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Table 1. Main ownership groups in Turkey’s media, January 2014

Turkey’s democracy is in crisis. Three and a half million people across the country took part in the Gezi Park protests last summer. Yet the AKP-led government’s response, first to the protests and now to the December 17 corruption scandal, has been to crack down even harder on its critics, fanning even wider public alienation. At least 59 journalists were fired during the Gezi protests for criticism of the government, and more have lost their jobs in recent weeks for criticizing the government over corruption. As this report is being written, Prime Minister Erdoğan is advocating the reversal of important democratic reforms his own party championed just a few years ago.

This report focuses on one element of the crisis in Turkey’s democracy: the government’s increasing pressure on the media over the last seven years. While acknowledging that Turkey’s current crisis is bigger and more systemic, Freedom House believes  it is important to analyze in depth the government’s efforts to marginalize and suppress independent voices and reporting in Turkey’s media. A free press is a vital actor in any democracy, providing accountability and encouraging a healthy public debate. In Turkey, with a weak opposition and judiciary, an unfettered press is essential. The muzzling of the press in the last seven years has contributed to the wide disjuncture between citizens and their government. It is both a symptom and a cause of the current crisis.

The problem of media freedom—and the eager collaboration by media owners with the government— did not start with the AK Party. During nearly five decades of military “guardianship” (punctuated by coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980), the Turkish military and their bureaucratic allies enforced a set of red lines restraining discussion of ethnic identity, religion, and history outside the narrow bounds of secular nationalism. In 1997, leading media outlets supported the military’s efforts to undermine the coalition led by the Islamist Welfare Party, which eventually led to the collapse of the democratically elected government in what is often called the “post-modern coup.”

Formed after the banning of the Welfare Party and its successor, the Virtue Party, the AK Party was a victim of these harsh restrictions on free speech. Then-mayor of Istanbul Recep Tayyip Erdoğan  served jail time after he gave an Islamic-nationalist speech in 1997, and was still banned from serving in office when his AKP won general elections in 2002. Although the party arguably won on the public’s mistrust of a political establishment that had driven it into economic crisis in 2001, the AKP’s commitment to inclusive, democratic governance also appealed to Turkey’s voters and clearly distinguished it from the Welfare Party.

Many in Turkey, including liberals and members of minority groups interviewed for this report, agree that there was progress under the AK Party in some important areas of free expression. Long-standing taboos against discussion of minority rights, including the rights of Kurds and Alevis, headscarves for women, and the Armenian genocide have all been lifted, even  if laws that could punish such discussion remain on the books. Given the severe restrictions under military tutelage, these accomplishments are not insignificant.

Yet credit for such gains cannot offset the atmosphere of intimidation that deepened as the AKP consolidated its power. Kurdish journalists have been arrested  along with Kurdish activists and held as bargaining chips in peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Editors and reporters from across Turkey’s media told Freedom House about angry phone calls from the prime minister’s office after critical stories run, and—long before Gezi—of media owners being told to fire specific reporters. In a growing number of cases, editors and owners are firing reporters preemptively to avoid a confrontation with government officials. Reporters who still hold their jobs admit to censoring their own coverage to ensure they remain employed. When they cover politics, media employees are forced to be more concerned about their jobs than about the story.

At the heart of the problem are politicians and a prime minister who came to power vowing to create a more liberal government but have become increasingly intolerant of criticism and dissent. Even as late as 2010, the AK Party successfully campaigned to pass a referendum allowing the parliament to amend aspects of the 1982 constitution, adopted while Turkey was under martial law. The referendum included numerous changes to increase the independence of the judiciary, to improve separation of powers, and to protect the rights of individuals. Following its victory in 2011, the AKP pledged to work with other parties to rewrite the constitution altogether, a project that has now collapsed.

