The Gezi Park protests force some independent-minded journalists to confront the media’s unwillingness to take on the government. By Nicole Pope


A Sliver of Hope Emerges for a
More Independent Press in Turkey

By Nicole Pope

The protests that erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in May 2013 not only introduced a new, restless generation of Turks–urban, educated, middle class, and determined to be heard–but also exposed the inability and unwillingness of Turkey’s cowed media to report their demands.

Penguins became a symbol of national resistance for the young after CNN Türk aired a documentary on penguins while CNN International was broadcasting scenes of protest from Gezi Park to the rest of the world. (CPJ)

Riot police brutally dislodged a small group of demonstrators who had been staging a peaceful sit-in at the park to oppose plans to build a shopping mall on the last public green space near Taksim Square. The heavy-handed crackdown set off further protests, which spread to other cities.

Viewers who tuned in to their favorite television channels in the first days of the unrest found little or no coverage of the protests, but were offered instead a selection of cooking programs and talk shows. A documentary on penguins was aired on CNN Türk while CNN International was broadcasting scenes of protest from the park to the rest of the world. The penguin documentary seemed so incongruous in the circumstances that the seabird became, and has remained, a symbol of national resistance for the young.

Over the following days and weeks, as demonstrations spread to other cities, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan set the tone for the news media in strident speeches denouncing the protesters as looters and hooligans. He also railed against foreign conspiracies, variously blaming the unrest on “the interest rate lobby” and foreign powers jealous of Turkey’s success.

The “deafening silence” of the local media, as Stefan Füle, a European Union commissioner, put it, exposed both direct government pressure and the unwillingness of media proprietors to risk the loss of lucrative public contracts by fulfilling their role as a watchdog of democracy.

The Gezi Park clash has nevertheless had some positive outcomes, including a galvanized youth who might dream of a more democratic future, and it has forced some independent-minded reporters and columnists fired for their work to join new modest but independent news outlets to confront the country’s muzzled media head on.

This is not a challenge to be overcome overnight. An independent press needs to find a self-sustaining economic model that does not rely on government largesse, and Turkey’s few but vociferous champions of press freedom face a nation deeply divided socially and politically.

As the Gezi Park crisis grew, so did the polarization of the society and the news media. A new low was reached when the daily newspaper Takvim published a fake interview with Christiane Amanpour under the headline “Dirty confession” in which the celebrated British-Iranian reporter (who is a member of CPJ’s board of directors) was falsely quoted as saying she had been paid to destabilize Turkey.

In the absence of unfettered coverage, Turks turned to social media, where they could find a broad variety of views, to fill the gap. They did so in such large numbers that Erdoğan described Twitter and other social media as “the worst menace to society.” Many viewers also turned to Halk TV, a channel close to the main opposition Republican People’s Party, which can hardly be described as unbiased. It was broadcasting live footage from Taksim Square and other trouble spots.

For several weeks, riot police clashed with demonstrators, who took to the streets across the country. Altogether, six people died and thousands were injured in the turmoil. Reporters and photographers on the scene were often deliberately targeted as the police used tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. The independent Turkish press agency Bianet counted 153 journalists who suffered blows and 39 who were detained between May and September 2013.

Not content with putting pressure on local media, Turkish officials also turned against representatives of the foreign press. Italian journalist Mattia Cacciatori, 24, was charged with “violating the law on public gatherings and demonstrations” and resisting arrest. The case was pending in late 2013. Ankara Mayor Melih Gökcek took to Twitter to accuse BBC correspondent Selin Girit of being a “foreign agent.”

“A cabinet minister openly accused me on Twitter of spreading lies and false propaganda against the government,” said Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent for The Economist and a columnist for the daily newspaper Taraf. Zaman and other journalists posting regular updates and denouncing police violence on social media became the targets of particularly vicious campaigns organized by anonymous trolls defending the government and threatening the reporters with death and sexual assault.

Turkey gradually returned to an uneasy calm, which has been interrupted from time to time by sporadic flare-ups. But the Gezi events have made a lasting impression on Turkish society, even though the clampdown on the media continues. The Turkish Union of Journalists announced in July that 22 journalists had been dismissed and 37 forced to quit because of the positions they adopted during the unrest. Yavuz Baydar, former ombudsman for Sabah newspaper, lost his position when he criticized his newspaper’s coverage of the Gezi events and denounced the media’s craven self-censorship in a New York Times op-ed on July 19. Can Dündar, another well-known commentator, was laid off by Milliyet on August 1.

