Turkey’s Media Landscape: An Overview
The first Turkish newspaper to be published in the Ottoman Empire was Takvim-i Vekayi, which was launched in 1831 during the reign of Sultan Mahmut II and served as the empire’s official publication. The first private Turkish newspaper, Tercüman-ı Ahvâl, emerged nearly three decades later, in 1860. However, regulations were quickly imposed, such as the 1864 Press Law to ensure that any private publication had government approval, and an 1867 decree granting state authorities the power to close down non-compliant newspapers.
After the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, the Turkish press environment became considerably more open and expressive, and over 350 newspapers and periodicals were launched in 1908 and 1909 alone. The more outspoken press, such as Hakimiyet-i Milliye, established by President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1920, played a significant role in mobilizing public support for the Turkish national movement.
Turkey was one of the first countries in the world to begin longwave radio broadcasts from Istanbul in 1927. Broadcasts were originally conducted by a private company, Turkish Wireless Telephony Ltd, but within a decade all radio broadcasts had been transferred to the state, operated by the government post and telegraph service Posta Telgraf Telefon (PTT). The state subsequently maintained a monopoly over radio broadcasting until 1992.
The early years of Turkish independence were not conducive to a free press. In 1925, all newspapers that expressed sentiments in line with liberal or socialist opposition were closed down, and almost all newspapers that emerged in the years immediately following were state-owned. In 1931, a press law was introduced that granted the government the authority to close down any publication that published content deemed contrary to the ‘general policies of the country’.
The government further increased its monitoring of the press during World War II, but the environment became more lenient following the end of the war. 1948 saw the emergence of daily newspapers Hürriyet and Milliyet, which both targeted mass audiences rather than readers affiliated with specific political parties, and both proved extremely popular. In the mid-1960s, Hürriyet became the first Turkish newspaper to exceed a circulation of one million.
In 1952, the first Turkish television broadcast was conducted from Istanbul Technical University. However, due to a lack of technical infrastructure and equipment, national television broadcasting did not begin in earnest until 1964, with the establishment of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), and then in 1968, with the first regular television programming from the capital Ankara for three days per week. By the 1970s, television had grown hugely popular in the country, and the state maintained a monopoly over broadcasts until the 1990s.
The Turkish media environment suffered when the Democrat Party declared in martial law in 1955, allowing for the banning and closure of newspapers, but following the 1960 military coup, journalists and media outlets were temporarily afforded greater protection. The subsequent coup in 1971 brought further media repression with the arrest and torture of many journalists, and the re-imposition of martial law in 11 cities that year.
Economic pressure and neoliberal policies in Turkey during the 1980s helped to transform the media environment once again.
Several emerging media tycoons capitalized on deregulation and the rising costs of media production to buy newspapers at cheap prices and stockpile publications. These businessmen then used their new-found media clout to negotiate favourable deals with Turkish politicians. Turkish audiences were increasingly gaining exposure to foreign broadcasts, with the introduction of Intelsat satellite broadcasting in 1986 and cable television in 1988. It soon became evident that the government’s monopoly over radio and television was unsustainable, and in 1993, a constitutional amendment allowed for the creation of private channels. The internet was also introduced in the same year and usage rapidly expanded across the country.
The 21st-century Turkish media environment is steadily worsening. In the mid-2000s, several Turkish media conglomerations that grew out of the 1980s and 1990s liberalization held a dominant position and monopolization concerns grew. For example, in 2004, Doğan and Sabah media groups received 80 per cent of newspaper advertising, whereas Doğan, Sabah and Çukurova media groups controlled 70 per cent of television advertising revenue. Moreover, during Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tenure as prime minister (2003-2014) and now president – and particularly since the 2016 failed coup attempt and subsequent state of emergency – journalists have been subjected to increasing harassment, intimidation and arrest in a government bid to ensure a more compliant press. For instance, in February 2017, even the use of the term ‘breaking news’ in broadcast coverage has been restricted under the state of emergency, with strict limitations placed on TV stations covering national security incidents.
