ISTANBUL, Turkey — As roving water cannons aimed pressurized torrents of yellow-tinged water at protesters, plumes of tear gas descended on a swanky hub of downtown Istanbul normally populated by open-air tourist buses. Those buses beat a hasty retreat as clashes erupted between police and protesters in Taksim Square on May 31, leaving behind stunned bystanders snapping pictures of a violent local confrontation that would devolve into a nationwide crisis for Turkey.
The Washington Diplomat found itself in the prestigious Marmara Taksim Hotel overlooking Gezi Park, epicenter of the unrest, at the very moment when authorities first broke up demonstrators who’d gathered to protest the razing of the park to make way for a shopping complex. Soon, what began as a peaceful environmental sit-in — over a small batch of green space — mushroomed into a referendum on Turkey’s government, exposing a chink in the armor of its seemingly invincible prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters subsequently converged on Istanbul, Ankara and other cities to denounce what they see as Erdogan’s autocratic style and Islamic-inspired meddling in their personal lives. The prime minister has remained defiant, fanning the flames of discontent that, as of press time, don’t seem to be extinguishing anytime soon.
Interestingly though, as baton-wielding police chased down rock-throwing protesters during that initial melee, they all but ignored the news cameramen filming the crackdown. Freedom of assembly and speech may have been muzzled, but freedom of the press was out in full force — at least from our vantage point.
At the same time, however, CNN Türk was widely panned for airing a penguin documentary shortly after rioting broke out. Sabah, Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, which is now owned by the prime minister’s son-in-law, also failed to cover the protests during those first chaotic days, as did many other mainstream outlets.
“The reluctance of major Turkish news outlets to report on the country’s most important story … is a direct consequence of Prime Minister Erdogan’s aggressive response to criticism from the press and frequent harassment and jailing of journalists,” wrote Michael Werz, Matthew Duss and Max Hoffman in a June 4 brief for the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning D.C. think tank.
Werz, speaking to The Diplomat, said he’s been surprised by how Turkish media dropped the ball in their own backyard.
“I think what can be said is that some of the larger news media, print and TV, haven’t really done their job, which is pretty astounding because they have basically missed the story of the year in their own country,” said Werz, a senior fellow at CAP, adding that in recent years, the prime minister has “created an atmosphere of fear” among journalists.
But Erdogan is only partly to blame, Werz says, citing other factors such as a media structure vulnerable to corporate intimidation and sweeping terrorism laws. “There is no one bullet-point answer — it is complicated,” he said of the media situation.
Indeed, the story of press freedom in Turkey is — like the country’s larger evolution — complicated.
Turkey has more newspapers, bloggers and media outlets than ever before, though it’s also jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, at least according to one group. Veteran columnists say they’ve been harassed and fired for not towing the line, and the government has slapped huge penalties on media companies critical of it.
In fact, long before the police’s ham-fisted attack on protesters, reporters complained of a broader assault on the media — whose troubles mirror the growing pains of a country that, up until recently, had been held up as a model of Islamic democracy and economic progress in the region.
Criticism in Perspective
The Diplomat visited Istanbul on the heels of a damning report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) showing that the imprisonment of journalists worldwide reached a record high in 2012, driven in large part by detentions in China, Iran — and Turkey.
In fact, CPJ called Turkey “the world’s worst jailer,” noting that with 49 journalists behind bars, the authorities were holding dozens of Kurdish reporters and editors on terror-related charges and a number of other journalists for alleged involvement in anti-government plots.
That number has since come down, but critics say the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, along with the business conglomerates closely associated with it, have little tolerance for dissent. As a result, watchdog groups say self-censorship among Turkish media is rampant.
“The most recent protests have revealed the extent of self-censorship,” said Gönül Tol, founding director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies. “NTV for instance, which is one of the leading news channels in Turkey, has become the target of Gezi Park protestors for not covering police brutality during protests. Finally the channel had to apologize to its viewers for not staying true to its mission.”
She added: “Freedom of expression and press freedom are important components of a functioning democracy, and as Turkey’s democratization struggle rages on, Turkey will have to face its bad record on that front.”
Abdülhamit Bilici is a columnist for Today’s Zaman, one of three English dailies in Turkey, and general manager of the Cihan News Agency, which owns Zaman and a weekly newsmagazine called Aksiyon. Bilici said he’s witnessed the country’s nascent media grow over the last 20 years and urges critics to take the long view.
“Turkey has an authoritarian legacy. We had one-party rule from 1923 until 1950, so we are not coming from a democracy. Since 1950, we have had four military interventions, and still Turkey has a constitution which was prepared by generals. So when you look at Turkey, you should never forget this background,” he told The Diplomat during an interview at Zaman’s expansive offices overlooking Istanbul shortly before protests spiraled out of control.
