Media in Turkey before, during and after the referendum

Would giving the No campaign equal media access have changed the results of the Turkish Constitutional referendum? We will never know, but the damage was already done.

Ece Algan
2 June 2017

Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar receiving the 2015 Reporters Without Borders Prize.Wikicommons/Claude Truong-Ngoc. Some rights reserved. The Turkish constitutional referendum brought to the surface the good, the bad and the ugly regarding the role of the media before, during and after the whole process. The legitimacy of the referendum results was questioned by international monitoring bodies, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council for Europe, for the opposition’s lack of equal access to public broadcasting and other violations and intimidation tactics that infringed upon the opposition party and citizens’ rights to campaign freely.

On the one hand, tactics such as discrediting by association surfaced as the No Platform campaigners were depicted as terrorists and their patriotism was questioned by Prime Minister Yıldırım just because they expressed opposition to the regime change from a parliamentarian democracy to a presidential one. Some of the other violations included the use of police and security forces to suppress the opposition via harassment and detentions in order to prevent the No campaigners from distributing leaflets or giving speeches on the streets and in public transportation. The police selectively imposed the state of emergency conditions brought about after a failed coup attempt last July while exercising its loyalty to the Yes campaign.

For their part, mainstream pro-government newspapers functioned almost like PR agencies for the Yes campaign. For instance, Sabah enthusiastically supported the “for a strong Turkey, I am ‘in’” campaign that was started by a famous footballer on social media and featured a column written by Erdoğan on why the citizens of Turkey should vote in favor of the constitutional amendments just days before the referendum. Similarly, Hurriyet censored parts of its interview with Turkish Nobel Laurate Orhan Pamuk, where he explained why he would vote against the proposed constitutional change. It certainly wasn’t surprising that in such a campaign climate where all the state resources were deployed and utilized heavily for the Yes campaign even some imams appointed by the state controlled Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) encouraged their congregation to vote for the constitutional change during their Friday sermons while adopting President Erdoğan’s discourse of labelling those who reject the proposed changes as traitors.

The opposition parties received very little airwave time to communicate their messages to the public. The co-leader of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) filed a complaint against the public television channel TRT (Turkish Radio Television) with the Turkish broadcasting regulatory agency RTÜK (Radio-TV High Commission) claiming that between March 1 and 22, TRT featured Erdoğan and AKP government officials for over 4 thousand minutes while HDP was given only one minute’s air-time. The leader and MPs from the Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP), which is the main opposition party, were featured during a small fraction of the time that Erdoğan and AKP MPs took up, which was a mere 216 minutes long. The situation was even worse in the national TV networks, many of which have better viewership and ratings than TRT and thus are more important for exposure. Erdoğan and AKP politicians were featured on live coverage for 420.5 hours by 17 national TV networks while HDP politicians were given no live TV coverage at all.

Even though this account of mainstream and public media outlets being used in the service of the Yes campaign sounds outrageously unfair and corrupt, it is hardly news to those of us who study media in Turkey because the only mainstream media outlets that can still function are the ones that are loyal to the regime except with a few exceptions.

The type of media environment that would support and normalize this imbalance is not a new phenomenon in Turkey by any means, and it existed long before the referendum or even the failed coup-attempt, but it has become gradually worse. Therefore, I believe it is safe to argue that the electoral outcome would not have changed had there been a more balanced media exposure for the No campaign during the few months leading up to the referendum. Here is why.

First of all, Erdoğan had been transforming the media system to make it loyal or complicit to his power since the mid 2000s, soon after he was elected prime minister. Starting with the 2001 amendment to the constitution which relaxed media ownership regulations from 20 to 30%, and continuing with 2011 amendments on RTÜK governance, RTÜK was given more power over not just regulating the mediascape but also monitoring it while transparency obligations regarding media ownership were compromised causing powerful businessmen’s influence on media to be disguised from public view.

