Murad Sezer / Courtesy Reuters Protesters passing a burning barricade in Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 11, 2013.

The Turkish Media’s Darkest Hour

How Erdogan Got the Protest Coverage He Wanted

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.

The protests began on May 28 with a small, peaceful sit-in in Gezi Park, a small patch of trees in central Istanbul that had been slated for demolition. Following a brutal police crackdown, the protests swelled in size, drawing in thousands of students, liberals, leftists, Alevis, trade unions, secularists, and Kurds. Yet even as the scale of the demonstrations became clear, a number of major newspapers buried the story. And on June 1, as mass demonstrations and rioting erupted across dozens of cities, the main news channels buried their necks in the sand. That night, CNN Turk, a leading broadcaster, aired hours of documentaries -- on a 1970s novelist, dolphin training, and penguins. At some point, it cut to a news bulletin. It lasted maybe all of 5 minutes, featured a few sound bytes from ruling party officials, a few shots of the protests, and no word from the demonstrators themselves. Overnight, the penguin became a symbol of all that was wrong with the Turkish press.

This is not the first time in recent memory that the media have recoiled under government pressure. A similar clampdown occurred just last month, after a terrorist bombing claimed 52 lives in Reyhanli, a Turkish town near the border with Syria. Similarly, Turkish media faced a gag order in late December 2011, when army pilots, mistaking smugglers for PKK fighters, rained bombs on the Iraqi border and killed 34 civilians. Vildan Ay, a former news anchor at Sky Turk, a TV station, told me she had to sit on the story for hours until foreign news agencies began covering it and officials in Ankara confirmed it.

In the wake of the Gezi Park protests, however, the censorship seems to have become too blatant, too offensive to tolerate -- not only for many viewers and readers but also for a number of journalists themselves. Since the beginning of June, thousands of people have picketed the offices of several mainstream news stations. Ever since Haberturk TV aired a lengthy interview in which the editor in chief of the company’s newspaper treated Erdogan to a barrage of softballs, crowds of protesters have gathered in front of the station’s headquarters. “They’re shouting slogans against the editor in chief, our station, and our newspaper,” Ay, now a news editor at Haberturk, told me. She and a number of colleagues, themselves fed up with the station’s coverage, couldn't be happier: “We’re clapping, we’re waving to them from the windows. It's so funny. They’re protesting us, but we are part of the protest.”

The crisis of the free press isn’t as simple as direct censorship or a chasm between pro- and anti-government media (although a number of outlets have been taken over by businessmen with close ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish acronym, AKP). The real problem in Turkey is that all mainstream media, sympathetic to the AKP or not, have little choice but to be on good terms with the powers that be. This is as true now as it was when the AKP wasn’t around, and when it was the once omnipotent army -- which managed to bring down four governments since 1960 and which Erdogan’s government has since brought to heel -- that ruled from the sidelines. Today, however, it is more visible than ever before.

For most media bosses, newspapers are little more than vehicles to curry favor with the authorities. Given the amount of cash that they hemorrhage each year, most media outlets, at least from an economic perspective, are useless investments. Where the media titans can rake in the big bucks is through investments in such areas as mining, construction, or port services, sectors where the biggest client is none other than the government itself. With public contracts worth billions of dollars at stake, and with the process for seeking them notoriously opaque, the bosses have to tread carefully. Stepping on the government’s toes often means being left out in the cold. Just ask Aydin Dogan. The media tycoon, whose newspapers ran a series of articles in 2008 about a corruption scandal allegedly involving the AKP, was first publicly shamed by the prime minister and then slapped with a record fine of $3.2 billion for tax irregularities.

Back when the generals pulled the strings, the taboo issues were the Armenian genocide of 1915, the Kurdish situation, and the military itself. Today, says Esra Arsan, a former reporter who is currently a professor of journalism and media studies at Istanbul Bilgi University, it’s the hard-hitting stories on government corruption and corporate malpractice that are off limits. Criticizing Erdogan and his government’s policies, meanwhile, is like navigating a minefield: some journalists get away with it, many do not, and most dare not try.

