Turkey | Editor-in-Chief

The Erdoğan government’s intimidation and control of the media is growing

Kurdish women hold pictures of imprisoned journalists at a demonstration in 2012. Until recently, Turkey was the world’s top jailer of journalists. BULENT KILIC / AFP / Gety Images
01 November, 2014

IN AUGUST, in the eastern Anatolian city of Malatya, before thousands of flag-waving fans and boosters, Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, paced an outdoor campaign stage, on his way to becoming the country’s first directly elected president. Against a backdrop repeating his election slogan—National Will National Power—Erdoğan riled the crowd with a tale of something he’d recently seen on a television chat show. “And there,” he thundered over the loudspeakers, “it turned out there was a militant disguised as a journalist! An ill-bred woman!”

Erdoğan was referring to an interview between Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, and Amberin Zaman, a local journalist and a correspondent for The Economist. Kılıçdaroğlu had been arguing that government supporters were not “questioning” enough, when Zaman challenged him. Isn’t a culture of questioning, she asked, too high an expectation in Turkey, a Muslim country? Islam is centred on the congregation, not the individual, she said, and Turkish education favours propaganda over critical thinking.

“Know your place!” Erdoğan berated Zaman. “They put a pen in your hand and you write a newspaper column. They put you, of all people, on [television] … you are disrespecting and insulting a public that is 99-percent Muslim … Go ahead, carry on thinking that way!”

Erdoğan rarely misses a chance to hector international correspondents. He targeted Ceylan Yeğinsu, a New York Times reporter, after she wrote a story in September on ISIS recruitment in the Turkish capital, Ankara. In June, he told a keyed-up caucus meeting that Ivan Watson, a CNN reporter, was a spy. In October, he warned students at Istanbul’s Marmara University—his alma mater—of new “Lawrences of Arabia” at work in Turkey—foreign journalists, working at the behest of foreign powers.

But, beyond Erdoğan’s evident distaste for international journalists, intimidation of the media falls with particular force upon local outlets. In February, the international watchdog Freedom House categorised the country’s press as “not free.” For many years, Turkey was the world’s top jailer of journalists—just one aspect of much wider judicial harassment against certain groups, especially among the Kurdish nationalist movement. Thousands—journalist and non-journalist alike—were jailed on dubious “terror” charges.

Today, with the government purging the state bureaucracy and judiciary of members of a formerly allied religious and political movement known as the Gülenists, one form of dysfunction has replaced another: hundreds of convicts and thousands of pre-trial detainees, including most of Turkey’s imprisoned journalists, have been freed. From 61 in August 2012, only seven reporters still remain behind bars, according to research by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. But that encouraging statistic can be misleading: things are getting worse for the Turkish media.

“The restrictions are getting tighter, the screws are getting tighter, the hostility from the government is unrelenting,” Nina Ognianova, the CPJ’s programme coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, told me in Istanbul in late September. Ognianova, a tall, multilingual Bulgarian now living in the United States, was in Turkey as part of a joint delegation from the CPJ and the Vienna-based International Press Institute. We spoke outside a hotel conference room where the delegation was in closed meetings with Turkish editors and journalists. Ognianova said the overarching problem is “the top-level, unrelenting, anti-press rhetoric,” which “gives the message, from the top down, that it is okay to go after journalists”—to prosecute, denounce and threaten them.

Local journalists are no longer murdered as often as before (Kurdish journalists, especially, were freely killed in the 1990s). But death threats this year—notably against the journalist and literary critic Murat Belge, and the journalist Aydın Engin—show that dangers remain. Part of why many find Erdoğan’s cursing of journalists so worrying is the long history of violence against those labeled spies and traitors. Everyone in Turkey knows the name Hrant Dink.

Dink was the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Agos, and the country’s first outspoken Armenian public intellectual for generations. He lived through a three-year hate campaign, and in 2007 was murdered, in broad daylight, just outside his office. Every January, thousands gather at the exact time and place of the assassination in mourning and protest. This is just one event on a full calendar of similar anniversaries. Ironically, Erdoğan routinely sues the same critics he tars for defamation, benefiting from his legal immunity as an elected official and what Ognianova called an “archaic” legal framework that has provisions against insults and blasphemy, and for media blackouts on certain topics.

