Mainstream media in Turkey are heavily restricted, with Freedom House categorising the Turkish media as ‘not free’ and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranking Turkey 154th out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index. 150 media outlets have been shut down, and mass trials are being held under the state of emergency launched after the failed 2016 coup. Following the sale of the Dogan Media Group to the pro-government and pro-[Turkish President] Erdoğan conglomerate Demirören Holding in March 2018, Dr. Bermal Aydin, a visiting fellow in the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at LSE, asks whether it is possible to talk about any kind of media diversity, pluralism and freedom in Turkey.
‘A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.’ Albert Camus, 1960
Dogan Media Group used to be Turkey’s biggest media group, owning outlets such as the daily newspapers Hürriyet in Turkish and Hürriyet Daily News in English, the 24-hour news channel CNN-Türk (a joint venture with international CNN), the news agency Dogan Haber Ajansi (DHA- Dogan News Agency), one of the most-watched TV channels Kanal D and the most-read tabloid, Posta. Under the ownership of Aydin Dogan, Dogan Holding also has investments in different business areas besides media, and has been dealing with political pressures and high tax penalties under the rule of Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for many years. Dogan Media Group had to initially sell the prestigious and long-established daily newspaper Milliyet to the Demirören Group in 2011. Since then, Milliyet has lost its critical and at least relatively neutral stance and become a propaganda apparatus of the government.
The total sale of Dogan Media has completed the total collapse of freedom, pluralism and diversity of Turkish mainstream media under Erdogan’s authoritarian personal rule, a trend described as ‘Erdoganism’ by Tanil Bora in his 2018 book, Cereyanlar. According to Erol Önderoglu, Reporters without Borders’ (RSF) Turkey representative and himself a journalist, ‘this sale means the death of pluralism and independent journalism in Turkey’s mainstream media’. As shown by the ‘Media Ownership Monitor’ produced by RSF and the website Bianet (the Independent Communication Network, or Bagimsiz Iletisim Agi-BIA), 80% of the Turkish media landscape has been already, financially or politically, dependent on the AKP government, and on President Erdogan in particular. (Since the sale of Dogan Media Group, nine of the ten most-watched TV channels and nine of the ten most-read national daily newspapers have been owned by pro-government businessmen and companies). In the light of this data, Turkey’s media landscape has been divided into two polarized sections: the pro-Erdogan (or pro-government) media; and the dissident media. If we consider the definition of mainstream media as based on the Anglo-Saxon liberal basis (i.e. one which emphasizes the media’s and journalists’ role as a watchdog, and the Fourth Estate providing a system of accountability and encouraging healthy public debate, I would go so far as to say that there is no mainstream media in Turkey any more.
Although the mainstream media in Turkey have always been connected with politicians, other power groups, and even with the Turkish army during military rules, such a polarized and controlled media landscape has never existed until recently. In fact, the Gezi Uprising/Resistance in June 2013 was a turning point which revealed the biased situation of mainstream media in Turkey, as well as Erdogan’s rising authoritarian policies and pressures over the media. For days, protestors on the streets could not access information via mainstream media. While people’s trust and confidence in mainstream media declined, demonstrators used social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, in order to get mobilized, to get news, and to circulate their own news.
An excellent example of the corruption of mainstream media in Turkey is CNN Türk. This had previously been one of the most popular news channels. At the time of the Gezi uprising, it broadcast a documentary about penguins, whilst its international partner CNN International broadcast the events of the Gezi protests. Since then, the humorous term “penguin media” has emerged as a way of criticising mainstream media, and the penguin has become one of the symbols of the resistance.
The pressures on the dissident media are extremely severe, as are the pressures on other forms of dissent, as I found while conducting my current research at LSE. This research is about the relationship between the current authoritarian regime in Turkey and the precarization of academia and media professionals. In light of the data from the interviews with some academics and journalists who are from Turkey but who have to live and work in the UK because of their political stances (and the political and judicial threats against them in their home country), I can say that although Turkey has adopted neoliberal economic policies since the 1980s, the most determining factor of the precarization of labour is the current authoritarian regime. I prefer to call this regime the ‘electoral (competitive) authoritarianism’ dominated by President Erdoğan and I believe it is compatible with neoliberalism.
After the last snap elections in June 2018, the governance style of the country has turned from the parliamentary system to the presidential system. In this regime, the parliament and general elections still exist. But the parliament is weaker and more inefficient than before. Elections have been controlled and manipulated, while legislative, executive and judicial powers, which are supposed to be separate from each other in functioning democracies, have been under the control of Erdoğan (for more information see here and here. The media field is also important for the current authoritarian regime to take under control, for, as William A. Robinson (2004) states in A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World, ‘the structure of the global capitalist system is maintained through the support of millions of citizens guided by charismatic personalities who routinely take control of the media and politics to manipulate emotions and logic’. And in this suffocating atmosphere, it has become impractical to talk about how to remove the pressures faced by the dissident media, as well as to rescue the mainstream media from collapse, unless we demand a real democracy. However, the question of how to achieve the necessary information which would make people change their minds about their political selections in a country where the mainstream media is overwhelmingly captured and the alternative ones are under severe pressure, remains critical to address.
This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.