Finding new ways to censor journalists in Turkey

By Yavuz Baydar on April 27, 2015 11:01 AM ET

A journalist holds a placard at the headquarters of Zaman daily newspaper in Istanbul on December 14, 2014. Turkish police raided media outlets close to U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, including Zaman, and detained 23 people.  (Reuters/Murad Sezer)

The flood was foretold, and seemed inevitable. Even I, with my limited resources as a journalist and media monitor, raised the alarm years ago.

During the last five years, step by step, the Turkish media has fallen into full compliance with the structures of power, most notably those of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In a series of articles in publications including the Guardian, The Huffington Post, Today's Zaman, and Al-Monitor, I have sought to point out that the tsunami that is overwhelming Turkish journalism is far beyond the worrisome, unacceptable number of journalists and dissidents in jail, that the future of the Turkish media itself, with its professional values and conduct, is in serious danger.

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Attacks on the Press book cover

As a result of systematic attacks and cunning operations by both the government and complicit media organizations, Turkey now has a toothless mainstream media lacking efficiency and influence, with almost no trust among the general public. The airing of official statements and the publication of news releases without scrutiny have become routine. The media's daily practices are little more than stenography. The watchdog has lost almost all of its functions, with the exception of a very few struggling independent dailies and TV channels and online news sites.

According to Aslı Tunç, an expert on media ownership and head of the Media School at Bilgi University in Istanbul, two-thirds of the Fourth Estate is now either institutionally embedded with or submissive to the ruling Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, having been eclipsed by the rage of President Erdoğan. The country's national broadcaster, the Turkish Radio and Television Corp., or TRT, has fallen under total control of state power, as has the Anatolian News Agency, one of the oldest, best-established institutions of the republic.

Loyal bureaucrats with little or no knowledge of journalism, carefully chosen by Erdoğan and his close circle of aides, have been appointed to key positions. İbrahim Şahin was, until he became an undersecretary of the Ministry of Transport and Communications, general director of TRT and a former governor with a background in law who had served in various small provinces and as director of the National Post Office. Kemal Öztürk, with minor experience as a documentary filmmaker, was appointed director of the Anatolian News Agency after having served as an adviser to Erdoğan. Both were removed in the fall of 2014, allegedly for political reasons.

The absence of objective public broadcasting has led to widespread reporting of government propaganda--a condition that is sadly familiar to Turkish citizens from earlier decades. TRT's bias reached such levels that in 2014, for the first time in its history, it was penalized by the High Electoral Board, known as the YSK, which is one of the very few independent bodies in Turkey. Citing TRT's uniformly pro-Erdoğan stance during the two elections in 2014, the YSK blocked the airing of 25 episodes of the offending program.

The AKP also has a significant majority in the regulating Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK), which has been exercising its policies in favor of censoring the critical content of the news and comment in socially influential channels. According to a report by the KONDA polling institute, 72 percent of the Turkish public relied on television as a prime or single source of news as of the summer of 2013.

In the eyes of the global public, Turkey had long been known for having the highest number of imprisoned journalists--by some counts, more than 100 in 2010. (CPJ confirmed that at least 61 detainees were being held in direct relation to their journalism on August 1, 2012.) Since then, mainly as a result of domestic outcry and external pressure, the rate of incarceration of journalists has displayed a downhill trend. In particular, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of journalists behind bars since late 2013.

Joel Simon, CPJ's executive director, announced a bit of rare good news regarding the Turkish media at November's 2014 Press Freedom Awards ceremony in New York City: The number of Turkish journalists in jail had dropped to a low of seven. Some organizations, using different methodology, put the number somewhat higher, but most agree that those imprisoned are primarily Kurdish journalists or left-leaning reporters and editors. Almost all are serving prison sentences, as opposed to pre-trial detentions, based on Turkey's dubious Anti-Terror Law.

Falling numbers of journalist incarcerations are indeed a (relative) relief, though they do not mean that a new clampdown is out of the question. Unless several articles in various laws--such as the Anti-Terror Law or in the penal code or Internet Law--are amended in a way to ensure press freedom in accordance with the European Treaty of Human Rights, the sword of Damocles will continue to hang over journalism in Turkey, in particular the partisan press.

Often overlooked by the global public is that the imprisonment of journalists in Turkey has been cyclical and almost always related to the Kurdish issue. The waves of arrests have always served as a mechanism for the government to exercise oppressive measures over journalists who are in one way or another affiliated with the opposition, legal or illegal.

