How did the Turkish media (not) cover Paradise Papers?
Revelations of millions of dollars hidden away in a string of secretive tax havens have stung the world’s rich and powerful, but hardly at all in Turkey where, thanks to the jailing of dozens of journalists and tight control of the media, few dare to report on the Paradise Papers leaks.
Among Turkish figures named in the Paradise Papers files released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) are energy minister and son-in law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Berat Albayrak, and the children of Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım.
The Turkish media, however, has largely ignored the news. The exception is the Cumhuriyet newspaper, a partner of ICIJ, which started publishing details of the papers on Monday. A few opposition newspapers and independent news web sites, rare survivors of a widespread crackdown, have also quoted Cumhuriyet’s reports.
Interestingly, not only pro-Erdoğan news outlets, but also the large Doğan media group, which does not see itself as supporting the government, concentrated its coverage on news of the financial affairs of foreign dignitaries, but did not mention Turkish ministers.
The headline in the mass-circulation Hürriyet newspaper on Monday was about the advent of a new school system. On Tuesday, the daily led with its campaign on gun control and Erdoğan’s reopening of a new culture centre.
Paradise Papers reports on Queen Elizabeth II, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other foreign figures made it to the Hürriyet website, but not the news of the Turkish names mentioned in the 13.4 million files. The Turkish partner of CNN, cnnturk.com, also owned by Doğan media, provided similar coverage.
But pro-government media, owned and run by figures close to the government, such as Habertürk, Sabah, Akşam, Yeni Şafak, did not publish anything about the Paradise Papers at all, not even the travails of foreign leaders.
The mass-circulation Sabah newspaper’s headline on Tuesday said: “In a word: Magnificent!”, alongside pictures of a smiling, waving Erdoğan and his plans for refurbishing the cultural centre, AKM, in Taksim Square where Gezi protests broke out in 2013.
The Turkish media’s silence about the Paradise Papers is not a shock to a Turkish audience. Turkey has been ruled under a state of emergency since the aftermath of the failed July 15, 2016 coup. Thousands have been jailed and tens of thousands have lots their jobs under sweeping judicial powers.
But even before the coup attempt, Turkish media were already suffering from censorship and self-censorship, and many journalists of the critical were fired from their jobs.
I was only one of them. I was fired from the Milliyet daily – owned by the Doğan media group - after I reported on a military operation in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast in 2015.
After the 2016 coup attempt, around 180 critical news outlets were shut down by decree. Thousands of journalists lost their jobs overnight. The digital archives of some news outlets were destroyed. Critical journalists and others who worked for media associated with Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher Ankara blames for the coup, and for pro-Kurdish media, were taken into custody.
According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, 81 journalists are in jail in Turkey, more than in any other country in the world. A Turkish independent journalism platform, P24, states the latest number as 153.
The Cumhuriyet daily, established in 1924 and the oldest upmarket Turkish newspaper, also suffered. For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Cumhuriyet’s coverage of Turkey’s intelligence services delivering arms to radical Islamists in 2015 became a personal vendetta. The newspaper’s former editor-in-chief, Can Dündar, fled the country in 2016 after spending three months in jail and surviving an assassination attempt outside a courthouse.
But other Cumhuriyet employees, among them writers, lawyers, editors, cartoonists, and executives were arrested, accused of terrorism charges and membership of Gülenist and Kurdish armed groups.
Most were freed on bail after their trials opened in August, but Cumhuriyet executive and well known lawyer Akın Atalay, editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu, reporter Ahmet Şık, and accountant Emre İper are still in jail.
Though under great financial and political pressure, Cumhuriyet still reports the wrongdoings of the government and publishes embarrassing revelations such as the Paradise Papers.
Other small newspapers, critical of the government, such as Evrensel, Özgürlükçü Demokrasi and Birgün could not publish news of the leaked papers on Monday due to print deadlines, but, along with the far-right wing oppositional daily Yeni Çağ, did so the next day.
The fact that only a handful of news outlets still do their best to inform the public, that their staff take great personal risk, makes it impossible for me to sympathise with journalists those still working in the mainstream media, still calling themselves journalists.
But the world should know that there are still hardworking, good journalists in Turkey.