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An honourable profession in wreckage: how Erdoğan destroyed Turkey’s media

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Turkey today is an inferno with respect to the freedom, independence and plurality of the media.

The country has become a “Republic of Fear” in an Orwellian sense, where the coverage of events and publication of reports and commentary – any stage of news production and dissemination – is a challenge, full of risks.

Arrests and lawsuits are a daily reality, marking the country as a champion of arbitrary jailings and Kafkaesque trials against dissidents.

Imprisonment remains as a punitive measure, and censorship as a daily routine. Institutionalized oppression has led to a deepening culture of self-censorship, with the overwhelming majority of newsrooms operating as “open-air prisons”, preventing basic journalistic standards from being practised.

Turkey has remained “Not Free” in Freedom House rankings for six consecutive years since 2014. According to the Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF), it is 154th out of 180 countries in 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

It has become the most prolific transgressor at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). It ranks first in among the 47 Council of Europe (CoE) member states in violations of freedom of expression in 2020.

According to the Istanbul-based Platform for Independent Journalism, P24, there are at least 83 journalists held in prisons as of February, 2021.

Stockholm Center for Freedom’s “Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey” database, on the other hand, reports about 175 journalists behind bars and 167, who are wanted and either in exile or in hiding as of January 2020.

Seizing the properties of journalists has become a routine practice since late 2016. The number of Turkish journalists, whose personal assets have even confiscated since 2016 amount to nearly 50.

Arbitrary firings remain as an efficient punitive pattern. A total of 3,436 journalists have been sacked from Turkish media outlets in the past five years. The number fired in 2020 was 215. Job security has always been a chronic issue in Turkey: The rate of journalists who are members of trade unions is only about eight percent.

By December 2016, under Turkey’s state of emergency rule, at least 189 media groups and outlets – including private news agencies – were shut down or seized. The digital archives of many of them were irreversibly deleted.

Besides a massive block of more than pro-government dailies, only a handful of “critical” national newspapers manage to survive, with extremely low circulation figures – in average around 10,000. And they face growing financial and distribution problems.

Print media, in a steady decline, does not pose as tangible a threat to Erdoğan as television does. Whereas parts of older urban population in western Turkey – still to a degree – read newspapers, a broad majority of society in the distant provinces and rural areas follow “news and commentary” solely – “for free” – from TV news channels.

According to UNESCO data, this segment remains at around 85-90 percent of the population. That is telling enough on the incomparable power of TV and why it is a priority for the political power. Erdoğan is fully aware of the equation that full editorial control of the TV domain means the control of the overall shaping of national opinion, and the ability to block critical news stories, investigative reports, and critical, independent commentary.

Therefore, Erdoğan’s prime target has always remained – along with state-broadcaster TRT – the privately owned news channels, which, with a few exceptions, have fallen as the major victims of his warfare for the control of information.

Perhaps therefore, much of the free flow of news and debate takes place on the Internet and social media, where the public dissent is in flux.

Aware of its impact on younger generations particularly, Erdoğan and his team are aware enough to challenge its boundaries. This has to do with the fact that in the next elections, the voters below 30 years of age – first or second time voters – will comprise nearly half of the electorate.

This is the reason why there has been an endless official battle to curb the internet ever since Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) decided to take that path about a decade ago. According to the Association for Freedom of Expression data up to October 2020, 450,000 domains, 140,000 URL addresses, 42,000 tweets and 11,000 YouTube videos were given access bans in Turkey over the past 11 years.

There has also been a new punitive measure applied by the government since July 2020. Authorities are busy removing content and imposing access bans in line with the regulation. The measure is employed so extensively that much of the news coverage, mainly on corruption and abuses of power, is wiped out for good. In other words, public memory is systematically deleted.

The next target is the social media giants, especially Twitter, which refused to toe the line when the Turkish government passed a law forcing them to open offices with representatives in Turkey – a step seen as a measure to force them into censorship. From April 2021 on, social media platforms with over 1 million have face severe fines if they fail to abide by the new rule.

