The Gezi protests exposed the scourge of self-censorship, but also cast a fresh light on the toxic mix of political and wider commercial pressures on journalism. For the first time, many people saw clear evidence of widespread political influence within Turkish journalism which is encouraged by a system of media ownership that is conducive to self-censorship and external interference.
Some observers who have analysed the events of May-June 2013 suggest that this is the root cause of unethical behaviour by media.(1) The journalism business in Turkey is heavily concentrated, with cross ownership across all sectors of media. The newsstands and televisions provide a kaleidoscope of titles and shows, but according to market research many media outlets cannot generate optimal advertising revenues and therefore operate in the red.(2)
Nevertheless, the media landscape has long been a battleground for political and commercial self-interest. Nuri Çolakoglu explains that historically, the relations between government and the media have not been conducive to freedom. During the periods of military rule and coup d’état the media were partially restricted with some formal controls, but journalism existed mostly within a culture of chronic self-censorship.
During the period of multi-party coalitions in 1990s until the accession to power of AKP in 2002, media were relatively free. “However, it was a shady playground,” he says. “Media played a key role as kingmakers.”(3) The election of the AKP was a game-changer, he says. The new government opened up the media market leading to an explosion of new outlets and extensive cross-ownership. They also actively created a firm pro-AKP media community within this reformed information landscape.“There is no blue water between government and publishers and editors,” he says. “As a result there is an enormous polarisation of opinion in Turkey. There are no grey areas in media and there are deep problems of intolerance and living with other peoples’ ideas.”
According to Çolakoğlu the government’s cat-and-mouse strategy for dealing with the media has created a degree of unprecedented influence for the Prime Minister and his government. He estimates that the AKP controls around 50 percent of media directly, around 30 percent indirectly and the remaining 20 percent are relatively small players.
The capacity of government to pull the strings of media arises because of a system of media ownership that has the country’s major media outlets in the hands of industries that rely on public contracts. According to Reuters at least a dozen newspapers and 10 TV stations are owned by conglomerates with energy, construction or mining interests, all sectors heavily dependent on government business.(4)
A simplified breakdown of the economic interests of the major media conglomerates reveals:
• Doğan Group: Energy, retail, tourism, finance, industrial
• Demiroren Group: Gas, construction, education, industrial
• Ciner Group: Energy, mining, industrial, service sector
• Doğuş Group: Banking, finance, automotive, construction, tourism, energy,restaurant chains
• Calik Group: Textiles, energy, construction, finance, telecoms, mining
Some industrialists are not naturally inclined to get into media ownership, but some businesses feel obliged to enter the media sector under pressure from politicians says media researcher and commentator Ceren Sözeri from Galatasaray University. In a recent report detailing the links between media and big businesses she says industrialists have openly admitted political pressure to buy into the media market.(5)
Despite of the fact that media, and particularly newspapers, are a business risk, they can be used to provide editorial favours that will help secure lucrative public contracts.
Sözeri, who has been observing these industry links with media for some time, notes that more public tenders in urban and municipal services are being won by companies with links to pro-government media.
She has no doubt this is a result of biased editorial coverage. “This ownership profile explains why media owners please the government at every possible occasion,” says Sözeri. “It is also why self-censorship was so widespread in the media during the Gezi protests.”
The structure of media ownership in Turkey means that issues such as defence, nuclear power, construction, and the economy are covered in a superficial, amateurish way, or sometimes not at all.
Fatih Gokhan Diler who covered the Gezi protests for Agos, the bi-lingual newspaper which serves also the Armenian community in Turkey and whose editor Hrant Dink was assassinated by political extremists in 2007, regards these issues as far more difficult to write about than certain politically sensitive topics such as the Kurdish minority issue.(6)
This is because outsiders, he says, particularly countries in the West, are not paying as close attention to domestic aspects such as corruption, so much as long-standing conflicts with an international dimension, such as the Kurdish peace process or tensions with Armenia surrounding the recognition of the genocide in 1915.
Yet as Diler points out, the partisan nature of these outlets and their affiliation with political parties meant that they also engaged in a degree of political manipulation to suit their own agendas. International observers have also expressed fears for journalism when the business agenda and ownership interests are at play in the newsroom.
“This has created a situation in which media outlets are used to promote the ownership group’s financial interests,” concluded the United States media watchdog Freedom House in a report in February 2014. “Members of the media and the government alike describe newspapers’ Ankara bureau chiefs as ‘lobbyists’ for their companies,” it said.(7)
The report found that links with businesses as well as the government improperly using its leverage over media to limit public debate over its actions, is deepening the country’s political and social polarization.
“The government must recognize that its efforts to control a free debate are further alienating Turkey’s citizens and could potentially threaten the country’s stability,” the report said. “It could also put at risk Turkey’s integration with Europe and its strong alliance with the United States.”