I must say I was jealous of my journalist colleague Tim Sebastian when I watched Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s spokesman İbrahim Kalın answer his questions for Deutsche Welle. It wasn’t about Sebastian’s interview style; I even thought it was rather brave of a figure like Kalın to accept speaking to Sebastian, whose aggressive style is not something unknown. But would Ibrahim Kalın or any other government official sit across a Turkish journalist who could ask such questions, perhaps not so harshly in Turkey? And if they were to accept, would there be found any news channel that could broadcast such an interview? If it were to be found, what would that entail for the journalist and broadcast company concerned? Would the owner of the TV channel be put under political pressure? Would that program be ended? Would Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) incapacitate the broadcasting channel concerned with heavy fines, or would the channel be closed all together? And what could happen to the journalist? Prison? Unemployment? Both?
As I was thinking of these, I read the news about a court case opened against another journalist; Doğan Akın. Akın had founded the news site T24 ten years ago and managed to sustain it successively up to day. He was indicted for “helping FETÖ” the outlawed network of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S. resident Islamist preacher who has been accused of masterminding the military coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Interestingly, the bill of indictment for Akın does state that he had “no hierarchical ties with the organization”, that he “has written a lot of articles against the organization in the past” and that he carried “left wing” opinions. So what had Akın done wrong? Akın will be tried by the 25th Istanbul Criminal Court, facing 5 to 15 years in prison because of making news about the claims by the fake social media account “Fuat Avni” which was later on understood to be run by the Gülenists.
It’s not just the prison threat
According to the figures of the Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGS), 118 journalists, writers and media workers are currently in prison. Most of those cases, which suppress the freedom of expression, are either about suspicions of helping or being a member of a terrorist organization or about insulting the President. And this gives the government a pretext that these people “don’t stand trial for journalism, but terrorism and defamation”.
But prison sentences are not the only obstacles before freedom of the press in Turkey. Economic pressures are also in question for journalists: threat of being unemployed.
45 journalists and media workers who have been recently discharged from the Hürriyet newspaper are complaining about not even getting their legal compensations; they started to tell their problem by posting a video on social media. Among these 45 colleagues, 43 were members of Turkish Journalists’ Union (TGS). According to the TGS, since the Gezi Protests in 2013, the number of journalists who have been dismissed, forced to resign or who have been unemployed through closure and downsizing (although some have found other jobs later) is around 10,000. According to the figures of the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), there are currently 7000 unemployed journalists. According to Turgay Olcayto, President of the Journalists’ Association of Turkey (TGC), one-third of the journalists in Turkey are unemployed due to companies closing, due to economic or political reasons, or downsizing. Ownership structures of newspapers and television channels are also important here. According to the estimates of journalism organizations, the ownership of 70 per cent of the media is in the hands of groups with business connections with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. The fact that distribution networks are subject to the same political monopoly puts an additional burden on newspapers and magazines and even book publishers that try to remain independent.
Importance of independent papers, TVs and sites
One of the consequences of these suppressive dynamics is the implosion of mainstream media in Turkey. Newspaper circulations and television ratings are no longer convincing to adverting companies; they consider them, by default, inflated and unreliable. Since the big cities’ municipalities have now shifted to the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) from the AKP in the 2019 local elections, the main source of income for the government line news organizations became advertising coming from public enterprise budgets, thus Turkish taxpayers.
Readers and viewers don’t find the content providers that don’t include criticism reliable.
According to a survey by the research company Konda in November 2019, the habit of reading newspapers has dropped from 74 per cent to 34 per cent in men and 52 per cent to 17 per cent in women between 2008 and 2018. The rate of those who opt for the internet when they want to get information is 51 per cent for men and 45 per cent for women. The TV channels being the main news source of the masses; Fox TV-Turkey is leading with its news coverage still striving to stick with objectivity; some find it contrary to its elder sister in the U.S.
In this climate, the importance of news sites such as T24, Medyascope, Duvar and Diken and others who can offer a critical approach and have profited from the downfall of mainstream media, and the importance of independent blogs and YouTube channels are growing by the day. That’s why the broadcasters like the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Sputnik and Voice of America have boosted their Turkish language services in order to fill the vacuum. Even Yetkinreport, which you are currently reading, is a product of this climate.
So the situation is dire and pessimistic, but there is hope. Nature will take its course; it will, as long as we continue to feel jealous of our colleagues in the west enjoying more media freedom then us for the time being.