ISTANBUL — THE protests that convulsed Istanbul and other Turkish cities last month exposed, among many other things, the shameful role of Turkey’s media conglomerates in subverting press freedom.
As the social unrest reached a peak on May 31 with clashes between tear-gas-happy police officers and protesters spreading through the heart of the city, the lack of even minimal coverage by seemingly professional private news channels presented the residents of Istanbul’s upscale neighborhoods near Taksim Square with a moment of truth. They could see, hear and smell the truth from their windows, and they quickly realized how their TV channels had lied by omission.
As the city center turned into a battlefield, 24/7 news channels opted to air documentaries about penguins or to go on with their talk shows. One channel, Haberturk TV, only 200 yards from the now famous Gezi Park, had three medical experts discussing schizophrenia — an apt metaphor for the state of journalism in Turkey.
But this is nothing new. For years, it has been politically expedient for major news outlets to cover up the truth and impose news blackouts on all serious issues, especially the Kurdish conflict. After an October 2011 meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and media owners about how to cover “news on terror,” mainstream TV outlets were cowed and began to exercise excessive editorial caution. When 34 Kurdish villagers were bombed to death by Turkish fighter jets two months later, in Uludere, near the Iraqi border, these outlets very efficiently blocked coverage of the story.
The plague of sanitized media coverage reaches far beyond Turkey. Across the globe, and especially in young or struggling democracies like Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, Hungary and Albania, the lack of media independence is doing real damage. Media executives who intimidate or censor reporters while kowtowing to governments to protect their other business interests are undermining the freedom and independence of the press that is vital to establishing and consolidating a democratic political culture.
Dirty alliances between governments and media companies and their handshakes behind closed doors damage journalists’ role as public watchdogs and prevent them from scrutinizing cronyism and abuses of power. And those who benefit from a continuation of corrupt practices also systematically seek to prevent serious investigative journalism.
The problem is simple: one need only follow the money. Turkey’s mainstream media is owned by moguls who operate in other major sectors of the economy like telecommunications, banking and construction. Since only a few large TV channels and newspapers make profits, the proprietors tend to keep them as bait for the government, which needs media managers who are submissive to the will of politicians.
It is fertile ground for carrot-and-stick policies. The more willing the proprietors are, the more their greed is met. Several of Turkey’s media moguls have been given extensive favors through public-works contracts, including huge urban construction projects in Istanbul.
It’s not possible to conduct serious journalism in such a polluted system. These conflicts of interest have transformed Turkey’s major newsrooms into prisons: coverage of economic corruption in Turkey today is almost zero. There are a few tiny, brave independent outlets, which break stories that are critical of the government, but these stories are hardly ever picked up by the mainstream media and therefore have little impact.
While the world is focused on the issue of jailed journalists in Turkey — almost all of whom are Kurds — the kiss of death to our profession has been bestowed by owners who consciously destroy editorial independence, fire journalists who voice skepticism and dissent and block investigative reporting.
Turkey’s rapidly growing economy has caused such greed that the media owners regularly counteract the judgment of professional journalists who are trying to do their jobs on behalf of the public. Editorial content is strictly controlled by media bosses who have other business interests and are submissive to the government. With, or more often without, any direct government intervention, they impose self-censorship on a daily basis and silence colleagues who defend basic journalistic ethics. With hardly any union presence in these outlets, there is very little job security.
The daily Milliyet, once a flagship of good journalism, was acquired in 2012 by the Demiroren Group, which, among other ventures, is in the liquid propane gas business. In February 2013, Milliyet printed the minutes of talks between Kurdish politicians and the jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. Two days later, a veteran Milliyet columnist, Hasan Cemal, boldly defended the paper’s decision to publish, declaring: “It’s one thing to publish a newspaper. It’s another to rule the country. The two should not be mixed. Everyone should mind their own business.” The scoop and the column infuriated Mr. Erdogan, who publicly condemned the paper and journalism more broadly. Mr. Cemal was given two weeks of forced leave. Upon his return, he wrote a new article on media freedom and independence, which was rejected by the paper’s owner, and Mr. Cemal resigned.
At NTV, a news channel targeted by protesters for its poor coverage, a monthly magazine called NTV Tarih, which focuses exclusively on history, had a cover story in its July issue about Gezi Park’s past. The company’s management asked to see the issue’s content a day before it went to press. Management not only canceled the issue, but also discontinued publication altogether. NTV Tarih’s circulation had been 35,000, among the most commercially successful periodicals in Turkey. The owner of the NTV channel, Dogus Group, happens to have recently won a bid to build the large Galataport — a contract worth over $700 million — that will transform an old port in the center of Istanbul into a modern hub of tourism, shopping and real estate.
Another conglomerate, Ciner Group, which owns media outlets like Haberturk TV, has in the past years won a number of contracts for energy and electricity distribution. Since then, the increasingly pro-government editorial policy of Ciner Group outlets has been clearly visible. Unsurprisingly, Haberturk’s headquarters near Gezi Park became a target for protesters angry at the channel for broadcasting an obsequious interview with Mr. Erdogan at the height of the police crackdown.
THE Turkish media’s pathological dysfunction is just one example of a much broader phenomenon. An extensive study conducted for the European Union by a group of journalists and independent media experts from across the continent found similar problems throughout southeastern Europe.
“Many media owners and leading journalists have vested political and economic interests and use their position to engage in ruthless ‘media wars’ against political opponents,” the report found.
The only way to prevent the damage done to democracy by a pliant media is if governments empowered by the electorate reform state broadcasters so that they become autonomous or independent public services and prepare the legal ground for fair competition and diversity in privately owned media outlets. In Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Australia such broadcasters are established by law and guarantee the public’s right to know without interference from commercial interests. Their organizational structures represent various segments of their societies and are run by independent professionals, rather than partisan bureaucrats.
An autonomous public broadcaster that serves as a focal point for good journalism, far away from commercial concerns and government influence, would enhance public debate in Turkey and a number of other young democracies like South Africa and the Philippines.
In democratic transitions, pluralism and diversity do not mean much if they consist only of a competition between pro-government media and ultrapartisan opposition outlets. Private ownership in the media sector must be structured to allow the existence of a credible, independent, vibrant and high-quality Fourth Estate.
This is the core lesson of the Turkish media outlets’ spectacular failure to cover the Gezi Park protests, and their subsequent aggressive outbursts against the international media outlets that chose to cover Turks marching through the streets of Istanbul rather than penguins waddling across the ice of Antarctica.
The more media moguls get involved in shady dealings with governments, the more their greed blocks all decent journalism and destroys journalists’ ability to hold the government accountable. A corrupted media can never uncover corruption in a credible manner.
19 July 2013