Turkey: Journalism a victim of cosy relations between politics and media

By Ceren Sözeri

Journalism in Turkey has long suffered from a ‘clientilistic’ relationship between media owners and the state. The shifting ownership structure of media in the 1980s, when new investors entered the industry from other sectors, established the current ‘corporate mentality,’ even though the media business was not yet a profitable market.

Even today, many media cannot generate optimal advertising revenues and are therefore unable to operate in the black. As a result, many owners use their media holdings to scale up their investments in other sectors and to gain access to more public procurement. Considering the turbulence of difficult market conditions, media owners can easily pay less attention to the quality and credibility of their content.

This structural reality and lack of good governance in Turkey determines how news is covered and has contributed to the atmosphere of self-censorship which dominates the media landscape in Turkey. Examination of ownership issues and the economic strategies used to subdue the media, creates a picture that illustrates how media in Turkey have become little more than tools for business magnates to show loyalty to the government.

All of this is made worse by a corrupt system clouded by a complete lack of transparency, and an online sector following the competition for clicks down the rabbit hole of sensationalism and fluff pieces

Ownership, government control and self-censorship

The big media groups that dominate the information sector also invest in other areas of the economy such as energy, mining, finance and construction, and are increasingly winning important public tenders in proportion to their size.

The role of their media operations during this process cannot be underestimated, since it explains why the media owners eager to please the government at every possible occasion. According to the Freedom of House’s Special Report members of the media and the government alike describe newspapers’ Ankara bureau chiefs as “lobbyists” for their companies.

The current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has used certain economic tools to subdue the media. The largest media group, The Doğan Group, for instance, was forced to downsize its media investments following colossal tax fines. The fines were reduced from 4.9 billion lira to 940 million lira through restructuring the tax debt after the group sold two significant newspapers (Milliyet and Vatan) to Demirören Group.

At the time, the Prime Minister responded to questions over the heavy tax fine by stating: “The Finance Ministry asked me about that. Would any politician confront a powerful media group just before the elections? He does after the elections.” (Hürriyet, 2009).

Recently, the daily Taraf has been fined 5.5 million lira (2.6 million dollars) due to its scrap paper sales to paper mills. This is the first time a daily has been fined for this kind of activity, leading to a perception that the fine was an act of revenge for its critical coverage, especially over a corruption scandal that broke out in December 17, 2013, implicating Prime Minister Erdoğan along with his family and associates.

A spokesman for the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Füle criticised the non-transparent tax implementation saying that it would damage freedom of expression (Today’s Zaman, 2014). The Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) has also been used to reconfigure the mainstream media in line with the ideology of the ruling party, beginning in 2002.

Firstly, the country’s second biggest media group, Turkuvaz Media, was sold to Çalık Group, which has close ties to the government: in 2007, the chairman of the board was the son-in-law of the Prime Minister. Çalık Group used credits provided by two major public banks, and recently resold another pro-government construction company which took a number of important public procurements for infrastructure projects. Then, in 2014, TMSF once again seized the media outlets of another big media group, Çukurova Group, due to public debt and eventually sold them. A businessman, Ethem Sancak, who declared himself to be “lovesick for the prime minister,” acquired a television channel and a newspaper in this transaction (Turkish Press Review Blog, 2014). Shortly afterwards, he won a public tender for BMC, one of the largest vehicle manufacturers in Turkey.

The other investments and business connections of media owners have also increased self-censorship in the media. The official corruption allegations were barely covered by the mainstream media, due to the owners’ dependence on the government and the mutual interests between them.

In August 2014, six people died in Siirt in the southeast of the country, after a dam reservoir was opened to let out excess water and the warning sirens were not heard by picnickers. The owner of the dam, who has close ties to the government, declared he would provide a loan of 100 million lira for the acquisition of pro-government Turkuvaz Media (Diken, 2014). As a result, these media outlets covered only one side of the story, completely ignoring any possible liability on the part of the company.

In other example, Mustafa Hoş, a former news director of NTV, a major news channel owned by Doğuş Group, noted that their coverage of a firedamp explosion in 2009 was actively restrained following the decision of the mining company involved to transfer all of its money to the Doğuş-held Garanti Bank.

A former economic and business news service director of a large newspaper stated that, today, the pages prominently cover the company news, while the economy news journalism came up with the stories on labour struggle thanks to the strong trade union movements in 1960s and 1970s in Turkey.

The issue of workplace fatalities, for instance, is one of the most prominent in the country, and was the subject of a national outcry following the May 13 deaths of more than 300 workers of Soma Holding in the worst mining disaster in Turkey’s history. The construction sector is also often criticised due to its hard and dangerous working conditions (IPSNews, 2014). Although at least 1,235 workers died in 2013, and in the first six months of 2014 the number had already reached 979, work safety issues have not been adequately and promptly covered by economic and business news services of the mainstream media.

