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The Silence of Surrender: Erdogan’s War on Independent Media

The early-summer protests in Turkey were not televised. Instead, Turkey’s news networks aired penguin documentaries and cooking shows while all hell broke loose at the heart of Istanbul in Gezi Park, as what started out as an environmentalist movement quickly evolved into a major uprising against the Turkish government. But the networks remained mostly mute, intimidated by the prospect of reprisals from the country’s hotheaded prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Penguins have thus become one of the symbols of Turkish media’s self-censorship efforts. Credit for showing these birds instead of confronting hard political realities goes to CNN Turk, the Turkish subsidiary of the cable news giant, owned by Dogan Media Group, the country’s largest media empire. Even Anderson Cooper mocked CNN Turk on air for the penguin documentaries.

It is no surprise that CNN Turk chose public ridicule over the risk of journalistic integrity. The owner of the network, Aydin Dogan, is the media mogul in the country and has spent most of the last few years mending his broken relationship with the Erdogan government. At the peak of his power, several years ago, he owned a petroleum company, fifty percent of the media’s market share in Turkey, planes, buildings, a record company, hotels, yachts, a Barnes & Noble–like chain, and much more. He paid the highest taxes in the country for many consecutive years. His influence through his media alarmed governments, and sometimes even took them down. Then, Erdogan’s Islamist government set out to crush him: he was nearly pressed into bankruptcy, forced to sell half of his media empire, abandon other investments, and resign into early retirement. He is still one of the richest men in Turkey and its largest media mogul, but no longer Turkey’s kingmaker.

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On a snowy Istanbul day several months ago, I visited Dogan at his modern office building on the Asian side of Istanbul. The compound was more like a silent retreat than a large conglomerate’s headquarters. Almost all the clichés of office life were defied there: nobody hurrying down the halls, no humming workspace sounds, no phones ringing, and perhaps not enough employees to occupy the large space. We were set to meet for a friendly conversation at 11:00 a.m., and his office doors opened on the dot. There were a couple of flatscreens tuned to television networks he owns, all of them muted. No music from the radio and no computer fan—he only had an iPad on his desk. He made it very clear to me that he had a lot to say, but lacked the desire to say it. Everything was off the record.

Dogan, who built his empire almost from scratch, starting with a car dealership in the late 1970s, has been trying hard to make peace with the ruling Justice and Development Party (the AKP) since it leveled a record multi-billion dollar tax fine against his company, exceeding its net worth, in 2009. At one point in this conflict, rumors circulated in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, that government officials offered Dogan’s assets to other investors seeking opportunities in the media business.

Dogan has made more money in his other businesses, but he enjoyed being a media boss. His four daughters, graduates of prestigious universities like LSE, Stanford, and Columbia, now handle the management of Dogan Media Group, each running a different outlet, but Dogan is still the ghost in the machine. Some of his newspapers have produced exemplary pieces of journalism in the last thirty years. For example, Hurriyet, a paper he acquired from a rival in the early 1990s, was and still is Turkey’s paper of record, and sets the agenda with its front page. But despite its influence, and also perhaps because of its influence, things have turned sour for Dogan. And what he went through is part of a power shift in Turkey resulting from Erdogan’s leadership since he and his allies took charge, through democratic elections, in 2002 and turned over to Islamists the secular institutions that had dominated Turkish life since the republic’s establishment in 1923.

Erdogan has made a habit of bashing the media every Tuesday in the General Assembly during his televised speech. Whatever issue is topping the agenda in Turkey, he always comes around to his discontent with the media, targeting individual columnists and media owners alike. Those he mentions know that they will have to empty their desks and look for other work. His targets sometimes include international outlets as well. Most recently, he condemned CNN, BBC, and Reuters for their Gezi Park coverage. When the Economist endorsed the opposition party over him in 2011, he accused the British weekly of serving a “global gang taking orders from Israel.” Erdogan even argued that the Wall Street Journal was conspiring against him and President Obama when the paper printed a scoop on a Turkish jet downed by Syria in 2012.

