Willing Accomplice

Collusion by the Turkish media compounds the country’s crisis
By Andrew Finkel

Turkey’s bloody, failed military coup on July 15, 2016, and the ruthless crackdown that followed are testament to the country’s escalating crisis of democracy. Though the crisis had been developing for years, with journalists and independent media outlets facing intense legal pressures from a government intent on serving elite interests rather than a free and open society, recent events illustrate a grave, new peril: the compliance and even complicity of the nation’s mainstream media in its own emasculation and the suppression of objective news coverage.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

My own experience as a journalist in both the Turkish language and international press for more than 25 years has convinced me of both the importance and the insufficiency of “naming and shaming” the state’s authoritarian tactics. After having stood trial in a Turkish court for writing columns that the government disliked, I realized it is necessary to acknowledge corruption within the nation’s media organizations, including those that knowingly publish propaganda or decline to report–or to fully and objectively report–news that the government does not condone.

Despite the pervasiveness of social media, Turkey’s strong governing party now controls the public discourse like never before, by systematically exerting control over privately owned media and crowding out a more pluralistic press. Previous Turkish governments often defied international media standards, yet the current regime does so with impunity and within its own definition of democratic norms. At issue for journalists is not only how the media should respond to these repressive tactics but how it should address problems within its own ranks.

My first confrontation with Turkish authorities occurred in 1999 over columns published in a Turkish-language newspaper that were critical of the army’s conduct in the Kurdish majority regions. The prosecutor claimed the columns demeaned the country’s military, an offense that at the time carried a potential six years imprisonment.

Can Dündar, then editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, center left, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül greet supporters as they arrive for a court hearing in Istanbul in March 2016. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)
Can Dündar, then editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet, center left, and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül greet supporters as they arrive for a court hearing in Istanbul in March 2016. (Reuters/Osman Orsal)

In response, CPJ wrote a public letter of protest on my behalf to the Turkish prime minister. But with the ingratitude to which journalists are all too prone, I went on to use CPJ’s own website to criticize what I believed to be the organizations inherently blinkered approach–something I believed CPJ shared with other press freedom watchdogs.

I was thankful to have my case publicized, but felt that Turkish journalists would remain at risk as long as one of the deeply rooted causes of their mistreatment remained unaddressed: the corruption and collusion of the media itself. My own newspaper, which had fired me months before under what I later learned were the express orders of the military-led National Security Council, did not even report on the trial or those of many others like it. The poorly kept secret of those working in the Turkish press was that journalists needed as much protection from their own newspapers as they did from the courts.

Since then, conditions have worsened considerably–in the severity of the government’s tactics and in the collusion of the mainstream media. To put the current situation in context, in early 1999 there were 27 journalists in Turkish prisons, earning Ankara the infamous title it has claimed on many occasions since, as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists.

During that era of unstable coalition governments, increasingly powerful media organizations played the roles of kingmakers. Press barons bartered their support for privatization tenders, for lucrative changes in land zoning, for government-affiliated advertising revenues, and, most profitably of all during a decade of chronic inflation, for banking licenses. To retain leverage over politicians, newspapers still maintained a critical, non-sycophantic edge–one could not peddle influence, after all, without first having the muscle and influence to peddle. Many, however, were all too happy to plant stories at the request of national intelligence or to restrict coverage of the often-dirty war against Kurdish separatists in the country’s southeast, or to acquiesce in the dismissal of senior columnists and correspondents.

That dynamic has become far more pronounced in the years since. As of this writing, close to 146 Turkish journalists are behind bars–a more than fourfold increase since 1999, according to figures compiled by the independent journalist platform P24; the figures include 33 journalists who were in prison before the July 15 coup. Many other journalists have fled abroad and, in some cases, the spouses and relatives they left behind have been denied passports. Other organizations have reached slightly different totals (CPJ, in its most recent prison census, was able to confirm at least 81 journalists had been jailed in relation to their work). Despite the difficulty of precisely quantifying the numbers, this much is clear: Turkey is the foremost jailer of journalists, with more journalists under lock-and-key than habitual offenders China, Iran and Egypt combined.

Many of the detentions and arrests followed the July 15 coup attempt and the subsequent imposition of a national state of emergency, which allowed authorities to suspend habeas corpus for 30 days, as well as Turkey’s adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights.

At first glance, this crackdown might appear to be an attempt, however blunt, to punish anyone associated with Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric and founder of what is known as the Gülen (or Hizmet, which translates to “service”) Movement, which the government accuses of having engineered the putsch.

Journalists were not the only ones to suffer in the wake of the failed coup. Reuters reported that three months later, more than 32,000 people were still under arrest (by December 2016, Reuters reported the number was up to 41,000) and more than 100,000 state employees had lost their jobs. There has been a wholesale purge of the judiciary, the universities and schools, the army, police, national intelligence, and the rest of the civil service. Businesses have been seized and even hospitals closed.