He added that during those years of military rule, the media was often “instrumental in preparing the ground for another coup.”
“Now in the last 30 years, there have been important steps. I very much appreciate the reforms started in the 1980s. Until 1990, there was no private broadcasting. All radio and TV was under state control. Now we have more than 1,000 FM radio stations, more than 300 TV channels, and more than 15 news channels,” he said.
“In the past, we had journalists assassinated,” Bilici added. “Currently, there is nothing that Turkish media is not able to debate. Before, the biggest issue was the Kurdish issue…. The other taboo was the Armenian genocide. Now every newspaper and TV channel talks about this. The voices of dissent are much higher now compared to the past.”
That’s why Bilici says comparing Turkey to nations such as Norway or Switzerland is way off base.
“When I read reports from various international organizations defining Turkey as worse than Iran or China, it is just nonsense. They don’t understand the real picture in Turkey. And it doesn’t help us,” he argues.
Werz also called the comparison “unhelpful,” describing Turkey as a “vibrant, very opinionated democracy with 80 million people.” In contrast, “people are getting shot and killed in China and Iran.”
“Now does that legitimize even one journalist being in jail in Turkey? No it doesn’t,” he added. “Quite the contrary, because Turkey is a democracy it has to be held to higher standards than countries that are not democracies.”
Erdag Göknar, the Andrew W. Mellon assistant professor of Turkish and Middle Eastern studies at Duke University, agrees that the situation is more nuanced than the CPJ paints it out to be.
“Turkish society is politically diverse and the number of newspapers reflects this plurality,” he told The Diplomat. “There are well over 20 national papers representing a broad spectrum of political and ideological views from socialist, to moderate Islamist, to secular, to nationalist in Turkey. This includes Kurdish and Armenian dailies. As a point of comparison, the scale of political views that the U.S. media represents is considerably narrower. Observers focusing only on mainstream media are often completely ignorant of the array of views represented by these publications, especially since the misconception is that no media freedom exists.
“That said, there has always been an uneasy tension between journalists and authors, and the state in Turkey. In the media, this same tension has led to the harassment of journalists leading to censorship, the loss of work and, at times, prosecution or worse,” said Göknar, author of “Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel.”
That tension was on full display in what’s become the largest outpouring of anger against the ruling government.
“At first, the mainstream media ignored the protests. After the third day, and once the protests became nationwide, the situation changed. Media organizations had also become the target of protests for their lack of coverage. This had the desired effect, leading to a change in the coverage and some apologies by news outlets that acknowledged their failures,” Göknar explained.
“The protests are now front-page news nationally and internationally and are intermittently being covered live. Nevertheless, the general mass media angle is still along the lines of, ‘We’ve heard you, let’s move on.’ Since the mainstream media is controlled by a handful of conglomerates with ties to the government, this is also a way to dismiss the demands of the protestors. Whereas the government and media — some would say in collusion — first reacted to the protests dismissively in the role of ‘bad cop,’ now they have made an about-face, assuming the conciliatory role of ‘good cop.'”
The Business of Censorship
Indeed, business interests often stymie independent reporting as much as government repression does. Many of the country’s main newspapers and television stations are owned by wealthy conglomerates with lucrative ties to government contracts.
“This cross-ownership of media entities — wherein large conglomerates with major economic interests in other sectors such as construction or energy control media outlets — can open up reporters, editors, and owners to a variety of pressures,” wrote Werz along with his Center for American Progress colleague Max Hoffman in their May 2013 report “Freedom of the Press and Expression in Turkey.”
Bilici of Today’s Zaman agrees that “sometimes media bosses and business can be worse than government. Most of our media are part of holdings which have other interests. If the owner wants to have good relations with government, it’s a big risk to have a critical newspaper.”
He added: “Criticizing the prime minister, you won’t end up in jail, but you could lose your job.”
Or be sued, as Bilici has. Another penalty: steep fines. The Dogan Group, one of Turkey’s largest media conglomerates, was slapped with a $2.5 billion levy in 2009 allegedly for tax evasion, although watchdog groups saw it as retaliation for its negative coverage of Erdogan and the AKP. To cover the fine, Dogan sold the Sabah newspaper, which is now co-owned by a group managed by Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Smaller bloggers were somewhat insulated from this kind of crony capitalism, although they too have come under increasing pressure. U.S. officials say they’ve witnessed bloggers face subtle threats, such as the loss of their daytime jobs or government contracts, though such claims are hard to substantiate.
But now that nationwide rallies pose a growing threat to AKP rule, Erdogan can barely conceal his disdain for social media, calling Twitter “the worst menace to society.”
That’s probably because it’s been so effective in galvanizing the protesters (though it has also spread erroneous reports, such as wildly inflated death tolls). Still, throughout the turmoil, social media was a more credible source of information than many mainstream journalists, who were booed by protesters right alongside the reviled police forces.
