December 26, 2014

Media freedom in tatters with gov’t control of most outlets

2014 is a year which has revealed something which was already clear for those in the media who do not act like government mouthpieces: That the government in Turkey has many media outlets under its direct control, while others behave as if they are state-run.

To top it all, a voice recording leaked over the Internet shortly after two sweeping graft probes went public in December of last year revealed that the government even collected money from pro-government businesspeople to buy a leading media group.

Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said during a parliamentary group meeting of the CHP in February that then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had collected a total of $630 million from businesspeople to buy the Sabah media group, a pro-government media outlet that owns dailies and television stations.

According to the CHP leader, Mehmet Cengiz, Celal Koloğlu, Nihat Özdemir and İbrahim Çeçen each contributed $100 million to the $630 million pool.

Hard-pressed by the corruption investigations which came to light on Dec. 17 and 25, in 2014 the government further increased its pressure over the media, a substantial part of which was already a “tool” for the government's use. Following the corruption probes, Erdoğan claimed that the probes were a “coup attempt” against the government and began to target the critical media that covered the claims of high-level corruption in the government.

Apart from mainstream media outlets such as the Zaman, Sözcü and Bugün dailies and Samanyolu, Halk TV and Bugün television channels, many in the industry feel that the whole media has to toe the government's line because they are aware that otherwise, they would be made to suffer the consequences.

Businesspeople under threat

After the December 2013 probes went public, leading to four Cabinet ministers leaving their posts, Erdoğan signaled a number of times that “those who do not take sides [with the government] will be eliminated.” The meaning was clear: The government had decided to give a hard time to those who do not support the government in its struggle against those who criticize it. It also meant that the allegations of widespread corruption in the government would be swept under the carpet.

The message is obviously aimed at businesspeople and is particularly aimed at those who also own media outlets, something which has surely dealt a lethal blow to the freedom of the press in Turkey. Without providing any solid evidence, Erdoğan and the government claimed that the Hizmet movement was behind the probes as part of an international plot against the government and vowed to target media outlets affiliated with Hizmet, which is inspired by Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamic scholar.

Then, shortly before the anniversary of the graft probes, a police operation was launched against top executives of the Zaman daily and the Samanyolu television channel, both of which are critical of the government and are affiliated with the Hizmet movement.

Critical media labeled as terrorists

Ekrem Dumanlı, the editor-in-chief of Turkey's best-selling daily Zaman, and Samanyolu Broadcasting Group General Manager Hidayet Karaca were detained almost two weeks ago on charges of being part of a terrorist organization. Dumanlı, who was detained for nearly four and half days -- in violation of the legal detention limit -- before being released pending trial, was accused of "establishing and administrating an armed organization" based on two op-ed pieces and one article published in his newspaper five years ago. Karaca was arrested on the grounds of alleged membership of a terrorist group. The only evidence for this is the script of a soap opera which was broadcast several years ago by Samanyolu TV. This is, perhaps, the first time in history that a TV manager has been imprisoned for airing a soap opera.

Following the operation, the European Council said that police raids of an independent media outlet and the detention of a number of journalists and media representatives call into question the respect for the freedom of the media in Turkey.

The media -- sometimes described as the “fourth estate” in democracies due to its role as a guardian against abuses of power -- is unable to properly serve its purpose in Turkey because it is largely dominated by the government. And, in addition to controlling a major portion of the mainstream media through outlets which are owned by businesspeople closely linked to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the government keeps the rest of the media under pressure to toe the line. The Sabah, Akşam, Star, Yeni Şafak dailies and ATV, A Haber, 24, Kanal 7 television channels are just some of the outlets owned by pro-government businesspeople.

‘Fourth estate' of democracy in pieces

Unfortunately, the fourth estate has been heavily crippled in Turkey over the past couple of years. A remark made just this week by the main opposition leader reveals the extent to which the media is controlled by the government. Following his press meeting on Tuesday, Kılıçdaroğlu -- forgetting that his microphone was still on -- whispered to a CHP official sitting at his side that he doubted whether television channels would convey his message to the public.

Derya Sazak, the editor-in-chief of the Yurt daily, said in a recent interview with the Bugün daily that it was Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan who had him and some columnists fired from the Milliyet daily last year. “The operation targeting Milliyet was Akdoğan's doing,” Sazak, who was editor-in-chief of the daily, said in the interview. The claim was immediately denied on Twitter by Akdoğan, who was at the time chief advisor to Erdoğan. Akdoğan accused Sazak of lying and slander. But Sazak stood his ground. Following Akdoğan's statement, Sazak said: “Yalçın Akdoğan is lying. I stand by my words. After I published the İmralı documents, he not only rang me to threaten me but also put pressure on the Demirören family [the owners of Milliyet].”

