How the Turkish media has been immersed into the quagmire of oppression, self-censorship, corruption and polarisation
Monday, 3 May 2021
This online meeting on press freedom in Turkey was organised to mark World Press Freedom Day. Although the media was never completely free in Turkey, the recent repression has made the situation far worse. Endless series of restrictions, punitive legislation, trials and imprisonment of journalists, the weakening of union rights, systematic sackings, and takeovers by pro-government businessmen has been rocking Turkish media in recent years. Reporting certain issues has become taboo, and Erdogan’s government is now in effective control of more than 95 per cent of the sector.
Yavuz Baydar, a veteran journalist, offered broad perspectives and insights on the factors behind the demise of conventional media. Merve Tahiroğlu, the Turkey Programme Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a senior researcher on the digital domain, brought us up to date on the Erdogan government’s efforts to curb social media and the emergence of alternative media. The panel was moderated by Dr Gulnoza Said, the Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Dr Said introduced the topic and the speakers. She began by providing a brief overview of the CPJ’s work on media freedom in Turkey and said it had monitored media freedom in Turkey since 1981. She mentioned how the failed coup of 2016 was a turning point for Turkey’s media. However, she was keen to emphasise that the decline in media freedom started before, and the coup attempt accelerated the process. The second half of 2016 witnessed a huge increase in press freedom violations, with the number of journalists that were jailed by the Turkish authorities skyrocketed. Turkey was one of the biggest jailers of journalists globally and comes either number one or two after China in CPJ’s Prison Census (world ranking for jailing or detaining journalists). In addition, Said emphasised that the Turkish authorities have used other tools to suppress journalism and freedom of expression, and through these practices, have eliminated the mainstream media in the country.
Yavuz Baydar was the first speaker, and he began by saying that there was ‘no reason to be happy and optimistic’. He briefly discussed his own experience as an exiled journalist and said he left after the July 2016 attempted coup. He felt even before the attempted coup that journalists and academics would be among the group targeted next by the regime, which proved to be true. There is a standing arrest warrant on him dating back to August 2016, but so far, he has not been able to find out what he is being wanted for despite his lawyer’s efforts. Baydar said that today Turkey was an inferno, turned into a republic of fear in an Orwellian sense, and any news production and dissemination stage was a challenge.
Baydar said that when we think about what the regime did to the media, it is essential to also think about the role journalists played in making the current situation. Currently, in Turkey, the constitution de facto is suspended, the judiciary is subordinated to the Palace and is instrumentalised in the punishment of the journalists and critical media outlets. Arrests and endless lawsuits are a daily reality, and imprisonments as a punitive measure are widely being used, and today at least 69 journalists are in jail. State censorship is an everyday experience for journalists, and the taboo subjects have returned. Covering corruption and abuses of power by Erdogan’s close circles, the Kurdish issue, local human rights violations, and discussing the Armenian Genocide are some of those taboos. The institutionalised oppression has deepened the culture of self-censorship. Turkey remains in the ‘not free’ category in Freedom House’s rankings since 2014, and according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), it is ranked 153 out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. In the area of violations of freedom of expression, Turkey ranked first among the Council of Europe’s 47 members in 2020.
There are growing signs that the government is defying some rulings of the ECtHR. It has become routine to seize journalists’ properties, and since 2016 the assets of nearly 50 journalists have been seized by the state. News outlets are either shut down or seized, and their entire digital archives are deleted completely. In addition, access to many digital news sources has been banned. The access to 450,000 domains and 140,000 URL addresses, 42,000 tweets and 11,000 YouTube videos were banned in the past seven years. Nearly 3,500 journalists were sacked from their jobs. While job security of journalists has been a long-standing concern in Turkey, applying self-censorship to keep their job has become very common among journalists.
Baydar mentioned that President Erdogan is controlling almost all TV channels and that the state broadcaster, the TRT, is in the hands of the ruling power. The Radio and Television Supreme Council, RTÜK, is also controlled by the government, which uses its power to stifle the critical content further. Newspapers are in decline; a decade ago national circulation of newspapers was around five million, but now it has gone down to half that amount. Young people read less and less, and pro-government circles have bought the prominent newspapers. The print media is more than ever tied to the government. Also, the Cumhuriyet newspaper has fallen into the hands of a staunch nationalist and anti-western group of editors. More than 95 per cent of the media is currently under the direct or indirect control of the government.
Baydar also elaborated on the censorship institutions and highlighted the role of the Directorate of Communication(İletişim Başkanlığı), which directly reports to President Erdogan. It is used to ban access to news items and websites, and its prime duty is to control the media and intervene to prevent the publication of news that is critical of Erdogan’s government. The Directorate of Communication controls the TRT and the official Anatolian Agency, and it is also responsible for issuing the journalists’ press cards. It annuls the press cards of critical journalists and has been blacklisting journalists and commentators; it gives lists of commentators to TV stations to invite to their discussion programmes.
Finally, Baydar discussed the self-harm that journalists did to each other and the profession. The government bought the proprietors of media outlets, with the judiciary being used to ensure they comply with the government. Many journalists were ideologically motivated and sympathised with the military. The professional was instrumentalised for political purposes. He ended by asking: ‘Is there a way out of this?’ In his response, he said that only abolishing the presidential system that Erdogan has created can lead to the reversal of the situation.