For many years, it was primarily Dogan who suffered from the prime minister’s wrath. At party rallies, or on television, Erdogan targeted him, at one point calling for the boycott of Dogan-owned newspapers. This is mostly in the past, and neither Dogan nor his companies are mentioned in Erdogan’s speeches anymore. The two appear to be close now, as proved by a recent photo op at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a Dogan-owned compound. The mostly mended relationship reflects on Dogan’s media outlets as well: with the exception of a few Hurriyet writers, almost all of them refrain from getting on the government’s bad side, and pro-Erdogan journalists have ascended in the Dogan echelons. The penguins bear eloquent witness to what has been lost.

 

Every government in Turkey’s history has attempted to reshape the media landscape. The popular right-wing Democrat Party government of the 1950s, one of Erdogan’s political ancestors, did not favor the press either, shutting down newspapers and arresting journalists. The three military coups since that time have further diminished basic freedoms, including freedom of speech.

In the late 1980s, Turgut Ozal, a leader who influenced Erdogan, once openly voiced his desire to have “two and a half newspapers” in the country—two major ones that would support him and a token opposition paper without much influence. It was Ozal’s son who launched Turkey’s first privately owned television channel, although it was against the law at the time. “It’s OK to breach the constitution once,” the father famously said.

In the 1990s, a professor of economics named Tansu Ciller entered politics as a media darling and won the endorsement of Hurriyet as “The Lady” and “The Beautiful Blond Woman,” which helped her become the country’s first female prime minister. Later, when Dogan decided to support her opponent, she publicly attacked him during her rallies. Additionally, Ciller’s husband launched a television channel and a small paper, with the sole purpose of discrediting Dogan.

None of these efforts to create a compliant media lasted until Erdogan. His battle with the press has been an integral factor in his rise from local politician to prime minister. In 1997, as the first Islamist mayor of Istanbul, he was arrested after reciting a poem allegedly provoking an Islamist uprising. When he served ten months in prison and the mainstream media did not come to his defense, he felt betrayed and vengeful.

In 2007, when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was up for reelection, the common sentiment in the media and elsewhere was that Erdogan was going to lose. Secularists in Turkey had become alarmed by having an Islamist party in office and started organizing demonstrations to express their concerns. Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets in predominantly secularist cities, chanting slogans against the ruling party and raising their concerns that the country was rapidly decoupling from Western values, especially secularism. Many newspapers, including Dogan’s, backed a secular nationalist coalition as an alternative to Erdogan’s government. Many columnists in Dogan-owned dailies openly urged readers to vote for opposition parties. The Turkish military, then the country’s most respected institution, favored this nationalist trend and appeared able and ready to protect the independent press.

Since the existing media landscape was not working in Erdogan’s favor, the AKP circles realized the urgent need of their own propaganda machine. The perfect opportunity arose in 2007 after the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund, a government agency, took control of Sabah daily and its affiliates, Turkey’s second largest media group, for mishandling its initial public offering. The group was later sold to a company whose CEO is Erdogan’s son-in-law. This opened the path to other businessmen creating pro-Erdogan outlets.

“I felt that Erdogan was left alone and the media was one-sided at the time,” investor Ethem Sancak said in an interview with the pro-government daily Turkiye. “I went into the media business to merely support Erdogan because everyone was against him at the time.” Sancak bought the sinking daily Star for $10 million and later launched Channel 24 to create an influential media group, “to better serve Erdogan.”

But the new pro-government media outlets were never as influential as the established brands. Dogan was still the king, reaching out to more than half of all news consumers. The majority of the media also remained secular and centrist, backing an establishment that nursed hopes that Erdogan could be cut down to size and removed.

But Erdogan’s outsize personality and his emphasis on a strong economy and a growing country led him to one election victory after another. In 2007, he was elected by a forty-seven percent landslide, but disillusion persisted, and a year after the elections, the Constitutional Court attempted to disband the AKP as a threat to the secular order. Had that ruling not been overturned, it would have meant an end to Erdogan’s career. The common belief among the inner circles in Ankara was that this was a plot to destroy Erdogan, planned jointly by the media, the military, and the judiciary, and that he would take his revenge.

 

The list of Erdogan’s confrontations with the media is long, but nothing sticks out as much as the 2008 case of Deniz Feneri (“The Lighthouse”)—a fundraising scheme in a charity founded by Erdogan’s Islamist brethren with close ties to the AKP.

The Lighthouse Charity aimed to be Turkey’s Robin Hood; its mission was to collect from the wealthy and serve the needy Muslims around the world. But Dogan’s papers followed a lead in a German court report and wrote that the charity was not distributing funds properly, instead buying real estate in Turkey with some of the money, and that three Turkish men involved were convicted of siphoning off 18.6 million euros.

