The end of the road for free media in Turkey

The end of the road for free media in Turkey

Commentary on media environment in the aftermath of the elections                                                                                                                                                                            

It has now been nearly a month since Turkey has had its latest general elections. The liberals, democrats and the left in Turkey are still struggling to come to terms with the 49.5 percent vote that swept the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the party of Turkey's autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to victory.

Repression of the media in Turkey over the past five years or so has displayed properties not fundamentally different from those in other nations in its region. The most powerful media groups, which have traditionally been owned by business moguls active in various segments ranging from energy to automotive, have either changed hand through court rulings issued under the new judicial system loyal to Erdoğan and been transferred to government friendly businessmen, or the already existing owners have chosen to ally themselves with the government.

We know from voice recordings leaked two years ago that Turkey's autocrat ordered businessmen to gather "a pool of financial resources" to buy media organizations if they want to stay in the good graces of the government, which is a prerequisite for winning public tenders. The same recordings and other indicators clearly show that these organizations are a financial burden, a hefty extra tax on businesses.  

Currently, about 70 percent of all print media and televisions are in the hands of the government. Commentators have noted that speaking of fair elections in such a media environment where most outlets serve as the mouthpieces of the AKP would be absurd.

Media organizations that have been critical, such as the Koza-İpek Group whose companies, including newspaper and televisions, were recently seized by the government, are being taken over by sheer force. Erdoğan has made it clear that he knows no law above his own decisions. Seizures of other media organizations are imminent in the current environment.  

Mechanisms of repression

Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs over the past two years for so much as tweeting an anti-Erdoğan view point. Other mechanisms of repression also remain in place. As of late November, 28 journalists, most of them Kurds, are currently in jail on either charges of terrorism or charges of "insulting the president", a crime under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), Article 299.

Such a backdrop certainly entails a good deal of overt and covert censorship and self-censorship. Dissenting views, which have increasingly migrated to alternative online news media and the social media haven't had it any easier. Currently, about 80,000 websites in Turkey are blocked, a feat that can be achieved quite easily under Turkey's draconian internet laws. Twitter and YouTube bans are common.

It is no surprise that with its starving journalists, weary intellectuals and hugely demoralized opposition, Turkey succumbed to the all-powerful autocrat and his Soviet-like propaganda tools. The failure of the Turkish media to stand in solidarity against this onslaught has played a big role in the government's resounding election victory. Suicide attacks ahead of the November 1 election in Ankara that claimed 100 lives, state violence against the country's Kurds in the south-east and the craftily instilled fear of coalition governments in the hearts of voters have landed us here.

But where is here?

Four days before the election, the government used the judiciary, which it has effectively brought under full control, to seize the İpek-Koza Group, which also owns media outlets by appointing a board of trustees, whose members make hundreds of thousands of lira in salaries to add insult to injury. Legal experts have noted Ankara 5th Criminal Court of Peace did not ground its decision to appoint trustees to the boards of companies affiliated with the Koza İpek group with proper legal grounds. The decision in fact violated Turkey's Code of Criminal Procedures, which clearly states that a board of trustees can be appointed to a corporation only under extraordinary circumstances.

İpek-Koza Group is affiliated with the Fethullah Gülen Movement, a former ally of Erdoğan and his AKP, which has now become the president's sworn enemy. The president accuses the Gülen movement of having formed a “parallel structure” inside the state which tried to overthrow his government.

If what the Erdoğan regime has done prior to the elections is any indication, things will likely get worse for opposition groups. The next likely victim is the Dogan Media Group, which recently fired two of its employees after they posted online an entertainment story that Erdoğan might find insulting. The Doğan Group represents Turkey's so called “white Turks”, the country's secular elite that has seen its power erode under AKP. It should be made clear however, that Doğan Group can dodge the government's fury if they toe the line.

At any rate, if it is not them, it will be somebody else who will be the government's next target. Down the line are those who have migrated to online journalism, associations, foundations, civil society groups, professional unions, and other democratic elements. Nobody, even Erdoğan's own minions, is safe from the autocratic and increasingly arbitrary attacks of the whimsical president.

His new Turkey is built on his own fear and paranoia, and rightly so: Turkey's popular autocrat is not only guilty of firmly ensconcing his ideal of an Islamist majoritarian democracy in the country's institutions, but also of – allegedly –  massive corruption, violation of several international agreements including violating the embargo against Iran and even of supporting the Islamic State.

Bleak forecast

Given these circumstances, it is not hard to predict that in the period ahead, Erdoğan will impose Putin-like measures on other media groups and the civil society. In other words, the Nov. 1 elections marked the end of the road for the Turkish media.

The state of affairs won't improve greatly any time soon, unless of course another opportunity similar to the one that was missed in the June 7 elections arises in the future. And of course unless this time, it can be seized.

However, until then most of the media will continue to be manned by sycophants and people who benefit from the regime, or perhaps, by people who are simply afraid. And critical organizations that will try to make their voices heard will only find more repression and persecution.

Finding courage and hope

In addition to the country's own situation, the growing threat of terrorism in the world and the increasing number of refugees make this a challenging time for meaningful journalism. However, there are still places we can look for inspiration and courage. Turkey's new and alternative online media have been producing better quality journalism, ironically, thanks to their new employees who are mostly those exiled from the now-defunct mainstream media.

We don't need a saviour, but we do need heroes, thinkers, innovators and people with good ideas to give us the resolve to keep on fighting the good fight. Regardless of Turkey's democratic downturn, we will find those people in the new media: which now is not confined to the realms of professional journalism but also includes investigative associations, democratic think-tanks and other civil society groups.

Although it might be the end of road for traditional journalism in Turkey, the road for truly independent news reporting is just beginning to form. It should be noted that Turkey's media ownership has never allowed for full editorial independence. As disheartening as the media landscape in Turkey might look, it might just give us the opportunity to create a new kind of media, which is more independent and more fearless than what corporate establishments can give us.

Media Integrity
Media Ownership and Finances