Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

  • January 10, 2014

City & Commons

Nowhere has the post-Gezi clampdown been felt more acutely than in the media, where corporate ownership remains the greatest threat to press freedom.

The Gezi Park protests that took hold of Istanbul and a number of other Turkish cities in June this year were broadcast across the world. With their dramatic scenes of enormous crowds rallying in Taksim Square, riot police firing tear gas and water cannon at unarmed young people at close range, and pitched battles between police and masked protesters playing out in the back streets of Istanbul’s most touristic district, it made for sensational and surreal viewing. After the protests ended, however, most of the camera crews and reporters returned home.

After the world’s attention moved on, the lack of international scrutiny gave the government the leeway it needed to mete out the sanctions and penalties it felt were warranted by the embarrassing show of civil disobedience and dissent.

The past few months have witnessed a backlash of remarkable scope, affecting all levels of society. Not only protesters have been pursued. Media workers, civil society representatives, health workers, lawyers, teachers, and many others have been subject to intimidation, investigation and condemnation. In some cases, legal steps have been taken against those seen to have supported the protesters, and measures have also been taken to dissuade people from providing such support in the future.

This clampdown has been acutely felt in the media. Journalists have been pursued in the courts, entire publications have folded, and the toll of those displaced from their jobs continues to rise. A large-scale purge of journalists critical of the government has been underway, and intimidation and pressure against those who remain has been scaled up considerably.

Media Ownership in Turkey

To understand the serious obstacles to press freedom in Turkey, it is necessary to understand the problematic ownership structures, which have a profound impact on the nature and content of the mainstream media.

Partly due to a general lack of profitability in the sector, the corporations that own the largest media companies in Turkey are also invested in other sectors, such as energy, finance and construction. This leads to a clear conflict of interest that is aggravated by the presence of individuals with close ties to the government, such as family members of ministers, on the executive boards. Dr. Ceren Sözeri, of Galatasaray University’s Faculty of Communications, has highlighted the striking increase in the number of public tenders being won by pro-government media:

The media owners are increasingly winning the important public tenders in proportion to their sizes, and the role of their media operations during this process cannot be underestimated. It also explains why the media owners please the government at every possible occasion and why self-censorship is so widespread in the media during the Gezi protests, for instance.

The government exerts considerable influence over content, though indirectly for the most part. Op-ed pieces, for example, have been known to be directly commissioned from pro-government think tanks, which would on occasion send “ready-made propaganda” to newspaper editors, veteran journalist Yavuz Baydar explained to me last month.

The structure of media ownership in Turkey means that issues such as defence, nuclear power, construction, and the economy are covered in a superficial, amateurish way, or sometimes not at all. Gökhan Diler, reporter at independent newspaper Agos, regards these issues as far more difficult to write about than certain politically sensitive topics such as the Kurdish minority issue.

This is because outsiders, particularly countries in the West, are not paying such close attention to domestic aspects like corruption, so much as long-standing conflicts with an international dimension, like the Kurdish peace process or tensions with Armenia surrounding the recognition of the genocide in 1915.

There is broad agreement that the ownership issue is by far the most prominent barrier to press freedom and quality journalism in Turkey, playing a far more significant role than the individual ethics of journalists, and this was certainly the case when it came to the mainstream media’s response to the Gezi protests.

Blackout: The Coverage of the Protests

The media coverage of the Gezi protests was very problematic, says Diler: “Or rather, there was no coverage, there was a blackout.” Most mainstream media, particularly pro-government papers and broadcasters, began by not reporting the protests at all, and subsequently did so in a limited and very critical manner.

Some news outlets such as Ulusal and Halk TV, which benefit from greater freedom and independence than the mainstream media, as they are not caught up in the same ownership structure, streamed live coverage of the protests, which became one of the few channels for following the protests when most broadcasters were not covering the events at all. Yet as Diler points out, the partisan nature of these outlets and their affiliation with political parties meant that they also engaged in a degree of political manipulation to suit their own agendas.

The result of the way the Gezi protests were reported was to bring about a heightened awareness of the partiality of the media, particularly among those who experienced the protests first-hand. As veteran journalist and author Andrew Finkel notes, it also led to the realization that other events, such as the Kurdish conflict, had been treated by the media in same way for years — receiving distorted coverage or in some cases no coverage at all.

Another consequence, according to Ercan İpekçi — veteran journalist and President of the Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGS) — was that people rejected mainstream media in favor of social media. Social media do not constitute journalism, İpekçi stresses, and in fact they were often conducive to the propagation of unfounded rumors and disinformation during the protests.

The problem, according to Finkel, is that both the media and the government were unsure how to react as they suffered from a fundamental lack of understanding as to what the protests were about, which has still not been overcome. This led to a general sense of paranoia, a government constantly looking over its shoulder, which led to far-reaching consequences in all areas of society, in order to prevent a re-occurrence of such events.

After Gezi: The Fall-Out

Perhaps the most visible and immediate effect in the media were the extensive dismissals that took place during and after the protests. According to data gathered by the TGS, 85 journalists are known to have lost their jobs in connection with the protests. İpekçi, however, believes the real number to be over 200, when taking into account journalists who were forced to resign under pressure, or those who were demoted.