“Websites, online forums and social networking sites have changed the media landscape in Turkey by proliferating the realm and reach of Turkish media beyond government control,” Duke University’s Göknar said. “The reason Prime Minister Erdogan recently called Twitter ‘a menace’ is because it is beyond the authority of the state. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the protests were enabled and are currently being sustained by new media.
“As an example, if you sift through a couple hundred Twitter feeds — and the images and videos they link to — you’ll get a better sense of what is happening in Taksim Square than if you read the national and international press. It is immediate, direct and raw information,” he said.
But a handful of social media users have paid a price for their tweets. Some two dozen were arrested on suspicion of inciting violence. The government is also crafting legislation to restrict the use of social media as part of a wider Internet crime bill.
Wide Legal Net
That legislation, if approved, would join a number of arcane security laws that criminalize speech in “support” of terrorist organizations — a loose categorization that can ensnare reporters. In theory, for instance, an op-ed supporting the PKK, a guerilla group that’s fought the government for Kurdish independence since the 1980s, could land a writer behind bars. Despite a recent ceasefire and peace overtures, the Kurdish issue remains highly sensitive in Turkey, where reporters can also be arrested for interviewing Kurdish separatists or attending PKK meetings.
Tol of the Middle East Institute calls Turkey’s terrorism laws “quite vague.”
“For instance, there are thousands of Kurdish activists in jail charged with terrorism charges because the current legislation is so broad that it allows arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws to silence political opponents,” said Tol, who is also an adjunct professor at the George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies. “Nonviolent dissenting opinions on controversial political matters have become the target of criminal prosecutions.”
“The government’s ideological position and political agenda often determines whether a particular matter will becomes a ‘third rail’ issue that puts journalists at risk,” said Göknar. “Recently, the topics that have led to government censure have centered on the Kurdish peace process as well as the long-standing Ergenekon conspiracy trials that have rounded up students, journalists and retired military personnel in an attempt to uncover alleged plots against AKP rule. In both instances, journalists have been targeted in detentions without due process.”
Hundreds of people, in fact, have been arrested in connection with the Ergenekon affair, an alleged clandestine plot by military and other ultra-nationalist actors in Turkey’s “deep state” to orchestrate a government coup.
The government says journalists swept up in the affair weren’t just casual observers but active participants in it, while NGOs counter that the charges are flimsy. “Even delving into the details of individual cases, it is very difficult to know the truth, and therein lies another central problem — the lack of transparency surrounding the process,” Werz writes in his report on press freedom in Turkey.
Some attempts have been made in recent years to narrow the definition of terrorism, reform the penal code, decrease lengthy pre-trail detentions and better shield journalists. For instance, a judicial reform passed this April would only prosecute speech that directly incites violence. While he applauds such moves, Werz says the ultimate solution is revamping the nation’s constitution to close legal loopholes and protect freedom of expression.
“A modern democracy has no business being governed by a constitution written under military rule,” he wrote. “The existing constitution’s broadly defined laws governing national security and territorial integrity provide ample room for abuse by overzealous prosecutors, while the twin fears of the military deep state and Kurdish separatism lead to prosecutions of those who may be engaged in legitimate reporting or political advocacy.”
From the military “deep state” to Kurdish separatism, many of the roadblocks journalists encounter are wrapped up in Turkey’s tangled history and the ongoing power struggle between the secular old guard and the Islamists, not to mention a hodgepodge of other factions such as liberals, the business elite, urban middle classes, rural social conservatives and an emerging new pious capitalist class.
The Diplomat, in fact, was invited on a press trip to Turkey (and Azerbaijan — see related story) by the Turkic American Alliance and the Rumi Forum, which is affiliated with the Hizmet Movement (meaning “service to others”), led by Fethullah Gulen. An enigmatic figure who lives in reclusive self-exile in Pennsylvania, Gulen maintains a popular (some say cult-like) following in Turkey, where conspiracy theorists say the movement has its hands in the country’s police forces, media outlets (including Today’s Zaman) and other institutions.
Ostensibly, the Gulen movement preaches interfaith dialogue, tolerance, charitable service, women’s rights, education and science — underpinned by a moderate brand of Islam. At one point, the influential religious network seemed to be aligned with the AKP, although rumor is the group broke with Erdogan in recent years, presumably over the prime minister’s increasingly Islamist ambitions.
Religion is, of course, one of Turkey’s biggest fault lines. Many Turks fiercely guard their secular roots, which date to modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. But that secularism often came at the expense of religious freedom and liberal democracy. Coups were the norm, and minorities or openly devout Muslims were regarded as second-class citizens.
