Media freedom in Turkey: just how bad is it?

Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country, and ranks low on indices of press freedom. Just how bad is the situation, and how can it be ameliorated?

Aslan Amani
25 April 2013

Colleagues, friends and supporters of the imprisoned journalists of Oda TV protest in front of an Istanbul courthouse. Oda TV was accused of propagating the Ergenekon "deep state" which was plotting to overthrow the government. Demotix/Fulya Atalay. All rights reserved.

The Reporters without Borders (RWB), The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and other rights groups have recently tried to alert international community to the deteriorating state of media freedoms in Turkey. Although the number of imprisoned journalists vary based on the criteria used (anywhere from 40 to 100), these reports unequivocally point out a concerning and embarrassing trend for a country that promotes itself as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

The latest list compiled by the CPJ shows that Turkey currently has more journalists in jail than any other country, including traditional offenders such as China and Iran. Another reputable authority on the state of media freedoms, the RWB's Press Freedom Index ranks Turkey (154 out of 179) as less free than countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Zimbabwe.

How Turkey became the top jailer of journalists

The vast majority of the 49 journalists mentioned in the CPJ report were arrested in the last five years in connection to the alleged Ergenekon plot to weaken and eventually topple the AKP government.

Originally, arrests targeting members of the Ergenekon network were seen as an attempt to eliminate the rogue elements of the military establishment. Many commentators of liberal-democratic persuasion, including veteran journalist Mehmet Ali Birand, regarded the operation as an important step towards de-criminalizing and de-militarizing the Turkish state by bringing to justice those who had been behind successful and failed coup attempts, rapes, tortures, killings and other gruesome crimes committed against students, ethno-religious minorities and other politically active segments at odds with the military. 

Over the past five years, the trial has grown into multiple strands involving a strange array of Marxist, ultra-nationalist and pro-establishment groups, and the thousands of pages of indictment would appear mind-boggling even to the most avid conspiracy theorists.

Among the arrested journalists, some are known for their staunch defence of secularism and ties to the Armed Forces commanders. The prosecutors charge them with secretly taking orders from the Armed Forces leadership to prepare the Turkish public opinion for a new military coup d'état. The largest contingent of arrested journalists, however, are those working for publications covering Kurdish issues such as Ozgur Gundem and Azadiye Welat. They are accused of carrying out the propaganda work for Kurdish rebels. The third group prosecuted under Ergenekon are journalists and commentators who have criticised the government for influencing the police and the judiciary, and the latter for misinterpreting and selectively applying rules.

While the arrest and harassment of Kurdish journalists under the pretext of the fight against terror is nothing new to Turkey, the expansion of Ergenekon to include the investigative reporters working on the trial itself implied that something quite unusual was underway. Hanefi Avci and Ahmet Sik, who had separately written books on the growing influence of the Fethullah Gulen movement within Turkey's police force and bureaucracy, abruptly found themselves among the accused of the Ergenekon trials. Nedim Sener, another journalist critical of the AKP government (who had been jailed before for saying not so kind things about Turkey's military) was arrested for being part of the clandestine groups that he had won awards for exposing.

All of this, coupled with the fact the courts have failed to reach verdicts despite the legal process being in its sixth year, has ended up disenchanting the liberal commentators who viewed the original wave of arrests as an opportunity to close a grim chapter of Turkey's history. Moreover, the trajectory of the trial (particularly following the arrests of Sik and Sener, who were later released pending trial) has lent some credence to the view that the government is not only after those who have illicitly tried to undermine its legitimate functioning, but also wants to weaken or eliminate democratically legitimate sources of opposition. A leading liberal commentator, Mehmet Ali Birand voiced his disappointment in the following way:  "I am watching the process of a case - which I supported at the beginning - collapsing in front of my eyes because of absurd and unlawful practices. In my mind, it has lost all its significance."

The Charge of Oligopoly

In addition to the mass arrests, oligopoly has cast a shadow over the Turkish media. Most of Turkey's highest-ranked newspapers and TV stations are owned by a handful of business magnates who have to deal with AKP functionaries on such things as getting or renewing lucrative state contracts and tax regulations.

Although the oligopolistic nature of the mainstream media predates Erdogan's rise to power, the circumstances in which media corporations operate seem to have changed. Prior to Ergenekon, political governments in Turkey had to constantly negotiate their decisions on strategic issues of domestic and foreign policy with the Armed Forces leadership. The military was mainly responsible for drawing boundaries, and governments, and media alike, had to acquiesce in. As the cessation of many Turkish media publications in those decades suggests, those who did not accept the limits were punished harshly.

As the political aspirations of the Armed Forces have been significantly curtailed if not completely killed, the boundaries are drawn by elected politicians. To AKP's critics, this amounts to even a more unacceptable control over media than an institution that maintained a considerable amount of distance from day-to-day political bickering as long as the Kemalist blueprint was not challenged.

