Turkish Media Trapped by Politics and Corruption

Gezi: A Picture of Self-censorship

The iconic image used during the Gezi protest to ridicule media self-censorship by mainstream media coverage is that of a penguin, as shown in the photograph of young activists on the cover of this report. This was adopted by the protesters at the sit-in taking place in Gezi Park in central Istanbul following an incident on June 2nd 2013 at the height of the violence.

As the international broadcaster CNN was showing live pictures of the confrontation between police and protesters, its Turkish partner, CNN Turk, chose to wilfully ignore the unfolding drama and, instead, broadcast a wildlife documentary on penguins. This deliberate and conscious censorship of the Gezi protest continued in all of the mainstream media, broadcast journalism and including most major newspapers, for three days.

What started as a small local protest suddenly mushroomed into a global news event. When media finally regained their composure, the coverage quickly polarised say media observers and was heavily partisan either in favour of the government or the opposition. In the febrile atmosphere there were hints from government leaders of an organized conspiracy to overthrow the government.(9)

However, according to Ergurel, this was overblown. “Gezi was a shock to the political system and also to the media,” he says. “Journalists and editors like politicians were unable to comprehend what was going on. Was it a form of Arab Spring?

“Clearly it was not a movement against the structure of the state; it was directed against the government and the PM. In this sense it was not a movement for political revolution.” Nevertheless, many media ran with a story of conspiracy and threats to the state. Mehmet Ozer, an executive with the 24-hour news channel TV Hyat, says the media narrative developed by government suggested the hand of “foreign powers” behind the Gezi chaos. “There were many stories of deliberate attempts to cause chaos and bring the government down,” he says.

Mustafa Karam adds, “It was difficult for journalists. The mainstream media were dominated by government voices and the alternative media are not pluralists; as a result the story was being distorted on all sides.” The idea that behind the Gezi protests was an attempt at a forcible takeover of the government came from the Prime Minister and was enthusiastically taken up by the daily Yeni Şafak, a newspaper renowned for its support of the government and which put itself at the forefront of the huge assault on the Gezi protestors and their supporters.

Particularly malicious in the paper’s blanket bombardment of dubious journalism were reports concerning a young Turkish actor, Memet Ali Alabora, one of the many celebrity protesters, and the founding President of the independent actors’ union who is now living in London.

The paper targeted him and the group of writers, actors and designers behind an interactive political drama (called Mi Minör) which ran weeks before the protests and was about people apparently getting organized against a dictator, with the actors playfully involving the audience. This, the paper claimed, was a rehearsal of the Gezi “insurrection.”

The actor was also accused over his use of Twitter and he became a target for criticism both in the newspaper and directly by government ministers. With the same atmosphere building that was in play before the killing of the independent editor Hrant Dink, Alabora was forced to have armed guards for his own protection. He later left the country.

Despite all of this in some corners of the media landscape there were attempts to provide fair and balanced journalism. News outlets such as Ulusal and Halk TV, smaller networks not compromised by the ownership structure of the mainstream broadcasters, streamed live coverage of the protests.

But some of those that tried to break the media silence came under fire from other quarters. The state broadcasting regulator, the High Council of Radio and Television (RTÜK), which is dominated by the AKP, took aim at networks which got too close to the action. Penalties in the form of heavy fines were imposed on the grounds of “incitement to violence” and “violating broadcasting principles”.(10)

The AKP were unforgiving over media that did not toe the line. As noted earlier, the Doğan Media Group, owned by one of Turkey’s wealthiest families, found itself under close scrutiny by a swarm of government tax inspectors apparently for giving refuge in a hotel it owns to demonstrators escaping tear gas during the Gezi confrontations.

Consequently, the company had to pay 1.2 billion TL tax penalties (5Bn $) over an international deal with the German Axel Springer Group. Nuri Colakoğlu, one of Turkey’s most distinguished and veteran journalists, now President of the Doğan Media Group and a senior adviser to the Board, does not mince his words over the intention of the government action.

“Erdoğan made a scapegoat of Doğan Media Group,” he says. At the same time the action against Doğan sent an uncompromising message to other media players about the pressure the government can put on them if they step out of line. He was not surprised that some media took the most cautious approach when covering Gezi. “The ‘penguin’ channels didn’t cover the Gezi conflict for fear of retaliation,” he says.

