Media in Turkey before, during and after the referendum | openDemocracy

Source: Media in Turkey before, during and after the referendum | openDemocracy

My commentary/analysis for Open Democracy’s New Turkey Old Troubles special week discusses the dire situation media is in Turkey with a specific reference to the ways in which media have been systematically silenced and given to the service of the AKP government as well as the role it has played during the constitutional referendum process. Below is the theme editor Mehmet Kurt’s introduction to my piece:

“On Friday, Ece Algan charts conditions in the media under Erdogan’s rule, and different ways to silence them. The state’s accusations mainly involve a link with a terrorist organization, or several, as power is not afraid of contradicting itself, provided that the media are forced to comply with the government line. Noting the 2017 World Press Freedom Index that places Turkey 155th out of 180 countries, Algan describes how Kurdish media is the easiest target, which has suffered from state violence the most. However, Algan also indicates the importance of alternative media platforms and their moderate but growing influence and capacity to host many forms of resistance in the drastically changing political climate of Turkey.”


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Does Biden support Academics for Peace or not? The Anatolian Agency and Turkish government spin the news

A look at the coverage of Biden’s visit to Turkey and the implications of his visit for the peace process with the Kurdish minority and Academics for Peace Initiative

U.S. Vice President Biden’s visit to Turkey last Friday and Saturday (Jan 22-23) was provocative for a number of reasons and further polarized the stances of various groups in Turkey, from pro-government media institutions to those who want the armed clashes between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerrillas to end, including the ‘Academics for Peace’ signatories. During his visit, Biden addressed the unfair attacks against initially 1128, and now over 2000, Turkish academics who are being accused of aiding terrorist organizations through a petition calling for an end to Turkey’s military operations in a number of southeastern provinces. Unsurprisingly, the government and pro-government media ended up using this opportunity to target the signatories further and to spin Biden’s words toward their advantage.

Prior to his official meetings with government officials, Biden met with three journalists who lost their jobs for speaking out, a professor of law and the head of an NGO to discuss the state of freedom of expression in Turkey, in which he chided Turkey over freedom of expression and criticized the treason charges that the academics are facing. Even Turkey’s Anatolian Agency (AA), a state-owned and controlled news agency, which upholds official state and ruling government interests, reported Biden’s clear stance on Turkey’s numerous freedom of speech violations and backing of Academics for Peace albeit with an interesting headline that read “US Vice President hails Turkish democracy.” AA_Turkish democracy

Biden also met with the wives of slain Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink and Kurdish human rights lawyer Tahir Elçi, which further indicated his stance on the need for remedying Turkey’s growing freedom of speech violations record. Almost all of these individuals and groups he met on Friday are known to be critical of the government and/or belong to the opposition groups. Biden’s remarks were welcomed with enthusiasm by many journalists and civil society organizations, who have being suffering through President Erdogan’s targeting of them in the past 5-6 years. However, Biden’s meeting about Turkey’s human rights violations caused quite a bit of backlash also. Those who met with Biden were chastised by pro-government media and groups for their ‘complaints about Turkey to their American masters’, ‘having a colonialist mindset,’ and embracing the U.S. like a savior despite its own records of human rights violations. Two of the journalists, who were at the off-the-record, exclusive meeting with Biden, Aslı Aydıntaşbaş and Kadri Gürsel, were perceived as bragging and ridiculed on social media when they publicly displayed their hope and encouragement after the meeting. A number of journalists from pro-government media even published a press release criticizing Biden for meeting with only four journalists, all with a similar worldview, while ignoring the voices coming from the majority of Turkish media, which they suggested would have offered a wider variety of political views than was represented at the meeting.

During Biden’s Saturday meetings with President Erdogan and PM Davutoğlu, however, the tone of what was reported regarding Biden’s official stance on issues changed drastically due to two reasons. First was related to leaders’ greater emphasis on Syria, which was the main goal of Biden’s official visit to Turkey. The second and most significant reason was that Erdogan’s 2.5 hour-long meeting with Biden was closed to press –a scheduled press conference was cancelled– and as a result, Turkish newspapers covered the meeting from the official press release provided by the President’s Office and AA’s reporting almost verbatim. When we look at mainstream Turkish newspapers and AA’s coverage, it is easy to see why both Davutoğlu and Erdogan went to great lengths to make sure only their side of the story is heard regarding the military operations in Southeast and why the Academics for Peace deserve to be punished for terror propaganda. In these damage control efforts aimed at counteracting Biden, AA and pro-government media proved to be instrumental to the Turkish state. Instead of reporting the content of the press release with skepticism and counter arguments, the overwhelming majority of the media outlets in Turkey– which have been suppressed via tax punishments, silenced through lucrative government tenders, or bought out by individuals having close ties with the party members in power (AKP)– chose to comply. There were a few exceptions, such as Hurriyet Daily News, which included in their reporting both the claims made in the press release and what Biden had said the day before to journalists and NGO representatives.

