Debunking pro-government Journalism in Turkey part I. Facts about press freedom in Turkey

Responding to AKP „journalism“

Debunking hidden pro-government journalism and informing people about the infiltration of the media by the Turkish government.

During the last couple of years a new type of pro-government journalists came to rise in the Turkish media. Yildiray Ogur is just one of them. These journalists appear to be more liberal and moderate although they have the same religious nationalistic agenda. Most of these Journalists have studied abroad or in some of the best Turkish universities and they often write in English. What is also really common among these types of journalists is the fact that they never speak out openly about their alliance with the AKP and they try to appear somewhat rational although almost all of their writings are aimed to downplay some of the harsh policies of the Turkish government and Erdogan in particular.

Almost all of these Journalists work for the so called “pool-media” and their foreign brands like i.e: Sabah/the Daily Sabah. What the Turks refer to as pool media is a number of media outlets that are all in strict line with Erdogans agenda has to say. For some outsiders it is sometimes hard to grasp this but in Turkey it is not uncommon for a lot of newspapers to have the exact same headline.

Now let us focus on Yildiray Ogur. His recent English article is called: Press Freedom in Turkey: Myths versus Facts. It is a very detailed article about the medial landscape but full with errors and biased views. I will take a couple of his statements and show what is wrong with them but first let´s find out for what newspaper he is writing. Daily Sabah is the English version of the famous Turkish newspaper Sabah. Sabah is a well-known newspaper, which in the last 12 years after the AKP came to power became more and more pro AKP.  Now it counts to the more orthodox wing of the pro-gov Newspapers in Turkey.

Yildiray Ogur also works for TRT. TRT is the national Turkish TV station. I don´t think it would be too much of an exaggeration if someone would compare TRT to North Korean state television. During elections in Turkey TRT has a huge density of pro AKP commercials and commercials for pro AKP newspapers. It is impossible to find a single commercial break without a pro AKP spot while watching TRT. In the same way some of the pro-AKP journalists claim to have nothing to do with the AKP, the Turkish national television also claims that is an objective TV channel that has no ties to a party or whatsoever and that they are equally distanced towards any of the political factions in Turkey. Their program however shows us something different. Prior to the last elections TRT did not give any of the parties the same amount of media coverage. In fact the ruling AKP party got over 90%(!) of the coverage time that the political parties got while the other parties combined got less than 10%. So for every 13h and 32 seconds that the AKP got the oppositional MHP got 48 and the CHP got 45 minutes while the Kurdish party got only 2. This is one of the many statistics that tells us a lot more than the statistics used by Mr. Ogur. Ogur is certainly aware of this statistic, however he decides not to mention them in his article about press freedom in Turkey.

The main message in Ogurs article is pretty clear. He states that press freedom is not that bad in Turkey as it appears to be. To undermine his statement he uses examples such as the amount of oppositional journalist, but he decides not to look when it comes to things as television coverage, censorships and fines to oppositional channels.

There are that many flaws in his article that I don´t have the time to debunk all of them. So I will just start out with the things he got right within his article.

One of his claims is that there are in fact a lot of anti-governmental journalists within the Turkish media landscape and that there are more anti-governmental newspapers than pro-governmental newspapers.

I agree with both of these claims but they have to be put into the right historical context and their impact on the Turkish media landscape.

There are some points he did not choose to mention. One of them is the way the Turkish media landscape is shifting. Let us take a look at the newspaper that Ogur works for. It was a newspaper that over the time drifted to become more and more pro-gov. The case of Nazli Ilicak is a good example to show the drift of the Sabah newspaper. Ilicak was a supporter of the AKP policies for a long period of time but then started to write critical about the government after the historical corruption case against the AKP government. She was fired after she called out the ministers and told them to resign. Also let us not forget that Sabah’s chief editor is Erdogans son in law.

Sabah is not the only newspaper which shifted into Erdogans desired direction. In fact several newspapers in Turkey made the same shift. The owners of some of the newspapers have also changed. One of the most prominent examples is the story of controversial businessman and politician Cem Uzan. After he lost the ownership of his Star Medya group his TV channel and newspaper were first sold to Dogan Holding and then shortly after to the Dogus media group which is very close to the AKP government. This is one of the key incidents of the witch-hunt the AKP had started.  Critical journalist lost their jobs and the whole attitude of the first privately owned TV station, as well as the Newspaper and the other outlets, changed completely almost overnight.

Another key incident that is somewhat connected to the first one is the tax fine that media-tycoon Aydin Dogan has received. It was a record fee of more than 2.5 billion USD and it forced Dogan to sell the Star TV station he acquired to the pro-AKP Dogus group. This happened back in 2009(the investigation started at 2009 and Star media group was sold in 2011). After that the Dogan media group adapted its positions and became less critical towards the AKP movement. The biggest newspapers of the Dogus medya group were Hürriyet and Milliyet. Dogan was under pressure and  also sold Milliyet and Vatan to pro-AKP Demirören Group. So Milliyet also started to change over time. This time the shifting process was more slowly and steady. The most famous critical writer of that newspaper Can Dündar lost his job. It was stated that he was dismissed because of his critical claims during the Gezi park protests.

Hürriyet on the other hand is still part of the Aydin Dogan media group that is perceived to be somewhat critical towards the AKP government. However it is legitimate to say that this newspaper has also changed over time and still continues to drift towards becoming more and more pro-government. Again the most famous oppositional writer of this newspaper left the newspaper. Today if we look towards the lineup of the “critical” Hürriyet newspaper we can see that some famous AKP supporters are part of the team. Inside the Hürriyet writers staff you can now find people like Akif Beki(the former advisor of Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and Ismet Berkan (who was one of the people who claims to have seen the never shown video of the Kabatas-incident-rumour). Now the atmosphere between the Dogan group and the government has gotten a lot better. Also I think it is a bit of an exaggeration if you define a newspaper as critical of the government while one of their key writers is the former advisor of Erdogan who even defended the CNNTurks censorship of the Gezi Park protests.

