Turkey: the last bastion of critical reporting has fallen

Just a few years ago Turkey had a lively media landscape that offered space for all kinds of voices. But with the arrest of some 150 journalists over the past years, and the sale of Doğan - the only remaining media group without ties to the government - to the pro-government Demirören-Group, the last vestiges of diversity and pluralism have been eradicated.

The German journalist Günter Wallraff (second from right) demonstrating in Istanbul for the release of Ahmet Şık and other journalists.
The German journalist Günter Wallraff (second from right) demonstrating in Istanbul for the release of Ahmet Şık and other journalists.
“I am not defending myself, I am making an accusation." These were the words of the prominent Turkish journalist Ahmet Şık when he was brought before an Istanbul court in July 2017. His words leave no doubt about his opinion of the allegations that he had spread propaganda for the Gülen movement: namely that they were simply part of the AKP government's campaign against critical journalists, with the judiciary acting as its stooges.

Şık was arrested in October 2016, three months after the state declared a state of emergency following the failed coup. The state of emergency marked another milestone in the AKP government's sustained crackdown on critical media. Within the space of four months more than 176 media outlets had been banned by decree and more than 144 journalists arrested. Most face accusations of spreading terrorist propaganda or supporting either the Gülen movement or the Kurdish PKK, in many cases without any investigation or trial having taken place.

Another instrument of censorship are the news blackouts the government uses to prevent media from reporting on politically sensitive issues. Critical media are also bombarded with fines and their advertising clients intimidated. Self-censorship is widespread among journalists and deeply entrenched in the economic structure of the Turkish media.

In addition to the established media companies, conservative Islamic entrepreneurs with close ties to the government have also been buying up more major media outlets since 2010. As a result the high-circulation daily Sabah and the TV channel ATV have been become government mouthpieces.
Almost all media groups are owned by a handful of companies that are also active in non-media sectors such as construction, finance or the energy sector. Information that runs counter to their business interests is often suppressed, and in order to win lucrative government contracts they also prevent government-critical reporting.

Another blow to critical coverage was the sale of the largest media group, Doğan, which owns the daily newspaper Hürriyet and CNN Türk, to Demirören, a government holding company. Back in 2009 the Doğan Group had already been sentenced to pay billions in tax fines. Before that its reporting was highly critical of the government. Afterwards its tone softened, but the government continued to pile on the pressure, until Doğan finally surrendered in March 2018. As a result of this sale, pro-government corporations now own 90 percent of the country’s media.

Particularly worrying is that the Doğan group sold not only its newspapers and TV stations, but also Yaysat, the largest, nationwide distributor which was responsible for the delivery of all opposition newspapers and magazines. This raises the question of how, if at all, critical publications can be distributed in the future.

This could mean that government-critical reporting will only exist online. Websites like Artı Gerçek, T24 and Diken are already covering topics that the established media keep quiet about. Social media play a key role, with ninety percent of Internet users actively using them. The Turks are among the most avid users of Facebook and Twitter worldwide.

But online reporting is also increasingly coming under pressure. In addition to Internet blockades and mass legal proceedings against commentators on social media, a new bill rules that all sound and video recordings broadcast online on a regular basis will be subject to the control of the Broadcasting Authority (RTÜK) in the future. This would mean that opposition media could be blocked and access to foreign platforms such as Netflix controlled in the future.

Independent media are struggling and only survive by using alternative business models. Although not as strong as the former Doğan Holding, Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Evrensel and Birgün are the only "surviving" strongholds of opposition reporting. But even they are not entirely unproblematic in the eyes of the public. 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. Consequently, just like the political opposition, government-critical media often fail to form a united front against repressive measures.

The main medium is television: Turks watch an average of five hours of television a day. A mere 20 percent of the population reads newspapers. Apart from Fox TV, which belongs to the US media mogul Rupert Murdoch and is therefore financially independent, and Halk TV, the channel run by the opposition party CHP, critical coverage is no longer found on any Turkish television channels. The common language, however, is polarising and often nationalist. The content of the TV programmes has also changed dramatically over the last few years. A growing number of purportedly historical series or war dramas are being aired that convey a distorted view of history, with the Ottoman Empire glorified as a major Islamist, nationalist power. Since a large percentage of the population is not particularly well-read, it tends to accept this fictional content as fact.

Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 155 (2018)

Last updated: May 2018

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More information about press freedom in Turkey is available »here (in English).
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