Turkey is awash in media. The newsstands of Istanbul are buried under some 35 dailies of every format and political stripe. The airwaves are thick with TV channels and Internet penetration is tracking an economy growing at Chinese speed. Yet quantity does not equal quality. Nor does the array of titles mean diversity and freedom of expression is blossoming in a country that is seeking to join the European Union.
The military may be back in barracks but together with its “Kemalist” ultra-nationalist and secular allies, the “deep state” as it is known, is still able to intimidate and prosecute critical reporters.
The moderate Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has clipped the army’s political wings during its decade in power. Reporters can now criticize generals and write more freely if still cautiously about the country’s oppressed Kurdish minority. But in the past four years Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have resorted to nationalist tactics by using vague defamation laws and sweeping anti-terrorism statutes to rein in not only traditional targets such as leftist and Kurdish journalists journalist but also government critics in the mainstream media.
Caught between these two forces are news outlets whose very ownership structure makes them prey to political pressure. Most newspapers and TV stations are owned by a handful of conglomerates whose business interests such as public contracts, construction, finance, tourism, and telecommunications make them wary of promoting serious investigative reporting into powerful people and institutions.
In interviews with some 20 journalists, publishers, and academics across the political spectrum the picture emerges that press freedom in Turkey is under increasing threat despite the advances made since the dark days of military rule. Where that threat comes from is a matter of debate, especially among Istanbul’s media elite, which is deeply divided along partisan political lines.
“Last year things in Turkey changed for the better,” said Salih Memecan, president of the Media Association, a press freedom and journalism training group comprising some 24 media outlets, several sympathetic to the AKP. “We are living in a more demilitarized society and the media are more diversified.”
“Things have changed over the past 10 years,” Ferai Tınç, president of the Freedom for Journalists Platform, which groups 14 journalist associations and unions, noted wryly. “I can now write about the Kurds but can’t write about Erdogan.”
Kurdish journalists, of course, complain that they still can’t work freely, no matter which Turkish political grouping wields power.
Until this year, Erdogan’s growing anti-media rhetoric was largely ignored in the West. Washington saw its Muslim NATO ally as a moderating influence in a roiling Middle East; Europe welcomed the beginnings of political and economic reform that followed Ankara’s opening of EU accession talks in 2005.
But the arrest of two leading investigative reporters, Ahmed Şık and Nedim Şener, has caused waves beyond the Bosphorus.
On March 3, anti-terrorist police in Istanbul raided the homes of some 12 journalists, writers, and academics and seized notes, computers, and the unpublished manuscript of “The Imam’s Army,” a book that Şık was writing on the Gülen Islamic movement, which is close to the AKP.
Chief prosecutor Zekeriya Öz said the journalists were held not because of their journalism but based on evidence that cannot be published because of the confidentiality of an ongoing investigation into the “Ergenekon” conspiracy, an alleged nationalist military plot to overthrow the government first uncovered in 2007. Şık, who works for the magazine Nokta, has devoted his career to investigating the shadowy network of military officers and ultra-nationalist bureaucrats known as the deep state. Erdogan compared Şık’s book to a bomb.
“Today it requires a special kind of courage to criticize the government, especially since the arrest of Şık and Şener,” said journalist Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, who co-authored a book on Ergenekon with Şık. He dismisses the charges that the pair were implicated in the conspiracy. “I know that what they did was just reporting.”
Şener is a reporter for the daily Milliyet who received the International Press Institute’s “World Press Freedom Hero” award last year for a book on the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.
Both men have been in pre-trial custody since their arrest on the vague charge of “membership of the presumed terrorist organization Ergenekon” although details have not been formally communicated to their lawyers and families. Much of what is known of the prosecution case has come in the form of leaks to the media.
Many independent journalists acknowledge that, in the beginning, the Ergenekon probe did unearth a plot against the AKP, which was chipping away at the nationalist and secular political legacy beloved of the military. But four years and some 500 arrests later, the investigation has lost focus and is now seen as an AKP weapon against critical journalists. Since 2009, authorities have also been investigating another plot to overthrow the government known as “Sledgehammer.”
It’s hard to know how many journalists are behind bars since the arrests began. CPJ wrote the justice minister this week seeking clarification. Several Turkish journalists groups put the figure at more than 60, which would make Turkey the world’s leading jailer of journalists ahead of China and Iran. This figure includes many Kurdish journalists whom the authorities say are jailed for political activism. The independent communication network Bianet put the number held directly for their work at five as of March this year.
“The government is running a very successful PR campaign and claiming to follow the policies of an advanced democracy,” said Mavioğlu. “Şık has shown this is not true.”