The ups and downs in journalist incarceration are telling of the political climate, with the Kurdish issue at the forefront. Yet the troubling fluctuation in the jailing of journalists explains only a part of the grand ordeal that journalism in Turkey has been going through.

The grand ordeal, in a nutshell, is this:

Whereas the number of journalists in prison in Turkey is falling, thousands of other journalists with print and audiovisual outlets are now being forced to operate in what many describe as prisons without walls.

In the conglomerate media, which is controlled by four or five companies, every newsroom is essentially an open-air prison characterized by severe, routine self-censorship where the punishment for professional resistance is to be fired and essentially declared a toxic human resource, making it very difficult to get a job elsewhere. I was among those who were targeted in this way, having been fired from my own position as a result of my insistence on honest reporting.

In most of the big media newsrooms, top editors who receive astronomical salaries operate regularly as reverse gatekeepers, or censors on the payroll, whose job it is to reject stories and comment that would frighten the proprietors and infuriate Erdoğan.

In all such media groups, reporters have to a great extent either been told or have chosen to give up on chasing stories that would be of public interest, particularly those on corruption and abuses of power. And in all of those media groups the number of critical opinion columnists has fallen to a minimum, as more such voices disappear month after month. As a result, they have lost whatever has remained of their influence to hold those in power accountable.

Two observations are important:

  • Although law-enforced censorship remains as a tool, self-censorship has become the normal, widely internalized practice.
  • Imprisonment as a punitive measure is on the decline, replaced by firings.

We owe much of the eye-opening exposure to the big picture to widespread urban unrest, sparked by the Gezi Park protests during the summer of 2013. From then on, all the illusions about the role of the mainstream media as an autonomous force, symbolized by high-rise headquarters and high-tech infrastructures, disappeared.

The lack of coverage and the distortion of news stories, day after day during the riots, showed that the media proprietors had sealed an alliance with the AKP government that was based on a system of mutual serving of each other's interests, agreeing, in practice, that journalism in the public interest would not only be replaced by propaganda and lies but also, whenever necessary, punished.

This unholy alliance between Erdoğan and media moguls reached new heights with the massive graft probes of 2013, which targeted some AKP ministers and Erdoğan's family circle. From December 17, 2013, until the end of 2014, most of the audio recordings and leaked documents--almost all with news value, in the public interest--were deliberately ignored and self-censored by the same media that had refused to cover the Gezi Park protests.

Perhaps not surprisingly, some 20 or more audio leaks between the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan and the proprietors or top managers of the conglomerate media made it clear that the political executive of Turkey was directly interfering with the editorial decisions, such as when Erdoğan ordered the removal of tiny news tickers from TV channel screens or scolded a repentant media proprietor to tears over a scoop in the peace talks by the daily Milliyet on the Kurdish issue on February 28, 2013.

In a leaked audio recording, Erdoğan was heard bashing Milliyet's proprietor, Erdoğan Demirören, saying that offending columnists or TV pundits should be "punished." The conversation ends with the elderly proprietor reduced to tears.

As a result, one of the most highly respected journalists in Turkey, 70-year-old Hasan Cemal, was fired from the newspaper, followed by Can Dündar, a columnist, and Derya Sazak, editor-in-chief of Milliyet.

A few months after the Gezi protests, we witnessed Erdoğan publicly confirming that he indeed had been personally calling proprietors and top editors to say that "they"--anyone who diverged from his view of journalism--"need to be taught." The confirmation took place during a joint press conference with Mariano Rajoy, Spanish prime minister, when Erdoğan was asked whether the audio recordings were genuine.

During most of the past two decades, owning a media outlet was a lucrative business. Media companies could make use of weak coalition governments for their own benefit as they established a system of journalism whose main function was to simultaneously serve whomever was in power and their business interests.

That is no longer true. The massive, impositional presence of a single-party AKP government, and Erdoğan's total intolerance for even the slightest critique, has made it impossible for the media barons to be seen as reliable sources of news and therefore to turn a profit.

Of the roughly 15,000 active journalists in Turkey, only 4.5 percent have the courage to be members of the unions, according to a recent report on media by the main opposition party, the Republican People's Party, known as CHP. Fear of losing income, as a result of the lack of collective bargaining rights, means that Turkish journalists have no job security and no editorial independence.