Despite being called a dictator by protesters, there’s no denying that Erdogan ushered in a new era of democratic governance in Turkey after his Islamic-based party won three consecutive elections since coming to power in 2002, each time garnering an increasing margin of victory.
Fresh off its historic win, the AKP quickly set about wresting control of the state apparatus away from the military.
“Given the historical fear of the Turkish deep state — the conspiratorial statist and corporatist elements that many Turks still believe run the military and intelligence apparatuses — [and] the legacy of repeated military coups,” Werz wrote, “it is unsurprising that upon gaining power in 2002 the AKP moved quickly to curb the influence of the military and other branches of the Kemalist establishment that it felt hindered the burgeoning democracy and threatened the party. The party’s reforms, accomplished over many years, included abolishing the military courts that had been influential in stifling dissent, loosening restrictions on the press and religious or cultural expression, asserting civilian authority over military commanders, and pushing to rewrite the constitution.”
Yet these reforms (notably reversing the ban on headscarves) provoked suspicions that Erdogan was a thinly veiled Islamist bent on remaking Turkey, even though he initially took great pains to assuage those fears and moved Turkey closer to the West than perhaps any other leader before him.
“The AKP’s consolidation of civilian control and its breaking down of religious and cultural taboos was deeply disruptive and threatening to many of the elite Turks raised on the strict Kemalist doctrine of secularism, statism, and military prestige. This shaped a situation of mutual paranoia, wherein all sides of the political debate harbored deep suspicions regarding the motives of their opponents,” Werz wrote.
“This mutual suspicion is still strong in Turkey today. Kemalists and many secular Turks express fear of a creeping Islamist takeover,” he added. “Meanwhile, fears of the deep state and mistrust of the military remain powerful among AKP circles.”
The convoluted Ergenekon plot is a manifestation of that suspicion on the part of the AKP. Conversely, the current wave of protests was fueled by new restrictions on the sale of alcohol and public displays of affection — just the latest in what many view as the steady Islamic erosion of Turkey’s secular foundation. Some 17,000 mosques have been erected since the AKP was elected in 2002, part of a massive building boom that critics say Erdogan has rammed through without local input.
Other audacious projects include the world’s largest airport, a massive canal joining the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and a third bridge over the Bosporus — named after an Ottoman sultan accused of slaughtering members of the Alevi religious minority — plans that have outraged secularists and environmentalists alike.
Despite the backlash, Erdogan remains extremely popular, both at home and abroad. He’s become a critical partner for the U.S., an influential regional player, and he’s presided over a spectacular economic transformation embodied by Istanbul’s rapidly changing skyline.
Over the last decade, he’s turned an economic wreck into a dynamic powerhouse. Turkey is now the world’s 17th-largest economy (and sixth-largest among EU countries). The per-capita GDP, which today stands at around $10,500, has tripled over the last decade. The government has slashed poverty and budget deficits, while investing heavily in education and infrastructure. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development expects the Turkish economy to continue expanding at a healthy clip of 5 percent over the next several years.
Interestingly, even though Turkey’s chances of joining the European Union are slim, Werz says the AKP implemented a raft of democratic reforms in the early 2000s to qualify for eventual membership, along with taming the country’s debt. He also notes that because Turkey’s military had for years trampled on the rights of AKP members, the party instituted a number of laudable changes.
“In 2002, when the AKP first took over, they really have to be credited for increasing pluralism and freedom of speech in Turkey and for really broadening the political debate” — to include previously taboo subjects such as the Kurdish conflict and Armenia. “Now we’re seeing the opposite,” Werz said.
Indeed, the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction. Erdogan’s uncompromising, obtuse response to the protesters’ legitimate grievances only enflamed the situation and, his detractors say, fits a pattern of running roughshod over critics, including those in the media.
In dismissing the protesters as looters, drunks, extremists and foreign agents, Erdogan even seemed to be taking a page out of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s paranoid playbook. Erdogan has even torn into foreign media, suggesting they’re part of a foreign conspiracy to topple his government.
“He is certainly a vindictive man who does not take criticism well,” Werz said. “The prime minister has long history of being very defiant, very stubborn,” he added. “The fact that he left the country [for a four-day trip to North Africa] shows you that he seems to be losing a little of his competence.”
Instead of calling demonstrators terrorists and summoning counter rallies that could tear the country apart, Werz said the prime minister should take a cue from some of his deputies and President Abdullah Gül, who have been far more conciliatory toward the protesters. Those protesters, Werz also pointed out, represent a broad cross-section of society that’s fed up with Erdogan’s paternalistic, divisive leadership.
To restore that leadership, Werz says Erdogan needs to signal “that he wants to be prime minister of Turkish society, and not just prime minister of the AKP.”
As for what will happen next, “I think it’s an open question at this point,” Werz told us. “Everybody knows that this is not about a shopping mall anymore.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.