park.)

“The main problem is that pro-AKP media is not only the dominant media, it’s the obligatory media,” said one Turkish journalist who asked not to be named. “If you’re not with them, you’re against them.”

The grim media climate in Turkey today is the outcome of a confluence of problematic legal, financial, and political dynamics. The government has long used overly broad anti-terror laws to crack down on members of illegal Kurdish or leftist groups perceived as threatening the state. Officials often conflate journalistic work sympathetic to these causes with “propaganda” for them or with membership in these groups.

In recent years, the issue came to the fore with the arrest of dozens of journalists in two sweeping investigations. The Ergenekon trials, which began in 2008, targeted hundreds of military officers, journalists, and intellectuals accused of being part of an anti-government conspiracy. A separate set of trials netted thousands affiliated with the Kurdish Communities Union, a pro-Kurdish activist organization alleged to have ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

In cases tried under “special authority courts” established in 2005, suspects and defendants had been held for years in pre-trial or pre-verdict detention. But thanks to recent reforms reducing the length of such detention and the reach of these courts, many suspects have been released pending verdicts. Only 11 journalists are imprisoned today, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Yet the overall picture remains bleak.

CPJ’s Nina Ognianova warned: “Even though the number of journalists currently behind bars has gone down, politically motivated prosecutions have continued against critical journalists; pressure on media owners to rein in popular columnists and reporters has increased; the censorship of online speech has heightened; and the anti-press rhetoric coming from the highest echelons of power has been unrelenting.”

But the legal system isn’t the only problem. Another culprit is Turkey’s corporate media structure, which has enabled the government to exert control over a wide swath of outlets. Almost all the major newspapers and TV channels are owned by around 10 large holding companies that make their real money through extensive business interests in other sectors, such as construction, energy, mining, and tourism. These conglomerates are in fierce competition for lucrative state contracts: $46.2 billion worth of government contracts were issued in 2012 alone and, with bidding often less than transparent, favorable media coverage often helps pave the way for deals. So it comes as little surprise that 12 years of AKP rule — the longest period of single-party governance in recent Turkish history — have left few mainstream media organizations in a position to maintain their editorial independence.

When the AKP came to power, “Twenty percent [of the media were] Islamist-conservative newspapers and channels,” said Asli Tunc, a communications professor and the head of the Media School at Bilgi, a private university in Istanbul. “But over the years, stations and newspapers began to be pro-government. Now, basically two-thirds of the media is somehow pro-government.”

Since 2007, the government has taken over several floundering media companies and forced their sale to pro-AKP businessmen, who have then completely realigned their coverage.

“The government has made a point of buying up media which is used and consumed by the 40 to 50 percent of the electorate which it depends on to get itself elected,” said Andrew Finkel, an American journalist who has covered Turkey for the past 25 years. “So it very much controls public opinion, and it particularly filters the information that its own supporters get.”

In one especially blatant example, the government slapped a $2.5 billion tax fine on the Dogan media group, in what many saw as retaliation for its unfavorable reporting on a financial scandal implicating the AKP. Though the fine was later substantially reduced, in 2011 the group had to sell off a TV channel and two secularist newspapers, Milliyet and Vatan, to stay afloat. The papers were bought by the Demiroren Group, a conglomerate involved in energy, construction, and industry that includes Milangaz, one of Turkey’s largest producers of liquefied petroleum gas. After the group, which is known to have close ties to the government, took over the papers, both gradually shifted their editorial lines, in the process firing numerous staff, including respected, long-standing writers and even editors in chief.

Other media properties have been transferred even more directly to pro-AKP hands, rendering them little more than government mouthpieces. Audio recordings leaked in the “December 17” corruption investigation revealed that, in late 2013, Turkey’s then-minister of transportation pressured a group of businessmen close to the government to pool together more than $450 million to finance the purchase of ATV, a television network, and Sabah, a mainstream newspaper, from the Calik Group, which was losing money on them. According to Bloomberg, the businessmen who put up the money were promised “advance notice of government contracts” for lucrative deals such as airport and infrastructure projects “that they could divide up among themselves.” Opposition circles now derisively refer to these outlets as “pool media.”

“Essentially, owning a newspaper now is not something that buys you influence; it’s basically a tax,” said Finkel. “It’s a sort of burden which is put upon you by the government in order to do business with them.”

In a rare reversal of this scenario, Zaman, a newspaper affiliated with the U.S.-based Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gulen, was in practice a government mouthpiece until late 2013, when the AKP and the Gulen movement parted ways. Since then, Zaman and other Gulenist media have become staunch AKP critics. In return, the government has smeared and harassed the group’s journalists, going as far as to deport an Azerbaijani reporter, Mahir Zeynalov, in February 2014 for writing tweets critical of high-level officials.