Yet despite winning the referendum and holding a parliamentary majority, the AKP has not rejected the arbitrary powers the state still retains, or built a strong system of democratic checks and balances. Among the changes proposed by the party after the corrup- tion scandal broke this December has been a repeal of the democratic reforms to the judiciary it fought for in 2010. Limited improvements in media laws have been trumped by the government’s continued use of broad antiterrorism and criminal defamation laws that allow the government wide leeway in punishing dissent. The government has also not hesitated to use an intrusive state security apparatus to illegally spy on and harass journalists.

The government’s greatest leverage over the media, however, is economic. The prime minister’s office controls the allocation of billions of dollars in privatized assets, housing contracts, and a public procurement process that allows rewarding favored companies, including those with media arms. As the AK Party has consolidated power, it has used the government agency responsible for sales of defaulting companies to transfer control of some of the  country’s most important media outlets to supporters. Tax investigations have been used to punish media outlets that dare to challenge the government. The once-dominant Doğan Media Group was assessed enormous fines and forced to sell off several media properties, including one of the country’s leading papers, Milliyet, after its reporting on AKP corruption infuriated the government.

Now, as the December 17 corruption scandal unfolds, the retreat from the early years of the AKP-led liberalization is in full force. The government has even floated the possibility of mending its bridges with the military, claiming that it was the same overzealous prosecutors from the Gülen religious community who initiated the coup-conspiracy trials that broke the military’s influence. All of this has led to a profound crisis of confidence in the Erdoğan government and, chillingly, the future of Turkey’s democracy.

There are positive signs that with the government suddenly weakened, some of Turkey’s media are beginning to remember their long-suppressed role, breaking stories and covering the corruption scandal in depth. Outlets associated with the Gülen movement like Zaman, Todays Zaman, and Bugün; Doğan-owned Radikal and Hürriyet; T24, an independent Internet news site; and even formerly pro-government media like Habertürk are finding their voices after years of harassment and pressure. There is no way of knowing how long or even whether this will last. At the same time, yet more prominent columnists are losing their jobs, such as Nazlı Ilıcak from Sabah and Murat Aksoy from Yeni Şafak.

As reflected in Freedom House’s annual ratings, including Freedom in the World, Turkey is not a dictatorship. It is a country where different views are expressed and heard, with a vibrant and diverse civil society. But it remains a country where criticizing  the government means risking your livelihood, your reputation, and sometimes, your freedom. And at the present moment, it is a country where the government is behaving more, rather than less, authoritarian.

The European Union and the United States must be fully engaged in the defense of Turkey’s democracy. While the EU has spoken out forcefully in recent months as Turkey has moved further away from its democratic commitments, the U.S. has refrained from high-level criticism or engagement. It is past the time for a real change in U.S. policy to one based on hardheaded analysis.

There are long-term steps that the U.S. should support to encourage reform in Turkey, including negotiating a free-trade pact to parallel the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and EU. Such an agreement must require that Turkey commit to transparent procurement practices. In addition to strong rhetorical defenses of a free Turkish press, the United States and Europe should also marshal investment and development funds to support the growth of independent Turkish media. Most important, with Turkey’s government proposing new steps every day that would reverse democratic gains, the U.S. should elevate Turkey’s democratic crisis to a matter  of bilateral importance and engagement. The crisis is real and Turkey is too important in its own right, and in its relations with other countries, for more denial or deliberate inattention.

The Media Sector in Turkey

Even with the constraints placed on a free press, Turkey has a rapidly growing media and entertainment sector—the result of the increasing education and wealth of a population with a deep hunger for information about their country and the world. In 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers projected the sector’s value at $11.6 billion, with estimated 11.4 percent annual growth between 2013 and 2017, more than double the global average. Among European countries, Turkey has a relatively low newspaper circulation of 96 newspapers bought daily per 1,000 population. Spurred by the growth in the Turkish economy, advertising revenue reached $2.5 billion in 2011, the bulk of which accrued to television, which includes popular serials, sports, and daytime talk shows, as well as news coverage. A small number of wealthy holding companies own nearly all of the country’s most important outlets in both television and print. Many companies are dependent on government favor, and even those with limited direct dealings with the government would find it hard to operate in the face of active hostility.