A simple comparison between the White House readout and Turkish presidency’s press release covered by AA might help illustrate discrepancies between two accounts of what was discussed. According to AA’s story which was published with the following headline “Biden reiterates US support for Turkey’s war on terror,” “Biden said the U.S. supported Turkey’s fight against terrorism including against the PKK, which is listed as a terrorist organization by the EU, U.S. and Turkey.” The story then details Erdogan’s remarks and positions on the issue in a way that suggests Biden’s acceptance or even endorsement of Erdogan’s stance. However, according to the White House readout, “Recognizing PKK is a terrorist organization, the Vice President expressed concern about the ongoing violence in southeastern Turkey, and urged Turkish leadership to engage in dialogue with all of the country’s communities who seek a peaceful resolution.”

In addition to omitting Biden’s remarks about the necessity for a peaceful resolution, AA included Erdogan’s response to why the actions taken against Academics for Peace are justified and claimed that Biden also criticized the petition for being one-sided:

“Presidential sources quoted Erdogan as saying that Turkey is a state of law just like the U.S. and making terrorist propaganda or issuing statements that support acts of terrorism cannot be considered within the domain of freedom of thought. The sources also cited Biden criticizing the manifesto for not mentioning PKK terrorism.”

The claim that Biden criticized the manifesto is hard to believe considering all his remarks the day before about the Academics for Peace. What is even more surprising here is that Turkish Presidency’s press release only reports the first sentence in the above block quote not the so-called Biden response. AA clearly published a fabricated statement claiming to be uttered by Biden.

There is also a significant difference between the English and Turkish versions of the same news story on AA including the headlines used. Turkish one does not address Syria or training camps in Bashika as much as the English one does but it reserves a repetitive and misleading sub section devoted to Academics for Peace where it discusses why the petition should be considered a terror propaganda instead of a freedom of speech issue according to the President. The Turkish version was published with the headline that read “Biden’dan akademisyenlerin bildirisine eleştiri (Biden criticizes academics’ manifesto)” where as the English version’s headline read “Biden reiterates US support for Turkey’s war on terror.”

The news agencies that belong to nation-states are known to frame issues according to official interests. However, AA’s fabricated reporting and other mainstream media following suit in times critical like these –where civilians lose their lives and thousands of academics are investigated and being fired– should not be tolerated as usual occurrences of simple framing or spinning. Holding AA and other pro-government media accountable through public pressure and legal means for engaging in fabrication, targeting, and all other forms of intimidation and smear campaigns against dissenting voices becomes crucial as we do not want the growing support for a peaceful resolution to the armed conflict in Southeast and the Academics for Peace to vanish.

The illustration below is a poignant one regarding Turkish media outlets’ inability to cover the war and destruction in Southeast Turkey since mid August of 2015:

TRT ve savas

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Dreaming of a horse with a bigger role: Television and Erdogan’s quest for soft power in the Middle East

Disappointed with a popular Turkish TV series (Muhtesem Yuzyil) on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, Prime Minister Erdogan criticized its depiction of the successful, expansionist Ottoman Sultan Suleiman as a leader who never leaves the palace or his harem (Sultan’s family, concubines and children) insteadand threatened to file a formal complaint against the series’ producers, director and the owners of the TV channel which airs the series. It wasn’t the first time he condemned art, artists, musicians, writers, store names, etc., as widely discussed in the media. However, his criticism of the series had nothing to do with it violating Islamic or traditional/family values, such as when he suggested that ballet was “below the belly,” which he meant that it was pornographic. The irate speech he gave in which he attacks the series is quite significant for it not only reminds us about his well-known aspirations of gaining more power and legitimacy via his policies and interventions in the Middle East, but also shows that he wants to see an effective soft power machine that will make it easy for him to realize his dreams of imperial power –just like an American President who can always trust Hollywood to justify his actions.

