As the Turkish government continues to close newspapers and arrests journalists, editors, and writers, the promotion of state broadcaster TRT World illustrates the state’s desire silence opposition and monopolize media coverage.
Authors and journalists commemorated the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on Tuesday, drawing attention to imprisoned novelist and PEN member Aslı Erdoğan. Arrested nearly three months ago, no date has been set for her trial. Like other writers and journalists detained in recent months, she has been charged with “belonging to a terrorist organization” and “undermining national unity”.
These allegations, at the heart of other arrests and closures, emphasize how much the media and other democratic institutions are suffocating in Turkey.
Even before the failed coup this past July, the government had expanded its list of enemies and terrorist organizations to include members of the Gülen organization, once one of the ruling party’s closest allies. This reclassification served as a pretext for the temporary closure of Zaman in March of 2016, a widely circulated daily paper and its English-language affiliate Today’s Zaman, both with ties to the Gülen movement. The paper and its online content returned a few days later, though with a new government-appointed board, a staunchly pro-government editorial position, and erased archives.
For a newspaper that touted its groundbreaking entry into online media in 1995, its new archive-less form was uncanny.
Although the government had already seized control of the nation’s biggest newspaper, Zaman and subsequently Bugün and Milliet, all three were affiliated with Gülen’s organization and the take-over was not unexpected. However, movement against one of Turkey’s last remaining independent and oppositional papers, Cumhuriyet, shows how far the government is willing to censor opposition.
In contrast to the relatively muted stir created by the closure of Zaman, attacks on the venerable newspaper Cumhuriyet have been treated as a tipping point in Turkey’s drawn-out crackdown against the media. Cumhuriyet is one of Turkey’s oldest daily newspapers, with a reputation for defending liberal secular values.
Reflecting on his many years as a journalist and editor, former Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dündar recalled:
“During the 1950s, we were all communists. During 80s, we were all terrorists. During 90s, we were all Kurdish. And nowadays, we are all Gülenists and terrorists again. What we’re experiencing in Turkey is a witch-hunt against critical voices. Everyone who criticizes Erdogan is branded as a terrorist.”
Under the editorial leadership of Can Dündar, Cumhuriyet published a report on alleged arms shipments to Syria, much to the embarrassment of the AKP government and the President and the national intelligence service, MIT, in particular. The newspaper was awarded the Freedom of the Press Prize by NGO Reporters Without Borders, but Dündar was arrested along with Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül.
Facing five years and 10 months in prison, Dündar stepped down from his role at Cumhuriyet and criticized the compromised judiciary, which has since used the declared state of emergency to bypass judicial requirements in cases like his. Cumhuriyet’s current editor Murat Sabuncu was arrested a few weeks ago along, with warrants for a further 13 executives and writers on the basis of alleged links to both Gülen and the PKK.
The closures of various Kurdish media outlets such as JINHA hasn’t received such widespread attention, given widely accepted assumptions of collusion between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and members of the Kurdish community. However, the same charges of collusion made against Cumhuriyet are strikingly discordant, given that they accuse Cumhuriyet staff of supporting both Gülenists and the PKK, organizations whose animosity dates back to the conflict in the 1980s and 90s. Gülenists in the military and police have been accused of complicity in torture and civil rights violations against Kurds during that time.
Journalists opposed to the work of the Gülenist community have also been swept up in the post-coup fray. Şahin Alpay had written for Zaman, but not exclusively, contributing to Cumhuriyet, Sabah, and Milliyet too. Most recently serving as professor of political science at the prestigious Bahçeşehir University, Alpay has been a staunch defender of liberal and progressive causes, participating in international political and social projects.
Arrested within two weeks of the attempted coup, a date has yet to be set for his trial. Even his lectures are disappearing from the Internet, such as one given at Ipek University. Part of the same conglomerate as Bugün and Millet, the university has been closed by the government under suspicion of ties to the Gülen movement. Although the university’s website continues to function, it appears that its archives are likewise being erased.
Beyond arrest and censorship by the government, media outlets are increasingly self-censoring to avoid the wrath of the government. Closure of the left-leaning online publication Radikal for “financial reasons” by the Doğan group highlights the high level of concentration and conglomeratization of the Turkish media. Following a wave of privatization and corporate consolidation measures in the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey’s once varied and vibrant media market has become increasingly dominated by a few holding companies.
Combining construction, energy and mining, telecommunications, banking, and transportation interests, these holding companies have benefitted from positive coverage of their corporate interests, and positive coverage of government policies has helped clear the way for permit approval and contract selection. With the media field already weakened by this conglomeratization and the conflicts of interest inherent, the absence of opposition news will be felt even more keenly.
With the launch of a new state-owned English-language broadcast – TRT World – President Erdoğan seeks to counter what he sees as a hostile international perception, as well as biased foreign media coverage and what he described as “unprincipled behavior.” Attending the launch, veteran Hürriyet writer Ertuğul Özkök observed that:
‘The journalist profile in Ankara has completely changed. I could only recognize a few of them in the hall. A huge portion of those in the media section seemed to be applauding the president with an enthusiasm exceeding their journalism.’
Using the extended emergency powers granted under Article 121, the government may continue to bypass the judiciary, detaining writers and journalists indefinitely. Even the lavish launch of TRT World underscores the lengths President Erdoğan is willing to go in order to consolidate his power with an executive presidency and silenced opposition.
The government has so far avoided appointing a trustee board to Cumhuriyet, as they did with Zaman, instead appearing to believe that the arrests will prompt an internal editorial change. In the chilling words of the deputy prime minister to parliament, Veysi Kaynak, “We want the Cumhuriyet newspaper to fix its own mistake”
With journals and journalists alike being silenced, opposition voices and critical content is being erased from editorial pages and content archives. The arrival of broadcaster TRT World and the fact that Cumhuriyet remains is of little comfort. Censorship, whether self-imposed or through propaganda and state intimidation is threatening Turkey’s media to the point of extinction. With President Erdoğan pursuing an ever greater concentration of power under a presidential system, the health of Turkey’s democracy is in a critical stage.