October 28, 2015

Physical and mental ’capture’ of Turkish media

Ömer Taşpınar

When the Western world talks about the state of Turkish democracy, there comes a point of exasperation when a basic question is asked: “Are elections free and fair?”

The reason for exasperation is because you come to this question after discussing the dismal state of the media in the country, coupled with all the problems regarding individual rights and liberties, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association. The takeover by the government of the management of Koza İpek Holding's 22 companies, including critical TV stations such as Bugün TV, Kanaltürk and two newspapers, is another stark reminder of why the exasperation is rapidly moving from bad to worse.

The growing absence of a powerful opposition media and the dismal state of individual freedoms has reached a point where it is becoming impossible to argue that elections are free and fair in Turkey. The reason is simple. For elections to be “fair” there has to be “fair” access to objective information. In other words, if people are unable to receive information, their ability to form an independent and free opinion is severely curtailed.

Andrew Finkel, a familiar name to readers of Today's Zaman, captures (no pun intended) this reality with precision and excellence in a new report titled “Captured News Media: The Case of Turkey.” As the report explains that “capture” in the Turkish context refers to an environment where media outlets provide favorable coverage of the government and political leaders in the country because the government in return will reward them with advertising and other financial benefits. Needless to say, Turkey provides an example of extreme capture, where the state controls the media almost completely through patronage relations. In such a context, the government is able to hijack and manipulate media outlets, using the carrot of the non-media commercial interests of their owners. As a result, media institutions no longer serve the public good. Instead they serve the interests of the government.

But as Finkel makes it clear, there is something even more intriguing in the Turkish case of captured media. The story of media owners who have active business interests in many other sectors of the economy is a familiar one by now. But there is now a more nuanced transformation, Finkel highlights. This is about the shift from media owners trying to leverage influence in other economic spheres to media in which ownership is a form of a tax on those doing business with the government. In the old system of patronage media, ownership was a familiar way of getting a head start for banking and state privatizations. Whereas now, the problem has become systemic, with large contractors buying media groups as a price for lucrative government contracts. What is intriguing is that these pro-government media companies turn into a financial burden, and as Finkel points out, large contractors would dispose of their press assets if they could.

In short, captured media is only partly a story of crony capitalism. All of this represents a huge challenge to those who promote media independence and integrity. The question now facing Turkey is whether you can have free and fair elections in a context of captured media. In other words, the problem is no longer just media freedom but the very essence of democratic governance. Finkel offers a few policy recommendations to escape media capture, one of which is to find refuge in alternative media platforms. The challenge, however, is to gain mass access with such platforms. You need the public for a public debate. What happens when the public is captured?

Published on Today's Zaman, 28 October 2015, Wednesday