Turkey: government also seeking to gain control of the Internet

The diversity of Turkey’s media landscape has long since disappeared; through various mechanisms the government has brought almost 90 percent of the media under its control. Now it wants to further expand its sphere of influence: all online broadcastings of sound and image recordings have been placed under the control of the Turkish Broadcasting Authority (RTÜK). This measure affects streaming services like Netflix as well as opposition media.

The Turks are among the most avid users of Facebook and Twitter worldwide.
The Turks are among the most avid users of Facebook and Twitter worldwide.
There has been no easing of the massive pressure on independent, critical media exerted by the AKP government for years, which intensified after the failed coup attempt in 2016. Even if there have been no new waves of arrests of journalists in 2020, forty-four media workers remain behind bars. Media outlets considered to be troublesome are banned, face heavy fines or lose their advertising partners because the latter are afraid of being penalised by association with these media. News blackouts, which the government uses to prevent reporting on politically sensitive issues, are another commonly used instrument of censorship.

Not content with all this, President Erdoğan’s AKP government is now also extending its attacks to the Internet. In reaction to the state’s repressive measures virtually all anti-government reporting has moved online. Nowadays it is mainly websites like Artı Gerçek, T24 and Gazete Duvar that cover the topics the traditional media keep quiet about. Social media also play a key role: ninety percent of Turkey’s Internet users are active on these platforms, and the Turks are among the most avid users of Facebook and Twitter worldwide.

Cigarettes and alcohol pixelized

All audiovisual Internet services were put under the supervision of the Turkish media watchdog RTÜK in 2019. For years, this strict authority has made sure that all images showing consumption of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages on television are pixelated in the name of the protection of minors. Now streaming providers such as Netflix and the Turkish service BluTV are also required to do the same.

The measure applies not only to entertainment programmes, but also to Internet TV channels that are critical of the government such as Medyascope, which in recent years has become an important alternative source of information for opponents of the government. The only other oppositional voices are the conventional television channels Fox TV, which is owned by US media mogul Rupert Murdoch and therefore financially independent, and Halk TV, a nationwide channel with close ties to the opposition party CHP. Online media now have to pay over 15,000 euros to obtain a licence from RTÜK. For small broadcasters, many of which are initiatives set up by unemployed critical journalists, this is a major obstacle.

Media concentration among powerful corporate groups

Self-censorship is also widespread among journalists in Turkey. They fear repressive measures not only by the government, but also by their employers. The economic structure of the Turkish media landscape is a major factor behind this: around 70 percent of Turkish media are in the hands of a few large groups. In addition to traditional media holding companies, since 2010 conservative Islamic entrepreneurs with close ties to the government have also acquired several major media outlets. As a result, the high-circulation daily Sabah and the TV channel ATV are now government mouthpieces. Almost all the media groups are in turn owned by a handful of conglomerates that are also active in non-media sectors such as construction, finance or the energy sector. This means that information that runs counter to these companies’ commercial interests is often suppressed, and in order to win lucrative government contracts they also hinder government-critical reporting.

In 2009 the Doğan Media Group, at the time the country’s largest media conglomerate which owned the daily newspaper Hürriyet and TV channel CNN Türk, was ordered to pay billions in tax fines. Prior to that its reporting had been highly critical of the government. After the fine, its tone softened. But the government refused to forgive the Doğan group for its critical headlines against Erdoğan in the 1990s and kept on piling on the pressure until in March 2018 the group was sold to the government-affiliated holding company Demirören, which already owned major newspapers such as Milliyet and Habertürk. Consequently, the government now has around 90 percent of the media under its control.

The independent newspapers are in dire straits and can only survive with alternative business models. Although not as influential as the former Doğan Media Group, Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel and Birgün are now the last remaining bastions of opposition reporting in the print sector. But mirroring the situation in politics, these media are unable to overcome their differences and present a united front against the government’s repressive measures. Due to its predominantly nationalistic style, the Kemalist daily Sözcü is rejected by certain opposition circles, who prefer to read the pro-Kurdish daily Evrensel. The latter, in turn, is perceived by many Turks as Kurdish nationalist and pro-PKK.

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 154 (2020)

Last updated: April 2020
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