Sazak was fired from Milliyet after he published documents concerning a meeting on İmralı Island between the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, and pro-Kurdish deputies. The meetings were sanctioned by the government as part of the settlement process launched to resolve the country's ongoing Kurdish issue.

Gov't bans critical media from attending state-held events

Following the graft probes of December 2013, the government has extended the scope of the intimidation against the media, introducing an accreditation ban on several media outlets that it considers to be its "enemies." The Cihan, Samanyolu and Zaman media groups and several other newspapers have been systematically barred from attending events held by government institutions and from reporting from the new presidential palace, a practice that violates the freedom of the press as guaranteed by Article 28 of the Constitution.

Furthermore, after the judiciary was restructured by the government in line with its needs, several courts affiliated with the government issued gag orders on critical political debates, such as the crisis which erupted when Turkish diplomats were taken hostage by Islamist extremists in Iraq in the summer. The gag order limited public understanding of the course of events and blocked the public's right to information.

The Doğan Media Group, which has come under strong pressure from the government in 2014, did not publish an article of one of its columnists because it was feared that the article would anger Erdoğan. Yılmaz Özdil, the columnist in question, also had to part ways with the Hürriyet daily in August after the daily censored a column he had written about corruption. Two journalists for the same media group's other dailies, Radikal and Milliyet, were also fired at the time.

In May, Erdoğan publicly threatened Doğan owner Aydın Doğan, telling him to sack Özdil and Yazgülü Aldoğan, both columnists who are critical of the government. Directly targeting Doğan in a speech, Erdoğan said, “You [Doğan] are of the same mindset [as those columnists].” In early August, a day after Erdoğan targeted the media group -- the country's largest -- Hürriyet Editor-in-Chief Enis Berberoğlu resigned.

As is clear from Erdoğan's attitude, he took the corruption investigations personally. Some voice recordings leaked over the Internet revealed that he and his son Bilal may also been involved in corruption. In a voice recording leaked in February, a voice allegedly belonging to Erdoğan can be heard intervening with Habertürk TV's reporting, ordering Fatih Saraç, a former deputy chairman of the Ciner Media Group -- which owns Habertürk -- to stop the broadcast of a speech by Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli.

In another leaked phone conversation claimed to be between Erdoğan and Saraç, the prime minister is heard instructing Saraç to remove a Habertürk TV news ticker quoting Bahçeli, who had called for then-President Abdullah Gül to step in and ease the tensions during the Gezi Park protests of last summer. Erdoğan later admitted that he had called Saraç to censor the news ticker. Claiming that he had made the call to stop slander against him, Erdoğan seemed to admit that he might have called other media outlets from time to time.

The scandal reached new heights when Habertürk's then-Editor-in-Chief Fatih Altaylı claimed in a TV interview with journalist Cüneyt Özdemir that Habertürk is under excessive government pressure, just like the entire Turkish media. Last month, Altaylı was not only forced to leave his post, apparently under government pressure, but also stopped writing a column for the daily.

Turkey 154th globally in terms of freedom of information

The government's repression of the media has been much criticized by national and international platforms.

According to a study conducted by the Basın-İş union, an affiliate of the Confederation of the Revolutionary Workers' Unions (DİSK), a total of 981 members of the press were dismissed in the first six months of 2014, while 56 members of the press had to resign due to various reasons.

According to the World Press Freedom Index issued for the year 2014 by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks 154th globally in terms of freedom of information, a ranking which places Turkey below countries such as Afghanistan, Russia and Jordan. In its report, the world's leading press advocacy body said that as of end of 2013, Turkey “continues to be one of the world's biggest prisons for journalists.” Noting that 153 journalists were wounded and 39 detained during the Gezi Park protests of summer 2013, the report also said that “the Gezi Park revolt highlighted the repressive methods used by the security forces, the increase in self-censorship and the dangers of the prime minister's populist discourse.”

US-based watchdog Freedom House said that there had been a “significant decline” in press freedom in Turkey in its “Freedom of the Press 2014” report, released in May. The watchdog, which downgraded Turkey from its “Partly Free” to its “Not Free” category, stressed that the biggest decline in Europe took place in Turkey.

Journalists dismissed due to gov't pressure

Below are some of the media members who were forced to leave in the past year:

Nazlı Ilıcak, a columnist for the pro-government Sabah daily, was fired after she criticized the government for having decided to close down prep schools (dershanes) and for saying that the four ministers allegedly involved in corruption should resign.

Süleyman Yaşar, a columnist for Sabah who wrote about economic issues, was allegedly fired for not criticizing the Hizmet movement in his column.

