Turkish government's double whammy to the press

Thursday’s double whammy to the Turkish press—the report of a deal to sell Doğan Media Group to the pro-government holding company Demirören, and parliament’s passage of a bill to apply radio and TV licensing restrictions to internet media—prompted only token coverage in the Western media. We have all—and I mean we, I wrote mine rather late, in 2016—already penned our eulogies for Turkey’s media, so perhaps it seems pointless to mourn what is already dead. But the developments this week are remarkable enough that we should remark on them.

Even five years ago it still made sense to divide Turkey’s media between pro-government, Gülenist, secularist, leftist, Islamist, Kurdish, and “mainstream” media. Doğan Media Group, the owner of major brands like Hürriyet, CNNTürk, and Kanal D, was the last bastion of the “mainstream,” meaning mass-market outlets that mostly tried to stay profitable by selling ads and product rather than pursuing an ideological position. These categories were always somewhat permeable. Depending on the issue and the time, Gülenist or Islamist media might be pro-government or critical, and one part of the mainstream media might take secularist views on one issue but liberal views on another even within a media group, as often happened with Doğan’s outlets. This wasn’t an ideal system. There was a lot of straightforward censorship, especially of the Kurdish and left-wing press and of taboo issues relating to nationality and religion, and much, much more self-censorship, a lot of it by owners who were trying to follow the shifting winds of the government’s priorities in order to win procurements for their holding companies.

Turkey was not a free media environment around 2012-2013, but it was very pluralist: it was possible to go to the newsstand and buy a Star and a Yeni Akit and a Radikal and a Cumhuriyet and get a variety of views on the news of the day. If you happened to be in Diyarbakir, you could even pick up newspapers that referred positively to Abdullah Öcalan, reflective of a great deal of popular opinion in that city. There was less diversity on TV, but there was still some debate; in 2013-2014, CNNTürk had a Crossfire-style daily show where Asli Aydıntaşbaş argued with pro-government columnist Akif Beki. In other words, following Turkish media was a way to develop an idea of how people in Turkey—not the government—were thinking and arguing about their lives.

Doğan Media embodied this flawed but real pluralism. The owner, Aydın Doğan, built his empire in the liberalizing 1990s, when the media became a weapon for its new owners, a means to curry favor and position for large government contracts in other sectors. But he also retained and brought in real journalists who pursued real stories. Even after being forced to sell Milliyet and Vatan when the government came after the company for its reporting on corruption, Doğan Media Group was the rare media company in Turkey that was profitable, and you could find genuine reporting in its outlets.

Not anymore. The not free but pluralist environment is gone. In 2014 we got a new term of art: “pool” media, because of how the prime minister told oligarchs close to the government to “pool” their money to buy out mainstream outlets. The government was flipping the logic of 1990s and 2000s on its head. Rather than the owners using their media leverage to influence government procurement decisions in their favor, the government would make the owners advance the views it wanted, in exchange for which the oligarchs would get the inside track on state procurements. With the sale of Doğan, all of the mainstream media are pool now.

Other parts of the sector were conquered by other means. Gülenist media were expropriated 2014-2016, and Kurdish and left-wing outlets were shut down by the handful after the return to fighting with the PKK in 2015 and following the coup attempt. Dozens of journalists are in prison, and those that have been fired or released have a hard time finding a place to work, if they remain in the country. The leftist outlets (like Evrensel) are increasingly important as refuges for any kind of real writing and reporting, but their audience is deeply limited by their history and profile.

And this brings us to the new regulations for internet publications. Turkey’s online space is already extremely censored and filtered, through formal blocking of websites and withholding of posts and users by the monopoly platforms Facebook and Twitter, but also through extensive self-censorship now that the government aggressively prosecutes people for social media statements. The latest move, which will place the Radio and Television Higher Council (RTÜK) in charge of licensing, regulating, and fining internet media on top of the existing regulations, adds another layer of expense and censorship. The small outposts of genuine debate online—projects like Medyascope and Diken—will be under even more scrutiny and subject to even more punitive regulations.

Like everything in the golden years of the “Turkey model”, the media were never as free or as representative as the government or its boosters made them out to be. But there was a public discourse, and the government’s preferences were not the main factor determining what it was. That’s over now.