Erdogan wants to expand his power and influence like Sultan Suleiman, whom Erdogan claims spent 30 years of his life on a horse, not in the harem, therefore, the series’ failure to depict Suleiman as a hero and role model is disappointing to Erdogan. He seems to make the assumption that the series doesn’t help to make his aspirations palatable to either domestic or foreign fans but could even hinder them. What is quite ironic here is that Erdogan sees the role of media and popular culture in the society in a similar way that Kemalists have been since the beginning of the modern republic in 1923, with one difference: Kemalists did not allow commercial radio-TV broadcasting until 1990 because they believed media had an important role in nation building and the reinforcement of official state ideologies, and feared that commercial media would complicate that project. While Erdogan inherits this belief, which is evident in his numerous public criticisms, he also seems to think that Turkish TV now has an important role, which is trans-nation building. In his speech, Erdogan responds to the opposition party’s criticisms: “They say ‘what are you doing in Gaza? Why are you so interested in Syria?’ …we’ll go everywhere that our ancestors went on horses and have interest in any place but I believe they think our ancestors are like the ones on television, like on Muhtesem Yuzyil.” As the comic below also illustrates it so wittily, his emphasis is on the horse, which signals expansion. His suggestion that expansion is what our ancestors have done implies that it should also be a part of our legacy today. 

Known as “Sultan” in the Arab world, the series reaches 150 million viewers mostly in the Middle East. Thus, his concern in his criticism of the TV series is not whether or not it is obscene or promotes values against Islam but rather he is worried whether or not the TV Sultan can communicate this assumed legacy and help justify the ambitions of the real, contemporary hero/leader/Sultan of Turkey a.k.a Erdogan. His problematic ‘morality police’ type of attempts to correct that ‘flaw’ with the series have faced a huge backlash in the media. Erdogan had already been likened to the Sultan and criticized for his imperialistic hunger, neo-Ottoman agenda and disregard for democracy for some time now. Musa Kart’s recent caricature, entitled ‘Erdogan the Magnificent,’ which depicts Lady Justice as his favorite concubine, constitues just another good exampleFrom Erdogan’s point of view, it must be quite unfortunate for 150 million viewers to think of Sultan Suleiman as a man with harem problems instead of a capable, sound leader like himself… Like any leader, Erdogan also understands how important it is to have the support of the media in order to gain and protect the consent of the people –soft power–, whether in national or transnational contexts.  From my point of view, however, Erdogan should not confuse the roles of a democratically elected prime minister, whose job is to represent the citizens, and that of an Ottoman Sultan, who owned the land he captured and the people living in it — even if he has been welcomed warmly as a “Neo-Ottoman” in the Middle East.

Horse says: My role has gotten bigger!



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Turkey’s longstanding fight against the Kurdish television station Roj TV

Last week the Danish court found the transnational Kurdish broadcaster Roj TV guilty of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the EU and the United States. Afterwards, the French-based satellite company Eutelsat decided to suspend Roj TV’s transmission today. Even though this is a smart move for Eutelsat, which is one of the world’s three leading satellite operators and thus solely driven by commercial interests, it is, nevertheless, a move that can have negative consequences for Kurdish transnational media in general and human rights demands of Kurdish people in particular. This is especially true for Kurdish people in Turkey, who are oppressed by the current government, AKP. The Danish court fined Roj TV for its links with PKK but it didn’t revoke its license. Roj TV appealed the decision. But Eutelsat wants to “avoid incurring criminal liability as an accomplice to terrorist activities” as it stated in its declaration.

This works well for Turkish government officials who believe the only way to solve the “Kurdish problem” is to eliminate PKK and since they see Roj TV as a mouthpiece for PKK, they believe Roj TV’s suspension would help their cause. That’s why, the Turkish state appealed to Denmark many times for Roj TV’s license to be revoked. Turkey even began a Kurdish-language state TV channel and relaxed its strong monitoring and fining practices of local Kurdish channels in Turkey in order to divert Kurdish audiences from consuming transnational channels, which authorities cannot control, and funnel them toward local media outlets which can be licensed and thus easily controlled. Why has Turkey been so obsessed about Roj TV? Kurdish people in Turkey follow Roj TV carefully as so do those in the Kurdish diaspora in Europe and elsewhere. Roj TV and other Kurdish transnational media channels have played an important role in the diaspora for they provide news and information alternative to those from official sources and mainstream media in addition to music and documentaries that keep Kurdish culture and language alive for the youth. On the one hand, it is certainly problematic that Roj TV does not (or did not in the past) operate independently from PKK in terms of its funding and ownership. On the other hand, most Kurds don’t see PKK as a terrorist organization but as guerrillas who fight for Kurds’ rights. In addition, Roj TV’s mission is not to make money and therefore it is not a commercial channel like others, which seems to bring the funding dilemma to the fore.