But threats against journalists are not the Turkish media’s most chronic affliction. “Money,” a Freedom House report from February states, “is the government’s most potent tool for controlling the media.” Turkish media owners have noted the example of the Doğan Media Group, on whose television channel Amberin Zaman made the comments that so angered the president in August. In 2009, as the group’s reporters investigated a corruption scandal at a government charity, Doğan was condemned by Erdoğan and handed a $2.5 billion tax penalty. To pay it, Doğan had to sell numerous assets, including the widely read newspaper Milliyet, which went to a supporter of the Erdoğan government.

After Doğan’s penalty, widely seen as a political punishment, Turks should perhaps have been less surprised when, during the first night of mass anti-government protests around Istanbul’s Gezi Park in May last year, major news channels broadcast only the barest references to what was going viral on social media. The Doğan-owned channel CNN Türk famously broadcast a penguin documentary instead. In graffiti, in slang, and online, the penguin is now Turkish shorthand for the media’s failings.

During the two-week occupation of Gezi Park, amid hundreds of other stalls, kiosks and tents, some protestors set-up a stand displaying the front pages of five major newspapers. Above them, a banner scrawled in black marker read “This is the Sold-Out Media.” On 7 June, the seventh day of the occupation, the newspapers all carried essentially identical headlines about a claim by Erdoğan that he’d give his life for democracy.

It’s highly unlikely that this was a coincidence. Almost all of Turkey’s mainstream media outlets are owned by construction and energy conglomerates. Keeping journalists well-behaved helps these massive firms get in on the billions of dollars’ worth of state contracts and privatisation tenders the government awards each year—many of them directly through the prime minister’s office. Doğuş Holding, which owns a television channel that was harshly criticised for censoring its coverage of the Gezi Park protests, is now building additional lines for the Istanbul metro, a cruise port, and several power plants. Kalyon Construction, whose plans to redevelop Gezi Park sparked the protests, recently bought Sabah, a leading newspaper, and ATV, a top television channel. For its part, the government is well aware that doing business with corporations with a stake in the media effectively manages coverage in its favour.

The extent of these ties is becoming increasingly clear. Soon after the occupation of Gezi Park, at least sixty journalists, including many without the cushions of wealth, fame or international attention, lost their jobs. During the protests, activists led by the artist Burak Arıkan launched a project to chart the relationships between Turkey’s government and conglomerates. The result was an extensive interactive map called Networks of Dispossession, exhibited on panels and touchscreens at the 2013 Istanbul Biennial. After the government fell out with the Gülenists in late 2013, Erdoğan’s enemies began posting, on YouTube, recordings of wiretapped telephone conversations allegedly involving Erdoğan and members of his family. In one clip, a voice, purportedly Erdoğan’s, complains to the director of a media company about the text scrolling across the bottom of a television news broadcast during the conversation. In another, the same voice exhorts a consortium to raise several hundred million dollars to buy a media company. Because of these and other scandalous postings, many not related to the media, the government blocked YouTube and Twitter for part of this year.

Those blockades, part of a broader online clampdown, are particularly significant since, with most mainstream media outlets either openly pro-government or otherwise tightly leashed, many in Turkey are turning to the internet for information. According to Freedom House, the country ranks second in Europe by the time its citizens spend online with most internet users having both Facebook and Twitter accounts. New laws provide for easy blocking, censorship and surveillance of online content. “In the last 15 months,” the Freedom House report says, “Turkey has moved to the cutting edge of controlling online space.” In Izmir, the country’s third-largest city, 29 people are on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi Park protests, accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Amnesty International has said the tweets did not cross the bounds of the right to free expression.

Speaking at a press conference in Istanbul in the first week of September, a representative of Amnesty International pointed out the “supreme irony” of Turkey hosting the ninth annual Internet Governance Forum, an international meeting that took place between the second and the fifth of that month. Of those on trial in Izmir he said, “This is an important example, not because what they did was exceptional, but because what they did was so mundane.”

But even with the often severe repression, there is no missing the vitality of the Turkish media—polemics regularly hit the newstands, headlines are frequently harsh, and television debates can be contentious. “There is some quite good reporting being done by a number of more marginal outlets,” William Armstrong, a local press observer, wrote to me in an email. But, he added, “it’s having almost no impact on the mainstream conversation. As a result, the various camps just seem to be getting more entrenched.” And the current government has shown no inclination to change this.