TURKEY’S WAR ON THE PRESS
Wall Street Journal
Sept 17 2009
Prime Minister Erdogan seeks to stifle media critics.
About two years ago I was sipping tea in the office on a slow news
Sunday when I got a call from security: "The police are here. They say
they are taking over the newspaper." The police? Taking over? I was
the Ankara bureau chief of Turkey’s second-largest daily, Sabah, and
felt invincible. But within minutes, plainclothes officers filled my
room, explaining that there was a simultaneous raid at the newspaper’s
headquarters in Istanbul and that from now on the paper would be run
by the Savings and Deposit Insurance Fund.
The paper was indeed run by a government agency and over the course
of the next six months I, the editor in chief, and some of the
columnists were sacked or had to leave. (The legal argument for
the takeover of the Ciner publishing group, which owned Sabah and
other titles and had 3,000 employees, was that a document was not
disclosed to the authorities six years previously when the newspaper
changed hands.) Sabah was subsequently sold to a company where the
Turkish prime minister’s son-in-law is the CEO in a bid subsidized
by state banks.
Today, that paper, for which I worked many years as a reporter,
New York correspondent and, finally, the Ankara bureau chief, has
an unwavering pro-government line. The Sabah incident was not an
isolated case, as Turkey’s government has pressured and strong-armed
media barons to create a complain-at-your-own-risk environment.
It came as no surprise last week when Turkey’s largest media group,
Dogan–a conglomerate of newspapers, magazines and television stations
including CNN’s Turkey affiliate–was slapped with a colossal $2.5
billion tax fine by inspectors following a public feud with Turkish
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey’s ruling conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP)
has long been angered by the secular Dogan media’s coverage. But
the showdown came right before the local elections last spring,
when Mr. Erdogan lashed out at Dogan newspapers for reporting about
a corruption case involving an Islamic charity close to AKP.
Mr. Erdogan rallied city to city, calling for a boycott of Dogan
papers and claiming the group had unfairly linked his party to the
charity. Since then the rumor has been that Erdogan would finish
Dogan off. The crippling fine may well do that.
This isn’t outright censorship. But today, thanks to the rise of a new
conservative business elite promoted by the government and encouraged
to delve into media, more than half of Turkish papers and television
stations have turned into loyalist outlets.
Here are the rules: Language directly attacking the prime minister
and stories about his immediate family are off limits. Editors in
secular media outlets think twice before running a story criticizing
the government for introducing Islam into Turkey’s strictly secular
public domain. One prominent Ankara journalist and a popular hardline
secularist academic–both of whose opinions I despise but whose
right to express them I uphold–were jailed in a long-running alleged
coup-plot case. (They profess their innocence.) Top editors and media
tycoons complain of widespread wiretaps. Even cartoonists have been
sued here, with Mr. Erdogan forcing an independent comic paper,
the Penguin, to pay compensation for depicting him as various animals.
In the spirit of free expression, Aydin Dogan, the majority shareholder
of Dogan publishing group, was recently given a list of columnists
considered hostile by the government, according to a Dogan source–the
suggestion being that he should fire some in exchange for better
relations with the government.
This is not to say Turkey was ever a bastion of free speech. In
Turkey’s tumultuous pre-democratic past there were prosecutions of
journalists and writers, with antiterror laws placing particular
restrictions on the Kurdish issue. But mainstream media were somehow
off the hook. With the advancement toward European Union membership
over the past decade, Turkey has improved its democratic standards
significantly–mostly under AKP’s reign.
The Turkish government’s relationship with free speech is a complicated
one, however. Mr. Erdogan is a man who can both spearhead revolutionary
reforms–like pushing for Kurdish and minority rights and opening the
border with Turkey’s historic enemy Armenia–and rebuke journalists for
"disrespecting" him. In his avuncular but iron-fisted world of power,
criticism is managed and media is controlled.
The tragedy of the Turkish media is that it is largely owned
by companies that have other businesses interests, making them
particularly susceptible to political pressure. Neither Mr. Dogan nor
Turkey’s other secular barons are free of blame. They have never made
freedom of expression a priority. Publishers have danced with power,
bargained for deals in return for editorial support, and applauded
each time the government went after their rivals. But soon there may
be no independent media left.