The Dogan dailies ferreted out more details, apparently oblivious to the certainty that merely reporting the news would trigger a ferocious response from the prime minister. Erdogan called for a public boycott of “any paper that reports on the Lighthouse story.” He also challenged Dogan by mentioning a past encounter between the two: “I give you a week to disclose what you asked from me.” This was a threatening reference to a development license Dogan had requested to proceed with the renovation of the Istanbul Hilton, a property he had acquired for $255 million in 2006.

The land the Hilton sat on is one of Istanbul’s most valuable plots, with an unobstructed view of the Bosphorus and access to the city center, steps away from Gezi Park. According to Turkish newspapers at the time, Dogan’s proposed development project, which involved luxury residences and a shopping center, might have netted him billions in profits. However, licenses were never granted. The Hilton deal, which was supposed to be part of a lucrative expansion, turned out to be a different kind of milestone: the beginning of the Dogan Media Group’s public chastising.

In all fairness, Aydin Dogan did everything in his power to try to maintain a balance between doing journalism and fulfilling the impossible task of pleasing Erdogan. In 2007, he shut down a small sensationalist opposition paper he owned named Gozcu. After Erdogan’s second election victory the same year, Hurriyet announced the departure of Emin Colasan, a regular if not an acerbic critic of the government and the paper’s most-read columnist for more than twenty years. (Hurriyet lost about eighty thousand angry readers in reaction at the time, and many of them never came back.)

In February 2009, the government’s next big move came when the Ministry of Finance charged the Dogan Media Group with a tax fine of nearly $500 million over the sale of the television company’s shares to the German media company Axel Springer.

“Even if I saw Aydin Dogan evading taxes with my own eyes I would have difficulty believing it,” Ugur Dundar, an anchorman for a Dogan-owned network at the time, tells me. “People who have worked for years at the Ministry of Finance, the crème de la crème of bureaucracy, financial experts, were hired by Dogan. A tax fraud could have happened under their supervision? It’s impossible.”

Before the group could recover from the trauma, another team of inspectors arrived at Dogan’s headquarters by June 2009 to launch a new probe that resulted in another tax fine of almost $2.5 billion.

After the second tax fine, journalists inside and outside the company knew that it was the beginning of the end of media freedom under Erdogan. In time, Dogan confirmed this by firing others of his influential writers, or pressuring them to resign from his papers. Rival media moguls followed the same path. The newspapers that propelled the Lighthouse stories went through a major overhaul, their managing editors replaced. Many television programs were taken off the air, regardless of their ratings or the profit they made. The media adapted to the new information environment, conveying news tailored to the prime minister’s liking.

 

The success of a journalist in Turkey’s media environment is now measured by proximity to Erdogan. Over the years, he has built a cadre of journalists around him who have become permanent fixtures on Ana Jet, the Turkish Air Force One. But access does not mean scoops. There have been numerous occasions when the access of favored writers was revoked merely because of their reporting, not because their reporting was critical. Erdogan personally chooses which journalists will interview him on television. Networks change their scheduled programming last-minute to air an interview with him.

The firings of columnists are also significant because, unlike in the United States, where reporters dominate, columnists make up a majority of the daily papers. They are an influential elite that draws readers to papers and propels policies in government. As a 2012 article in the New Republic put it, some of the firings were “similar to the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the New York Times firing Peggy Noonan, Andrew Sullivan, and Maureen Dowd, all within the span of a few months.” Therefore, when Erdogan succeeded in getting many of the columnists fired, it had a hugely chilling effect on the remaining writers. Since 2007, more than forty important writers have had to give up their columns in various Turkish papers. Since the Gezi protests broke out in June 2013, seventy-two journalists have been fired or forced to resign for supporting the uprising.

Haluk Sahin, a professor of journalism at Istanbul Bilgi University, says that this is unprecedented in Turkish history. “Being fired in this environment is the equivalent of a scarlet letter. Nobody will hire you.”

The process, according to Can Dundar, a popular writer who was recently fired from Milliyet daily following the Gezi protests, starts with a note stating that the writer is on a temporary leave. “In the past, papers would print notes that they haven’t received the article, and we’d understand that something was wrong. In the last few years, the temporary leave note has been a signifier of a firing.”