The criteria for imposing these measures is not transparent, and the modus operandi of the purge has been capricious. Having a credit card at Bank Asya–a Gülen-associated finance house–or subscribing to the Gülenist flagship newspaper Zaman have been grounds for dismissal and even police detention.

In this environment, it is no longer possible to simply blame independent news organizations for hanging their staff out to dry because 46 newspapers, 29 TV channels, three news agencies, 31 radio stations, 16 magazines and 28 publishing houses have themselves been shut down in the aftermath of the failed coup, according to Platform 24 (P24), based on open sources. Most of the organizations affected were outside the mainstream, including Zarok TV, a children’s cartoon channel broadcast in Kurdish. Thousands working in the media have lost their jobs. With mainstream media under its firm control, the government has found it relatively easy to pick off the “independent” stragglers.

Open war against the Gülen movement predates the attempted coup, back to December 2013, when police and prosecutors accused senior government figures and their families of high-level corruption. At that time, the government described the police raids that accompanied these accusations as an attempted coup – the work of Gülenist sympathisers within the ranks of the bureaucracy trying to establish a parallel state. Zaman, once Turkey’s largest circulating daily, as well as a former firm supporter of the government, was placed under court-appointed administrators in March 2016, then transformed into a pro-government newspaper before publication ceased at the end of the following July. Other Gülenist-linked publications and broadcasting organizations suffered similar fates. The government went on to adopt a practice initiated by the military of denying access to press conferences for publications of which it did not approve–notably those affiliated with the Gülen movement.

This practice accelerated after the coup. As CPJ reported in August 2016, Turkey’s General Directorate for Press, Broadcasting, and Information–the bureau within the prime minister’s office responsible for accrediting journalists–revoked the credentials of 115 journalists whom it alleges were associated with Gülen.

However intricate the Gülenist involvement in the July 15 attempted coup proves to be, any legitimately elected government has both the right and the obligation to defend itself from a military takeover. Had the coup succeeded or had skirmishes between troops and government supporters been more protracted, the death toll would likely have been far greater. Some 240 people died in the hours after the coup–of whom roughly 157 were civilians, including one journalist for a pro-government newspaper.

In the weeks after the declaration of the state of emergency, however, it became apparent that the authorities cast their dragnet far wider than those associated with Gülenist media. Many who happened to work for these outlets cannot credibly be accused of supporting a coup d’état or even to have had Gülenist sympathies. Kurdish publications are generally antithetical to Gülen, yet police detained 28 journalists after a raid on the Azadiya Welat, while another pro-Kurdish paper, Özgür Gündem, was closed down with cases initiated against a series of prominent journalists and writers who attempted to show solidarity by acting as “honorary editor” for the day. Two journalists from the left-wing Evrensel newspaper were also detained, though they were released after 16 days.

In its 2014 annual report, Freedom House flagged this wave of arrests and closures as an acceleration of an existing trend to choke off dissent. The report also relegated the Turkish press from the status of “partly free” to “not free.”

The Freedom House decision to demote Turkey’s status was based in part on the wholesale dismissal of journalists in the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations, which, at the time, the government also described as an attempted coup. A huge catalog of anecdotal evidence, particularly from telephone conversations leaked onto the internet in early 2014, illustrate government efforts to micromanage reporting of the private media groups beholden to it. Then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan was overheard in leaked recordings reducing the proprietor of one newspaper group to tears while forcing him to fire a leading columnist. Erdoğan also demanded that a TV station alter the ticker at the bottom of the screen for giving too much attention to the leader of an opposition party. Since Gezi, it has become increasingly common for six or more pro-government papers to go to press with the exact same headline.

The question I raised nearly two decades ago was why the Turkish public would rise to the defense of newspapers that seemed indifferent even to the injustices committed against its own journalists. At the time, it was hard to find an interlocutor for the world’s sense of outrage. The then-prime minister, Bülent Ecevit, was himself a journalist who openly suggested that his coalition government lacked the power to grapple with an authoritarian structure that was deeply embedded within the state.

That is why the increasing corruption of the mainstream media is so crucial–it has become a willing accomplice to this new authoritarianism. That, too, is an escalation rooted in a longstanding problem. In 1997, the military successfully engineered a change in government in what is often referred to as a post-modern coup. One of its principal tools was to engage media owners and senior editors who publicly pledged their services to the military-led National Security Council to unseat a coalition led by the pro-Islamic Welfare Party. Journalists critical of that collaboration were fired. The subsequent court closure of the Welfare Party was directly responsible for the formation and ascendency of the now-governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). The media’s role in this “coup” left a bitter residue and inspired the AKP when it came to power to create a national media firmly under its own control.

The parent companies of media organizations in the 1990s were increasingly invested in banking and financial service. Media benefitted from and helped to oil the vicious circle in which the government paid ever-higher interest rates to roll over its debts. Twin interest rate and currency rate crises in 2000 and 2001 led to the collapse of all but one of the media-owned banks and the seizure of their newspaper and television stations to pay back their debts. The financial cost of this crisis – about a third of Turkey’s GDP – led to the obliteration of a whole post-war generation of politicians and shoehorned the AKP into power in 2002. Media assets in public receivership were subsequently sold to corporations that had cultivated connections to the new regime.