Censorship can come in a number of guises, Arsan notes. “It may be a telephone call from a government adviser, sometimes from the prime minister himself, or a face-to-face meeting.” Most of the time, however, the government gets the coverage it wants by eliciting a conditioned response from the media. “The media know,” says Arsan. “They’ve become experts on how to censor themselves.”

The scale of the problem is astounding. Of the journalists Arsan interviewed for a 2011 study, 95 percent said the government intervened in editorial decisions, 89 percent said the media bosses did, and 100 percent reported that censorship was common. Although a few leading columnists still have the courage or the leverage needed to cover the difficult issues or criticize the government without mincing words, their ranks are rapidly thinning. Since 2012, newspapers have parted ways with some of the biggest names in Turkish journalism, including Hasan Cemal, Amberin Zaman, Ece Temelkuran, and Nuray Mert. Once let go, says Arsan, many become too hot to touch. “There are secret agreements between the media bosses that if one of them fires a journalist the other ones will not hire them,” she explains. In most cases, it isn’t the fear of being jailed that breeds self-censorship but the fear of being left jobless, branded, and unemployable.

If the latest protests have become the mainstream media’s darkest hour, they have also become Twitter’s finest. Social media had already been enormously popular in Turkey well before the protests, with many journalists furiously tweeting the kind of opinions they could never voice on air or in their newspapers’ pages. In the past two weeks, however, it has witnessed a veritable explosion. According to Topsy.com, as of June 14 the number of tweets containing the hashtag #direngeziparkı (“Resist Gezi Park”) sent since the beginning of the protests had surpassed 4,500,000. The number of those containing #occupygezi was 2,300,000. The backlash has come quickly. Several days into the protests, Erdogan labeled Twitter “the greatest scourge to befall society.” On the night of June 4, police in Izmir, a western city where protests have been held daily, 34 Twitter users were detained on charges of incitement to commit a crime or to disobey the law. All but one have since been released.

The outcry, over Twitter and elsewhere, seems to have shamed at least some media outlets into picking up the pieces. After NTV, another leading broadcaster, failed to provide live coverage of the first days of the protests, crowds, consisting mostly of young urban professionals, marched on the company’s Istanbul headquarters, chanting, among other things, "The media has sold out!" Outraged protesters torched an NTV truck in the center of Istanbul. Several of the station’s journalists resigned. Eventually, an NTV employee told me on condition of anonymity, “The social media reaction reached such a point that it became unbearable to the bosses.” That, he said, was when the company’s CEO decided to issue an apology to the station’s viewers. NTV soon began providing coverage around the clock, as did a few other stations. A reconciliatory statement by President Abdullah Gul, who broke with Erdogan by telling protesters that their “message had been received,” may also have been a factor in the decision, the NTV employee acknowledged, “but not a big one.”

Now, says Arsan, journalists “have begun asking what the hell are they doing over there, because they’re not doing journalism.” In this sense, the protests may mark a turning point for Turkish media. “Once you hit rock bottom,” she adds, “you have to start going to the top somehow.”

Then again, perhaps it will be more of the same. On the night of June 7, after Erdogan returned from a four-day trip to North Africa, he made yet another defiant speech, conceding practically nothing to the protesters. The following morning, the front pages of six major newspapers opened with a quote from the speech that couldn’t contrast more with the gist of what the prime minister said but which they had probably been force-fed by government spin doctors: “We are open to democratic demands.”

Meanwhile, the government is already lashing out against media outlets. On June 11, Turkey's High Council of Radio and Television fined four television stations that had provided live coverage of the protests from the very beginning for “encouraging people to violence” and “violating broadcasting principles.” And on June 14, it gave notice to Hayat TV, another station, that it would shut down its broadcast signal by the end of the day.

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