Professor Yasemin İnceoğlu, who teaches at the communication faculty of Galatasaray University, said the outlook for a free press is not promising. The situation has been deteriorating since 2007, she said, and is now at its lowest point.
“In an environment of political authority which is aggressive, centrist and intolerant of differences and criticisms, media owners cannot stand up to the ruling party and this absence of principles serves the media owners well. Media owners fire journalists or administrators who criticize or oppose the government. Those who are not sacked resort to self-censorship. In brief, it is now delusional to talk about a free press,” she said.
Hasan Cemal, Derya Sazak, Can Dündar, Yavuz Baydar and İsmail Küçükkaya are some of the journalists who have recently lost their jobs. The government's Yalçın Akdoğan denies any government responsibility. (Collage, Sunday's Zaman, Murat Gökçe)
Last week, editor-in-chief of the Milliyet daily, Derya Sazak, was affected by the winds of change in the Turkish media, being replaced by the daily's Ankara representative Fikret Bila. Likewise, columnist Can Dündar was also sacked from the daily last week.
Milliyet drew criticism from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after publishing the minutes of a meeting between imprisoned terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan and Kurdish politicians. The daily's publication of the minutes drew a strong reaction from Erdoğan, who condemned Milliyet and its columnist Hasan Cemal in public. Cemal was forced to resign after an article he wrote on media freedom and independence was rejected by the daily's owner, the Demirören Group, which is very active in various business fields.
Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for Today's Zaman and a former ombudsman for the Sabah daily, was recently fired from Sabah due to his remarks about the government. He claims that media engineering is part of a political program based on the desires of an interfering executive power.
“The wave of interference, cunningly and discreetly implemented in most of the sector through more-than-willing media proprietors, is now beyond the stage of warnings and reprimands. Currently the powers aim to assimilate the media into their propaganda apparatus. At this stage, the stakes are clear. Neither the executive power and its lackeys nor the media moguls are interested in revealing the facts, particularly on corruption, abuses of power and partisanship on all levels. To achieve this, they must conduct a purge of the journalistic community, break down all critical views and silence dissent,” he said.
In a move which surprised many, the editorial board of the Akşam daily, which was seized by the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) in May due to the debts of their owner, the Çukurova Group, was changed in June. The daily's long-time editor-in-chief İsmail Küçükkaya was dismissed from the daily, and Mehmet Ocaktan, a former deputy from the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), was given the position.
Changes were also made to the columnists of the daily, and writers sympathetic to the government were installed.
When asked how increasing government scrutiny over some media outlets undermines the image and respectability of these newspapers in readers' eyes, Baydar said newspapers and print in general are losing ground. “It has been happening in two ways, though they are weak indicators. Firstly, the public increasingly seeks alternative TV channels, and wrongly turn to partisan TV outlets such as Halk TV. Those opposition outlets have remained biased in reporting, partly due to the weak human resources of their news departments. Secondly, angry members of the public attacked NTV by boycotting Garanti Bank, which shares the same owner, Doğuş Group. It was an interesting act, but it was limited in numbers and duration. I conclude that confidence in the media will drop even further, as the moguls only care about the government's financial favors. As for the government, it will be fine, as long as the media refrains from critical reporting.”
Baydar was fired from his post at the Sabah daily due to the anti-government stance of his articles concerning the Gezi Park protests. Before he was fired, Sabah's editorial board had refused to publish two of his columns relating to the Gezi protests and government-media relations. The Gezi protests were sparked by an environmental protest against government plans to demolish Gezi Park, which then went nationwide due to use of excessive force by the police against demonstrators. Some Turkish news outlets such as NTV drew the people's ire for not giving the protests sufficient coverage.
In written remarks to Sunday's Zaman Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk of Paris-based Reporters without Borders, a non-profit organization which defends freedom of the press, said there is a high degree of pluralism among Turkish media, but views have also been strongly polarized. However, he noted that the structure of media ownership has both decreased politicization and favored self-censorship in recent years, especially concerning economic investigation, highlighting corruption, and criticism of the government.
“We already closely monitored how prominent journalists left their jobs in the Doğan group following a supposed ‘deal' with the government which led to a near-annulation of the intolerably stiff fine imposed on the group in 2009. This trend has grown ever since, with more and more leading journalists and columnists leaving their job or being fired from nearly all the mainstream media outlets,” he said, adding that this trend has come to a peak with the Gezi protest movement.