Pressure on the media has been building for several years. In 2013, Turkey was the top jailer of journalists, ahead of Iran and China, according to CPJ’s annual prison census. At least 40 journalists, many of them Kurds, were being held because of their work. “Government pressure is the most urgent issue,” said Ceren Sözeri, who teaches in the Mass Media and Communications department at Galatasaray University.

A country in transition, Turkey has undergone a major economic and social transformation in the past decade. In spite of reforms, it still suffers a democratic deficit. The Justice and Development party, which came to power in 2002, has now asserted its authority over the army, which was the dominant force in the country for decades. In the absence of strong opposition parties promoting democratic rights, this success has led to an excessive concentration of power in the hands of the ruling party. After he won a third term in office in June 2011, Erdoğan gave free rein to his authoritarian and intolerant tendencies.

Turkey’s penal code and its Anti-Terror Law, which protects ideological boundaries defined by the state, are still used to silence journalists, mainly those of Kurdish origin, but state oppression is not the only obstacle to press freedom in Turkey. “The ownership structure is another issue, as is the fact that owners and editors often share the state’s ideological views,” said Sözeri, who co-wrote a comprehensive report on the political economy of Turkey’s media sector, published by the think tank TESEV in 2011. That same year, Erdoğan summoned the editors of major media outlets to dictate the acceptable limits of their coverage of the Kurdish conflict. Many complied with his demands.

Historically, strong ties have always existed between the state and the media in Turkey. In the early days of the Republic and even in late Ottoman times, newspapers were seen as instruments of the state’s civilizing mission. As a result, prominent journalists have often crossed into the political arena, becoming members of Parliament or government officials. In July 2013, following this tradition, Erdoğan picked Yiğit Bulut, a former Habertürk columnist and television presenter, to be his chief adviser. Bulut is known mainly for suggesting that foreign powers were attempting to kill Erdoğan from afar using telekinesis. Other government officials continue to publish newspaper columns.

The unholy alliance that exists between media proprietors and officialdom is based largely on business interests. It undermines Turkey’s democracy by preventing the media from playing its role as a watchdog. In the past few years, the media landscape has been transformed as government cronies acquired newspapers and television channels, in some cases by securing loans from public banks, tightening the ruling party’s hold on the sector. But even groups that aren’t owned by government supporters have to take political sensitivities into consideration. In 2009, the Doğan group was slapped with a record US$2.5 billion tax fine, which forced it to sell two daily newspapers, Milliyet and Vatan. The fine was widely viewed as a politically motivated step to restrain the company, whose flagship newspaper Hürriyet was critical of the government.

With few exceptions, mainstream newspapers and television stations are loss-making enterprises, but they open the gate to lucrative public tenders and state contracts. Journalists perceived to put these deals at risk are pre-emptively dismissed. “I was warned twice,” said Zaman, who wrote a column twice weekly in Habertürk until she was laid off in April when she failed to tone down her articles.

“Every media owner owns at least one hydroelectric plant,” said Sözeri, the co-author of the report on Turkey’s media. “All media groups have participated in public tenders and won construction or mining contracts.” In 1994, a ban was imposed preventing media owners from participating in public tenders, but it was lifted less than a decade later, after intense lobbying by media groups. A degree of loyalty is also ensured through the distribution of advertising by state-owned companies.

Caught between direct political pressure and an implicit code of conduct expected of media owners, journalists are vulnerable. Fears of unemployment and political polarization have so far prevented them from fighting back through collective action. “There is no sense of solidarity in the sector, because journalists have too much to lose,” said Aslı Tunç, head of the Media School at Istanbul Bilgi University. “The sector didn’t invest in good reporting, but in opinion making.” A class system rules whereby reporters, the fact finders, are often poorly remunerated, while big-name columnists command extravagant salaries. “The perks offered to some Turkish columnists are, I think, unparalleled, and the frequency to which they are permitted to write gives them great power,” Zaman said.

