Read All About It (Or Not): The Trouble with the Turkish Press
Istanbul’s 2013 Gezi Park protests unearthed muddy tales of corruption, bias, and authoritarianism that powerful conglomerates and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) would have preferred buried indefinitely. The government received global scrutiny as anyone from students to grandmothers gathered in the streets to demonstrate against the AKP’s increasingly undemocratic actions, including silencing the press.
In the years since, the Syrian crisis, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strong-handed foreign policy, and religious issues have dominated coverage of Turkey abroad – leaving important issues like press freedom and related human rights violations once again shrouded in silence. Yet the political biases of Turkish media deserve scrutiny by Turkish and international audiences alike. Amidst the crises of the region, misreporting and bias convolutes the information reaching the public and can have very real implications for the understanding and response to various issues. The stories of daily paper Sabah and the press treatment of the Kurdish minority both offer warnings of the damage Turkey’s biased press machinery can cause.
Sabah, a daily newspaper founded in 1985, is telling of the complex and often hidden ways in which press freedom is stifled in Turkey – and just how deeply corporate and government meddling runs in the industry. After displeasing government officials in 2007, the paper was seized over an alleged misfiling of merger and acquisition paperwork six years before. The state sold the daily to a company owned by then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son-in-law using state-subsidized funds, allowing the government to effectively control Sabah’s content.
When this was uncovered during Turkey’s December 2013 anti-corruption protests, the holding company quickly sold Sabah’s owner, Turkuvaz Media, to another conglomerate, Kalyon Group. Selling to Kalyon was supposed to wipe the government’s fingerprints from the pages of Sabah, but the group, also involved in construction, energy, and infrastructure, won a government contract to build Istanbul’s new airport, as well as controversial projects in downtown Istanbul’s Taksim Square. The journalist that exposed the shady underworld of Turkey’s media in the New York Times was immediately fired by Sabah.
While Sabah serves as a particularly twisted example of the incest among corporate, political, and media interests, its case is not unique. Most media in Turkey is of the polarized political model, meaning papers are closely tied to certain political parties and views. Popular newspaper Hürriyet, for example, is a secular, anti-government paper, while Zaman is a religious, though also anti-government outlet. These biases transmit skewed information that affects civil society’s understanding of and reaction to issues. The media is a battleground for politics, allowing giant corporations to leverage their money and influence to alter the political landscape in Turkey. As Turkey begins another year full of political turmoil, refugee crises, and terrorist threats, disconnect and confusion in the public will further divide groups and politicians on Turkey’s policy.
The case of the Kurds, a minority group numbering about 15 million within Turkey who have been systematically denied group rights since the creation of the Turkish state, has already demonstrated the dangers of a heavily politicized press. One group of Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has waged a guerilla war for autonomy and independence against the government since 1984. The press uses the actions of this group to report on Kurdish issues from whatever angle they see fit – often painting Kurds as a whole as violent and using the effects of the PKK’s violence to polarize the public to suit their political aims.
The 2011 Şırnak bombing of Kurdish civilians smuggling goods like tires and cigarettes between Turkey and Iraq to survive, was warped to justify not only the government’s actions but the persecution against all Kurds in the fight against the PKK. Anti-government daily Hürriyet took a stance more sympathetic towards civilians while religious newspaper Zaman offered few, though mostly factual articles, and Sabah predictably mirrored the government line. Meanwhile, all three newspapers’ international English language editions defended the government. The readership of each newspaper would have received information about the bombing in such a way as to harden their own political views – and international audiences would have been baldly missing information that uncovered the government’s mistake. The bias of each paper shaped their audience’s understanding along their own political lines.
The media continues to ignore and justify the government’s actions towards Kurdish communities. The hardships of Kurdish areas under stringent curfews and facing cuts to vital services are passed off as part of legitimate anti-terrorism measures without further examination, and external observers are barred from the area. The 200,000 people affected by these measures have limited ways to seek help. In January, someone who tried to speak out about these issues on a chat show was arrested. The Kurds are playing a more and more pivotal role in the fight against the Islamic State (IS), and their treatment in the Turkish media can have a deep effect on how the Turkish public, and accordingly, its elected government, treats these potential allies. The history of the conflict makes a deep relationship difficult, but uniting forces against a common threat is easily hindered by voices shaming a population for the actions of a few.
The international community still offers Turkey’s media bias some attention amidst the other crises it currently handles when dealing with Turkey. However, it focuses on the explicit violations of press freedom, like the jailing of editors and journalists for anti-government rhetoric or reporting. International actors are not pressuring Turkey to change the shady dealings of corporations and politics that color important interactions in the civil sphere. In the war of information occurring in the country, these dealings can have an impact beyond the borders and into the sphere of international relations.
Staying informed about extreme measures, such as the curfews in the southeast and other violations of international law, is hampered by a wash of political information that skews stories and clouds reality. To win the support of the Turkish people, offer less biased information domestically and internationally, and ensure that Turkey is able to hold on to the shreds of the democratic ideals it has left, the international community should be paying more attention to the Turkish press. In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding the complex state of Turkish politics, I suggest you turn to Twitter, where groups like 140journos use the platform for citizen-led, non-political reporting.
*Article originally published by the St Andrews Economist*