As a result of the ultra-authoritarian path taken by Erdoğan and his party, a multi-layered system of censorship has been established, and a series of radical changes in media ownership structures across the media landscape has led to the formation of a monstrous bulk of pro-government propaganda machinery.

Reminiscent of the Goebbelsian “control of the masses” strategy from the Nazi era, Erdoğan and his team modified the existing regulators accordingly, and constructed new control tools over the sector.

There are four such tools.

The most important mechanism is the “The Directorate of Communications” (TIB), established two years after the failed coup, in July 2018. An expansive and rapidly growing department, it operates as a subdivision of “the Presidential Palace”; its president reporting directly to Erdoğan. Situated in central Ankara in a 30-store tower, with around 1.500 employees, TIB enjoys immunity from accountability by Parliament. Its prime duty is to control the entire spectrum of the media on daily basis and intervene whenever it sees due in the content of print and audiovisual sectors.

TIB has tightened control over the state broadcaster, TRT, and the official state-run Anadolu news agency, both already marked with a pro-government bias, even before 2018. They are currently operating as sheer mouthpieces of the AKP-dominated power and security structures in Ankara.

TIB also oversees the issuing of official “national press cards” to Turkish journalists and handles accreditation processes of foreign correspondents, often using it as a “carrot and stick” method, depending on whether or not a certain journalist or correspondent is “annoying the government with critical coverage or vice versa”. In the past years it has started to annul the “press cards” of media members altogether, based on their stance and ethical roots (Kurds). Recently, it was revealed that its president distributed to the TV channels a list of pundits, who are “allowed to appear on discussion programmes”.

The second tool is Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK),

Although the body claims to be an independent regulator, it is only on paper. RTÜK’s nine members are nominated by political parties in proportion to their representation in the parliament. Its majority belongs to the ruling AKP and its partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – uses and abuses its powers by either denying or “delaying ad infinitum” for issuing licences for what it sees as “opposition media” channels. RTÜK issues “publicity bans” – or “gag orders” – on TV channels (including digital streaming services such as Netflix). In cases of a critical content aired, it can impose days long blackouts on those channels.

The third tool is the Information and Communications Authority (BTK), which reports directly to the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure. In accordance with the growing authoritarianism of the ruling AKP, this entity has undergone several structural changes since its inception in year 2000.

A product of the then coalition under Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, at its inception in 2000, the construction of this institution reflected a censorship mentality, before Erdoğan came to power. During the course of the years it has been modified several times, in accordance with the deepening conservatism and intolerance of the political class in general.

Now in the service of the Palace, BTK in its current formation oversees the entire domain of Internet and social media. It is entitled to arbitrarily impose bans and restrictions in digital domain, and in other cases through the so-called “Courts of Peace”, whose judges are appointed with the consent of the Palace. Given expansive powers, BTK extends its hand deeper and deeper into the digital domain, and, lately, popular social media tools, seen as a threat to Erdoğan’s power structures. 

The fourth tool is the State Advertising Authority (BIK), which oversees the official notices and adverts of the authorities and official institutions to print press. Since the attempted coup, the remnants of the critical and partisan press of the opposition have been facing systematic bans of state advertisements.

Contrary to the widespread belief and perceptions, the “state of ruin” of Turkish media is not entirely Erdoğan’s making. To be fair, when he came to power, Turkey’s strongman found the landscape of journalism ripe for his massive engineering. He knew enough about the rotten core of media ownership and its systemic dirty dealings with the governments before he took office; he was aware also about the ideology-driven, fierce infighting, and the lack of sophisticated wisdom on the value of professional solidarity among Turkey’s polarised journalists. He knew what to do and, apparently, when to do it.

Until the early 1990’s, TRT had maintained a monopoly. Print media enjoyed a relative pluralism – except pro-Kurdish press. Influential secular newspapers – such as Hürriyet, Milliyet, Dünya, were traditionally run by publisher families or, as in the case of Cumhuriyet, operated on a foundation. Nationalist ideology was to a large extent internalized: taboos were respected and there was a great deal of self-censorship on “sensitive” matters, such as Kurdish, Armenian and foreign policy issues.