Leaked phone recordings and insider accounts indicate that it’s not uncommon for Erdogan and his representatives to call media bosses to complain about coverage, request the censoring of information, or even to demand the firing of specific journalists. In this atmosphere of intimidation, many who have managed to hold onto their jobs feel the need to self-censor.

“If you piss off the prime minister, that really gets you in trouble. He goes berserk,” said a Turkish journalist who insisted on anonymity.

At times of political tension, the government appears even to dictate headlines. “In the middle of Gezi, Erdogan came back from Tunisia, and the next day, seven newspapers had the exact same [front-page] headline, which is too much of a coincidence,” said Finkel.

Given the Turkish public’s preference for getting its news from television, government control of the airwaves is especially tight. “At this point, when you zap through Turkish networks, not only have they pushed out all the critical voices, but you don’t see anybody other than people who are praising the government,” said Asli Aydintasbas, an influential Milliyet columnist who has also worked in television.

It was during the anti-government rallies of 2013 that Turks experienced a full-scale failure of mainstream media. Major TV networks largely avoided showing the protests, or skewed their broadcasts toward the government narrative when they did cover them. That June, the BBC announced it was suspending its contract with its local affiliate, NTV, after the network refused to air a segment examining media bias.

In another well-publicized media failure, CNN Turk aired a documentary on penguins during a particularly intense night of clashes between protestors and police in the heart of Istanbul. Activists and demonstrators went on to embrace the penguin as an ironic symbol of the Gezi movement.

In the absence of adequate reporting by traditional media during the protests, Turks turned to social media — already highly popular in the country — and online publications. “This generation basically saw with their own eyes that [the media] was not reporting anything, or that it was distorting the reality,” said Professor Tunc. “Cyberactivism did not start with Gezi Park, but with Gezi it exploded. Twitter became an incredible platform to spread news, to mobilize the masses, to record human rights abuses.”

Among the roughly 50 percent of the Turkish population that uses the Internet, 75 percent have Twitter accounts, with 31 percent being active users, according to a Freedom House report on Internet regulation in the country. Given Turkish Twitter users’ generally oppositional profile, it’s no surprise that the government feels threatened by the medium. Indeed, Erdogan has labeled Twitter a “menace” to society.

With much of the traditional Turkish media effectively neutralized, a new crop of online publications, such as T24, Vagus, and Diken, has sprouted up, catering mainly to younger audiences. Yet as its digital landscape develops, Turkey has “moved to the cutting edge of controlling online space,” as the Freedom House report put it.

“Turkey has, historically, had a very intolerant approach to dissent,” said Nate Schenkkan of Freedom House. “This goes back way before the AKP. A lot of the things that we see happening in the online space are pretty much direct translations of things that were happening offline before the Internet… It’s a very painful picture in some ways, because there’s so much promise, and Turkey is demographically so young, and people use the Internet so innovatively and creatively, and at the same time the government and the state is so aggressive. It is creating an atmosphere of fear online.”

In recent years, the Turkish government has blocked more than 50,000 websites, and a legal amendment passed in parliament on Sept. 8 gives Turkey’s telecommunications regulator, the TIB, even broader powers. The TIB is now authorized to order the blocking of websites — within just four hours and without requiring a court order — in the name of protecting “national security” and “public order.” The law further authorizes the TIB to collect all Internet traffic data, paving the way for unprecedented surveillance online.

The TIB’s expanded power to block websites “hugely increases the scope for arbitrary decisions violating rights to free speech and access to information online,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Ironically, the changes to the Internet law were passed just days after Istanbul hosted the ninth annual U.N.-sponsored Internet Governance Forum. Critics pointed out that Turkey’s heavy-handed measures to control media and the Internet were seemingly at odds with the aims of the conference, whose sub-themes included “enabling access.” But the country’s communications minister, Lutfi Elvan, declared that “[t]he Internet is abused by criminal networks, terrorist organizations, drug smugglers and child abusers. Sadly, the rampant abuse of the Internet has reached undesirable heights.”

Elvan’s rather sinister tone echoed an earlier statement regarding media by the AKP that some found less than reassuring. In May, Ahmet Davutoglu — then foreign minister, now prime minister — answered a question about government intimidation of the press with the comment that if that journalist could go home safely after the press conference, then that proved there was press freedom in Turkey.

Unfortunately, it will take considerably more than that to convince Turks of their government’s commitment to free expression.

 Twitter: @vanessahlarson