The former news director gave another example about a workplace death at a major construction company a few days after the Soma mining disaster. Reportedly, the construction company responded by calling media outlets and letting them know about their new advertising campaign. Any stories concerning the worker’s death due to negligence were called off.

News services in Turkey have lost their editorial independence says the news director. “The advertising departments decide on the contents. The advertising department director conveys the news request of the company to the boss. If it is approved, it’s sent to the news director. It is marked as ‘boss news’ to prevent removing the story by the night news team,” he added.

It is not easy to resist this kind of request any more — as another former news director Ali Topuz has pointed out, editors must reconcile their conflicting desires to maintain editorial independence and avoid becoming unemployed.

On the other hand, some journalists have benefited from these unfair economic and political privileges. “I had hated business and economic reporting because you have to be a part of the mechanism which publishes PR bulletins of the companies instead of real stories for gifts or free travel,” reporter Tuğba Tekerek posted on Twitter on 26 August 2014. The comment followed the daily Milliyet publishing a story on the safety of a major new tower development owned by Soma Holding less than three months after Soma mining disaster (Milliyet, 2014).

Unethical journalism and dodgy advertising practice

In Turkey, advertising expenditures are about two million dollars a year as of 2013, according to the Association of Advertising Agencies (Reklamcılar Derneği, 2014). Considering that their ratio to GDP remains around 0.3 – 0.4%, it is clear that advertising revenues have the potential to increase further. At the same time, however, the media advertising pie is also far from large enough for everyone, and is almost entirely divided between the major media groups in all sub-sectors of the media except for cinemas and outdoor media. There is a large dispersal imbalance across the media, with the biggest share (more than 50 percent) always going to television. Due to the highly concentrated nature of the market, most newspapers cannot generate optimal advertising revenues and therefore operate in the red.

Another factor that prevents the equal sharing of advertising revenue is political polarisation. A few years ago, the chief editor of a pro-government media group complained about the unbalanced distribution of ad revenues among outlets due to a “military tutelage effect”. In 2011, the former vice chief editor of daily Taraf admitted that some companies shy away from giving advertising to the paper for fear of damaging their commercial reputation. Owing to the state-centred structure of the economy, the government’s approach to the media has influenced the preference of advertisers.

Aside from the more formalised regular advertising, an informal advertising practice named ‘buying the page’ has become widespread in mainstream newspapers, especially amongst companies in industries such as banking, insurance, education, travel, automotive and fashion.

As the name suggests, the company in question buys a whole page of advertising, but without clearly indicating that it is a paid advertisement. The page is covered with related news that is approved by the advertiser to be placed next to the formal advertising of the company. This comes close to the practice known elsewhere “paid journalism.” Private universities, for example, have often sponsored newspapers’ education supplements during university preference period. It is even claimed that a particular private university has regularly prepared the education pages of one of the big national newspapers, including the specialist’s column.

Travel stories are also sponsored by travel agencies or related companies most often. The former chief editor of the biggest daily Hürriyet, Ertuğrul Özkök, wrote an article series on Bhutan after his travel was supported by MNG Kargo. This is despite the fact that a few years earlier, certain Hürriyet columnists were criticised by the daily’s ombudsman on the grounds that they acted in commercial ads (Dördüncü Kuvvet Medya, 2013).

Corruption allegations and a lack of transparency

Any research carried out on the political economy of the media in Turkey has always been hampered by difficulties in gaining access to data. Due to an overall lack of transparency there is often no reliable data about the circulation of the newspapers or advertising revenue. Just two media groups control the entire newspaper and magazine distribution sector, excluding subscriptions. The ABC Circulation Audit Committee was established in 2005 to control information related to newspapers and magazines’ circulations, but was abolished after extensive debate on competition violation and the resignations of some media groups by its founders in 2009 (Rekabet Kurumu, 2009).

The official advertisements and announcements distributed by The Directorate General of Press Advertisement (BİK) are important sources of revenue for small, independent and local press, which are economically vulnerable vis-à-vis the existing media market structure.

It is claimed, however, that the largest share of official press advertisements distributed by BİK goes to pro-government media (T24, 2014). BİK functions as a public body with the power to prohibit any publication that it deems to have violated media ethics from receiving advertising, leading to a censorship effect amongst the print media. Local media, minority media and dissident media have had unequal access to official press advertisements, although in recent years efforts have been made to strengthen the local media through increasing their share of official advertisements. Yet the minority media still cannot equally benefit from official advertisements despite the amendments to the BİK’s regulation in 2011 (Agos, 2014).