Turkish state has fought against Roj TV for as long as it has fought against its Kurdish citizens. In this context, whether we like Roj TV or not, Kurdish people’s and (the world’s) access to diasporic Kurdish transnational broadcasting that includes more than just music video channels is crucial. Stopping Roj or other TV networks will not eliminate the armed struggle between Turkish army and Kurdish guerillas in Turkey, but peaceful solutions and treating pro-Kurdish political party BDP as representatives of Kurdish citizens will.


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Why Turkish media failed to cover Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution

Western media failed to cover the protests against the Tunisian government and so did Turkish media. Not only was there hardly any news in the Turkish media throughout the 29 day long protests, but also when the Tunisian government fell, Turkish media quickly announced a Wikileaks revolution just like Western media did. No, none of this is surprising and it is most likely to be true for all the other national media systems around the world. In this era of western media conglomerates feeding the world with news that they deem important, if Tunisia didn’t matter to them, it won’t matter even to Turkey, which aims to establish itself as a major player in the Middle East, especially after AKP’s reign.

It took mainstream Turkish media almost an hour after Ben Ali was said to fled the country to post the news on their websites and just like their western counterparts they published short sporadic tidbits on the uprising that lasted for 29 days. Hurriyet announced the news around the same time as CNN did for instance, while Radikal and Milliyet lagging quite behind. When Turkish journalists began interpreting why the Tunisian government fell, most regurgitated mainstream western media’s inaccurate analysis of the revolution such as placing an unreasonable emphasis on the internet’s role (see Ayse Karabat’s column) and/or Wikileaks.  Radikal newspaper writer Cuneyt Ozdemir’s tweet below is quite a hilarious example.

His tweet reads: “Wikileaks cables brought down the Tunisian government. let this be a lesson… An internet site can topple a 23 year long dictatorship…” Milliyet newspaper’s columnist Derya Sazak quotes the Wikileaks cable regarding Ben Ali and his wife’s corruption and states how Wikileaks broadened the protests against the government. Vatan newspaper wrote that Wikileaks ignited the fire of the Jasmine Revolution.

Many initial comments in the Western mainstream media falsely implied that after Wikileaks uncovered the corruption of the Tunisian government, Tunisians ran to the streets to protest. I do believe that the limited interest that western readers show about the Middle East played a big role in their attempts to make the story more interesting by showing a Wikileaks link and “how our great twitter is changing the Middle East” kind of feel-good stories for the progress and technology driven Anglo Saxons, who will still buy into Daniel Lerner’s long-disputed 1958 Modernization theory where he argued that new technologies can modernize traditional cultures. Therefore, I can undertand why a clueless western journalist who doesn’t know much about the region or the one who knows the region well but also knows his/her audience’s lack of interest in the region would quickly announce a Wikileaks revolution though this certainly is not an excuse.

The corruption of Turkish and Arab governments are a well-known and much despised fact among everybody in the Middle East since long before the internet era. So, when Turkish journalists, who should pay close attention to the country next door, don’t bother to think twice before they present an inaccurate analysis about the region and act so fascinated with how Wikileaks or the internet caused a revolution in an Arab country, one wonders what’s happening. Turkish liberal, especially nationalist journalists who see themselves on the left, have always lacked interest and showed reluctance in covering what is happening in the Arab world. And when they do, the commentary often ends with a reference to why Turkey’s future lies with the West as opposed to the East or how Turks are more modern than Arabs or how Turks (especially women) enjoy more freedoms than Arabs. This ideological leaning coupled with a strong alliance with America provides a perfect rationale for why Turkish journalists don’t see the need to do their homework regarding the Middle East and instead rely on western media to do the interpreting for them while depicting the region through the same old westerncentric lenses rooted in Kemalism. We will see how long Turkish media will continue to ignore the cries for democracy in the Middle East and fast changes that are taking place in the Arab public sphere.