Nevertheless, there are signs that more editors are ready to break ranks and to openly express their frustrat ion over undue political interference and are yearning for an end to Erdoğan’s autocratic style. According to a Reuters report in February 2014 Fatih Altayli, editor-in-chief of the mainstream Haberturk newspaper, opened up a new front in the battle for editorial independence when he made a stinging attack on the government, saying that political pressure had left media editors intimidated and created a climate in which they were unable to publish freely.(11)

Altaylı had previously been widely criticised for conducting an unsatisfactory interview with Prime Minister Erdoğan after the initial protests. He was accused of being a sycophant and a supporter of the prime minister for not asking tougher questions.

“The honour of journalism is being trampled on. Instructions rain down every day from various places. Can you write what you want? Everybody is afraid,” Altayli told CNN Turk.

His comments came after recordings were leaked on the internet apparently of executives from Haberturk altering coverage, manipulating an opinion poll and sacking reporters under government pressure. Typically, Erdoğan is not apologetic. Speaking during a meeting of his AKP members in parliament the next day he accused the media of being a “lobby” group conspiring against him. He said that before AKP came to power “media in this country was functioning even above the government … We have foiled this game.”

Some media leaders are convinced the Gezi affair was a defining moment that finally blew apart the myth of journalistic independence in the midst of undue political influence. “Gezi exposed the poisonous relations between media and the government,” says Muge Sokmen, publisher and owner of Metis Publishing House, one of Turkey’s most respected book companies.

“People were shocked that media were not reporting what was happening. Many of them were worried about the whereabouts of their friends, their children but they saw nothing on the television. They couldn’t believe it.”(12)

The sudden realization that media were not reliable had a particular impact on the young, she says. “The Gezi generation of people in their teens and 20s were really shocked.” She says, “They thought they were being properly informed, but suddenly they found that the media were ignoring a brutal reality being played out on the streets. And they realized, perhaps for the first time, that if this happened over Gezi, how could they trust anything that comes from the media?

Despite widespread public scorn over much of the media coverage, there has been virtually no evidence of humility from the executive belt of journalism. Only one media leader stepped up to take public responsibility for the abject reporting of the protest.The Chief Executive Officer of Doğuş Media Group Cem Aydın apologised to his staff and conceded that the criticisms of protesters who had gathered outside the group’s television network NTV to complain were justified.

“Our audience feels like they were betrayed,” he said. Shortly after his comments, Aydın left the company.(3) Nevertheless, despite the weakness of mainstream media the story was still being told. As thousands of demonstrators paralysed the centre of Istanbul, the events were being vigorously reported on Twitter and across social media which played a major role in keeping people informed. A typical example was the newspaper Sabah, a pro-government daily, which ignored the violence unfolding on its doorstep and instead devoted its front page to Prime Minister Erdoğan being awarded a prize for combating smoking and to pictures of President Abdullah Gul being presented with a horse during an official visit to Turkmenistan.(4)

The caution of the media in covering the story may have reflected uncertainty about how to handle such drama in the hothouse of Turkish politics, where media have long been subject to governmental pressure, but many of the people interviewed by the EJN claim now government officials have telephone contact with media bosses or editors to complain about certain headlines or to direct news coverage.

Esra Arsan, Professor of Journalism at Bilgi University says, “There was indirect and direct censorship from Ankara. Some of the NTV journalists who resigned from the news department did so because they were being censored.”

Mustafa Karam, Director of TV Hyat, says, “There was direct and clear censorship–some of it self-imposed and some of it part of the fabled “telephone culture” of calls from the government to editorial departments,” he says.(6)

This is not new. According to the BBC in 1997 pressure from the military forced the resignation of an Islamist prime minister. During that period several columnists were sacked, headlines were manipulated, and certain Islamist papers were banned from military press conferences.

However, there is little direct evidence of acts of interference and a columnist for the conservative daily Zaman, Mumtazer Turkone, says such things never happen. “Someone from the government never says, ‘If you do not do this, we will not do that’ directly. These measures are applied by the media bosses or maybe the papers are too sensitive to government reactions, so they apply these measures themselves.”(7)

Deniz Ergurel, General Secretary of the employers group the Media Association, is less certain. “Some people say government officials called the media stations asking them not to broadcast material,” he says. “This is not proven but I think this might have been possible.”(8)

He admits that there might have been an element of self-censorship. He suggests that the protest was not picked up quickly by mainstream media because they saw it as a “marginal issue prompted by a small group of people causing trouble.” However, they were caught out when the sit-in turned into a major disturbance as a result of police strong-arm tactics.

(5) Interview with EJN, November 19th 2013.

Photo Credit 1: CNN-Turk airs penguin documentary during Istanbul riots. (The Daily Dot

Photo Credit 2: Kerem Oktem (9 June 2013). “Why Turkey’s mainstream media chose to show penguins rather than protests”. The Guardian. Retrieved 13 February 2014.

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