President Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to control social media, after having taken care of conventional media, are not a new phenomenon. However, last week he voiced the desire to ban social media, and this is worrying from the freedom of press and expression standpoint. Taking a step back, we realize that by replacing the ownership of prominent media institutions that have brand value and widespread publicity, the government forced the reminder of mainstream media into exile to social media, voluntary or not. Have we now come to the stage of destroying the non-governmental media in the very digital ghettos they got forced into?
This process started in Turkey in 2007. The Sabah-ATV media group had been driven to bankruptcy at the hands of then-director Dinç Bilgin, so its ownership had shifted to the government insurance fund agency SDIF. It was then sold to Ahmet Çalık, a businessman also having investments in Turkmenistan, as the sole suitor to the media group. The same year, Erdoğan, then PM, began his verbal attacks to Hürriyet daily. The newspaper was considered the flagship of the Dogan Media Corporation. These verbal attacks turned into a major tax lawsuit in 2009. In the process of resolving the case through consensus, two Doğan Group newspapers, Milliyet and Vatan, were sold in 2011 to the pro-government Demirören Group, led by late Erdogan Demirören. And Star TV of the same group was sold to the Doğuş Group led by Ferit Şahenk the same year. In 2013, the ownership of Sabah-ATV shifted from the Çalık Group to the Kalyoncu family group. The owner was Orhan Cemal Kalyoncu on paper but Serhat Albayrak was at the wheel. And it was Berat Albayrak (currently Finance and Treasury Minister and son-in-law of President Erdoğan), his brother, who was the CFO of the Çalık Group. In this process, the ownership of neither the Doğuş Group nor Turgay Ciner’s Habertürk-Show TV cluster had changed. But their broadcasting policies were reshaped so that they wouldn’t disturb Erdoğan. And they would do whatever’s needed should a line be crossed by mistake.
The operation was
Erdoğan broke the media toy while playing
As a result, trough an operation that lasted 11 years, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) captured the entire media. That very media was considered mainstream 11 years ago. Of course, we don’t include the publications that were already pro-Erdoğan/AKP such as Türkiye or Yeni Şafak, or Akit as traditional nationalist/Islamist players into this equation. But the concept of the mainstream has lost its meaning anyway. Being mainstream means having both the ability to reflect or set the agenda and having a notable audience volume. But both of these features are absent in the current model. The readership of the mainstream newspapers and the ratings of the mainstream channels of the time are currently pitiful. But the government agencies, with all their might, continues to reward organizations as long as they don’t mess with delicate issues, with privileges and astronomical salaries.
Meanwhile, newspapers and TV channels that still strive to do their work without being government tools end up facing relentless harassment. The Press and Advertisement Council puts pressure on newspapers like Cumhuriyet, Birgün, Evrensel, and Yeniçağ. In the meantime TV channels like Fox TV, Halk TV, and Tele 1 operate under the strict surveillance of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK). Erdoğan broke the toy that is media while trying to snatch it from the hands of his opponents. The toy no longer works for anyone.
Pushing the media into ghettos, and then…
In this process, thousands of press workers became unemployed, either by dismissal, being forced to resign, or through quitting because they could no longer bear the oppression. The latest blow was that our colleagues at Hürriyet daily were not paid their compensation after being laid off. This was the beginning of a new era in media: the rights of media employees had to be protected.
But this kickstarted another process as well. Digital journalism had been developing since the early 2000s. T24, one of the leading online news platforms of Turkey, has been active for 10 years under the leadership of Doğan Akın. Digital media, social media had already been developing throughout the world, regardless of Turkey’s political atmosphere. Many colleagues, including YetkinReport, are trying to meet our readers’ and audiences’ right to receive different news and comments on these platforms. We do so either by choice or due to the absence of other means.
But digital media and social media present three main risks.
- Firstly, its access is limited to the digital user. This raises the risk of being stuck in an echo chamber. In its most extreme form, this can mean that a handful of elites are following each other.
- The higher the number of digital platforms, the more ad revenue from the print/visual marketing field will be shared among the platforms. So the income that is supposed to keep a media organization standing will be limited unless it becomes massive by itself.
- Thirdly, there is the issue of digital casualties, sabotages, and the like. Simply by flicking a switch, anybody, the government itself, or a broadcasting company can cut you off from the world. It may not even leave an archive behind.
These risks transform digital media, which normally provides quite broad publishing opportunities, and social media, into a kind of media ghetto. You may call it a ban, or a restriction to sound less threatening. But every new media law raises the walls of the ghetto a little further. Some influential circles chose to ignore us when we speak out about this. They fear it will affect their relations with the government. But when the day comes, somebody flicks the switch, and social media shuts down, they won’t find anybody to voice their concerns if they have any. The need to make your voice heard is just like the need for justice. Everyone will need it one day.