To the AKP critics, business magnates seem to have learned their lessons from the 3 billion dollar fine that Aydin Dogan was charged with as a result of openly confronting Prime Minister Erdogan. Dogan was the owner of some of Turkey's most popular newspapers and TV stations, and media under his control took a visibly tougher line on the allegations of corruption and Islamic infiltration than rival media corporations. Dogan's conglomerate survived by negotiating the lowering of tax penalties. Strangely, selling Milliyet – the most critical of his media entities – was part of Mr Dogan's business recovery plan.

Another worrying trend is that most of the popular media companies that changed hands during the AKP government were transferred from owners more hostile to Prime Minister Erdogan to more friendly ones. When the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (SDIF) took over media companies belonging to Dinc Bilgin, they were later sold to Calik Holding, a company whose CEO also happens to be Prime Minister Erdogan's son-in-law. The opposition newspaper Milliyet previously owned by Aydin Dogan currently belongs to the Demiroren Holding whose owners have a more amicable relation with the Prime Minister.

Milliyet's new owners recently came under public spotlight when they published the leaked minutes from meetings between the Kurdish rebel leader Ocalan and MPs from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Hasan Camal, a well-known political commentator, was publicly rebuked by the Prime Minister, and later had to part ways with the newspaper where he had been a columnist for the past fifteen years. Cemal's departure was widely regarded as an example of political influence over the media. In response, Prime Minister Erdogan publicly denied the allegations that he had pressured the new owners of Milliyet to dismiss Cemal.

Could this all change?

Reports provided by international rights groups reflect the seriousness of the challenges that the Turkish media faces. Dismissing these reports (as Prime Minister Erdogan has angrily done) overlooks the risks under which journalists – especially those working on Kurdish issues – have to carry out their work. However, one may argue that pluralism within the mainstream media makes more radical reforms easier in the Turkish case than the country's dismal place in the rankings suggest. For instance, even the media groups affiliated with the Gulen movement – e.g., Turkey's most widely read daily Zaman and its English-language subsidiary – publish opposition views and run columns that are critical of different aspects of the AKP government's policies including its media rights record.

Moreover, one could hope that the resolution of the Kurdish issue will remove an important obstacle to free press. The new constitution is also expected to de-sanctify the state and the nation, which would also require abolishing the articles of the penal code that are susceptible to being used to arrest those who criticise state policies towards ethno-religious minorities, abuses in the military, police force, and the prison system. But many of the more subtle and less tangible problems affecting press freedoms, in particular, and freedom of expression, in general, could survive the legal reforms.

One such intangible yet forceful obstacle to having a more democratic environment for journalists is intolerance towards criticism, widespread among politicians of all stripes.

Prime Minister Erdogan frequently responds to criticisms in spiteful and polarizing ways. Last year, in response to objections to his statements about "raising a pious generation", Mr Erdogan reacted harshly by accusing his critics of aiming to raise the new generation as "thinner addicts" (alluding to inhalant abusing street urchins in marginalized neighbourhoods of Istanbul and other big cities). More recently, the Prime Minister has been attacking his rivals for having a deep-seated personal interest in prolonging the conflict: "The end of terror will also be the end of CHP and MHP, the main opposition parties."

The opposition, too, have problems with regard to handling dissent. Last week, the leader of the main opposition Kemal Kilicdaroglu asked his deputy Gulseren Onanc to resign following the latter's suggestion that the two-thirds of the party base (in contrast, to the party leadership's opposition) were supportive of the Kurdish peace process. Another of Mr Kilicdaroglu's deputies, this time an award-winning human rights lawyer, was accused of being a "CIA agent" by a fellow MP from his own party.

Many of the questions raised by the supporters and critics of the Erdogan government increasingly resemble a chicken or egg dilemma. Should Prime Minister Erdogan have waited for a better constitution and reforms in the justice system before he dealt with the rogue elements within the secularist establishment? Could a more democratic and just constitution and penal code be achieved while the "Deep State" was potentially plotting to undermine the government? At this stage, two things are clear – the government has started this process, and it has made serious errors of judgment in the course of it. These errors continue to jeopardize not only government's political credibility, but the prospects of reforming Turkey and preventing it from receding back to the days of clandestine gangs, putsches and other forms of political terror.

Finally, one may partly blame the (near) derailment of the democratic reforms on the void left by the stalled accession talks with the European Union. The AKP government has tried to fill that void with a more boisterous foreign policy revolving around soundbites on Neo-Ottomanism, the Shanghai Five, confrontations with Israel, etc, which have little value in terms of democratization. The most effective way to ensure that press freedoms and other important democratic rights are placed at the centre of the new constitution is to remind Turkey that the accession process is not yet dead. Thus, the European Commission may have good reasons to consider re-opening negotiations on chapter 24 of the acquis that deals with justice and freedom reforms, and intensifying negotiations on chapter 10 that deals with media reforms. 

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