These media neoliberalization policies might have seemed in line with and even necessary for the economic integration of the country into global capitalism with increasing joint ventures with foreign media channels and import-export of audio-visual programming. But this was used during the AKP government to encourage those businessmen who have business interests in sectors working primarily for government jobs such as construction and infrastructure to purchase media corporations, making sure that their content was in line with Erdoğan and the AKP agenda, and rewarding those who were compliant. As a result, starting in the mid 2000s, media outlets that were critical of the government have been closed, placed under investigation or disciplined via tax audits – as in the example of the Dogan Media Group – the distribution of government tenders, accreditation sanctions or other financial, legislative, and social pressures. This situation has led to unprecedented self-censorship as well as the firing of hundreds of liberal, leftist journalists before the coup attempt. What Akser and Baybars-Hawks (2012) explain as surveillance defamation, which is the practice of government officials suing journalists for defamation, was also employed frequently over the last decade to repress journalists and curb further criticism.

Independent online news channels have been especially affected by the government blocking websites due to national security concerns. Broadcast bans that are put into effect after each major conflict situation have also become another practice employed by the government to prevent media from reporting the events in their naked truth right away, which allows government officials to add their interpretation and spin when the ban gets lifted a few days later and the news comes out. With all these policies and practices, the government has managed to draw a distinct line between media organizations that are pro-government and those that refuse to work as propaganda outlets. Due to both corporate and government pressures, media outlets that occupy a centrist position politically have ended up adjusting their approach to news which is now in line with the government-friendly media.

In the past few years, Erdoğan and the AKP government managed to either completely eliminate the dissenting media and journalists via closures of media outlets through court orders and later state decrees or to discredit journalists via direct personal attacks in his public addresses. For instance, accusing journalist Can Dündar of treason and espionage following his newspaper story about Turkey's intelligence agency sending weapons to Islamist rebel groups in Syria, Erdoğan stated on TV that “The person who wrote this story will pay a heavy price for it; I won’t let him go unpunished.” Not only were Can Dündar and Erdem Gül arrested and tried for their exposé, but the government has continued to attack and punish the Cumhuriyet newspaper seeking jail terms of up to 43 years for its 19 journalists and employees, most of whom are still under arrest after over 4 months. The fact that the indictment against Cumhuriyet journalists was brought on the 156th day of their arrest was quite telling in terms of how difficult it was for the prosecutors to find a reason to criminalize Turkey’s experienced, well-known and credible journalists of a mainstream newspaper such as Cumhuriyet under the disguise of the fight against terrorism.

As of May 19, 2017, among 165 journalists who are in jail, most are affiliated with the Gülen Community and around 30 of them are from Kurdish media outlets charged with [illegal] organization affiliation and aiding terrorism in Anti-Terror Law and the Turkish Penal Code. The state resorts to the controversial Anti-Terror Law as a mechanism to discipline Kurdish journalists as well as Turkish journalists who support a peaceful solution to the Kurdish-Turkish conflict including the recognition of Kurdish people’s right to self-determination. There are over 2500 journalists left unemployed as a result of the closure of almost 170 media organs, which consists of all the media outlets that belonged to the Gülen Community seen as responsible for the coup attempt, as well as Kurdish media outlets, seen as the ideological mouthpiece of the Kurdish political movement.

In addition, 123 journalists live in exile abroad; nearly 800 press cards and 49 passports were revoked. Up until the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, most of the jailed journalists used to be Kurdish because their reporting reflected their minority experiences, seen at odds with the official stance of the state and thus, divisive. By May 2016, ten journalists from Dicle News Agency (DİHA) were arrested while reporting during the curfews in Southeast Turkey which began in August, 2015 and still continues today. 12 TV channels and 11 radio channels, which were shut down via a state decree on September 29, 2016 without the existence of any report or fines from RTÜK indicating any wrong-doing, were mostly pro-Kurdish media outlets broadcasting from the region with the goal of reporting the experiences of Kurdish citizens.