A new radio television law (Law no. 6112) has increased transparency expectations in the broadcasting sector, following on from progress made in 2011. The law seeks to prevent any one media organisation from getting more than 30 percent of all commercial communication revenues in the market to prevent monopolisation. However, the Radio Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) is yet to declare any information regarding the market share in the sector.

In 2014, a series of merger and acquisition transactions in the media – particularly the media outlets who were sold by TMSF – created new debates on the use of public funds and transparency in the media. As previously mentioned, the second largest media group was bought by pro-government Çalık Group in 2007 through credits provided by two major public banks, and last December resold to another pro-government investor.

After the acquisition, a parliamentary question by an opposition MP was rebuffed on the grounds that providing pricing and credit terms would be tantamount to revealing trade secrets (TBMM, 2008).

Online media: the ethical cost of competition for clicks

Large media groups were also among the first investors in online media, through carrying their newspapers over to the internet as early as 1996. Online-only news outlets did begin to emerge after this, however. The internet penetration in the country is about 48 percent as of 2013, with 75.6 percent using it to access the news. According to a survey conducted by Webrazzi (as cited in The state of Internet in 2013 in Turkey Report) during and after the Gezi protests the proportion of the population on Facebook approached 90 percent, while Twitter users increased by 31.1 percent.

Social media were critical of the delivery of information during the protests, with mainstream news channels famously preferring to broadcast documentaries about penguins, which became a symbol for protesters to remind people of the self-censorship climate in Turkey. Mainstream media websites are still the most popular online news sources; however, according to the statistics – as of July 2014 (IAB, 2014), the daily Hürriyet has 8.7 million real users and Habertürk 4.6 million.

All players in online news media have applied an advertising-based business model because the provision of free content online has made it difficult for newspaper publishers to monetise digital news. In 2013, internet advertising revenues in Turkey were 538 million dollars, or 20 percent of total revenues. Considering that, as in many other countries, the big share goes to international giants such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo and MSN, the online news media is still far from becoming a place to compete with television or newspapers.

The cost of clickthrough rate competition and pressures of speed and time is a sacrifice of quality of online content. Whilst one study showed that there are more female news directors in online media than the traditional media in Turkey, women are still confined to headlines as sex objects, victims or instrumental (visual) objects, in addition to photo galleries consisting mostly of female celebrities. Female journalists are often forced to take part in this kind of discrimination as well: a web editor in the mainstream media argues that severe competition, that is the ‘click war’ between news sites, results in the compromising of ethical standards. Soft news (e.g. celebrity news or ‘sexy’ content with photos) is preferred over hard news by news directors.

“Recently, we had to place the hacked photos of some Hollywood celebrities,” the editor said. “Despite our objections that even many tabloids in other countries avoided using them, we do and it’s disgraceful. However, they asserted to publish them by saying these photos broke out in social media”.

Conclusion and recommendations

After the third coup-d’état in 1980, new investors who came from other sectors brought their ‘corporate mentality’ into the country’s media operations and ‘clientilistic’ relationships between media patrons and the state increasingly became established. Today, irrational market conditions and a patronage relationship have resulted in a climate of self-censorship and unethical journalistic practices in the media.

The big media groups that dominate the sector are also heavily invested in other industries such as energy, mining, finance and construction, and are increasingly using their media holdings to influence their access to major government tenders.

The government has attempted to control the media through economic tools – since Erdoğan’s consolidation of power, the media has become just another way to demonstrate faithfulness to the ruling party in order to survive and grow in all sectors of economy. Official corruption allegations are covered to a very limited extent by the mainstream media, and media owners seem to willingly ignore the quality of contents and credibility. The quality of contents in online media is also sacrificed due to clickthrough rate competition.

To improve ethical standards in the media, more effective self-regulation should be applied and editorial independence should be preserved through journalists’ willingness, along with support from readers, to engage in collective action against both the state and media owners.

A summary of proposals along these lines comes from an international report produced by the Ethical Journalism Network after a mission to Turkey in 2013. These include actions that will:

  • Promote and strengthen systems of self-regulation inside media, to promote transparency and systems of good governance;
  • Strengthen dialogues between traditional journalism and online media on the need for responsibility in the use of information and for ethical content across the public information space;
  • Support programmes to strengthen independent professional associations of editors, owners and journalists;
  • Consider how best to create independent, credible and effective national systems of self-regulation of journalism covering all platforms of media.

These will not solve the problems of corruption and governmental undue influence overnight, but actions to promote more transparency and accountability make a start by giving signposts to supporters of public interest journalism on how to put media in Turkey back on an ethical track.


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Main image: “Fanatik or Radikal?” by Morten Knutsen dis licensed under CC BY 2.0

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