The public debate in Turkey has in recent days been increasingly focusing on the condition of the media. Concerns that the media is unable to fulfill its democratic functions properly are on the rise. A growing number of journalists are in prison. An increasing number of journalists have lost their jobs because of their political views. Self-censorship is spreading among opinion writers who oppose the government. And a respected international journalists’ association claims that Turkey has dropped from 138th to 148th place in the world in terms of freedom of the press.
Paul Auster, a distinguished novelist, recently went so far as to compare the situation of the media in Turkey to that of communist China. These are the main signs of the growing unease that raises the question as to whether the “old regime” has changed in respect to the media.
Let’s begin with the regime in general. Has the “old regime” changed under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government? Yes and no. No doubt Turkey today is a far more democratic and free country compared to what it was before. The efforts to revive the “old regime” by military or judiciary coup attempts have been defeated thanks to the vast majority of the people supporting democratization. Turkey is no longer governed by self-appointed custodians but by an elected government.
It is true that the “old regime” has lost ground, but its institutions and legal system based on the military-drawn Constitution of 1982 is mostly still in place. Basic rights and freedoms are not secured. We are far from a truly secular regime where the state and religion are separated. It is true that the denial of the Kurdish identity has come to an end, but only meager steps have been taken towards its recognition. It is true that the AKP government has taken initiatives to persuade the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to lay down its arms, but no results have so far been achieved, while the government recently give signals of reverting to a military solution.
Without the adoption of an entirely new constitution and laws that complement it, a liberal and pluralistic democracy will not be consolidated. Is the AKP government intent on achieving this, as it promised, or is it focusing on getting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan elected president in 2014? Indications toward the latter are on the rise.
Has the “old regime” in the media changed under the AKP government? Yes and no. Yes, the media is no longer a bastion of the tutelary regime. The country is able to debate its major problems more freely than ever. Kemalism, authoritarian secularism and uniculturalism are freely criticized. The country has moved a considerable way in facing the dark pages of its history. No taboo is left intact.
The old media regime is, however, still in place to a large extent. With few exceptions, the media is still administered not by journalists but by owners. The AKP government could be expected to pass legislation to dilute the concentration of ownership and secure editorial independence. In this context, it could have passed laws to ban media owners from participating in public tenders and having cross ownership, and free the media from being tools for enhancing the media owners’ other commercial interests.
The AKP government adopted instead another policy partly to take revenge on media tycoons who did their best to oppose its coming to power and retaining it. It helped one of the two big media groups be taken over by businessmen close to it, and chasten the other through tax evasion penalties. It continues to control the big media through patronage relationships with the owners. This is how criticism of the government is suppressed in at least part of the media. The public broadcaster TRT and the Anatolia news agency are fully controlled by the government, and the idea of having independent public broadcasting has been shelved entirely.
Media owners deter their employees from signing contracts and organizing in unions. All of the above, however, does not at all justify the claim that the AKP government is above criticism. There exist opposition parties and media that criticize the government as they wish. Comparison of the situation of the media in Turkey with that of communist China is absolute nonsense.
The major problem with the media is that legal provisions that restrict freedom of expression remain intact. Those journalists who are involved in coup attempts or terrorism are surely to be prosecuted. However, articles of the Counterterrorism Law (TMK) and the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), in conflict with the requirements of a democratic society, define “terrorism” in a very broad manner. The government has taken no initiatives so far to revise them despite promises.
President Abdullah Gül recently stated that “the most important force of a country is freedom. And freedom of expression is the most important basis of freedom.” Unless the AKP government adopts that point of view entirely, it is doomed to lose the next election.