Especially in Southeast Turkey, where broadcasts are monitored around the clock by RTÜK officials, HDP Party MP Baydemir presented a written question to the parliament addressed to the Vice President of Turkey questioning the legality of shutting down any media outlets without a written report by RTÜK recommending such an action. The closure even included a children’s channel, Zarok TV, which broadcast in Kurdish and never received a warning or a fine before for any of its broadcasts since its launch.

As I have established above, President Erdoğan and other AKP party leaders were able to establish a very effective, top-to-top coordinative discourse among state and financial actors including media patrons who are loyal to him that resulted in a careful, concerted effort in communicating the party line for regime change. Despite both the top-to-top orchestrations and the top-down “master” communicative discourse Erdoğan used on the public which redefined what democracy meant and how the regime needed to change in order to achieve that, the legitimacy he gained among 51% of the population was mostly due to the bottom-up communicative discourse that had been established between Erdoğan and this constituency over the years.

Erdoğan presented himself as the People’s president and Turkish people as rewriting what democracy means especially by using the post-coup attempt environment of people taking to the streets and celebrating democracy as opposed to military rule. By doing that Erdoğan was able to instrumentalize the concept of democracy utilizing its fluidity as a means to consolidate his power. In a post-coup environment where his power is now associated with democracy and the strength of the country, any threat to his power, such as oppositional media and journalism, is also regarded as a threat to democracy, while pro-government partisan media is seen and presented as a partner in democracy working towards making the country stronger.

Many do not necessarily think that journalists like Can Dündar, and other well-known, credible journalists and editors-in-chief of the Kemalist mainstream Cumhuriyet and Sözcü dailies are terrorists. But their jailing is tolerated by the majority, as it constitutes a hindrance to the new conceptualization of democracy that has been carefully crafted by Erdoğan over the past decade with the help of the ideological state apparatus he created out of loyal media. Most of us assume that the meaning of democracy is single or fixed as it is meant in its western liberal context. However, we often forget that democracy is a malleable and fluid concept that can acquire different meanings and can easily become a means of power as it can be used to service citizens’ imaginaries of national strength, prosperity and freedom.

As Ezrahi (2012)stated, “a democracy, like any other political regime, must be imagined by multiple agencies in order to exist”. Media has always been at the heart of the creation and re-creation of a democratic imaginary and it played an especially crucial role for Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16 concluding in a victory for President Erdoğan and the AKP party.

In a situation where the 2017 World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkey 155th out of 180 countries, what can be “the good” that the referendum has revealed about media in Turkey? Due to the fact that the No Platform was not given any playing field by the government, it relied on alternative media outlets to disseminate its campaign, causing these outlets to flourish in the months leading up to the referendum. Alternative online television stations operating via periscope and youtube such as Medyascope, Webiz, #haberSIZsiniz, as well as international broadcasting stations’ Turkish language news websites such as BBC Türkçe and RT’s Sputnik news gained popularity among the No Platform while relatively new online newspapers such as Artı Gerçek, P24, Birgün, Diken, Gazete Karınca, along with some of the marginal newspapers that are on the far left such as Evrensel.net and sendika.org, became the No Platform’s “mainstream” outlets to share on social media.

Twitter accounts such as @140journos and @Ben_Gazeteciyim or @JournosInTurkey have also surfaced as important sources of alternative news as well as news about the repression of journalists. Also ordinary citizens and civil group initiatives found creative ways to make their voices heard on social media in a way that contributed to the debunking of the AKP propaganda coming from its loyal mainstream media whose outlets have even used the same or similar headlines on the issues that directly involve the AKP government on more than one occasion.

While these alternative channels have much smaller reach and get shared on social media predominantly by the opposition within its own echo chamber for the most part, it still is encouraging, in terms of illustrating the possible post-referendum bottom-up emergence of media supported by civil society groups.

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