National newspapers based in Istanbul and Ankara account for 80.6 percent of the country’s annual circulation,  and at most a dozen of those dominate the national conversation on domestic politics and international affairs.  Most media outlets have well-known and clear-cut political allegiances. Sözcü (360,000 circulation) is Kemalist, BirGün (11,000) is leftist, Yeni Şafak (127,000) is Islamist, Zaman (1,161,000) is associated with the Gülen movement, and so on. The ideological profiles of the papers can mask the depth of the harassment and restrictions on Turkey’s media. In interviews for this report, high-ranking officials repeatedly pointed to the polemical antigovernment tone of Sözcü, for instance, as proof of freedom of speech. But despite being among the country’s highest-circulating dailies, Sözcü only reaches the substantial minority already predisposed to its secularist Kemalist views, which would never vote for the AK Party. It is not a government target.

There is also a group of newspapers considered “mainstream,” meaning that despite their political legacies they can reach an audience beyond the true believers of one ideological group. These papers include Hürriyet (409,000), Milliyet (168,000),Sabah (319,000), and Akşam (103,000). A key aspect of the government’s efforts to control the media has been to focus most of its attention and pressure on these “mainstream” outlets. The government-backed sales of Sabah and Akşam to pro-government business groups and the forced sale of Milliyet to a pro-government business group to pay off the Doğan Media Group’s tax penalties reduced these papers’ independence. Milliyet has laid off important critical columnists like Hasan Cemal and Can Dündar. In the most flagrant cases of Sabah and Akşam, the papers have become mouthpieces for the government, what some call “Erdoğanist” media.

Historical Development

The events of the last 12 years, including the AKP- led government’s intensifying crackdown on media freedom, cannot be understood without the context of decades of military “guardianship” and the overly close relationship between the military and the media. While ownership has shifted, in many cases the desire to curry favor with the government has remained the same. Following the coup of 1980 and the development of liberal economic policies under then-Prime Minister Turgut Özal, family ownership in the media market was replaced by corporate holding companies (albeit still with a strong family component) that benefited hugely from their close relationships with the government.

In nearly all cases, these holding companies earn only a small fraction of their revenue from their media outlets, with the bulk of profits coming from other interests, such as construction, mining, finance, or energy (see Table 1). In Turkey’s still state-centered economy, privatization of government assets and government contracts are a huge source of the holding companies’ income. This has created a situation in which media outlets are used to promote the ownership group’s financial interests. Members of the media and the government alike describe newspapers’ Ankara bureau chiefs as “lobbyists” for their  companies.

Holding company owners who rely on the state for business have shown little commitment to real debate, and even less sense of responsibility for providing a check on government power. In 1997, when the military forced the collapse of a coalition led by the Islamist Welfare Party, large media outlets supported the military with sensationalized and baseless stories about the Islamist threat to democracy.

The AK Party and the current government were forged by that history. Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül were both members of the banned Welfare Party. When Erdoğan served four months in prison in 1997, and was subsequently barred from holding public office, the secularist media applauded.

Even as Erdoğan and Gül distanced themselves from the more aggressive Islamism of the Welfare Party, they still carried a profound sense of vulnerability and victimhood.

When the AK Party came to power in 2002, it bore the scars of those experiences. Erdoğan, now leader of the AKP, was only allowed to assume the premiership after a constitutional amendment in 2003. Five years later, the AKP faced another serious challenge to its existence when the Constitutional Court came only one vote short of ruling that the party should be closed for violating the constitution’s commitment to secularism.

From its inception, the AK Party presented a very different image to that of its more Islamic predecessor. It committed to a greater openness for religion in public life in the context of its program to make Turkey more fully democratic. It actively embraced the free market, rejected anti-Western rhetoric, and pledged to implement an IMF standby agreement that required difficult economic reforms.