To secure their well-paid positions, those in management positions need to be finely attuned to what is at stake for the proprietors. “If you become editor-in-chief, understanding the owner’s behavior, knowing his investment portfolio and his expectations from the government, is more important than having qualifications in the media industry,” Sözeri said.

The Gezi debacle unveiled to the public the multifaceted challenges that journalists face in their work and the lack of a culture of independent journalism. “One of the few positive aspects of Gezi and the media is that the ownership structure has begun to be discussed. People became aware of the situation,” said Tunç. “For the first time, media employees have also reacted. For instance at NTV, camera people left their posts in protest. They went outside and joined the demonstrators.”

The failure of news outlets at Gezi Park has led to new quests and turned the focus on smaller outlets that attach more value to strong editorial content. “There was a strong reaction because for the first time, problems were exposed with such nakedness,” said Doğan Akın, editor-in-chief of T24, an online news website founded in 2009 to provide independent news coverage. “For us, it’s an opportunity. During the Gezi events, our figures quadrupled. Now we have 80,000 to 120,000 daily visitors.”

Operating on a shoe-string budget, T24 is training young reporters to produce solid news stories. The seasoned journalists who write opinion pieces on the site are, for the most part, not paid for their contributions. “We need inspiration,” said Tunç. “We are so fed up with crooks and bad intentions. Such platforms should increase in numbers.” But while these alternative news sources are growing in popularity, they have yet to develop a viable business model that will allow them to offer decent pay to their employees.

T24 launched a readers fund to support its expansion and raised more than 100,000 Turkish lira (about US$50,000) through crowd funding in October 2013–a first in Turkey. Akın and a few prominent journalists, many of them T24 contributors, recently founded Punto24: Platform for Independent Journalism, an organization that aims to improve ethical and editorial standards. Other founders included Hasan Cemal, a veteran columnist who was fired by Milliyet in March 2013, and Yasemin Çongar, former deputy editor of Taraf newspaper, which played a pioneering role in independent coverage and lifted the veil of immunity that protected the military.

Few people expect the post-Gezi era to produce rapid and significant improvements in the Turkish media, despite its perilous state. “People make romantic assessments, but in fact we still have the same twisted structure. It would be too optimistic to expect things to change drastically and rapidly,” Akın warned. “For us, to be truly alternative, we have to improve, to raise our standards. Only then can this new structure challenge the old,” he said.

“You can’t separate general expectations from the overall culture of democracy or lack thereof in Turkey,” said Zaman. “Investigative journalism hasn’t been given its due in Turkey, because the media was viewed by owners as a way of expanding their power.” The recent unrest has demonstrated that as long as journalists fail to unite, they remain vulnerable to political pressure. Yet the social and political divisions that cut through society are just as deep among members of the media, preventing effective collective action. “Gezi prompted a realignment and hardening of existing positions, leading to a very deep polarization that now continues,” Zaman said. With three elections–local, presidential and legislative–scheduled in 2014 and 2015, these divisions are unlikely to be bridged in the short term.

But Gezi has also revealed the coming of a new generation, more open to the world and to cultural diversity. “I’m not too pessimistic because I’m working with young people,” said Tunç of Istanbul Bilgi University. “We have to be patient; it will take time. But this old-fashioned mentality cannot go on. Young people are resourceful. They’re innovative.”

The Gezi generation, Sözeri points out, belongs mainly to the social group that advertisers target: educated, well-to-do consumers who want a comfortable life. “The mainstream media have noticed that they could lose their readers, their audience,” she said. “The circulation of newspapers has decreased since Gezi, and television channels were badly affected too.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party remains the dominant political force in the country, but the unrest signalled growing resistance to the paternalistic and authoritarian form of governance that has long held sway in Turkey, particularly among young people. In their current state, mainstream media don’t meet their expectations. “What Gezi touched off exposed a whole slice of population that we were unaware of. They demonstrated their ability to take a political stand, and they will be expecting more,” Zaman said. “It means that the media has to either undergo a total revision of operating philosophy or die.”

Nicole Pope is a Swiss journalist based in Istanbul. She was Turkey correspondent for the daily Le Monde for 15 years and currently works as a columnist and independent researcher. She is the author of Honor Killings in the Twenty-First Century and co-author of Turkey Unveiled: A History of Modern Turkey.

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