Working as a journalist for Turkish pro-government press

(This article of journalist Tuğba Tekerek was published on Friday as a part of a special International Press Institute series on press freedom and the realities of practising journalism in today’s Turkey. Tekerek gave Ahval her permission to publish her article. The names of the journalists interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identity.)

“Maybe what I am doing is out and out treachery,” said Murat. Identifying himself politically as a socialist but now working at one of the most fiercely pro-government newspapers, he referred to the paper as an ‘ideological bulletin’ and a ‘rag’ and said: “Nobody even reads it, we just fill the pages.”

The circulation of this and similar newspapers accounts for almost 90% of the market in Turkey with as many as 10 to 15 newspapers using identical Erdoğan quotes in their headlines on a given day. Only a handful of independent newspapers remain. This means that thousands of journalists in Turkey are working for government-controlled media.

Murat, who works on the sports pages of a pro-government paper gives startling examples of the way in which journalists are made to work.

Even the President’s routine messages of congratulation to medal-winning sports personalities are being prominently featured. We give a lot of coverage to the President’s son, Bilal Erdoğan’s favourite sport of archery and the activities of sports personalities such as Hidayet Türkoğlu and Hamza Yerlikaya, who are outright supporters of the President. All the pro-government media do this.

Murat explained how his paper supported Erdoğan’s ‘Yes’ campaign in the 2017 referendum on the adoption of a system of Presidential government, moving away from the parliamentary system:

(Footballers) Rıdvan and Arda started a ‘Yes’ campaign on social media.  I wrote such a headline for the page that it looked as though all footballers were saying ‘Yes’.  The headline was: “Footballers say ‘Yes’ for a strong Turkey”. But when a football fan is barred from entering the stadium for carrying a ‘No’ placard, that’s something that you cannot report on.

Murat defended himself by saying that he does not write for the political pages, that all sporting media are essentially “the lowest of the low” and that, in his view, no-one is persuaded to vote for the ruling AKP party by reading his paper. But, he does not want to lose his only source of income.

Irfan, who until last year worked as an internet editor at a pro-government newspaper said: “There is a process of manipulation going on and I am an actor in this.” However, the responsibility he feels for his actions differs from that of Murat.

Irfan worked for the TürkMedya group which includes newspapers such as Akşam and Güneş.  TürkMedya group is owned by Hasan Yeşildağ who went to prison at the same time as Erdoğan in order to protect him.

Talking about the editorial policy and selection of news Irfan explained:

News about inflation not reaching its target or stories about defendants accused of membership of the Gülenist movement being released on bail would never make it onto our site. News about the leader of the CHP opposition party, Kılıçdaroğlu, would not normally be featured unless there was some hint of a scandal.  It is all completely arbitrary, and you have to think about it in terms of the stakes involved:  Everything is for Erdoğan and about Erdoğan.

Irfan claimed that journalists at his former paper apply this simple ‘Erdoğan rule’ at all times. But that alone is not enough.

 If you put up headlines that are not powerful enough, you’ll be regarded as a weak link and you’ll be taken off the job. 

According to Irfan there is no recourse and there is nobody to turn to:

You live with that sadness.  We came into this game with our eyes open. They don’t force you to work for them. Now I see online that  2,000 people have shown interest in the job I was doing.  There is nowhere you can turn to in resistance.

Irfan conceded that although in the mainstream media journalists have to pander to the media bosses, life is harder still for those working for opposition newspapers. He admitted that the need to cater for the media bosses’ gains is secondary to the need to publish news that is “suited to Erdoğan” – a practice that is greatly controlled.

Irfan  said that although it’s known that he is not an AKP supporter, he is viewed in the places he works as ‘harmless’ and is allowed to stay in his job.

Irfan and those like him are overlooked for promotion in favour of employees who have a photograph of Erdoğan on their desk or as their computer screen saver.  Irfan has been unemployed for months and is now applying for jobs online for which there are thousands of applicants.  He no longer cares whether his next job is with independent or pro-government media.

The dissolution of unions within the media sector began during the time of Aydın Doğan who took the first steps to impede unions in 1991. In 2008, a business man close to the government, Ahmet Çalık, entered the sector by buying the Sabah-ATV media group and took measures to prevent the unionisation of journalists.

The Sabah-ATV media group was later transferred to Turkuvaz Medya, which has very close ties to the the government.  Their board member Serhat Albayrak is the brother of President Erdoğan’s son-in-law – the Energy Minister, Berat Albayrak.

