About 20 days ago, the media picked up on the daily Sabah newspaper’s censorship of its own Ombudsman’s (Yavuz Baydar) articles. The censored articles were critical of the complicit support most media outlets (including the one he worked at) gave the AKP and the level of censorship/auto-censorship throughout the Gezi protests. After Yavuz Baydar was censored twice, he was shown the door on the 23rd July, fired like so many other journalists. If a newspaper censoring its own Ombudsman does not make that paper a joke, I truly don’t know what does.
As a footnote, the failure of the Turkish media to provide adequate coverage of the news/events throughout the most important protests in the country since the 1980 coup is simply deplorable; The coverage was so bad that CNN’s Turk’s scandalous penguen documentary shown during the initial phases of the protests became a symbol for the protest. The newspaper HaberTurk which is stationed right opposite Divan Hotel and Gezi Park failed to report what was going on right underneath its nose. NTV provided ridiculous headlines like “Gezi Park opened to the public: citizens currently not allowed in”. NTV’s monthly history magazine was also closed because it attempted to publish an issue on the Gezi Protests etc…
According to the Turkish Journalists Union, 22 journalists have been fired and another 37 have had to resign since the Gezi Park protests erupted in late May. Moreover, 12 journalists have been seriously injured whilst covering the events, not to mention scores that incurred minor injuries. All in all, although Freedom of Press in Turkey has been declining over the past few years, the plummet continues in the aftermath of the Gezi incidents.
Throughout the protests, Erdoğan has blamed CNN International, BBC and Reuters -to name a few- as culprits during the Gezi Protests. Amanpour’s coverage on CNN became the target of AKP’s fury. Meanwhile, a newspaper in the pocket of the government published a fake front page article titled ‘Dirty Confessions’ pretending that they interviewed Amanpour where she supposedly admitted to covering the recent protests in Turkey on behalf of business interests that wanted to hurt the country’s economy.
On July 24, an open letter was published as a full-page advertisement in The Time magazine which was signed by more than 30 renowned artists, writers and scholars, including such household names as Sean Penn, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon Sir Ben Kingsley, Andrew Mango and Fazıl Say. The signatories “vigorously condemn” the way in which Erdoğan and his police clamped down on protesters. The open letter blames Erdoğan for dismissing the deaths that occurred during the protests and that it is an offense that can land him in Strasbourg, defending his crimes at the ECHR.
Not surprisingly, Erdoğan was fuming. His response was to insult the signatories and to state that he will be suing Time in the close future. His EU Minister Egemen Bağış referred to the letter as “hate crime” and other cabinet ministers followed suit with similar statements.
Unfortunately, governmental meddling in the freedom of the press does not end with dismissals of journalists but runs much deeper. Consider the recent change of hands over the ownership of a massive TV Channel and newspaper:
A government agency, the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF), has been seizing publicly indebted media entities and selling them off to companies close to the government. Very recently, the TMSF sold Sky360 television channel and the Aksam newspaper – used to be critical of the government – to the Kolin-Limak-Cengiz consortium, without holding any public tender or auction. The same consortium had been awarded the project to build a third bridge over the Bosporus. The TV station and the newspaper were handed to the consortium virtually as the bonus of the bridge contract.
More bad news, Taraf Newspaper’s former editor-in-chief Ahmet Altan was sentenced to 11 months and 20 days in jail for “criticising Erdoğan” over the Uludere incident (2011) where two Turkish F-16 jets accidentally bombed 35 Turkish citizens, mistaking them for Kurdish terrorists. This sentence was converted to a 7000 TL fine but such sentences are meant to discourage independent journalism in the first place anyway.
In reality, the Media in Turkey has been under the thumb for as long as I care to remember. Turkish news outlets are in a habit of covering up truths. Not surprisingly, the Kurds have been affected the most from such practices. In fact, during the early days of the protests, the Kurds were telling the rest of the protesters that people were finally able to realise the media bias because it had happened to them, whereas they had turned a blind eye to the bias whilst the Kurds were being opressed for so long.
In his article in New York Times, Baydar writes about how the media backed off from the Uludere incident after being instructed by Erdoğan.
Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists’ role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism.
The problem is simple: one need only follow the money. Turkey’s mainstream media is owned by moguls who operate in other major sectors of the economy like telecommunications, banking and construction. Since only a few large TV channels and newspapers make profits, the proprietors tend to keep them as bait for the government, which needs media managers who are submissive to the will of politicians.
It is fertile ground for carrot-and-stick policies. The more willing the proprietors are, the more their greed is met. Several of Turkey’s media moguls have been given extensive favors through public-works contracts, including huge urban construction projects in Istanbul.
It’s not possible to conduct serious journalism in such a polluted system. These conflicts of interest have transformed Turkey’s major newsrooms into prisons: coverage of economic corruption in Turkey today is almost zero. There are a few tiny, brave independent outlets, which break stories that are critical of the government, but these stories are hardly ever picked up by the mainstream media and therefore have little impact.