Freedom of Expression
Turkey’s media freedom is declining rapidly amid a government crackdown on dissenting voices. The country ranks 155th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Article 26 of the Turkish constitution of 1982 stipulates that ‘everyone has the right to express and disseminate his/her thoughts and opinions by speech, in writing or in pictures or through other media, individually or collectively’, whereas Article 28 asserts that ‘the press is free, and shall not be censored’. However, these constitutional provisions are undermined by the Turkish press law and penal code.
Although the 2004 Press Law removed prison sentences for media transgressions, journalists can still be criminally charged under the penal code. The Turkish authorities can issue prison sentences of between six months and two years for acts leading to the ‘denigration of the Turkish nation’, whereas defamation is also a criminal offence that can result in fines and prison terms. Moreover, a 2011 press law amendment grants the state the power to suspend television broadcasts and suspend or close down stations in the interests of national security. In the past two years, a worrying trend has emerged, with Turkish authorities convicting outspoken journalists on terrorism charges and emergency anti-terror legislation, which allows for prolonged periods of pre-trial detention and lengthy prison terms.
Following the failed 2016 coup, the Turkish government launched a huge crackdown against outspoken journalists and media outlets. More than 100 outlets have since been shut down, and as of December 2016, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that Turkey is holding 81 journalists in jail, all of whom have been charged with ‘anti-state activity’. The opposition Republican People’s Party claims the 2017 figure is actually 152, whereas the Turkish government only acknowledges the imprisonment of 30 journalists. Amnesty International reports that globally in 2016, one third of all imprisoned journalists, media workers and executives were in Turkish prisons.
Some of those detained in the 2016 purge include Nazlı Ilıcak, a prominent political commentator and columnist who presented a television programme on the eve of the coup attempt. She was arrested shortly afterwards and accused of attempting to bring down the government and propagandizing for a terrorist organization. She remains in detention. Kadri Gürsel is another veteran journalist who was arrested in 2016, following a July article entitled ‘Erdoğan wants to be our father’. Deniz Yücel, Turkey correspondent for German newspaper Die Welt, became the first foreign journalist to be detained as a result of the crackdown, after he was added to a Twitter group that posted leaked government e-mails. As of May 2017, he remains in prison, accused of inciting the public and propagandizing for a terrorist organization. Erdoğan has stated that Yücel will not be released “as long as I am in power”.
Turkey’s Kurdish media has been particularly targeted since 2016, with almost all Kurdish newspapers, television channels and radio stations being closed down. The targeting of Kurdish journalists is a regular occurrence in Turkey and dates back further than the 2016 coup attempt. For example, in late 2011, the government launched a widespread crackdown against alleged members of the Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), the reported civilian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which resulted in the arrest of 46 Kurdish journalists, 19 of whom were imprisoned for at least two years.
Online journalists, social media commentators and bloggers have also been increasingly apprehended in recent months. Hayri Tunç, a journalist for an online news site, was sentenced for two years in 2016 for ‘terrorism propaganda’, after posting YouTube videos and tweets covering the conflict between Kurdish militias and Turkish security forces. Aytekin Gezici was sentenced to nearly six years in prison in September 2015, after insulting the president and two former ministers on Twitter. In April 2016, Dutch journalist Ebru Umar was arrested in Turkey, after posting tweets deemed critical of the president, and temporarily banned from leaving the country. The BBC reports that between 2014 and April 2016, ’prosecutors have launched cases against more than 1,800 journalists for insulting Mr Erdoğan’.
Turkish television offers a vast array of private and state-owned channels. Some of the most significant include:
|Channel||Percentage of viewing share|
Table 1. Most viewed channels in Turkey by total 2015 viewing share. Source: Connected VivaKi 2015 Viewing Figures
Radio remains a highly popular medium in Turkey, with a 2016 poll revealing that 63.3 per cent of Turks listen to the radio on a weekly basis. The country is estimated to have over 1,000 public and private stations, although the most popular outlets are dominated by TRT, the Doğan Group and the Doğuş Group.
