The Media in Crisis

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The tools used to pressure and control media outlets and individual journalists existed before the AK Party came to power. But the party, with its extraordinary political dominance, has used them unapologetically and with increasing frequency and force. The wave of firings and resignations during the Gezi Park protests, as outrageous as they are, are unfortunately just one example of the AKP’s determination to suppress a free press and full public debate.

The Gezi Park protests started on May 27, 2013, with a small group of environmental activists determined to block government plans to replace a park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square with a complex of hotels, a shopping mall, and restaurants. As news of the occupation spread on social media, hundreds of people joined in, united by their frustration with the government’s lack of accountability. The tipping point came on May 29 and 30, when police routed protesters with tear gas and water cannons. Images of the brutality circulated rapidly on social media. A Reuters photograph of a young woman being sprayed in the face with pepper gas by a policeman wearing a gas mask became the iconic image of the protest. Tens of thousands rushed to occupy all of Taksim Square. Over the next two weeks, protests spread to 80 of the country’s 81 provinces, with more than 3.5 million people participating, according to the government’s own estimates.

Many of Turkey’s media outlets were caught off guard by these events and slow to adapt their coverage, drawing popular ire. Most notoriously, on June 1, as mass protests filled Istanbul and CNN International showed round-the-clock coverage, the Doğan-owned CNNTürk was broadcasting a nature documentary about penguins. The penguin became an ironic symbol of media cowardice in the protests. Some papers and television stations, including CNNTürk, soon caught up with the news, while other pro-government stations like NTV continued to push the government’s conspiratorial talking points (protesters even gathered in front of NTV’s offices). But the initial failure to cover Gezi showed the reflexive compliance and conflict aversion of the conglomerate-dominated media.

It is difficult to firmly establish the number of reporters, editors, and broadcasters fired in the wake of Gezi. On July 26, the Turkish Journalists’ Union said that 59 journalists had been fired or forced out; the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has compiled a list of 77 journalists who were fired or forced out due to their coverage of the protests.  Some media employees cite much higher numbers. NTV Tarih, a history magazine owned by NTV, was shut down entirely and its staff let go after the magazine’s editors prepared a special “Gezi edition.” The Gezi firings continued through the fall. In November, the public broadcaster TRT fired two employees who used social media to voice their support for the protests.

The government and its backers insist that there is no proof that the coverage of Gezi was behind any of these firings. That argument is hard to accept, given the government’s track record of intimidation and pressure against the media. Even before Gezi, it had become commonplace for top officials, especially Erdoğan, to publicly attack journalists who displease them, and for those journalists to be fired soon after. In 2011, after NTV host Nuray Mert compared the government’s policies in eastern Turkey to a nationalist massacre 70 years before, the prime minister denounced her writing as “despicable.” She lost her show with the channel, and was later fired from Milliyet.  In August 2012, as the government’s peace process with the PKK foundered, the prime minister warned the press in a televised debate that it must ignore  the  conflict,  arguing  that  broadcasting information about Turkish solders’ deaths would provide propaganda support for terrorists. “I really expect the media to act as one hand, one heart,” he said. “On whose side will the media be?”

In March 2013, Milliyet columnist Hasan Cemal, one  of Turkey’s most respected journalists, defended his paper’s decision to publish leaked informationon PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s attitudes toward peace talks. In a speech two days later, the prime minister attacked Cemal, saying, “If this is journalism, then down with your journalism!” Milliyet fired Cemal later that month. In December 2013, one of Sabah’s best-known columnists Nazlı Ilıcak was fired the day after she criticized the government over the corruption  scandal on a television news show. In January this year,  Murat Aksoy, a prominent writer for Yeni Şafak, was also dismissed after making similarly critical remarks on air.

Editors and journalists in the mainstream media say that they receive regular phone calls from the prime minister’s office to change stories, to downplay coverage, or to fire reporters or columnists. The accounts are consistent and come from both government critics and those who have supported the AK Party, although the government officials Freedom House met with all denied such calls take place. One journalist said that the phone calls were no longer necessary: “There isn’t a person who calls every five minutes, but there is an expectation that they will.” Some editors have developed a pre-Pavlovian response—firing those who fail to heed the party line even before they hear the bell.

The government also uses the courts to go after offending journalists. Despite strong international criticism, defamation is still criminalized under Turkish law. There is no official tally of defamation lawsuits by the prime minister, but the number may be in the hundreds. In addition to journalists, Erdoğan has sued high school students,  political cartoonists, and musicians.  In February 2012, he sued the then-editor of Taraf daily, Ahmet Altan, for defamation after Altan wrote an editorial criticizing his refusal to apologize after 34 civilians were killed by a Turkish airstrike. Altan later stepped down under pressure from the ownership of Taraf after advertisers became reluctant to advertise. In July 2013, Altan was convicted of defamation and ordered to pay a EUR2,800 fine, on top of the 6,000 euros he was already required to pay in compensation to Erdoğan under a previous civil suit.  In December 2013, Erdoğan accused Taraf journalist Mehmet Baransu of “treason” for a story describing a National Security Council plan to counter the influence of Gülen and his movement.29 Baransu and Taraf are under criminal investigation for the story. In 2008 and 2009, the National Security Organization (MİT) ordered wiretaps of several journalists at Taraf who broke major national security stories. It was later revealed that  MİT used false names for the reporters to prevent the judges from knowing who was being wiretapped.

Journalists say it has become increasingly hard to predict what will draw the prime minister’s ire. One editor in chief told Freedom House, “It could be environmental, economic. After all, everything related to life is related to politics.”Journalist Can Dündar, who was fired from Milliyet in August 2013, said about his editors, “They told me at [Milliyet], I don’t want news that will irritate the prime minister, but I don’t know what news will irritate him. Anything can be irritating, and once we irritate them they fire us.”

The prime minister is not alone in practicing intimidation. During the Gezi protests, the AKP mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, started a Twitter campaign against BBC reporter Selin Girit with the hashtag “#Don’t be a spy in the name of England Selin Girit.” The BBC issued a statement calling the campaign “unacceptable.” In October, the AKP mayor of Eskişehir sent an email to a reporter from Radikal saying it was “vile and inglorious” to continue to report on the case of a protester who was beaten to death by police.

One journalist described how her colleagues relished interviewing the opposition because it gave them a chance to act like “real journalists” by asking difficult questions and pressing for answers. Such aggressive reporting, she said, is not allowed with the AK Party. That too ensures that the coverage of the opposition is far more critical than that of the government.

Art by Gökhan Karakoç. Creative Commons attribution non-commercial license.