Dr Said then introduced Merve Tahiroğlu and listed some of the roles she has fulfilled in her professional life. Tahiroğlu began by emphasising that journalism and free media are among the most important pillars of democracy and essential for ensuring accountability. In Turkey, most of the practices that Baydar mentioned regarding media repression was happening in the digital space. This was because Turkey has a hugely digitalised society; 75 per cent of the population has access to the internet, and most people own a smartphone and use to access the media. Sixty-four per cent of the people in Turkey are active social media users, and it is the primary source for them for reaching political information and news. Traditional media outlets, particularly television channels, are still essential and remains the top source of news and information, but most people follow the news outlets online as well, and the digital space has emerged as the new space for the contestation for politics and culture in Turkey.
Tahiroğlu mentioned that the dominance of pro-government media is replicated online; most google searches of news in Turkey yield results to the same dominant pro-government news outlets, such as Sabah and Habertürk. The same control model on traditional media also appears on the internet, but at least online, there is an allowance of the free press to exist. The internet allows alternative sources to reach people. Turkey ranks among the top 15 countries where people spend the most time on social media. Tahiroğlu mentioned that there is a lot of information available online and referred to the notion of digital democracy. She then gave some historical context to the way media ownership in Turkey has been changing. She said in the mid-2000s, media companies began to be purchased by the pro-government businesses, leading to growing pressure on critical journalists. At that time, independent outlets emerged online, such as T24. There are now several other independent online outlets, such as Bianet, Medya Scope etc. In recent years, there is the phenomenon of ‘media in exile’, such as the Ahval website, which creates alternative news content. There is repression of the media, but digitalisation offers an alternative for independent news outlets to continue being active.
Tahiroğlu then outlined three stages of repression of the online media: monitoring, networks, and trolling. Monitoring happens through multiple government agencies and informal networks. Government loyalists monitor and report people to the police. The police are also heavily involved in monitoring the citizens’ online activities, and Tahiroğlu said at the end of 2018, 45,000,000 social media accounts were being monitored. Anyone who goes online onto social media is being monitored. However, despite that level of monitoring, so much government criticism is expressed online. The overall effect of the monitoring is that it creates huge self-censorship. If journalists want to criticise the government, they will think twice about it. People are taken to police custody for their social media posts, interviewed and then released. Tahiroğlu said this is a tactic that the government uses to increase the self-censorship of the citizens. Many people are taken to custody, and many are imprisoned because of their social media posts. These include journalists but also political detainees. Almost all of them are on trial or being investigated for their social media activities. A philanthropist and civil society leader Osman Kavala is in prison. Alongside many other people, he is being tried in the Gezi Park mass trial and is charged with inciting people via social media. Similarly, HDP MP Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu is in prison for a social media post. Main opposition party leaders are constantly under criminal investigation for their social media posts, being accused of sympathising with a terrorist organisation, instigating trouble, or ‘insulting the president’. There are tens of thousands of cases where people are charged with insulting Erdogan or his office.
Alongside the monitoring and the policing, President Erdogan and his followers are very much invested in co-opting social media spaces. He has many paid trolls who are using the spaces to harass critics and propagate government arguments. The government does this because it needs to dominate social media. There is the talk of creating a native Turkish social media platform, like the one in China, which again shows how powerful social media is. The ultimate objective of the government’s actions is to destroy accountability. Police now have the right to prevent people from recording them. Tahiroğlu ended by discussing the attack on journalists trying to record the police arrests of protesters who wanted to march on May Day in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
The event continued with further questions from Dr Said and the audience.
Merve Tahiroğlu is Turkey Program Coordinator of Project on Middle East and Democracy (POMED). Prior to joining POMED, Merve was a research analyst at the Washington-based think tank, Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she focused on Turkey’s domestic politics, foreign policy, and relationship with Washington. Merve has authored several monographs on Turkey and published articles in various outlets such as Foreign Affairs, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, Politico, NBC, and Huffington Post. Born and raised in Istanbul, Merve earned her Master of Arts in History from Georgetown University and her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Duke University.
Yavuz Baydar is the Editor-in-Chief of Ahval, a trilingual, independent online news and podcast site on Turkey. His opinion articles have appeared in the Guardian, Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, New York Times, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, Le Monde Diplomatique, The Arab Weekly and Index on Censorship.
Baydar was among the co-founders, in 2013, of the independent media platform P24 to monitor the media sector and the state of journalism in his home country.
In 2014, as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, he completed an extensive research paper on self-censorship, state oppression and threats over journalism in Turkey – in the wake of Gezi Park protests.
The extended version of the paper was published in book form in German and Turkish, under the title “Newsroom as an Open-Air Prison: Corruption and Self-Censorship in Turkish Journalism”.
Baydar is the author of the book, “Die Hoffnung Stirbt am Bosporus – Wie die Türkei Freiheit und Demokratie Verspielt” (“The Hope dies at Bosporus: How Turkey Squandered Freedom and Democracy”).
He was delivered the Special Award of the European Press Prize ( EPP), for ‘excellence in journalism’, in 2014, and, in 2018, the ‘ Journalistenpreis’ by the SüdostEuropa Gesellschaft in Munich, Germany.
Turkey’s first Readers’ Editor (News Ombudsman, at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar served the same role later in Sabah daily, until 2014. He was the president of the U.S.-based International Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003-2004.
Gulnoza Said is Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Said is a journalist and communications professional with over 15 years of experience in New York, Prague, Bratislava, and Tashkent. She has covered issues including politics, media, religion, and human rights with a focus on Central Asia, Russia, and Turkey.