TRT stations – TRT operates a variety of national radio stations including its flagship Radyo 1, first aired in 1927, which offers news, educational, culture and arts programmes. Radyo 2, or TRT FM, was launched in 1975 and plays a variety of Turkish and international music in addition to talk shows and phone-ins. Radyo 3, launched in the same year, broadcasts mainly international music. In 1982, TRT launched Voice of Turkey, a service aimed at the Turkish diaspora broadcasting in 26 different languages around the world. It airs music, culture and news programmes. Finally, Radyo 6 was launched in 2009 as a Kurdish-language service but is generally restricted to music programming.
Doğuş Group stations – Doğuş Group owns the Kral FM, Kral World Radio and Kral Pop music stations, which attract sizeable audiences. It also owns NTV Radio, which since its establishment in 2000 has aired a mixture of news, sports and music programming.
There are estimated to be over 3,000 active newspapers in Turkey, 18 per cent of which are printed daily, representing a diverse array of viewpoints. The publications with the largest reach are:
|Pas Fotomaç (sports newspaper)||153,019|
|Fanatik (sports newspaper)||118,920|
Table 2. . Most popular Turkish newspapers by 2016 weekly circulation. Source: Gazeteciler May 2016 Report..
With an internet penetration of 53.7 per cent and 16.6 per cent of the country aged between 15 and 24, social media is gaining increasing popularity in Turkey.
Facebook is by far the most popular platform. With an estimated 32 million users in 2014, Turkey is the fourth-largest user in the world in terms of country-specific numbers. There are an estimated 11 million Twitter users although the vast majority of these are based in the country’s three largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are often blocked in Turkey, usually following national security incidents. Following a 2015 suicide bombing in Suruc, which killed 32 people, a court banned access to the social networks until all images and footage relating to the bombing was removed. The same action was taken in 2016, after 37 were killed in a suicide bombing in Ankara, with Turkish internet service providers preventing access to the websites. Following the December 2016 assassination of Adrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, the government blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
The Turkish government also accounts for the highest number of Twitter removal requests, with 90 per cent of all ‘withheld’ Tweets in the second half of 2015 being sent from Turkey. Furthermore, in December 2016, the Turkish government announced it was investigating 10,000 people on suspicion of using social media to support terrorism.
The Turkish online environment is restrictive, with over 111,000 websites blocked in May 2016, a figure that has risen from 43,000 in the space of three years. Websites can be blocked for political reasons or because they report on socially-sensitive issues such as LGBT rights, support for the Kurdish cause or anti-Islamic sentiment.
Amateur website and microblogging platforms such as WordPress (temporarily blocked in July 2015) and Tumblr (blocked in April 2016) have been filtered by the government, allegedly for hosting pro-Kurdish or anti-AKP communities. In April 2017, Wikipedia was blocked without official reason. However, NTV later reported that access was prohibited due to Wikipedia sharing content ‘in support of terrorism’.
Nevertheless, some Turkish online publications have proven highly popular amid the restrictive internet environment. The most popular are online news portals such as Mynet, Internet Haber and EnSonHaber, although the majority of their content is aggregated from other news outlets and wire services. Bianet is an independent Turkish news agency established in 2000 that offers an alternative to the government narrative on national developments. Medyascope.tv is an online television channel that broadcasts through the Twitter-owned Periscope app. It is used by a wide variety of amateur and professional Turkish commentators, including former AKP ministers who are no longer allowed to participate in televised debates. Finally, Turkey Purge is a website that was set up in 2016 by young Turkish journalists, most of whom have fled the country, in order to document the ongoing violations against press freedom. The website uses trusted online sources as well as first-hand testimonies to detail arrests and dismissals in the media.