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Media in Turkey: a testing site of censorship and control

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Media in Turkey: a testing site of censorship and control

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Haber (“news” in Turkish) © Anton Watman/Shutterstock

Turkey is currently the largest prison for journalists in the world, with over 80 media workers in detention. As if that were not enough, the Turkish parliament has just passed a law that gives the government more control over social networks. An analysis of the situation of the Turkish media

(Article published in collaboration and simultaneously with EJO  )

Four years after the attempted coup of 15-16 July 2016, the space for media pluralism in Turkey is shrinking. New laws already in force or about to be aim to restrict even further the space for the few independent outlets, while numerous pro-government media dominate the scene. The entire landscape of traditional media, from TV to the press and the radio, is subject to more or less direct control by the Turkish government: suffice it to say that, after the attempted coup in 2016, 170 outlets  (newspapers, TV stations, press agencies, and online news sites, considered subversive for various reasons) have been closed or commissioned by the government, aggravating the already high concentration of ownership in the Turkish media.

On the mainstream media front, a key turning point in the ownership system was the sale, in 2018, of the Doğan media group to Erdoğan Demirören, businessman owner of the group that bears his name and known for his pro-government positions. The transfer of ownership included some of the country’s most popular media, such as the Cnn Türk television network and the Hürriyet newspaper and the Dha news agency, but also negatively affected the circulation of small independent newspapers nationwide.

According to the  Turkey – Media Ownership Monitor  report, currently around 71% of the country’s media belongs to 4 companies close to the government: Turkuvaz/ Kalyon, Doğuş, and Ciner as well as the aforementioned Demirören. The latter, together with the Albayrak and İhlas groups, own the 40 most popular newspapers in Turkey and have investments in several other sectors, including constructions, mining, oil, finance, tourism, and telecommunications. Turkish Fox TV, belonging to the Walt Disney Company, is the only one of the top 10 television networks that remains out of the system. According to the Digital News Report  (2020), the network is the most followed for information programmes and is considered the most reliable. This shows the demand for alternative news, since the country’s population gets their news for over 70%  from television. Such demand also emerges from the frequent use of online media – including social media – which in urban areas exceeds 80%, according to the Digital News Report  , even if only 55% of users trust the information they receive.

Criminalising journalism

Turkey is currently the largest prison for journalists in the world, with over 80 media workers in detention. According to the International Press Institute  , in 73% of cases the evidence used against them is their work: because of their articles, news, and reports, journalists – mostly belonging to the pro-Kurdish media – are charged with offenses against the president and the nation, endangering national security and, in recent years more than ever, propaganda, collaboration with, or membership of terrorist organisations  .

Censorship and self-censorship are routine in the country, including the southeast of Kurdish majority. As explained by journalist Hatice Kamer, based in Diyarbakır, the failure of the peace process with Kurdish armed groups in August 2015 and the clashes that followed led people to shut down. “Previously, when police power was not as extensive, people were not afraid to express their dissent or anger. After the attempted coup, the decrees, the layoffs, and the blacklisting of people, it has become almost impossible for a journalist to work in the field, as such a sense of insecurity has stopped people from making statements”, says Kamer. According to a recent study  , Turkey has gone from pre-coup repression of journalism (2013–2016) to institutionalised oppression of journalism (2016–2018). While the former was characterised by “unsystematic attacks on journalism […] that led to a climate of fear and inevitable self-censorship, the latter is based on constitutional reforms and the use of law to systematically compromise the civilian journalistic institution”. In particular, “a systematic legal inertia follows attempts by journalists or their organisations to appeal against violations and violence perpetrated by state-supported actors”.

The recent pandemic seems to have been yet another opportunity to criminalise thought: as explained by a recent report by Amnesty  , criticisms of the management of the health emergency were followed by accusations punishable by imprisonment between two and four years. “If the piece of news that is provided by the journalist does not match the data and statements provided by the authorities, there can be complications”, says Kamer. In March 2020  alone, 12 journalists were arrested for instigating “disobedience of the laws” and “hatred”, while many doctors were accused of spreading false news and “spreading panic among the population”. The approach of the Turkish authorities was confirmed in mid-April 2020 when, to decrease the possibility of contagion from Covid, a package of reforms released 90,000 people from Turkish prisons, excluding journalists, activists, and other subjects accused of political crimes.

As in many other circumstances, on the health emergency the “mainstream media in the country accurately reproduce the presidential narrative […] with a long sequence of reassuring news. […] Drama and catastrophism are instead the dominant element in news from abroad. Continuous updates underline, with almost pleased tones, the gravity of the situation in other countries  ” (Salomoni, 2020  ). The control of the tones of the journalistic narrative when it comes to problems in the country is pervasive: “If there is an increase in the cost of gasoline, mainstream newspapers do not use the word increase, but speak of adjusting the price of fuel”, says journalist Bülent Mumay.