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"It is good to share:" Iron Maiden and Ramadan

“It is good to share” is the message that the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Ali Bardakoglu, delivered to mark the beginning of Ramadan. He wants us to “erase the concept of the Other from our dictionaries and see everyone just like us”. This message specifically addresses the “Kurdish problem” and terror. It is a meaningful message indeed delivered during this very week that Turks have been resistant to AKP initiatives aimed at solving the “Kurdish problem”. However, I doubt anyone in Turkey believes that religion could help overcome the differences that have become deeply-seated as a result of decades long, wrong political and economic policies and systematic erasure of Kurdish identity.

What caught my attention was that while covering the Directorate’s Ramadan message, Turkish media mainly focused on the poster designed for the occasion and rightfully so. The above picture from the poster depicts a young man in a black Iron Maiden shirt hugging an older guy with a religious cap; both smiling at each other and apparently leaving their differences aside(!). The young man represents a modern, urban, heavy metal music fan and thus a person who emulates Western life and culture. The old one represents a devout, muslim, traditional Turkish guy. I wish we could interpret this as the Religious Affairs Directorate coming to grips with the fact that while some Turks are secular and enjoy Western music, they are still spiritual and embrace Ramadan side by side with their traditional uncles. However, with this picture, the Directorate is making a direct reference to the many Rock concerts that took place in Istanbul this summer and even attracted the Prime Minister Erdogan’s attention along with his strong disapproval. The poster illustrates how heavy metal is seen as a symbol of Western capitalist culture where materialism is believed to be valued over spirituality. There is clearly a desire to rescue the Western-music-and-clothing-worshipping youth with the help of Ramadan. The Directorate, just like the prime minister, operates under the fallacy that when you consume Western cultural goods, you lose your own identity and acquire the values of the West, which are believed to be “degenerate”! Even if they don’t completely believe it, they still use it whenever they have a chance as a great scare tactic to further their Islamist agenda!


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The guy responsible for blocking my website!

As I was reading the new ONI OpenNet Initiative Report on internet filtering in the Middle East and North Africa, I ran into an old post by them, which I thought explained why I did not have any access to my own website from Turkey this past July. Turkey has blocked access to some sites such as Youtube for a while and now apparently google sites also, which is what I used to create my own website. I know I should have gone with a better option than google for my personal website, since google has become a monopolistic media mogul, but this incident drew my attention closer to the issues of internet content monitoring in Turkey. The posts below illustrate how easy it is to file a complaint about a site and get it blocked. It wasn’t my site that they wanted to block, but blocking the whole disabled any access to my site as well. For a long time, it seemed (at least to me) like the secular Kemalist state authorities were the only ones who blocked websites, such as Kurdish propaganda sites and sites that badmouth Ataturk. Apparently, even Islamist creationists such as Adnan Oktar, who was sentenced by a Turkish court to three years in prison for “creating an illegal organization for personal gain” in 2008, have power to appeal to authorities to block access to websites, popular ones like eksi sozluk and even prestigious newspapers like Vatan. Apparently, the Turkish authorities are trying to shift the burden of monitoring the internet content to citizens by allowing them to report suspicious/objectionable content with the new law that passed in May. Until Turkish authorities realize this is creating more problems and burden on the judicial system, Turkish net users will continue to enjoy using proxyservers to bypass the block. And that’s exactly how I accessed both my site and youtube while I was in Turkey this summer.

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Village theater, Hamlet and social change

The Guardian published a cute story (below is the link) about the staging of Hamlet in a Turkish village. The article’s argument of social change seems to be well-placed though I believe some caution is necessary when discussing the social transformative power of any media. I get uneasy whenever a reporter (or a scholar, including myself) makes a quick judgement of how media, whether it is cell phones or theater –Hamlet was CNN and West Wing combined plus better back in the day!–, are causing social change. The fact that theater is used as a vehicle to discuss larger social issues reminds me of Dwight Conquergood’s work. I wonder how much the villagers’ interpretation of Hamlet opens up a space for them to address those issues though or if this is merely a novel experience that they didn’t get to do when they were at school. I know a lot of westerners would like their classics to magically heal those of us who are in the east. This is certainly a feel-good story for a Brit and one that needs more answers for me!

The article suggests that there is also a documentary about this called Oyun by Pelin Esmer in 2005 that I just ordered and am very curious about watching it!

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"Penitents Compete" (Tovbekarlar yarisiyor)

This new Turkish reality show will supposedly convert atheists to religion in September 09; I will be looking forward to the discussions on belief and religion in Turkey.

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