BACKGROUND: While the work of Amnesty International or the Committee to Protect Journalists is correct in defining the government of Turkey as a perpetrator of abuse, they are understandably more cautious in locating a malaise in the heart of the Turkish media itself. Media organizations in Turkey cannot expect the government, let alone civil society to rush to the defense of a journalistic profession about whose integrity they are themselves are so cavalier. Media organizations, hamstrung by the economics of their industry and by the financial dependence of their non-press parent organizations on government grace and favor – are willing accomplices in the restrictions of their own freedoms.
A recent Amnesty International report cites a raft of legislation which is used and misused to bring “hundreds of abusive prosecutions” against journalists but also activists and lawyers in the name of fighting terrorism and of the defense of the realm. The report cites yet another missed opportunity – a watered-down reform bill (the Fourth Judicial package, passed in April 2013) which like its three predecessors fails to enshrine the principle of free expression. Indeed, the most astonishing amendments to that legislation before its final passage were measures to reduce penalties for public servants caught rigging public procurement tenders. At the same time the act left in place laws which protect state institutions from the criticism of its citizenry. Anti-terror legislations which should be used only to penalize those who commit and directly encourage violence issued to stifle legitimate dissent and assembly, Amnesty rightly maintains.
In similar vein, a January 2013 report by former EU Ambassador to Turkey Marc Pierini, published by the Carnegie Endowment, criticizes the Turkish government’s eagerness to control public opinion. The report repeats the accusation of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists that Turkey is the “worst jailer” compared to countries even like China or Belarus in the nearly 50 journalists it holds in prison.
Yet the simple truth is that the Turkish government does not need the courts to control public debate. Those who are imprisoned have been caught in a wider dragnet to silence Kurdish dissent (in a period prior to the current peace process) in which anywhere up to 8,000 activists were detained. Likewise journalists have been put on trial as accomplices in plotting the overthrow of the elected government as part of series of conspiracy trials directed mainly against the military. However, the more wanton damage to the Turkish press is committed everyday in the newsrooms of the major press organizations, where the ability of reporters and commentators to explore issues that might embarrass the government is tightly controlled. Self-censorship is not even subtle. One of the country’s largest papers deploys its arts correspondent to monitor the output of columnists who have become too critical of government policy. Too many strikes of the blue pencil, and the columnist is out.
An example, so egregious that it makes this process impossible to ignore, occurred in the pages of Milliyet newspaper. That paper, bravely, on 28 February published a leaked letter penned by Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). In it he chided his supporters for not lining up behind the government’s attempts to reach a settlement with the group – and as such had the potential to embarrass the government in the eyes of die-hard nationalist wing of its supporters. The Prime Minister, as was his right, was publicly critical of the paper’s decision. That display of public anger was again criticized in Milliyet by perhaps its most respected liberal columnist, Hasan Cemal. Cemal explained that newspapers and governments have different obligations and priorities and it was inevitable these would sometimes contradict. This provoked greater outrage from the Prime Minister, who attacked the columnist directly. As a result, Cemal was suspended for fifteen days from his column, the paper refused to publish an unrepentant column on his return, and his association with Milliyet was terminated. Since 2012, Milliyet has been controlled by the Demirören group of companies which has extensive dealings with the government. Among its interests are liquefied petroleum gas and construction.
IMPLICATIONS: That news organizations are co-opted into the government is not a novel process. The word jurnalci was coined in Turkey in mid-nineteenth century to refer to a government informer. Newspapers positioned themselves as kingmakers during the 1990s period of unstable coalitions and arguably, the 1995 general election was not between the center-right True Path and Motherland parties but a proxy battle between the two owners of Sabah and Hürriyet newspapers, keen to have the monopoly on the government’s attention. Indeed, it is easy to understand the contempt displayed by Turkey’s current rulers for the major press groups who were all too accustomed to benefiting from a system of spoils.
This collapsed in the twin economic crises of 2000-2001 (Sabah’s founding owner went bankrupt when a bank he had bought went under), the very events which led to the rise of the currently governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). One of AKP’s priorities was to create a loyalist press that would call the old guard to heal. The print and broadcast group for which Sabah is the flagship (to continue the example) was eventually sold off to a conglomerate of which the prime minister’s son-in-law is the CEO. That deal in 2008 was largely financed by state-owned banks.(See 4 June 2008 issue of the Turkey Analyst)
At the same time the world has witnessed a changing dynamic in the news industry predicated on the rise of electronic media. Consumers are less willing to pay for content and advertisers are less willing to put all their eggs in conventional media. In the world of Turkish print, nearly 40 national newspapers are competing for a static total of some 5 million readers. It is quite obvious that no more than a sprinkling of these titles have ever relied on advertising and sales to spin a profit so much as owed their existence to the influence which their publications earns their proprietors in non-press sectors. Given the state of the media globally, they have little incentive to alter their business model by deepening the quality of their publications.
At the same time, state-run broadcasting is closely monitored by the government, which controls high level appointments. It has in recent years started broadcasting outside of Turkey; its brief to improve Turkey’s image abroad is in essence no different from its mission at home to present an official point of view. If most publications in the world are zealous about preserving their good name, it is because they are able to assign a market value to their credibility. In Turkey most publications have long discounted the value of maintaining their good name.
CONCLUSIONS: All this paints a bleak picture of the Turkish public’s right to know. Of course, digital broadcasting platforms and the internet means that there is no national monopoly on news and those Turkish citizens with the skills and inclination to access global news do so unhindered. A few titles maintain their independence by trying to survive on sales and advertising alone. The most unexpected of these is the virulently polemical, anti-government publication Sözcü that numbers among the top five best selling papers. The Turkish media is populated by talented writers, brave camera men and women, and world-class correspondents and editors. Not all press and television is bad all of the time; sometimes the job gets done and done well.
At the same time the government listens closely to public opinion and pays attention to what the social philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “manufactured consent” – the two-dimensional scenery in front of which it performs. As the Hasan Cemal incident illustrates, it is possible for government to be more powerful than is in its own interests, and to intimidate proprietors at the expense of the long term viability of their own media. Can Milliyet ever fully recover the lost prestige of having its lead columnist fired because the publisher’s reaction to criticism by the prime minister? This is a “Midas Touch” syndrome where the government’s desire for control is ultimately too successful and ends up destroying the value of media on which it relies.
At the same time, the Turkish public increasingly takes refuge in the more anomic electronic media. Within weeks of leaving Milliyet, for example, Hasan Cemal’s Twitter following exceeded 30,000. It is therefore beholden on those concerned about the state of press freedoms in Turkey to come up with practical tactics to expand the parameters of public debate. Censuring the actions of the government is just one part of that strategy. Rebuilding the critical capacity of the press itself is the other.
Andrew Finkel has been a correspondent in Turkey for over 20 years and has worked for the international and Turkish language press. He is a regular contributor to the Latitude column of the New York Times. His latest book, Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know is published by Oxford University Press.