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When armed militants from the extreme-left group DHKP-C took a prosecutor hostage at Istanbul’s main courthouse on 31 March 2015, the Turkish authorities imposed a news blackout. The two gunmen were eventually killed at the scene during an operation launched by the security forces, while the prosecutor, beaten in the head and chest, died in hospital. The exact circumstances of this incident may never be known.
The government later initiated legal proceedings against four newspapers that had published a photo of the militants holding a gun to the prosecutor’s head, accusing them of “terrorist propaganda”. Only pro-government media were given accreditation to cover the prosecutor’s funeral.
In the past couple of years, the Turkish authorities have on several occasions issued gag orders banning the media from covering topics of public interest. Media embargos are one of several methods used to muzzle the press and control the news that reaches the population. Pressure on the media has increased steadily and is expected to intensify further in the run-up to crucial parliamentary elections scheduled for 7 June 2015.
In December 2014, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, rejecting foreign criticism of the constraints placed on the media, claimed that Turkey has “the world’s freest press”. Two years earlier, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) declared Turkey the world’s worst jailer of journalists, ahead of Iran and China, with 49 reporters in prison. Turkey remained at the top of the list of worst offenders in 2013, but by 1 December 2014, many detainees had been released and Turkey had dropped to tenth place on the CPJ list, with seven journalists behind bars.
While fewer journalists are languishing in Turkish prisons, this does not signal a more tolerant attitude toward the media. Rather, it suggests that the authorities are resorting to different means, often more pervasive and subtle, to control the media. Since becoming Turkey’s first popularly elected head of state in August 2014, Erdoğan has filed 220 court cases for alleged insults, many directed at journalists who expressed their views on Twitter or re-tweeted other people’s comments. In March 2015, two cartoonists were given an 11-month sentence, later commuted to a fine, for insulting the president. Anadolu Ajansi, Turkey’s state news agency, recently followed his example, filing insult charges against 58 people, including prominent members of the media, who had criticized the agency.
Judicial investigations, even if they do not result in prison sentences, are widely used to harass and intimidate outspoken members of the press. They also send a powerful warning to their colleagues, encouraging them to exercise self-censorship.
Despite Erdoğan’s proclamation, Turkey has never had a truly free press. For decades, the army and the Kemalist establishment set the boundaries of freedom of expression. The Kurdish question, the Armenian genocide, the rights of minorities and the military were considered sensitive issues. In the 1990s, at the height of the Kurdish conflict, numerous Kurdish and liberal journalists were jailed or killed. In 1992 alone, four journalists from the Özgür Gündem newspaper were killed. Pro-Kurdish newspapers were closed down or, in some cases, bombed. But no political party in recent decades has governed as long as the AK Party, which came to power in 2002, nor has any leader since Atatürk wielded as much influence as Erdoğan.
These days, the battle lines have been redrawn and references to government corruption or direct criticism of Erdoğan are most likely to cause offence.
Gradually shedding his reformist mantle to become an authoritarian ruler, Erdoğan has succeeded in placing a growing share of media outlets – TV stations as well as newspapers – under the control of pro-government cronies. Increasingly, these media outlets are pledging allegiance to him, rather than to the government, now headed by Prime Minister Davutoğlu.
But Erdoğan’s influence extends beyond publications or television stations owned by his supporters. Because major media groups bid for public procurement contracts, privatizations or other lucrative government deals, they often impose restraint on political coverage, bow to requests to dismiss journalists deemed too controversial or make pre-emptive dismissals for fear of jeopardizing their business interests. Numerous journalists have lost their jobs in recent years, with those remaining fearing a similar fate. In 2009, Aydin Dogan, who dominated the media landscape in the 1990s and supported Turkey’s military leaders in the past, was slapped with a $3.2-billion tax fine, forcing him to sell the Milliyet and Vatan newspapers, now in pro-government hands.
Several Turkish newspapers, such as Sözcü, still publish articles virulently critical of the AK Party. The media group affiliated with the US-based cleric Fethüllah Gülen, involved since December 2013 in a power dispute with its former AK Party ally, is also vocal in its opposition to Erdoğan. In December 2014, 31 members of Fethüllah Gülen-affiliated media outlets were briefly detained and accused of being part of a “terrorist group”.
Ever the populist, Erdoğan is fuelling popular paranoia with conspiracy theories that are often borrowed from the nationalist discourse of his Kemalist predecessors and adjusted to his conservative and religious approach. He has publicly attacked several members of the foreign media, accusing them of being spies or involved in plots to undermine Turkey and its government. Dutch reporter Frederike Geerdink, who lives in Diyarbakir and reports on Kurdish affairs, was charged with “spreading propaganda for a terrorist group”, a charge that carries up to five years in prison. At her trial on 8 April 2015, however, the prosecutor requested acquittal.
The deep polarization that divides Turkish society between pro- and anti-AK Party camps is also reflected among media figures. Commentators frequently exchange personal attacks through their columns. This hostility prevents the media from joining forces against attempts to enforce censorship, directly or indirectly. In this tense environment, the space available to journalists who believe in the independence of the media and attempt to report events with a degree of objectivity is shrinking rapidly.
Many people, including journalists, have turned to social media to express their views. Twitter and Facebook played a major role during the Gezi protests in 2013, when mainstream TV stations failed to cover the brutal suppression of the demonstrations taking place on Turkey’s streets. CNN Türk, for instance, aired instead a documentary on penguins. Social media has therefore become the latest battleground in the struggle for freedom of expression.
Twitter revealed that between 1 July and 31 December 2014, more than half of the global requests it received to remove content came from Turkey. A new security bill adopted by parliament in March 2015 allows the Telecommunications Directorate (TIB) to remove or block internet content for the “protection of national security and public order”. The bill gives the prime minister and other ministers the power to shut down websites within four hours and merely re-tweeting banned content will be an offence. Outspoken government critics, particularly female journalists, are frequently the target of vicious troll campaigns on social media, which often appear orchestrated.
In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Davutoğlu in February 2015, the CJP stated that its delegation came away from a visit to Turkey with “a sense of official hostility toward the media”. Freedom of expression and dissemination of thought, as well as freedom of the press, are entrenched in Articles 26 and 28 of the Turkish Constitution. But with more and more powers concentrated in Erdoğan’s hands, these provisions are being set aside and all signs point to the media coming under further pressure as Turkey prepares for the June parliamentary elections.