Yavuz Baydar was dismissed from his position as ombudsman with the daily Sabah in July. Before he was fired, Sabah’s editorial board had refused to publish two of his columns relating to the Gezi protests and government-media relations. “Two days later,” he recounted in The Guardian, “I was fired. The reason: I had expressed my views on press freedom in Turkey in an article in the New York Times.”

While government representatives would sometimes call media owners or editors directly to express their discontentment with a story or column, İpekçi points out that in many cases “it was easier for media owners themselves to say these reactions should not be published,” engaging in the self-censorship of their own media outlets.

Many media workers were also dismissed for their use of social media in a personal capacity. Turkey’s public broadcaster TRT, for example, dismissed two of its employees for tweets sent from their personal accounts in support of the Gezi demonstrations. One employee was dismissed for sharing a post on social media judged to contain “scorning and deriding attributes targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”

For those channels which did cover the protests, there were penalties in the form of heavy fines on the grounds of “incitement to violence” and “violating broadcasting principles”. The fines were imposed by Turkey’s media regulator, the High Council of Radio and Television (RTÜK), which is dominated by members of the ruling party.

Over the summer, history magazine NTV Tarih was prevented from publishing an issue focusing on the protests. The special edition was blocked, and shortly afterwards the entire magazine was shut down permanently.

Tamed: The State of the Media Today

The only lesson that has been learned by the government, says Finkel, is about the extent to which social media is being used, and not by its allies. This realization has led the government to resolve to extend its use of social media, as an instrument among its own ranks, particularly among its young supporters. Finkel’s argument is backed up by reports that the AKP has recruited thousands as part of a drive to increase its presence on social media and counter critical sentiments expressed against the government.

When discussing the legacy of the government and mainstream media’s treatment of the Gezi protests, the word “polarization” is repeated time and time again. What exists now, says Baydar, is “a more tamed media”; a media that has been and can be “bought by money or intimidation.” While the bulk of columnists are now largely pro-government, others feel more intimidated. For him, there has been an “entrenchment in media,” which is increasingly demarcated in partisan terms, impossible to reconcile.

The Hrant Dink Foundation, established by the family of the assassinated former editor of Agos, monitors hate speech in the media and periodically publishes reports with analysis on the topic. Zeynep Arslan, who is involved in this work, said they observed that hate speech was strengthened after Gezi, as a result of the polarization that aggravated social fault lines and heightened pre-existing suspicions.

For İpekçi, the driving forces behind this polarization are government policies and the mainstream media. The tension and hostility conveyed by the divisive narrative favored in the media are not reflective of society, where by and large, people are more understanding of one another, he argues.

Although the outlook for media in Turkey appears bleak, in light of recent events and a general atmosphere described by Baydar as “poisonous”, it is possible to discern certain positive trends. Diler argues that Gezi was generally positive for minorities as some groups, which had previously been ignored by the media, such as the LGBTQ rights campaign, gained greater visibility.

İpekçi also notes a broader shift in society: “The level of conscience is higher now… Society has learned to demand its rights.”

This essay is part of the first ROAR symposium: ‘Reflections on the Gezi Uprising.’

1. Editorial
Gezi and the Spirit of Revolt

2. Rüzgar Akhat
Gezi: Losing the Fear, Living the Dream

3. Dilan Koese
Revolt of Dignity: Gezi and the Global Legitimation Crisis

4. Burak Kose
The Culmination of Resistance Against Urban Neoliberalism

5. David Selim Sayers
Gezi Spirit: The Possibility of an Impossibility

6. Cagla Aykac
Strong Bodies, Dirty Shoes: An Ode to the Resistance

7. Stephen Snyder
Gezi Park and the Transformative Power of Art

8. ROAR Collective
The Sultan Is Watching: Erdoğan’s Lust for Power

9. Yasemin Acar & Melis Ulug
The Body Politicized: The Visibility of Women at Gezi

10. Elif Genc
At Gezi, a Common Voice Against State Brutality

11. Erkan Gursel
Sarisuluk’s Story: A Family Fighting for Justice

12. Beatrice White
Cracking Down on the Press: Turkish Media after Gezi

13. Matze Kasper
To Survive, the Gezi Movement Will Have to Compromise

14. Mark Bergfeld
Beyond the Hashtags? Gezi and the AKP’s Media Power

15. Emrah Güler
Is Social Media Still the Way to Resist in Turkey?

16. Lou Zucker
Reclaim the Urban Commons: Istanbul’s First Squat

17. Christopher Patz
From Madrid to Istanbul: Occupying Public Space

18. Sinan Eden
The Mayonnaise Effect: International Inspiration from Gezi

19. Mehmet Döşemeci
Superman, Clark Kent, and the Limits of the Gezi Uprising

20. Editorial
Beyond Gezi: What Future for the Movement?

Beatrice White

Beatrice White is a copy-editor for the English language daily, The Hurriyet Daily News, in Istanbul.

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