An announcement from Turkey’s Erdogan administration that it will soon “regulate” foreign-funded media outlets based in the country may indicate that the president’s ruling party AKP is concerned that independent media are reaching an audience size that rivals that of the media controlled directly or indirectly by the government.
The proposed regulation would require the outlets to file a detailed report on their activities every six months. Critics have said it amounts to another attempt by the AKP, backed by ultra-nationalist coalition partner MHP, to destroy what remains of the free press in Turkey, a country in which more than 90% of the Turkish media is controlled by businessmen with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The president and his inner circle would be particularly unhappy to see their stranglehold on the press severely weakened ahead of the scheduled 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, or perhaps early elections.
The move against the independent media will not go down well with US representatives and senators who at the end of last week unveiled the bipartisan, bi-cameral Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act of 2021, with one Democratic senator declaring Erdogan’s “free pass from the Trump White House to commit abuses has officially expired”.
Al-Monitor columnist Kadri Gursel, who serves on the executive board of Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders), a Paris-based global media advocacy group, said the proposed legislation was “a last-ditch attempt to kill independent media outlets that are becoming more influential than ever as the government-controlled media on the other hand becomes obsolete”.
Gursel also said: “It’s not a secret that most of Turkey’s independent media, particularly in the digital realm, receive foreign funds to survive in a media eco-system which is characterised by the devastating consequences of the authoritarian pressure of Erdogan’s rule.”
And he added: “Multiple tools have been used to that end. Taking full or indirect government control of the mainstream media through forced acquisitions has been one of these tools. Another is to financially suffocate small but influential independent media outlets by—explicitly or implicitly—masterminding advertisement embargoes on them—a pressure method which is still widely in use.
“To cope with such financial pressures and in the face of the reluctance of the secular business community to financially support independent media in Turkey, outlets like Medyascope have reached out to international donors to survive.”
The announcement of the impending regulation came in the midst of a smear campaign waged against independent media outlets in Turkey that receive financial support from the US-based Chrest Foundation, a private charity.
They include the liberal-leaning Medyascope and Bianet, both online news outlets, as well as Serbestiyet, a platform for more conservative writers.
Turning to independent outlets
Al-Monitor noted that several studies suggest that a growing number of Turks are turning to independent digital outlets for their news.
In a March report, the International Press Institute said that, with 33.5mn users, the Turkish independent media’s digital reach was catching up with the pro-government media’s 47.8mn. The report observed: “Independent media outlets receive 16.5% more interactions on social media and are closer to breaking through the echo chamber. They dominate the pro-government outlets in almost all dimensions from their follower growth to the number of viral content, and on all platforms.”
It added: “For instance, they have five times more engagement on Facebook, and they reach a more diverse audience of news consumers on Twitter."
Erdogan outlined his intentions to regulate foreign-funded media in a news conference at the end of a two-day tour of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, saying: “We will be taking action against the calumny terror. From October onward, work will be undertaken to this end in the parliament.”
Turkey is routinely listed as one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to showing respect for press freedom. Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index 2021 ranked Turkey at 153 out of 180 countries. Dozens of journalists remain in its jails on “terror charges” for which little evidence has been presented. The Journalists’ Union of Turkey puts the figure at 38.
Erdogan’s communications czar, Fahrettin Altun, said in a statement: “We won’t allow fifth column activities under new guises. There is a need for a new regulation for media outlets operating [with the support of] foreign states and institutions.”