Yusuf, who had been working at Turkuvaz media up until last year, told us the onslaught against the news, the sacking of staff members who did not support the AKP and the high levels of self-censorship began in 2008.  He stressed that the absence of the unions served to speed up this process.

He described the turning point at the newspaper:

Every time you went somewhere on a news story they’d say, “Ah, you’re one of our men”. No, I’m a journalist my friend!  I’m not automatically on your side. But the pro-government staff members are all conferring with one another. They’ll say, “There’s a topic coming up about Kılıçdaroğlu. How should we write about it, what kind of line do you want?” How can a journalist ask such a thing?  It’s shameful! 

Yusuf has given up all hope of continuing to work as a journalist and has now started a new life far from Istanbul.

Deniz is a journalist working for a newspaper bought by Erdoğan Demirören, a businessman close to the government. Deniz does not accept the term ‘pro-government’ to describe his paper.  He also said that they do not skew any of the news stories in favour of the regime.

Confirmation of how close the media boss Demirören is to President Erdoğan came in a leaked telephone conversation between the two in 2014 when Demirören said, in relation to a news story, “Have we upset you, boss?”.  At the end of this conversation Demirören was heard to say, tearfully, “How did I get into this business?  For whom?” The Demirören conglomerate bought the media group, Doğan in April of 2018, taking from them the title of being the largest media group in Turkey.

Demirören’s newspapers are not being accused of blatant bias as much as the other pro-government papers.  However, his newspapers Milliyet and Vatan feature Erdoğan’s words almost every day or promote the activities and pledges of the government. In contrast, there is not a single report about the second biggest opposition party in parliament, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Deniz said: “If you look at things closely, you’ll see that all we have been doing is journalism.”

He said that the CHP is given space only on the inner pages.  Deniz maintained that they do give voice to those people who have suffered as a result of Erdoğan’s politics, saying that it requires journalistic skills to place news items that will not please the government.

Although some days may pass without direct interference, he admitted: “Yes, I sense it.  There is definitely pressure; that’s no lie.”

He explained the level of self-censorship by saying:

In one issue of the paper we gave considerable space to a report on environmental damage.  The next day the Ministry for the Environment refuted these claims.  I don’t know if anyone from the Ministry actually made a phone call but we took it upon ourselves not to ever give column inches to such reports again.

Deniz has thought many times about leaving the paper. He explained his reason for staying:

There are certain things that I’ve just had to swallow, things I’ve had to accept just to be able to keep on going. Tomorrow or the next day, whenever this whole thing is over, I just know I will stand up and cry my heart out.

When I tried to contact the heads of the newspapers Sabah, Akşam and Vatan for their opinions I received no response. The editor-in-chief of Milliyet newspaper, Mete Belovacıklı, told me that the government puts no pressure upon them, either directly or indirectly and that their only concern at the paper is to publish balanced journalistic articles, the only criteria of which is their newsworthiness.  When asked why his headlines constantly centre on Erdoğan and things that he says, Belovacıklı replied: “In the last 4-5 years the public statements that have a bearing on the agenda have all come from our political administration.”

Another journalist, Nazım Ali, who worked as part of the Demirören media group, admitted that sometimes articles displeasing to the government were consigned to the inside pages.

Even if those articles are published, they are either hidden somewhere in the inner pages or they are put in such a way that it’s hard to understand the actual issue. I can tell you that this is a common and accepted practice at the newspaper.

After publication, he was frequently called into the editor’s office to be told, “This story will create a problem for us”, “I don’t want to be getting a phone call from the district mayor’s office”.

Every time I wrote a story I felt as though I was a “troublemaker” or “someone who will create a difficult situation for the newspaper.

Comparing his newspaper to others supportive of the regime he said:

The situation at our newspaper is not as bad as that of Akşam or Yeni Şafak but it’s no walk in the park either because they are constantly trying to control you. There have been times when I’ve suffered psychological problems and I’ve even been at the stage where I’ve said to myself that I just can’t take any more. But I had to stay strong, I had to carry on.

Nazım Ali left the newspaper some time ago. He is working on developing his skills so that he may return, in stronger shape, to his profession as a journalist:

At the end of the day, I struggled hard against all that was demoralising, all of the mobbing, and at least I didn’t stay silent, at least I made sure that I raised my voice.