Media Ownership and Dependency

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Money is the government’s most potent tool for controlling the media. The breakup of Turkey’s two dominant media groups was complete by 2011, when the Sabah-ATV group had been sold to Çalık Holding, led by Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and Doğan sold the newspapers Milliyet and Vatan to settle its bill from the tax case. The sale of Milliyet, perhaps the most respected brand in Turkish journalism, dramatically diminished the influence of the Doğan Media Group. The huge tax fine also served as a clear warning to other media owners of the cost of challenging the government.

Every holding company with interests in the media sector benefits from government contracts. The following are only select examples:

  • Doğuş Holding (NTV, StarTV) won a $702 million bid in May 2013 to operate Istanbul’s Galataport in Karaköy.
  • In November, İhlas Holding (Türkiye, İhlas News Agency, TGRT TV)   signed a $1.86 billion deal to redevelop Istanbul’s Gaziosmanpaşa neighborhood.
  • The Demirören Group, whose Milangaz subsidiary is one of the country’s liquefied petroleum gas giants and which built the controversial Demirören shopping center on Istanbul’s Istiklal Avenue, bought Milliyet and Vatan from Doğan in 2011. According to Erdoğan himself, the company’s owner, Erdoğan Demirören, asked the prime minister for his recommendation for editor in chief of Milliyet after buying the paper.

The role of public tenders and privatization in maintaining government influence over media cannot be overstated. The prime minister’s office controls billions of dollars in projects per year as the chair of the Privatization High Council (OİB). The PM has final say over privatization approvals, creating a clear incentive for diversified holding companies to avoid all conflict with his office. An even larger amount of money flows through the public procurement process. In 2012, the government issued $46.2 billion worth of contracts, with key holding companies with media outlets eagerly bidding. Billions more are distributed through the Housing Development Administration (TOKİ), also run by the prime minister’s office. Defense industry procurement, also overseen by the PM through the Defense Industry Executive Committee, is another major source of patronage and pressure.

Over time, these procurement practices have become even less transparent. In the last two years, amendments to procurement law placed tenders in multiple sectors (including defense, security, intelligence, technology, and railways) outside the purview of the watchdog Public Procurement Authority (KİK) that is responsible for issuing monitoring reports on public tenders. A change buried in the fourth judicial reform package in 2012 also reduced criminal charges for bid rigging in public tenders.

The Court of Accounts, which is charged with monitoring and reporting to parliament on government spending, was defanged by June 2012 legislation that limited the court’s autonomy to pursue audits. The Constitutional Court overturned the legislation in December 2012, yet the Court of Accounts has been unable to audit public institutions for the last two years and will not be able to do so for at least three more because of an amendment that exempted state institutions from providing account details.

The Savings Deposit and Insurance Fund (TMSF), the body attached to the prime minister’s office that recovers debt owed to banks and failed financial institutions, provides another means for to assert control over the media. TMSF has on several occasions seized control of media organizations whose parent companies have been in trouble. The reliable result is resale to companies sympathetic to the AK Party. This was the mechanism by which the Sabah-ATV group was sold to Çalık Holding in 2007, and in 2013 Çukurova’s media properties went to Ethem Sancak, a wealthy businessmen and a passionate supporter of the PM. Even before Sancak’s purchase of Akşam, TMSF had appointed a former AKP deputy to be the editor in chief of the newspaper.

A remark heard frequently during Freedom House’s investigations is that many owners of powerful holding companies regard media properties as a burden rather than a privilege—a levy that must be paid to ensure continued access to government contracts. An increasingly common phenomenon is a game of “pass the can,” where holding companies bear the cost of running a pro-government media group for a time and then try to transfer ownership to another beneficiary of government favor as quickly as circumstances allow.

The result is an atmosphere of complicity, censorship, and outright stenography on the part of a large segment of the media. It is no longer unusual for multiple newspapers to run the same headline when the political stakes are particularly high. In November, during a very public rift between Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç and Prime Minister Erdoğan over Erdoğan’s vow to use the police to investigate co-ed student housing, six newspapers ran near-identical headlines quoting the prime minister playing down the feud: “We will solve it amongst ourselves” is what readers saw when they picked up their papers.

The same thing happened in early June when seven papers ran headlines with an identical quote from the prime minister on his return from North Africa during the Gezi protests: “I would give my life for the demands of democracy,” he declared, suggesting that like his hero Adnan Menderes, the prime minister hanged by the military in 1960, he was willing to martyr himself for the cause of democracy.

The government and its supporters acknowledge that media owners are eager to please the prime minister, and even that these owners may be afraid of the consequences of displeasing him. But they refuse to take responsibility for the atmosphere of intimidation described consistently by reporters, editors, and even some owners, speaking privately. Without apparent irony, ministers insist that if owners and editors are “real journalists,” they should be able to withstand the pressure against them. As the editor in chief of one of the country’s leading papers told Freedom House, “You are ‘free’ to write anything, if you are willing to pay the price. This is the atmosphere created by the prime minister’s office.”

Imprisonment and Detention

Six pro-government newspapers on November 9, 2013, feature headlines saying “We will solve it amongst ourselves”

The most chilling example of government abuse is the detention and imprisonment of a large number of journalists, mainly but not all Kurdish. As of December 1, 2013, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found that 40 journalists were imprisoned as a result oftheir work. While down from the 49 that the organization documented in 2012, the number still made Turkey the top jailer of journalists in the world, ahead of China and Iran. Local monitoring organization Bianet lists 59 imprisoned journalists and 23 media employees.

As other reports have documented, the majority of the journalists in prison or in pretrial detention are Kurds working for outlets associated with the Kurdish movement. According to some analysts, the government is keeping the journalists and activists to be used as bargaining chips with the PKK in negotiations.

Approximately one-quarter of the imprisoned journalists (as counted by CPJ) work for media outlets associated with banned leftist movements, while a smaller number were swept up in the Ergenekon trials. Two of the reporters that covered the trial, Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, were held in pretrial detention for over a year on charges of being part of Ergenekon, the organization they were supposed to be covering. Şener, who had written a book accusing police of organizing the murder of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, and Şık, who had written a book about Gülen supporters in the police, are still facing charges of supporting an armed terrorist organization in the OdaTV case, one of the spinoffs from the original Ergenekon trial.

The high number of imprisoned and detained journalists in Turkey is a direct consequence of overly broad and aggressively applied antiterrorism laws, combined with a judicial system that too often sees its role as protecting the state, rather than the individual. Flagrant abuses of due process and fair trial are common. Even after several rounds of reform, the antiterrorism laws make it possible to prosecute journalists for producing “propaganda” for terrorist organizations or “aiding” a criminal organization with a low burden of proof. The definitions of “terrorism,” “terrorist organization,” and “propaganda” continue to be so open-ended that interviews with PKK leaders or descriptions of PKK activities, as well as other “armed” or “terrorist” organizations, could easily be used for prosecution of journalists. According to Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that 8,995 people were imprisoned as of last year on terrorism charges. These fundamental ambiguities in the law and the history of their use should be remembered when Erdoğan describes the Gülen movement as an “organization” that has committed “treachery.”