Rules changed dramatically when the major shift – media deregulation – took place in early 1990’s. Along with the privatisation of the audiovisual segment, a significant group of businesspeople engaged in major sectors made their entry. Soon, it appeared to be that for them this was yet another venue for making big profits. Given the power of a privatised TV, gates were opened for gaining influence on the governments; its magic power to win public procurements and enjoy incentives for the expansion of variety of business branches – construction, energy, mining, tourism, insurance, banking etc. was discovered.

Since none of the up and coming business circles had any fundamental insight on the specific nature and the role of journalism, it was soon discovered that the business interests of media proprietors was yet another layer for self-censorship. Their “wild” competition methods – such as the promotional articles distributed with newspapers – and “behind the closed doors” contacts with the government and bureaucracy defined and shaped the content they offered to the public. The mutual corruption of the political class and the media moguls at the end became a chicken and egg equation

When Turkey was shattered by a massive economic crisis at the end of that decade, not only the political system, but also the entire media sector, was in ruins. Many major media groups, which unethically owned also their own banks, had collapsed; their proprietors either ending up in jail or going bankrupt.

As the AKP was elected to Parliament with a landslide, they have found a stained sector, utterly vulnerable, discredited, and ready to be manipulated, by a series of take-overs and purchases, which emboldened Erdoğan to create his own breed of Islamist-conservative flank of businesspeople as the new owners of the ever-growing pro-AKP media.

Between 2002 and 2010, Turkish media, partly because of the collapse of the corrupt media proprietors, enjoyed a “short-lived spring”, thanks to the AKP’s EU-linked reforms, which enhanced the space for freedom, independence and diversity. Taboos were broken and public discourse found a broader spectrum – via various competing news channels from different ideological camps – and for a while it seemed that the country would find a way through to a democratic order.

This however, would no last long. It remained clear that, for various reasons unnecessary to elaborate upon here, Erdoğan seemed to have decided, around, 2011, that he was ready, and it was for the benefit of his power, to switch to the direction of one-man rule.

He had four major thresholds to pass: To liquidate his rivals within the party, get rid of Gülen Movement which had been its useful fellow traveller, to fully take over the control over the media and, in due time, the judiciary.

His dismantling of the codes of journalism, and the transformation of the – already problematic – ownership structures of the private media has taken place  since Gezi Park protests in mid 2013. His targets were three large media groups: the Ciner Group (whose proprietor was deeply active in mining and energy sector), Şahenk Group and Doğan Media.

From the moment Gezi protests erupted at the end of May 2013, Erdoğan kept personally busy in enforcing his editorial control by phoning the managers of the influential channels. He succeeded as the proprietors, all dependent on the financial favours by the government, immediately caved in. The episode is to be remembered as a case study of massive self-censorship.

Erdoğan knew from that point on that he could count on Ciner, who owned Haberturk TV, and Şahenk, whose NTV was a major news channel. But for the future, he could not be entirely sure of two other media blocks.

One was the Doğan Media Group, a vast empire with a number of TV channels, and newspapers that dominated overall print circulation.

He could not hide his dislike of chairman Aydın Doğan, because the group had fiercely opposed his rise in politics. The mogul was widely seen as “the kingmaker or breaker” in the 1990’s, using his media often for influence.

Even after Erdoğan had become prime minister, Doğan still wanted to see himself in that role, even if Turkey now had single majority party rule. He remained keen, as has been customary with Turkey’s greedy media proprietors, to cut “behind closed doors” deals with Erdoğan, in order to expand his already vast business interests. But the latter refused to give him favours. A clash seemed inevitable.

The major showdown took place in 2008, when Doğan Group broke the news about “Deniz Feneri” (Lighthouse) embezzlement case, involving an Islamist charity organization in Germany, close to the AKP – a story with a big news value. But, with the help of his growing media segment, and using Aydın Doğan’s missteps that raised issues with the law, he had managed to suppress the effect of the news. In retaliation, Erdoğan responded with threats of draconian fines against Doğan Medya, which faced several lawsuits. The signs of danger were enough for the mogul to go to a “low intensity mode”, with increased self-censorship. 