“There’s only one media boss in Turkey at the moment and it is Erdogan,” a journalist who used to work for Hurriyet told me when I asked him about the current situation. “He decides who is hired and who is fired.” As if to confirm these remarks, Erdogan blurted out, in a March 2012 television interview, that the owner of Milliyet daily approached him to ask who should be appointed as editor. Erdogan recommended Akif Beki, his former press spokesperson, who was indeed hired but soon left for personal reasons. Since then, Dogan appointed Beki as a senior op-­ed columnist for Hurriyet, in another attempt to please Erdogan and divert the criticism from the paper’s existing opposition voices.

As Dogan’s CNN Turk aired penguin documentaries while Turkey burned with discontent, its main rival, NTV, Turkey’s oldest news network, owned by Ferit Sahenk, the wealthiest person in Turkey and a businessman close to Erdogan, went with cooking shows. Large crowds marched to the NTV headquarters, and the network’s broadcast truck was painted over with anti-government graffiti. In order to stop the protests, Cem Aydin, the television group’s CEO for eighteen years, issued an apology, but was forced to resign a couple of days after.

“Lately, doing a television program has become increasingly hard in Turkey,” says Haluk Sahin, the journalism professor. “There’s enormous pressure on everyone, especially regarding who goes on air. When a critique of the government appears on TV it is immediately followed by a phone call from Ankara. It’s either a minister or Erdogan’s press secretary on the other side of the line. ‘Why did you invite so and so?’ is a common question.”

But June’s Gezi Park protests marked a milestone for the feisty independent media. And although it will take years before they establish themselves as true alternatives, this breaking news moment provided a perfect opportunity for them to get brand recognition. For example, Halk TV, a mostly ignored news network affiliated with Turkey’s main opposition party, has emerged almost out of nowhere as the most watched news channel, merely for covering the protests. Sozcu, a twenty-page sensational daily lacking fundamentals such as a newsroom, increased its circulation by more than fifty thousand after the massive protests, surpassing Hurriyet.

But the situation is filled with peril as well as promise for journalists. Many optimistically believe that the darkest days of the media purge were in 2011, when thirteen mainstream journalists linked to the small dissident website OdaTV.com were arrested, and that things are unlikely to return to such a low point. The OdaTV journalists were mostly released, though without acquittal. “The arrests caused a huge reaction abroad, especially in the US and the EU, so they seemed to have stopped for now, but we don’t know about tomorrow,” says Aysenur Arslan, a media critic for the daily Yurt. “Not a day goes by when the possibility of another investigation isn’t hinted and other journalists are targeted. It is a Damocles Sword over journalists’ heads.”

Even today, following the Gezi Park protests, pro-government newspapers compile lists of journalists who were “provocateurs.” Because of the censorship in the media, journalists are more active on Twitter, which Erdogan recently declared was the “worst menace to society.” (On June 4th, four days into the protests, thirty-eight Twitter users were detained in the city of Izmir and later released.) Fearing arrest, journalists on Twitter for a while used the hashtag #RedHackHackedOurAccount, referring to the Turkish hacktivist group.

The Gezi Park protests have slightly challenged the détente between Erdogan and Dogan. While Dogan’s television networks were cautious about covering the protests, Hurriyet went head-on and printed articles criticizing Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian streak—though not without consequences.

In August, after a weeklong holiday in Bodrum, a coastal town on Turkey’s Aegean shore, Erdogan announced that he had personally compiled a list of unregulated construction projects on the Aegean shore and that many buildings would be torn down. In the next day or so, pro-government outlets reported that it was Aydin Dogan’s new luxury boutique hotel expansion project in Bodrum that Erdogan was referring to. As if to confirm this, Erdogan tapped his adviser Yigit Bulut to oversee seaside development projects. Bulut, once married to Dogan’s niece, has become a fierce critic of Dogan since his divorce. Simply put, it’s the Hilton story all over again.

Following this, a representative from Turkey’s main opposition party submitted a parliamentary question to reveal whether Erdogan demanded that three writers from Hurriyet be fired. So far, there has been neither an answer from Erdogan nor a denial from Dogan.

“In the end our media will be like those in the Turkic republics,” predicts Can Dundar. “Every network will show the prime minister, every paper will print nothing but his words.”

Oray Egin is a Turkish journalist and a writer based in New York and Istanbul.

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