Meliha Okur, a columnist for Sabah writing on business topics, was allegedly dismissed for not defending the ruling party following the graft probes.

Yasemin Taşkın, the Rome correspondent for Sabah, was sent packing when her husband conducted an interview with Fethullah Gülen.

Nur Batur, a veteran diplomacy correspondent also with Sabah, resigned and said that the daily had lost its prestige because it did not allow different opinions to be expressed. She described the changes as “a pity for Sabah.”

Murat Aksoy, who was a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Şafak daily, was dismissed shortly after he made remarks critical of the government following the graft probes.

Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist for Today's Zaman, was expelled from Turkey on the grounds of “insulting” Erdoğan on Twitter. Zeynalov was forced to leave Turkey for his native Azerbaijan in February 2013 and has since been put on a list of foreign individuals who are barred from entering Turkey under Law No. 5683.

Yavuz Semerci, a columnist for the Habertürk daily, announced his resignation in his column in September, saying he “would not apologize for the discomfort he caused.”

A number of columnists and reporters also resigned from the pro-government Türkiye daily shortly after starting work at the newspaper. Deniz Ülke Arıboğan, a professor of international relations, and columnist Balçiçek İlter are among those who chose to leave, apparently due to the daily's very pro-government attitude.

YouTube, Twitter banned

In an effort to stifle material that would reveal corruption or the government's alleged intended involvement in the civil war in Syria, the government briefly banned You Tube and Twitter in early 2014. However, the Constitutional Court lifted the bans shortly after, describing the bans as unconstitutional.

In November, Twitter blocked access in Turkey to two accounts belonging to Today's Zaman Managing Editor Celil Sağır after a Turkish court ruled that the accounts' content "tarnished the reputation" of government officials, the latest in a government crackdown on Twitter accounts which are critical of the government.

Dozens of Twitter accounts have been either shut down or their content withheld within Turkey at the requests of Turkish courts in the past year alone; Sağır, however, is the first censured journalist who openly writes using his real name. Despite being the target of a criminal complaint in September by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal and daughter Sümeyye as well as the president's adviser Mustafa Varank, Sağır has defied the court ruling and vowed not to remain silent in the face of growing government pressure. Followed by nearly 55,000 Twitter users, Sağır is an influential and outspoken voice, highlighting the government's wrongdoings in sarcastic fashion.

Early in the year, Erdoğan described Twitter as a "menace to society" and vowed to shut down it after a series of leaked voice recordings that appeared to incriminate him and members of his inner circle surfaced on the platform. The president is having difficulty controlling the relatively free online world and has recently said he is "against the Internet." The AK Party government recently adopted a law that makes it possible for authorities to shut down any website they deem to be problematic without a court order.

Representatives of foreign media also face defamation campaign

Journalists including Amberin Zaman, Ivan Watson, Ceylan Yeğinsu and Ceyda Karan are among those who have been targeted by Erdoğan and those who follow in his footsteps on social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

In early August, Erdoğan accused Zaman -- a correspondent for The Economist -- of belittling the voting public in Turkey. In a rally held as part of Erdoğan's presidential election campaign in Malatya in August, Erdoğan insulted her by saying that she should know her place. Erdoğan also accused Zaman -- who had expressed the opinion that voters in Muslim-majority countries in general and AK Party voters in particular are not critical or questioning -- of insulting Muslims and Islam. He also called Zaman “a shameless militant journalist.”

Karan, the foreign news editor of the Cumhuriyet daily, was targeted by a campaign of insults from social media users after she made remarks critical of the government. She was attacked when, after Erdoğan's victory in the 2014 presidential election, she implied that voters had been manipulated.

In another instance, AK Party Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek launched a Twitter campaign against BBC Turkish journalist Selin Girit for her Twitter reports on a protest at Yoğurtçu Park in İstanbul, accusing Girit of being a "British agent" and of engaging in "treachery to her nation."

Pro-government media outlets also targeted Yeğinsu, a reporter for The New York Times, after the US daily came under attack from Erdoğan over a report focusing on the alleged recruitment of Turkish citizens by the terrorist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in an Ankara neighborhood. The US daily ran the story in late August with a photo of Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu leaving a mosque in Ankara's Hacıbayram neighborhood, which the report said has become a recruitment hub for ISIL. It later removed the photo and published a correction but this did not stop the verbal attack on Yeğinsu.

Erdoğan also accused CNN International's İstanbul correspondent Ivan Watson, who was detained live on air during the Gezi anniversary protests on May 31, of being a foreign “agent,” an accusation that was strongly criticized by press freedom advocacy groups in Turkey.

Published on Today's Zaman, 26 December 2014, Friday