The deterioration in media freedom in Turkey is once again making global headlines. The Freedom House 2016 Report on press freedom argues that media freedom in Turkey is in a worrying decline, with the independent watchdog giving the country’s media a “not free” grade.
Turkey ranks 156th out of 199 countries around the world, and is among the countries that suffered the largest declines over 2015, along with Macedonia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Yemen, France, Serbia, Burundi and Bangladesh.
Freedom House marked Turkey’s press freedom score for 2016 as 71 out of 100, with 100 being the worst. Turkey, which has been a candidate to join the EU since 1999, fell from “partly free” to “not free” in 2014.
The Freedom House report coincided with the latest report of Reporters Without Borders released last week, “2016 World Press Freedom Index”, which also placed Turkish media among the most restricted in the world, and ranked the country at 151 out of 180 countries, two points below the previous year.
“The government, controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), aggressively used the penal code, criminal defamation legislation, and the country’s anti-terrorism law to punish critical reporting,” the Freedom House report underlined, adding “journalists faced growing violence, harassment, and intimidation from both state and non-state actors during the year.”
The report also highlights key developments that shaped media freedom in Turkey during 2015, including the prosecution of prominent journalists on terrorism-related charges, the restrictions in journalistic accreditation and arbitrary seizures of media outlets close to the US-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen by putting them under government trusteeship and changing their editorial lines.
The continuation of censorship on anti-governmental online news and social media platforms to restrict the access to the timely information especially about terror attacks are also a source of concern laid down in the report.
The increased intimidation of local and foreign journalists is also mentioned. Last year, Ahmet Hakan, a well-known Turkish columnist and television news anchor critical of the ruling AKP, was severely beaten outside his home in an allegedly politically motivated attack.
Any journalist who tweets or even voices critical remarks about the ruling government or Erdogan has become a potential candidate for detention, dismissal or imprisonment.
Kemal Goktas, the former correspondent of Turkish newspaper Milliyet, owned by a Turkish businessman Yildirim Demiroren who is close to the government, was fired last year because of his critical news reports about human rights. Milliyet also fired well-known columnist Kadri Gursel over a tweet in which he criticized Erdogan.
“In effect, Turkish media is currently owned by the ruling government who use it via businesspeople loyal to itself. By firing journalists, these media owners give a message to the government by showing that they adjust their editorial policy and staff in line with the government,” Goktas tells bne IntelliNews.
Goktas thinks that pro-government media outlets use dismissals to warn other journalists not to cross the line in their reporting and views.
According to Erkan Saka, a professor of communication at Istanbul Bilgi University, the Turkish authorities are behind the worsening of media freedom and things will continue to get worse until eventually all opposition media disappear.
“It is a reversible trend but of course after all the damage done it will take a while [ever to recover]. And it needs a conscious intention to do,” Saka tells bne IntelliNews. “Turkey's media economy collapsed and a generation of journalists seems to be lost during these days.”
Radikal daily, which has been published since 1996 by the powerful Dogan conglomerate, was recently shut down. It was one of the most critical and reliable news sources in the Turkish media, with a great awareness of democracy and human rights. The decision to close down the daily is seen as related to pressure on the owner of Dogan Holding, Aydin Dogan.
As mentioned in the Freedom House report, “media ownership remains concentrated in the hands of a few large, private holding companies that earn the majority of their revenue from non-media assets, particularly in construction, energy, mining, and financial services”. The outside interests of their owners make the media vulnerable to government pressure.
This trend does not only affect Turkish journalists. Over the last few months, a number of foreign journalists have been also arrested in and expelled from Turkey, sometimes accused of “aiding” Kurdish militants, sometimes for “covering the war with Kurdish militants” through their cameras. Recently an American journalist, David Lepeska, was denied re-entry to Turkey for “no reason” and sent back to the US from Istanbul Ataturk airport.
Sevda Alankus, professor of communication theories at Istanbul Kadir Has University, says the deterioration in media freedom also leads to a sharp polarisation in the public sphere, with no basic ground for consensus. According to Alankus, the media restrictions leave “alternative” internet media as the only outlet for opposition views; however, the result may be a “all speak, no-one listen” kind of communication of parallel publics who never meet.
“But in the long run, this is going to be a learning experience. I suppose we – journalists, academicians – will all learn once more how civic solidarity and resistance are important in such a fragile democracy, how you lose your future if you do not react in time when the ‘others’ were silenced,” she tells bne IntelliNews.