The current pattern of media proprietorship is not, however, simply a case of history repeating itself. Previously, media owners used their power to gain entry into non-media business. Today, contractors, shopping mall owners and healthcare or energy magnates view press ownership as a sort of levy for doing business with the government. Some pay this tribute reluctantly and after bitter complaint. The result is that the great bulk of the Turkish media is under the control of proprietors who have no interest in holding government up to scrutiny. Far from speaking truth to power, editorial control is willingly surrendered to political superiors. Erdoğan admitted on the record that the proprietor of Milliyet newspaper consulted with him over whom to appoint as its editor-in-chief. One of the few large media corporations to make the transition into the AKP era, the Doğan group, did so only after being declawed by its parent company, which faced a tax fine approximate equal to its entire market capital. Many Doğan employees privately confessed to me that self-censorship is now the rule, not the exception. There have been recent meetings where the president and senior ministers met with owners, editors and senior columnists of the pro-government media. These private discussions of media coverage are publicly acknowledged and described unabashedly as “closed to the press.”

Independent media in Turkey finds itself with both hands tied behind its back. In addition to facing political and judicial harassment, it is subject to unfair competition from rivals that view media ownership as a PR expense, not a for-profit concern. And this occurs in a digital age where selling news content is itself a growing financial challenge. There is no incentive for press groups to forsake a business model that works, even if through corruption, for the icy waters of genuine competition.

Media outlets often give no–or, at best, scant–market value to integrity or reputation. Much of the pro-government Turkish press now falls into the category of propaganda. Polemical headlines accompany photo-shopped realities. To cite one particularly ludicrous example, the iconic Henry Ries photo of the Berlin airlift was used to illustrate an article on how the U.S. supports coups in Guatemala and throughout the world. Similarly, a Christian Science Monitor reporter who happened to share the same name as a man convicted of murdering his pregnant wife in California, was paraded on the front pages as a “hired assassin” brought from the United States to Turkey to assist in the coup.

If all this seems harmlessly absurd, it cannot be dismissed as such. Crude fabrications come at the expense of the kind of professional reporting that would answer citizens’ concerns over what truly transpired the night of July 15, 2016. A headline writer’s desire to extract revenge or deflect attention from the government’s responsibility for failing to anticipate the coup undermines objective investigation of the consequences of the purge for key institutions and businesses. Rather than display solidarity on issues of press freedom, pro-government columnists see as part of their function accusing other journalists of treason with Stalinesque zeal and calling on public prosecutors to do their worst.

This grim situation raises many questions, perhaps the most interesting of which is difficult to adequately answer: why a government that enjoys a high level of popular support still seeks to repress opposition media. Among the surfeit of possible explanations is that the government sees power as a zero-sum game and that to lose even a bit of control (as when it briefly lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2016 general election) would cause the whole edifice of its authority to crumble. Another is that the government is a victim of a sort of “Midas touch” phenomenon whereby it controls the media at the expense of that media’s ability to convey credible information.

In many cases, government officials may not actually believe their own propaganda, but they understand how fickle public opinion can be; hence, the regime’s great concern over the effects of social media and the almost systematic way in which access to Twitter or Facebook is denied whenever serious news–such as bombings or coup attempts–occurs. Erdoğan once declared Twitter the greatest social evil, presumably because it is not easy to control.

Though it seems risible that the AKP’s leader would define the Gezi Park environmental protest as a coup, in retrospect, that anxiety might have been real. Even the paranoid sometimes have actual enemies, as illustrated by the attempts of putschists to seize the television stations on the night of July 15, 2016. The great irony of the coup attempt was that while the president’s foes stuck to the antediluvian rulebook and seized the state broadcaster TRT, he rallied his supporters with an interview on FaceTime, with the CNN Turk anchor holding her iPhone up to the camera.

At a time when journalists are being dragged to police stations under the emergency rule regulation, it might seem precious to continue emphasizing the danger that the degradation of news and the contraction of the public realm represents. I understood all too well the difficulties an organization such as CPJ (which is engaged in the heavy lifting to keep journalists safe from their own governments) faces when attempting to turn around the guns to target media organizations for supporting undemocratic practices. It is already a tricky endeavor to define a “real journalist” worthy of protection. Devising a strategy to name and shame those who abuse journalism to threaten others, or defining who is doing “real news,” is to pry open a Pandora’s box.

At the same time, it is clear from the worsening situation of the Turkish press that the mainstream strategy of private advocacy and public indignation has failed to produce results. A tentative step was a Freedom House report that sign-posted the erosion of democracy in Turkey after 2013 by analysing corruption within media itself. But as a first principle, one point needs to be made widely: It is impossible to fully protect journalists when the core tenets of journalism are themselves in peril.

Andrew Finkel is an Istanbul-based correspondent, a founder of P24 (Punto24, an association to defend independent journalism in Turkey) and author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.