With thousands of journalists shackled at their desks, the vacuum in the centerfield is immense: Among the once-influential trio of giants in print, Milliyet, Sabah, and Hürriyet, the first two are now under the total eclipse of Erdoğan's rule, and Hürriyet is operating as a lame duck. In the independent print segment, very few newspapers--some with considerable financial troubles--struggle to fulfill their role of informing the public. With the black hole in the middle, the ground is now left to pro-government or power-submissive media on one side and a group of fiercely partisan opinion-based newspapers on the other.

Until I was fired from the daily Sabah--for which I was working as an independent news ombudsman--in July 2013, my analysis was based on a deep concern that the unholy alliance of political power-media owners would inevitably lead to destruction of a key sector. I brought the issue to the global attention in an op-ed for The New York Times, arguing that if media proprietors continued to deceive their employers' dignity and role, it would only help accelerate a shift to autocratic rule. I was fired as a result of the article and joined those who had been sacked and branded toxic, who now number close to 1,000.

My experience was part of a pattern than represents a Turkish media purge. As news reports from elsewhere also point out, elected political leaderships in many parts of the world are now busy mastering ways to stifle the media. It is high time to expose this new dirty media order, which destroys the public's right to know.

Erdoğan seems to have realized that he no longer needs to resort to jailing journalists. Having the subservient media proprietor declare certain journalists persona non grata and obstruct their opportunities to find jobs is a much more efficient, cunning method of stifling the free press.

As Yücel Sayman, former head of the Istanbul Bar Association and a human rights expert, put it astutely in an interview for independent daily Taraf:

"We have become so used to this order that whenever we are asked whether or not there is press freedom, we answer 'there are no journalists in prison.' This is a mentality that equals the press freedom with the prison sentences and lawsuits. The greatest problem of the media is the identity of the media bosses. Almost all of them are people who have had nothing to do with the profession of journalism. They pay enormous fortunes to purchase newspapers and TV channels, in order to be able to win public contracts. As a matter of fact, there is no longer any need for throwing the journalists in jail! The political executive tells anyhow the bosses what sort of news stories to be published in return for the public tenders and which journalist to be recruited."

2014 was the year of despair for Turkey's mass-targeted journalists--an annus horribilis, a horrible year, which leaves no doubt: When any Turkish journalist says, "We have never had it so bad," that person simply states a bitter truth. Some have given up, but others--a small minority--continue to battle against hard winds.

Since the Gezi protests, many--especially young--journalists have resorted to online journalism, which still offers limited opportunities for honest reporting. Some news websites, such as T24 and Diken, are on the rise, although they are able to address only a limited, mainly urban audience. Otherwise, Turkish journalists are subjected to polarization within, acrimonious infighting, selective engagement in common professional causes, and lack of solidarity. One step taken to overcome these challenges was the establishment of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization (which I co-founded) that since late 2013 has been involved in large-scale monitoring of the media ordeal, as well as the training of young journalists and the funding of investigative journalism projects.

Paradoxical as it might seem, Turkey may in 2015 end up with fewer journalists and, I hope, none of them in jail. But should such an outcome lead us to conclude that the state of journalism is any better in that utterly important country? And how should we deal with the self-imprisonment through self-censorship, which keeps polluting journalism and keeps the public in the pitch dark?

As Turkey's tragic story indicates, this is the time to approach such issues boldly and resolutely. Otherwise, indications are that the purge will continue unabated.

Murat Aksoy was one of the roughly 1,000 journalists who had to pay a price for simply doing the job. On the night of December 25, 2013, as police were conducting searches of private homes, including some that belonged to members of the close circle of the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, Aksoy appeared on a TV program, calling for accountability and respect for the rule of law. At the time, Aksoy was writing regular columns for the daily Yeni Şafak, a pro-government newspaper.

"I realized afterwards that what I said in the TV had upset the newspaper's management," Aksoy was quoted saying in a recent report on media clampdowns that was compiled by four deputies of the main opposition party CHP, titled "Journalists with Broken Pens."

"More interestingly," Aksoy said, "a columnist with daily Sabah, somebody I had not seen for six years, happened to call me that night and said in clear terms that 'he had watched the program together with a high-level person from the AKP, and although he did not doubt that I am a democrat, what I said was wrong.'

"I went to the newspaper building the following day, filed my column. Soon, though, the managing editor called and told me that they would not print my piece. He said the reason was what I commented in the TV program. There was no longer any tolerance for diverse views. Then I took a break, but when I returned I was told I no longer had a job there."

Yavuz Baydar is a Turkish journalist, blogger, and co-founder of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24). He was awarded the European Press Prize in 2014 for excellence in the profession.

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