Doğan Yayın Holding, the Doğan Group's publication wing, which used to run newspapers such as Hürriyet and Milliyet as well as numerous magazines and TV stations, received a record tax fine of $2.5 billion in 2009, the highest ever imposed on a Turkish company, for tax evasion during the period covering 2005, 2006 and 2007. The record fine was interpreted as a government attempt to silence the group.
Yet Bihr said he does not think the sacking of journalists, in most cases, results from direct government intervention but from the financial concerns of media bosses who have strong interests in more profitable sectors such as construction, banking, communications, and so on.
“Media bosses themselves do their best to protect their business interests in these sectors, which means, among other things, influencing the editorial policy of their media to try and down-tune criticism of the government. To our eyes, the growing self-censorship that we observe as a result is a very dangerous threat to the pluralism of the Turkish media,” he said.
The 2013 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters without Borders has shown that Turkey ranks 154th on a list of 179 countries in terms of its press freedoms.
Journalist and writer Alper Görmüş said he thinks media bosses enjoy their comfortable position between the journalists who say, “The government is causing us to be fired,” and the government, which defends itself by saying, “We've never taken such actions.”
“This is so convenient. They [media bosses] stand in front of the journalists they sacked and say, ‘What can I do, it is the government, understand me.' They throw the ball in the government's court and avoid any responsibility,” he said.
According to Görmüş, all three actors, the government, journalists and media bosses have a responsibility in what is happening in the Turkish media today. “The government is intolerant, journalists do not stand behind their editorial independence, and the media bosses, comfortable in the absence of any pressure from journalists, do whatever they want.”
Namık Koçak, secretary-general of the Turkish Press Council, told Sunday's Zaman that what is now taking place in the Turkish media is more serious than engineering, as this requires delicate calculations and discipline.
He said it is difficult to understand how the TMSF can interfere in the editorial boards of the newspapers it acquired for financial reasons, giving the case of the Akşam daily as an example.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Turkey witnessed changes of ownership in many news outlets, and these changes turned out to be the result of changing governments. For instance, a former prime minister, Mesut Yılmaz, is known to have assigned editors-in-chief to the newspapers and TV stations owned by businessman Korkmaz Yiğit.
Koçak said it is inevitable for newspapers that are controlled by the government to lose their respectability and readership. Similarly, he said journalists who align themselves with the views of changing governments will have no value in their readers' eyes.
How to save journalists from scrutiny
Reporters Without Borders' Bihr suggested the establishment of internal editorial independence watchdogs and as many structural layers as possible between media owners and the journalists themselves, as this would shield journalists from the control of media bosses and the government.
Yet, he has concerns that this would not be sufficient to stop editorial censorship and self-censorship in Turkey.
“The legislative straightjacket still imposed on journalists despite recent reforms (the Counterterrorism Law [TMK], criminalized defamation, about 20 articles of the Turkish Penal Code [TCK]), the paranoid attitude of prosecutors and judges, the record high number of jailed journalists; all this has imposed an overall climate of intimidation, which should be tackled if one really wants to protect journalists' independence,” he said.
Some articles of the Press Law, the TMK and the TCK are frequently used to prosecute journalists in Turkey.
A report prepared by the Republican People's Party (CHP) and released this July showed that 71 people are currently in prison on account of their activities as journalists, with 20 of them having been convicted on terrorism related charges, while the cases of the remaining 51 people are still being heard.
İnceoğlu said there should be rights and responsibilities of the press before a free press can be spoken of. The government should know now, she said, that the responsibility of the media, which is considered to be the fourth estate in a democracy, is not to the state, the government, media bosses or other power centers but to the public.
“So, the government should not block but support the public's right to access information,” she told Sunday's Zaman.
Gov't denies involvement in media engineering
In a column he wrote for the Star daily last week, Yalçın Akdoğan, a leading government figure, denied claims that the government is directing media owners to dismiss certain journalists because of anti-government views.
“I have to say this explicitly, the relationship between the media and the government has been controversial throughout [Turkish] history, but the AK Party government has never had a policy, attitude or plan to produce pro-government media, silence the independent media or eliminate its opponents. Today, the number of media outlets that oppose the government and criticize it regularly is two or three times more than the number of the media outlets that are known to be close to the government.”
Although Akdoğan rejects claims of government interference in the Turkish media, it seems that his arguments are likely to convince neither the sacked journalists nor the Turkish public.