The AK Party’s decision to pursue European Union accession required additional reforms and won new support from the international community, originally wary of the party’s Islamic roots. The aftereffects of the currency evaluation in 2001 and the IMF’s backing helped attract foreign investment, and the new macroeconomic stability created a windfall of lower interest rates and a decline in Turkey’s chronically high rate of inflation. This allowed the AKP to direct resources to its constituents in neglected cities across the country and to provide opportunities for the new business class. The EU’s strict demands for institutional reform provided an additional mandate for decreasing the involvement of the military in public life and gave an opportunity to install new (and, in some cases, more professional) cadres in the civil service, police, and judiciary.

In its fight against the old guard, the AK Party also created a wider space for ideas and discussion. Yet as the AKP strengthened its political position, it began to assert more control over the media sector, and the old red lines were replaced with new ones. An important step came in 2007 when the country’s second-largest media group, Sabah-ATV, was sold to Çalık Holding. Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak was the company’s CEO, and Albayrak’s brother led the media unit.10 In an unusual move, two state banks stepped in with financing worth $750 million of the $1.1 billion purchase. Sabah’s editorial line rapidly shifted from center-left to ardently pro-government.

That same year, the government took aim at the largest media owner in the country, Doğan Media Group, which had long been associated with the secularist elite and had backed the 1997 “post-modern coup.” Doğan had enraged PM Erdoğan when its flagship papers, Hürriyet and Milliyet, gave extensive front-page coverage of a German court case, accusing several prominent Turkish citizens with ties to the top of the AKP of embezzling tens of millions of dollars from a Turkish charity.

Erdoğan responded by calling for a boycott of the entire media group. In February 2009, Doğan Media Group was hit with a $500 million tax fine, raised in September of the same year to $2.5 billion, four-fifths of the market capitalization of the entire company. The fine eventually forced Doğan to reduce its commanding position in the Turkish press, including by selling Milliyet and Vatan to another holding company with strong ties to the government.

The AKP also took on the military in 2007. In April, the army issued a statement pledging to be an “absolute defender of secularism” in a veiled threat reminiscent of 1997. In June, police launched the raids that would lead to accusations against ten army generals and hundreds of other officers, as well as various journalists and professors, for seeking to undermine the government with a convoluted conspiracy— known as Ergenekon, after a mythical place of origin  of the Turkish people—of assassinations and false flag operations. The indictments and trials were marked  by appalling breaches of due process and judicial procedure, years of pretrial detention, and simple logical incoherence.

Nevertheless, Ergenekon ended in September 2013 with the conviction of 275 defendants, including the former chief of the Armed Forces. With military tutelage finally broken and the political opposition still tainted by its association with the military, the AK Party became the dominant political force in Turkey.

The AKP did not break the old media or military tutelage by itself. Until recently, one of its key allies was the Gülen movement, a tightly networked group following the teachings of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. The movement wields enormous economic and social power with a network of hundreds of schools and colleges in Turkey and abroad, and extensive business interests inside and outside the country. Turkey’s highest-circulation daily Zaman and the influential English-language Today’s Zaman are owned by the Gülen-affiliated Feza Media Group. Koza İpek Holding, which owns Bugün daily and Kanaltürk TV station, is also affiliated with the movement.

When Doğan Media Group was under attack, Gülenist outlets were vocal in defending Erdoğan and blaming the group’s owner Aydın Doğan for bringing the prime minister’s wrath upon himself.  During the Ergenekon cases, prosecutors allied with Gülen were seen as driving the charges against the military through leaks and stories in the movement’s outlets and to sympathetic journalists.

The alliance between Gülen supporters and Erdoğan started to change as the government took a more confrontational stance towards Israel and pursued rapprochement with the Kurdish PKK, which the Gülen movement has opposed for decades. A failed attempt to remove Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan in February 2012 was widely attributed to Gülen supporters within the judiciary unhappy with the outreach to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.The split between Gülen supporters and Erdoğan has now burst into full public view with the December 17 corruption scandal, which has been played out in leaks to sympathetic journalists and stories in the movement’s outlets.