The Turkish Media’s Darkest Hour

How Erdogan Got the Protest Coverage He Wanted

Anti-Erdogan Turkish protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul, during the Gezi Park demonstrations, June 11, 2013.
Protesters passing a burning barricade in Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 11, 2013. (Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters)

Two weeks into the protests that have raged in Istanbul and dozens of other cities across Turkey, a few things have become clear. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose authoritarian style of governance has made him the target of the demonstrators’ anger, has been weakened but remains popular and fully in charge. Those frustrated with his government's policies, as well as with the opposition's clumsy attempts to provide alternatives, have finally found a voice, if not necessarily a leader. One of the protests’ most tangible outcomes, however, has been to lay bare the full extent to which Erdogan’s government has brought the Turkish media to heel.

Over the past few years, Turkey has made headlines as the world’s top jailer of journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders, a nongovernmental organization that supports press freedom, 67 journalists currently sit in Turkish prisons. For a country that has cast itself, not altogether mistakenly, as a regional leader and a beacon of democracy in the Middle East and the Muslim world more broadly, that is bad news.

The government insists that only a small fraction of the jailed journalists are behind bars for crimes related to their reporting. (Most of the journalists are Kurds accused of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, considered a terrorist group.) Human rights organizations and media watchdogs beg to differ. Of the 67 jailed journalists, a Reporters Without Borders spokesperson said in an email, “a minimum of 33 journalists and 2 media assistants” have been detained for their reporting.

Yet the debate about numbers misses the point. As the last two weeks have shown, Turkey’s jailed journalists are only the most visible symptom of a much wider malaise: the cowing of the country’s free press.

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