Turkey Dispatch: A Modern Media, But Not Free

A tv journalist in between segments. Live at Bugün's studios in Istanbul.

A journalist in between segments during my visit to Bugün television in Istanbul.

What does it mean for a government to restrict freedom of the press? Take, for instance, a story about a wide-ranging, multi-million dollar bribery and payoff scandal involving top government officials that erupted last December. Or a catastrophic explosion in May near a border town that killed dozens and injured dozens more, likely the result of a suicide bomber. Or even a mine collapse causing the deaths of 301 workers, also in May. Or even the kidnappings of diplomats, special forces troops, and family members of consulate officials when ISIS insurgent fighters took over the city of Mosul in Iraq just last month.  All of these important news stories–among others–are explicitly banned by the Turkish government, with heavy penalties for any Turkish media outlet that dares to make mention of them.

On my recent visit to Turkey, we met with television hosts, newspaper writers and editors, media executives, public intellectuals, and others involved in the public conversation in Turkey–and the stories we kept hearing centered on media restrictions imposed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Turkey is in many ways a successful nation–its history, culture, natural beauty, hospitality, and cuisine make it a major tourist destination; its urban infrastructure, planning, and even landscaping make U.S. cities look dirty and neglected in comparison; and its growing industry and industriousness have the potential to place Turkey among the top ten economies in the world within the next ten years. Yet, although Turkey’s government is strongly secular and based on a parliamentary system, Erdoğan and his majority party, the AKP, have become increasingly authoritarian in style and have appealed to religious conservatism and spread rumors and conspiracy theories in order to suppress their opposition.

In addition to prohibiting any reporting on specific stories, here are a few other key features of media repression under Erdoğan and the AKP:

  • Government Control of Media Outlets – One of the media professionals we spoke with estimated that about 2/3 of Turkish media is in some way controlled directly by the AKP. If outlets aren’t directly state-run, compliant owners benefit from lucrative business deals as rewards. Media owners and journalists are even said to receive hefty cash payoffs for running pro-AKP propaganda. The most infamous example of this was during the first days of last yeas’s anti-government protests (and police brutality against protesters), when CNN-Turk opted to run a series of documentaries about penguins instead of covering a major national news story.
  • Restrictions / Reprisals Against Independent Media Outlets and Journalists – High-ranking officials, including Erdoğan himself, are known to call media outlets and tell them to “tone it down” if criticism gets too close for comfort. If outlets do not comply, owners are hit with government restrictions on licensing, contracts, or other means of conducting business. Journalists and writers themselves may be accused of being spies for foreign governments (such as the U.S. or Israel, perpetual bogeymen) or complicit with terrorist organizations, and imprisoned. The organization Reporters Without Borders rated Turkish media freedom earlier this year as 154 out of 180 countries, lagging behind Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Iraq.
  • Control of Social Media – Because Turkey’s youth–and citizenry–increasingly turn to social media, especially Twitter, for news in an era of media repression, Erdoğan has spoken out against social media, calling it the “worst menace to society.” He banned Twitter in Turkey earlier this year, which backfired by causing masses of Turkish Twitter users to find alternative ways of using the platform, including the sitting president of Turkey, and then, late during the ban, maybe even Erdoğan himself. YouTube was also banned for two months.
Advertisement on an Ankara billboard for AKP, showing Erdoğan and the words "Iron Will."

Advertisement on an Ankara billboard for AKP, showing Erdoğan and the words “Iron Will.”

We might make the cynical observation that a nation gets only the government that it tolerates, or even creates. But. The work of opposition parties, the rising resistance of independent media outlets, and the fact that a remarkable and growing number of Turks, especially youth, are taking to the streets and to social media to express their free opinions–all of this speaks to a profound yearning in Turkey for a fair and democratic governmental system, the rule of law, and engagement with the realities of what’s happening in the news and on the ground in and around their country. Here are a few things happening that, despite the very real and ongoing media repression in Turkey, nevertheless should give us cause for optimism:

  • Attempts to Overturn Media Bans in Court – Yesterday the main Turkish opposition party, the CHP, filed a petition to the Constitutional Court to remove the ban on covering the Mosul kidnappings on the basis of it being a violation of the guarantee of free expression in Turkey’s constitution. The Constitutional Court ordered an end to the ban on Twitter, so there may be some hope here even though Turkey’s judicial system too often caves to the “iron will” of the AKP rather than deferring to Turkish constitutional principles.
  • Popularity of Independent Media – The newspaper Zaman, an independently-owned publication that has suffered some reprisals from the AKP (such as having sales banned in airports) is nevertheless the best-selling newspaper in Turkey with a circulation of one million papers in print, in addition to its online readership. (For those of us reading along in English, they also publish an English-language edition called Today’s Zaman.) Bugün television, an independent outlet that hosts political analysis and discussion shows, has seen a spike in viewership as well, showing that politics may be more interesting to Turks than penguin documentaries.
  • Surge in Social Media Engagement – Turkey is the fourth-largest nation of Facebook users. Just a few years ago it was estimated that more than 16% of Turkish internet users (and about 60% of Turkish households use the internet) used Twitter, and that number has increased during and after the recent ban on Twitter. If you can’t find news about critical events happening in your country and region in your local media–it’s there on Twitter or elsewhere on the internet.

Maybe I’m just another American “conspiring” against Erdoğan’s authoritarian tactics–and I’ll say this with pride. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” As someone who believes firmly that citizens are not truly free unless they can speak about what is happening to them as well as hear the stories of others–and have opportunities to learn, discuss, and analyze information from different perspectives–I fully support the struggle of Turkish citizens against the repression of their country’s media outlets and journalists. Stories must be told. And those stories must be heard.

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