The presidential system and other methods of control

The presidential system introduced in July 2018, during the state of emergency declared immediately after the attempted coup, resulted in an increase in the powers of the president of the republic to the detriment of the Parliament and other state institutions. According to Mumay, “the real change is that now any public institution has been legally linked to the presidency”. This means, for example, that the professional membership cards of journalists are only granted by the Directorate of Communication of the Presidency. In the previous system, unions could still exert some influence on the final decision, as explained  by Gökhan Durmuş, secretary of the journalists’ union Türk-İş. “Now the central authority decides who gets to be a journalist”, says Hatice Kamer, “therefore working on the field without a card becomes almost impossible”, adds the reporter.

“The Presidency’s communication department has direct contact with the Superior Council for Radio and Television (RTÜK) and the Agency for Advertising in the Press (BİK)”, explains Mumay. The latter body is legally obliged to distribute official advertisements to all print newspapers, which represent an important economic resource for outlets. But the assignment is marked by a certain arbitrariness, as happened in the case of the opposition newspapers Evrensel and Birgün, that recently had their advertisements cancelled for “violating the ethical principles of the press  ”. Similarly, RTÜK, which regulates radio and television broadcasts, is a government agency often accused of lacking independence and acting as a censor, through fines and confiscations. The body can also decide to suspend broadcasts, if it considers them offensive, as recently happened for the Tele1 and Halk TV networks, which have been obscured for 5 days  . In the event of a second suspension, the channels would lose their broadcasting license.

Internet: way out or further target for censorship?

TV channels on YouTube, podcasts, and news sites have proliferated in the cybersphere, trying to offer an alternative narrative. The Internet, however, has also become a target for censorship: primarily through the removal of content and the blocking of web pages, including entire sites as in the case of Wikipedia, which was inaccessible in Turkey  from April 2017 to January 2020 In addition, in recent years, a Social Media Monitoring Unit was opened and in 2016 the government launched an app that allows citizens to report posts that can be considered terrorist propaganda. Turkey also stands out for frequently requesting user data from Facebook  , especially against those with legal proceedings in progress.

Media in Turkey: a testing site of censorship and control 21

In 79% of cases, Facebook does comply with the request of the Turkish government: platforms such as Facebook and Twitter – which in Turkey register among the highest subscriber rates in the world – are unlikely to ignore pressure from the authorities and risk losing such an important market.

As regards online radio and television, in 2019 RTÜK issued a regulation  for the online transmission of radio, television, and on-demand services, imposing new licensing rules  . The regulation was operational for services such as Netflix but, as Media and Law Studies Association  lawyer Veysel Ok explains, “in 2020 some amendments extended the obligations to YouTube, imposing as a precondition for the license to certify not to have had contact with terrorist organisations. Obviously this makes it very difficult to obtain this license for Kurdish TV and radio stations”, and for others – we add – given the frequency of terrorism charges against categories and individuals critical of the government. Finally, on July 29th, the Turkish parliament approved  a law that obliges social platform companies to have offices and representatives in Turkey, under penalty of blocking advertisements and restricting the Internet band. In addition, courts will from now on be able to remove the contents of web pages, and not just block access to them.

The government’s online strategy  has also become more refined in recent years, with the birth of many pro-government social accounts, “trolls” that attack and report opposition users and try to “overwhelm opponents with an excess of information  “. “After Erdoğan became president, the trolls act as ‘agents of culture’, building a new conservative agenda, targeting movements, women, LGBT people…”, says Erkan Saka, professor at the Communication Department of Bilgi University in Istanbul. In June 2020, Twitter suspended  7,340 “fake or compromised accounts, used to amplify narratives favourable to President Erdoğan’s AKP party”. The parable of online state intervention therefore seems to have gone through all three “generations of control” of the Internet, from complete block to the indirect intervention in the production of content, as described by Deibert and Rohozinski (2010)  . Despite this disheartening landscape, some of our respondents are optimistic about the role of digital media as alternative information channels: “They can be censored, but there is always a way out”, says journalist Mumay.

Past and future

It is good to remember that Erdoğan’s AKP party has been in power since 2002, and that the Turkish media system has never been free from polarisation and tight state control  . However, journalist Mehveş Evin recalls that “up to 5 years ago, publishing something that was openly a form of propaganda […] was considered to be something extremely unseemly in the profession. But now it seems to be accepted to such an extent that we are surprised when we see a good example of journalism”. Furthermore, Evin continues, “the fact of having so many colleagues under investigation, in prison, or in exile necessarily creates a significant psychological impact and self-censorship. As a result, the quality of journalism is affected day by day: I wonder if it is possible to restore the dignity of the profession when you pass a certain threshold”.

By: Sofia Verza & Fazıla Mat

Source: OBC Transeuropa 

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