By 2011, Erdoğan advanced further. Doğan was forced to sell Milliyet, a flagship newspaper, to Demirören family, which was known to be submissive to the will of Erdoğan. Soon after the take over, many editors and columnists were sacked. But the final blow to Doğan would be delayed until 2018.

The other major, influential block across the other end of the spectrum had Zaman Group and Koza Holding as its central force, both affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, a cleric with a swath of followers also nested within the state apparatus and the judiciary.

Initially, these two groups staunchly backed the AKP and its reform process, because Erdoğan and Gülen had forged a political alliance from the very outset of the AKP rule. But it was an alliance marred by mistrust. Both men represented different stands on certain domestic and international issues, although they had risen from within the deeply pious Sunni segment of Turkish society.

As of 2013, after a decade of cooperation, the cracks became obvious between them and their movements. But the main rift was, after all, about the share of power. It would finally come to a dramatic showdown at the end of 2013, when two large graft probes – one about the Erdoğan government’s Iran sanctions busting and the other linked with murky contacts with Al Qaeda – landed like bombshells.

Stories, that allegedly had their roots in some FBI inquiries, had immense news value and initially shattered the ground of Ankara. Gülenist media was on the frontline covering the graft probes, but the overall mistrust – not to say, hatred – for the Gülen Movement, across portions of society was so deeply rooted that they were left more or less alone, defenceless and vulnerable.

But when the rest of the media decided not to give due coverage to the story, for tactical and ideological reasons, Erdoğan had his “God’s gift” moment. While fiercely battling to impose censorship in conventional and digital media, he made a sharp shift and forged a political alliance with his former foes – Kemalist and ultra-nationalist camps.

Gülen was his archenemy now, and he had chosen to cut a deal with the enemies of his new enemy. From 2014 onward, he focused his energy on the destruction of the Gülenist segment of media. But he also had calculated that his new allies (old foes) would not suffice to help him with a single target. They carried a grudge against the liberal, pacifist and pro-Kurdish media as well.

So, the bulldozing of the media as a whole went hand in hand, taking along various segments of critical media in the sweep from that time on. So, when another one of ‘’God’s gift” arrived in July 2016, in the form of an attempted coup, what remained for Erdoğan was to deliver a “coup de grace”, to subordinate academia, public services, the judiciary, and the media by way of decrees and appointments.

During the two year long state of emergency rule that followed the failed putsch, nearly a total of 9,000 academicians, more than 125,000 public servants were dismissed and about 4,500 members of the judiciary structures were either dismissed or imprisoned.

With the help of decrees, Erdoğan noted success after success on all grounds, facing zero resistance. This was also the time when thousands of journalists lost their jobs and around 190 media outlets were shut down, with many of their digital archives deleted forever. This was also the time in which parts of the judiciary was re-designed to help engineer journalism in the service of Erdoğan’s power machinery.

Having established a “super-presidential” system through the referendum in 2017, there was only one obstacle before he completed his mission: to bring the Doğan Media Group to its knees. Doğan had two influential TV channels, and another flagship daily, Hürriyet, whose advert revenues responded to about 40 percent of the national circulation of the entire print press.

Unable to resist any longer a series of internal pressures and financial threats, Aydın Doğan finally caved in. The group, whose rights and wrongs had defined the opinion shaping and criss-crossing in macro politics of Turkey for nearly decades was sold in 2018 to the Demirören family. With that move, the game for Turkey’s troubled media was over.

The end result was heart breaking. Turkish media is a wreck. Journalism is, at best, in intensive care, with critical reporting lacking any bite.

A nation is systematically kept in the dark, misinformed. There is no longer any pluralist public discourse to speak of. The Goebbelsian media machinery is responsible for the rise of “combative nationalism” and “hostile Islamism” among the crowds in the past five years.

Having destroyed conventional outlets, Erdoğan is now busy battling against online journalism and social media, in a battle in which he hopes to be inching towards victory. He does not cease to cause deeper damages to an honourable profession, which is crucial if Turkey wishes to maintain a stage for a democratic opposition and a ground from which society will return to a democratic order. The prospects, however, are looking increasingly bleak.

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