Famous Kemalist oppositional Tuncay Özkan was a TV channel owner who also sold his TV channel Kanaltürk to an pro- AKP group. He was imprisoned and released after several years during the Ergenekon case and claims that he was forced to sell his TV channel.

Now I will try to put Ogurs claims into the right context. Yes there is still an oppositional newspaper market in Turkey but it is rapidly decreasing in size. Yes Turkey has more press freedom than China or Russia but it sure is heading into the same direction. Yes there are still critical prominent newspapers like Hürriyet but they aren´t as critical as they used to be and are shifting in the same way some other newspapers did in the past.

Besides what I think is more important is the question about how big of a deal newspapers are in Turkey anyway. Obviously this is not an easy question to answer but the one thing we can be certain is that it is not the media of choice for Turkish people. The most common media that is consumed by Turks is the television. Turkey is almost in every top 5 list when it comes to TV consumption and the average Turkish person watches more 6 hours of TV a day on average.

While talking about press freedom in Turkey Ogur chooses to ignore the most important medium of all. The majority of the TV landscape in Turkey is pretty dull. There are a handful of Gülenist and Kemalist media outlets but besides that there aren´t that many TV channels who are critical towards the government. The biggest brands in TV like NTV, Habertürk, CNNTürk, ShowTV, ATV, Beyaz TV, Kanal7, TV 8, Kanaltürk, Kanal 24, Ülke TV along with the National TV channel(s) TRT are only some of the pro-AKP channels. The only big oppositional TV channels in Turkey on the other hand are Kanal D (to some extent) and the Gülenist TV channel Samanyolu and two very small Kemalist TV channels. The biggest scandal in Turkish TV history was the way how all the channels suddenly got silent during the Gezi uprising in May 2013. CNNTurk, the Turkish franchise of CNN choose to show a nature documentary about penguins during the time of the riots. From then on the Penguin became a symbol for the fight against oppression and censorship in media.

Let me give you a personal real life example of how media censorship in Turkey works in practice. After my first day at the Gezi Park Protest on the 31st of May I came back to my home. Like many other people in Turkey I have a satellite TV connection with about 500 TV channels. I would go as far and describe that day as the most intense day of my life. The Taksim area of Istanbul was full with teargas and several people where lying on the floor with blood coming out from their heads. The police was shooting teargas like crazy and protestors, tourists, shopkeepers and other civilians where tortured by the amount of teargas and rubber bullets that were used. When I came home injured I rushed to the TV to see some coverage. I had to zap through 238 channels until I found footage about what was going on in the centrum of Istanbul. There is TV censorship almost everywhere on the planet to some extent but that is just an example of how big of a deal censorship is within the Turkeys TV landscape.

Another way how TV channels can be punished is with the help of RTÜK. This is a state agency for monitoring, regulating as well as sanctioning television (and radio) broadcasts in Turkey. RTÜK can be described as the watchdog of the Turkish media. Out of the 8 members of the RTÜK court 5 are selected from the AKP. RTÜK does not only fine things like Sex and the City (because according to the board the same sex marriage scene was twisted and immoral) or the Simpsons (for mocking religion), it also fines oppositional media channels. During the Gezi Park protests the biggest fines where aimed at the small TV channels that showed coverage of the protests now after the Erdogan-Gülen split the Gülenist TV channel Samanyolu is the new frequent foe. Although the fines aren´t that much of a deal for big TV channels they can and do cripple low budget oppositional channels which are mostly really small TV channels.

Besides TV the internet is the most influential type of media in Turkey. Twitter is very rampant in Turkey. Turkey has a population of about 75-80 Million people and about 40% of them access the Internet at least once a month. The stunning number here is that 1/3 of the internet using population uses Twitter in Turkey. Turkey has had over 11 million twitter users in 2014 and is considered to be one of the most frequent Twitter using countries in the world. One thing in which Turkey surpasses all other countries is censorship on Twitter. In 2014 Turkey has banned more Tweets than any other country in the world and more than ½ of all twitter censorship requests came from Turkey.

This however is still the lesser evil when compared to Erdogans wishes. If it were up to Erdogan Twitter would have been banned all along. Just like when it was decided that it should be banned shortly before the last local elections. During that time Turkey banned both Youtube and Twitter and was in the same league as North Korea, Iran and China. Only the high-court decision allowed Turkish people to lift the Youtube and Twitter ban.

To sum it all up there are different ways of media censorship within Turkey. Censoring internet and having control over the most of the TV landscape are the current weapons of choice for the AKP to control the information flow. The fines of RTÜK and the big tax fine FB to Aydin Dogan are also an effective way of intimidation. Old and popular newspapers and channels are shifting towards the direction that Erdogan wants to while newer and smaller channels are crippled with the fines.The newspapers are not in full control of the government or government close sources yet but there is progress going on to shape the newspaper landscape in the same way the TV landscape was shaped. Also let us not forget the amount of imprisoned journalist throughout the whole of Turkey. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists Turkey still ranks among the countries with the highest number of imprisoned journalists. It is also not so long ago that Turkey was ranked the number one country in that list even surpassing countries like China and Iran (in 2013 after the Gezi Park protests). One last thing both Ogur and I agree on is that the  arrest of the Dutch journalist Frederike Geerding for spreading “terror propaganda” certainly did not help the image of press freedom in Turkey but neither did Ogurs biased article.

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