Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 will show whether Erdoğan’s decade of relentless state interference with the media has paid off for himself and his ruling AKP (Justice and Development) party. Or not. Could a new generation of journalists finally taste freedom? Danish investigative journalist Birk Sebastian Kotkas visits a divided country ahead of crucial elections.
Erdoğan’s propaganda machine faces ultimate test
First, LGBT issues became a banned topic for journalists, then women’s rights. The boundaries of what could be written in the once-respected daily Hürriyet (circulation c. 320,00, the largest in Turkey) were narrowed bit by bit after the newspaper was bought up in 2018 by a family close to President Erdoğan. “It didn’t happen overnight. Censorship gradually increased,” says Banu Tuna when we meet in her office, a stone’s throw from Istanbul’s Taksim Square.
In 2019 she was sacked from Hürriyet by the new owners after 22 years as a journalist for the paper. Today, she works for an NGO while, like many other Turkish journalists, awaiting clarification on her future in the presidential elections in May.
Banu Tuna (right) has seen first-hand how the Erdoğan regime has gradually taken control of the Turkish media. Today, more than 90% of the country’s media is owned by people with close ties to the presidential palace. Hürriyet was the last newspaper bastion to fall under Erdoğan’s control. Banu Tuna saw her opportunities for critical journalism taken away from her.
One example was an article she had written on the environmental impact of the
construction of a gas pipeline from Russia. The article was printed, but next day the online version had disappeared. “I didn’t even ask for an explanation,” she told me, “because it was obvious what had happened. Later I heard that there had been a phone call from the Ministry of Energy.”
Direct political calls to the media have been commonplace in Turkey since the large-scale
anti-systemic Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013, says Mustafa Kuleili, President of
Turkey’s Journalists’ Union (TGS) and Vice-President of the European Federation of
“In 2013, they started to censor media outlets directly. They started to call the editor-in-
chiefs to cut that live broadcast or edit the graphics on screen. It became a regular thing,” he says. Since then, Erdoğan has gradually tightened his grip on the media. Especially after the failed coup attempt in 2016, which resulted in the shutdown of 54 newspapers, 24 radio stations and 17 television networks.
Officially, the aim was to stop “disinformation” and “fake news”. According to the president,
Turkey is one of the countries in the world most exposed to fake news. Today, journalists have become accustomed to practicing self-censorship, so it is rarely necessary for the government to censor directly. Now, people in the established media know that they have to stay below the radar if they don’t want to get into trouble.
“People don’t even try to do critical journalism anymore. If you have worked for many
years in the Turkish pro-governmental media, you learn how to behave. So, it’s something
like psychological torture,” says the chairman.
Banu Tuna no longer recognises the newspaper where she worked for more than two decades. Even the front page is out of the journalists’ control, she claims: “We used to publish the nationwide edition of Hürriyet around midnight, but today it happens much later.
“Every night the front page is sent somewhere where some changes are made. I have an
idea where it is, but it is not something that has been announced. However, that place is
not in Hürriyet“
Banu Tuna’s quote was shown to one of the newspaper’s editors, who confirmed in
writing that there may be political interference in Hürriyet’s journalistic content.
“The front page sometimes goes for some sort of approval when some crucial things on it about Erdoğan’s administration. I witnessed this first-hand.”
“The approval place ‘should be’ the Directorate of Communications, but as you can guess,
this is not something happening publicly or officially. They use WhatsApp for that. But again, this is not a thing happening every day,” the editor wrote later in the reply.
The source did not wish to be named in the article.
Shortly after the tragic earthquakes in Turkey and Syria in early February, Twitter was shut down for 12 hours for many Turkish users.This is one of the many steps by Turkish lawmakers “to tackle misinformation”. According to NetBlocks “the restoration comes after authorities held a meeting with Twitter to “remind Twitter of its obligations” on content takedowns and disinformation.” This was also reported by CNN.
Veysel Ok, one of Turkey’s leading lawyers on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, fears the government will do something similar in the upcoming elections: “Maybe they will shut everything down. Then we can wake up and see that they have won,”
Ok co-founded the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) in 2017 in response to developments in Turkey after the coup attempt. The organisation monitors all freedom of expression cases in Turkey and advises more than 200 clients, the majority of them journalists.
This includes advising them on their rights according to international bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights.
He is currently helping several Turkish journalists who have run into problems while
covering the earthquakes. “After the earthquakes, it has become even more difficult for journalists to report,” he told me. “They are not allowed to cover what is happening. They are asked to show a press card or accreditation, although it is not necessary for anyone to have one.”
According to a count by MLSA, four journalists were detained by police between
February 6 and 13 while nine reported being prevented from filming. Index on Censorship noted: “When Kahramanmaraş province was hit by two powerful earthquakes on 6 February 2023, the government responded by attacking the country’s already beleaguered press and journalists.”]
Forgetting how to think freely
Mustafa Kuleili has started shooting a documentary film that will culminate on election night: “Either it will be the moment of freedom, or it will be a tragedy.” He remains confident that the elections can be a fresh start for journalism in Turkey.
That is, if there is a change of power.
“It would be a great relief for journalists in Turkey, and we would see many changes in the media landscape. We will see new TV channels, new websites, new newspapers, and new faces on TV,” he says. “If Erdoğan wins, it will be a huge mental collapse for those who believe in democratic, Western ideals.”
Banu Tuna dreams of returning to journalism. But for now she anxiously awaits the outcome of the elections – with the same hope for freedom of the protesters of 10 years ago in Gezi Park.
Do you think press freedom in Turkey will be restored if there is a change of government? I ask her.
“Yes, but it will take time,” she replies. “We have kind of forgotten how to think freely and how to think critically. And then we have a whole generation of new journalists who have learnt this profession as it works today, which has nothing to do with journalism.
“It will take time to regain our skills.”
- Al-Monitor 25/04/23 Turkey detains 126 pro-Kurdish suspects ahead of vote
- Al Jazeera 24/04/23 “Elections: big test for Erdoğan starts here”
- Politico, 17/03/23 2023’s most important election: Turkey
- Journo, Istanbul 27/12/22 What do readers, viewers, and listeners want?
- Journo 22/06/22 16 journalists arrested as govt commission approves “disinformation bill”
- Foreign Policy 22/04/23 What happens when a Turkish president loses? No-one knows.
- Resource Centre for Media Freedom 31/01/2019: Media Freedom in Turkey