Independent Turkish journalists have always had to tread carefully when reporting on national security and the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) but the Ergenekon probe and the Kemalists’ reaction to it have put all reporters under great pressure.
“All journalists take precautions,” said Ismail Saymaz, a reporter with the liberal daily Radikal. “They speak as little as possible on the phone, reformat their computers, clean out their files, and destroy compromising data.”
“Lots of journalists are wiretapped,” the Journalists Platform’s president Tınç agrees.
Reporters from both sides of the political divide are also subjected to legal harassment.
“The media are split between pro-and anti-government,” said journalist Nadire Mater of Bianet, which reports on press freedom and human rights. “Police are leaking information [about Ergenekon] then journalists are prosecuted for publishing it. There is a power struggle.”
The government can use a panoply of press laws, defamation, and national security legislation to chill meddlesome reporters. But the same laws are available to the Kemalist prosecutors and judges that have hung on to positions of influence inside the judicial branch.
Press groups estimate there are currently between 4,000 and 5,000 cases open against journalists of all political hues. Nearly every reporter I interviewed had received summonses from prosecutors over their work.
Hanım Büşra Erdal reports on Ergenekon and Sledgehammer for Zaman, a moderate Islamist daily close to the Gülen movement.
“Covering these stories, there have been about 75 cases brought against me,” she said. Many cases are opened under Article 285 of the Criminal Code (reporting on a confidential criminal investigation) and Article 288 (attempting to influence trial proceedings). “The prosecutor has asked for sentences from four and a half to 15 years,” she said. If convicted, however, she notes that, so far, courts have suspended prison terms for journalists in these cases for five years; but they have to serve that sentence plus any new sentence if they “re-offend” within those five years. “This is battle for power in the high judiciary between the deep state and the government,” she added.
“It’s all about intimidation,” said Radikal’s Saymaz, who has 11 cases outstanding against him. Journalists have to hire a lawyer and show up for interminable court hearings. “You lose the courage to write these stories,” he said.
Reporters joke that they can’t criticize either Atatürk or Muhammad, but mainstream media journalists also face commercial as well as political pressures. Media ownership is highly concentrated. Some journalists complain that mainstream newspapers and their sister TV news channels are filled with columnists and opinion rather than robust reporting.
“Small newspapers take on the government but big newspapers don’t criticize the government,” said Tınç.
“The AKP has transformed the situation and now the government controls the media,” said Ruşen Çakır, a journalist for NTV and columnist in the daily Vatan. “They are imposing their agenda on the media. If the media owner tries to resist they punish them, especially with taxes.”
He was referring to the $2.5 billion in unpaid taxes and penalties that the government demanded from Doğan Media, Turkey’s biggest media group in 2009. Doğan has since sold several titles as part of a settlement.
The result of all these pressures is a lack of investigative reporting in many big news outlets, self-censorship, and under-reporting in areas such as finance, energy, and the environment.
The other big gap in reporting in many Turkish-language media has been and remains the Kurdish issue–in part because of anti-terrorism laws that prevent much coverage. Kurdish journalists are very active in the south and southeast of the country, home to most Kurds, but complain of constant assaults and detention by security forces and legal harassment by politically motivated prosecutors.
The AKP government has made some conciliatory gestures toward the Kurds, such as allowing greater use of the Kurdish language in education and media, but nevertheless Kurdish journalists are beset by restrictions. Journalists are no longer killed as they were in the 1990s, but Kurdish news outlets are still closed down by authorities and employees detained.
“Before they shot you; now they shut you down,” said Ramazan Pelegöz, Istanbul-based news coordinator of the Kurdish Dicle news agency. He said reporters and photographers are often arrested covering protests and demonstrations in the Kurdish region; they are also denied access to government and security forces officials and information.
The biggest complaint, however, is the ongoing use of anti-terrorism laws to muzzle Kurdish journalism.
“They have turned journalists into criminals,” said Eren Keskin, co-chief editor of the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem. “Anything you write can be twisted into ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organization’ or insulting the military….or incitement to hatred,” she said.
It’s ironic that as the AKP consolidates its grip on power it should risk tarnishing its image among the Western democracies that it wants to join by curbing press freedom. Erdogan is popular among many ordinary Turks who have seen living standards rise. His party took more than 50 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last month for a third term, capping a referendum victory six months earlier on constitutional reform. Turkey’s supporters in the EU hoped these popular endorsements would accelerate the accession process but just this month the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, called Turkey out on its media freedom record in a critical report.
“There is really an authoritarian, totalitarian government now in Turkey in terms of freedom of speech and human rights,” said communications professor Esra Arsan, of Istanbul Bilgi University. But people don’t seem bothered by this, she laments. “These are good economic times.”