Turkish pro-gov’t media pundits claim victimhood after SETA report backlash

Turkish and international organisations have condemned last week’s report by Turkey’s Foundation for Economic, Political and Social Research, a government-linked think tank, which systematically investigates the social media accounts of Turkish journalists working for foreign institutions to determine and list their political views.

The critics say the think tank has singled out journalists for attack in a country where they already face severe restrictions. Figures from SETA, including General Coordinator Burhanettin Duran, have said the research simply uses open source data to paint a picture of the country’s media scene.

In fact, it was SETA, an institution whose reach extends to the right hand of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through its Istanbul General Coordinator Fahrettin Altun, the president’s communications director, that has been the real victim in this scenario, Duran said – the victim of a “lynch attempt” by biased press circles.

Yet criticism of the report came even from government friendly sources, with Islamist daily Yeni Şafak editor Ersin Çelik in a now deleted Tweet calling it “disquieting” and “seriously inept”, and calling on the think tank to retract it and apologise.

“Lists of who journalists follow and retweet are not secret information, but by studying and writing reports on them it starts to become profiling”, Çelik said.

The sorry state of Turkey’s domestic media is well known. Reporters Without Borders places the country 157th out of 181 countries on its World Press Freedom Index. A report by the same organisation in collaboration with Turkish independent outlet Bianet this year highlighted the media ownership structures that ensures the vast majority of media organisations in the country remain under the influence of the government.

Those journalists who do publish reports critical of the government or work for one of the publications that have been shuttered and criminalised in recent years face criminal charges, sometimes spending months or years in pre-trial detention, and if abroad risk being hit with Interpol red notices. Turkey, as the Committee to Protect Journalists has reminded us for the past three years running, is the world’s leading jailer of journalists.

Not to mention that writers face the additional danger of physical assault, as five journalists discovered in the month of May this year.

Pro-government daily Sabah’s columnist, Hasan Basri Yalçın, apparently lives in the same parallel world that has ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) figures claiming there are “no journalists in prison in Turkey for journalism”. 

“It’s a simple report. The foreign services have been listed, and efforts made to shed light on their political stances … These foreign press institutions are almost entirely made up of journalists known for their oppositional stances. The report in this sense puts a picture forward”, Yalçın said in a column on Thursday.

Like Duran, Yalçın saw the whole furore as evidence of dark forces at work in a plot to victimise writers who side with the Turkish government.

“I don’t know of such an intense focus (of foreign media institutions) on any other country … SETA, as an institution trying to serve this country, is curious about this attention and has reported on it”, he said.

“I don’t understand why so many militants dressed like journalists, who don’t hesitate to publish our pictures and lists of our names and write us off as partisans (of the AKP government) journalists, are squealing so much (about the report)”, Yalçın continued. “But what I am a partisan of is clear. I am on the side of this country”.

With these comments, Yalçın has hit on the crux of the issue: critical journalists are labelled as militants, while those whose views are approved by the government are patriots. The apparent profusion of “opposition” journalists Yalçın and his ilk wonder at is the product of a self-fulfilling prophecy when any writer who reports critically is marked out as a dissident, and potentially a criminal.

Even so, Duran was bold enough to scold foreign press institutions in Turkey for not representing diverse points of view, warning that as such they “could not contribute to Turkey’s democracy”.

The takeover of the last quasi-independent media giant, Doğan Media Group, by a government-linked businessman before national elections last year brought a staggering proportion of Turkey’s press onto the government’s side – some estimated 90 percent by viewer and reader numbers.

Nevertheless, there were signs this week that the ruling party and its cheerleaders’ attempts to enforce their own narrative are coming unstuck, and even backfiring.

A column on Wednesday by Albdulkadir Selvi, a writer known as something of a bellwether for movements within the AKP, described the ground under Erdoğan as “shifting” after the AKP’s defeat in the Istanbul mayoral rerun on June 23, and compared the result to previous elections that changed the course of Turkish politics.

Selvi said the emergence of new parties led by disgruntled senior AKP members could lead to snap elections called before they are scheduled in 2023, and in both Wednesday’s column and another published the next day, hinted at frustrations at the ruling party’s obstinate refusal to change its course.

A good part of that frustration probably lies in the AKP’s resort to belligerent tactics against critics, and the kind of bullying and smear tactics that have contributed to the dangerous environment for journalists touched on above.

Erdoğan’s campaign for the local elections this year rested heavily on those negative tactics, labelling opponents as enemies of the country and in league with terrorists. At the same time, trials were under way of activists accused by the president of attempting to overthrow the AKP government in a plot hatched by Hungarian American investor George Soros. Erdoğan received a heavy rebuke at the ballot box, losing mayoral votes five of Turkey’s six largest cities.

Now accusations of links to Soros have been flung at none other than Erdoğan’s own daughter, Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar, as Islamist daily Karar writer Elif Çakır discussed in her column on Thursday.

“In the last five years, anyone who thinks slightly differently from or is critical of the AKP government … has been labelled a ‘Sorosist’, a ‘traitor’, a collaborator with foreign powers,” Çakır said.

"Who would have thought the day would come when they'd label Sümeyye Erdoğan Bayraktar's association as 'Sorosist'. Calling Kadem 'Sorosist' is the same as calling Sümeyye Erdoğan Sorosist", she said.

© Ahval English