Inside Turkey’s Media Crackdown

Turkish President of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 2015 (Wikimedia Commons)

On March 4 an Istanbul court ruled that Zaman, Turkey’s highest-circulation newspaper, had to be placed under state “trusteeship” for supporting terrorism. The staff at the condemned Feza Media Group—which includes Zaman, its small English-language sibling, Today’s Zaman, and Cihan News Agency—scrambled to get their issues to print before the police arrived. “THE CONSTITUTION IS SUSPENDED,” read Zaman’s blacked-out front page in white letters; “SHAMEFUL DAY FOR FREE PRESS IN TURKEY,” read Today’s Zaman. As the newspapers’ supporters filled the street, reporters set up webcams to live stream the scene below. Conspicuously absent for an anti-government demonstration were the inveterate leftist, secularist, and Kurdish protesters equipped with gas masks and hard hats. Instead, women wearing long, modest coats and flowered headscarves stood apart from male demonstrators and chanted “The free press cannot be silenced!”

In December 2014, when police had come to Zaman to arrest its editor-in-chief Ekrem Dumanlı, they had waited until early morning, the traditional time for raids in Turkey, when resistance and publicity are at a minimum. On March 4 though, the police moved in around 11 p.m. with tear gas and water cannons and cut through the front gate with power tools. An online audience watched the scene unfold in real time on Can Erzincan TV’s website.

That same weekend the state-appointed trustees fired Dumanlı’s successor Abdülhamit Bilici, and the police attacked protesters again, producing images for the world of gassed and battered women in cheerful headscarves. The trustees then oversaw the printing of a Sunday edition of Zaman that headlined the government’s historic progress in building another bridge across the Bosphorus and showed Erdoğan holding an elderly lady’s hand to commemorate International Women’s Day.

Feza Media Group and the TV channel Can Erzincan are both associated with the religious and social movement led by the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen. The Gülen movement, referred to as Hizmet (service) by supporters, Cemaat (the flock) by outsiders, and nowadays as the Fetullahist Terror Organization/Parallel State Structure (FETÖ/PDY) by the government, was in fact allied with Erdoğan as his AK Party came to dominate Turkish politics in the 2000s. Gülen and Erdoğan are both social conservatives and economic neoliberals deeply resentful of the secularist “White Turk” elite that suppressed political Islam in the 1990s.

But in December 2013 a growing disconnect between Gülen and Erdoğan erupted in a corruption scandal in which Gülen-associated prosecutors and police arrested key government officials and others affiliated with the AKP. Wiretapped conversations, including one of Erdoğan allegedy instructing his son to stash away millions of dollars in cash, were leaked onto YouTube. Erdoğan retaliated decisively: thousands of police officers, prosecutors, judges, and journalists have been fired or arrested for their connections with Gülen, now dubbed a terrorist organization despite never actually having committed any act of terrorism.

The international press condemned the seizure of Feza Media Group as a grave assault on press freedom and democracy. Foreign Policy magazine declared it “The Death Blow to Turkey’s Media.” The Guardian and the New York Times ran opinion pieces by former Feza journalists respectively entitled “This Is the End of Journalism in Turkey” and “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Despotic Zeal.”

Within Turkey, however, Feza Media Group’s association with the Gülen movement and its history of allying with the AKP limited the amount of sympathy it garnered. Whereas remaining Gülen-associated news outlets such as Özgür Düşünce and Meydan framed the seizure as a straightforward assault on the free press, other Turkish media were either relatively muted in their coverage or gloated outright over Zaman’s misfortune. The leftist-ultranationalist (locally known as ulusalcı in Turkey) daily Aydınlık’s headline mockingly repeated the headline “IS THIS JOURNALISM?” that Zaman had run in 2011 to defend the arrest of ulusalcı journalists working for OdaTV. The journalists had been arrested during the “Ergenekon” trials, which purged the military and other state institutions of secular opponents of the AKP on the grounds that they were plotting a coup d’etat.

I visited OdaTV’s Istanbul headquarters to speak with Barış Terkoğlu, a reporter who was jailed for nineteen months in 2011–2012 after denouncing the Ergenekon trials as a conspiracy of the police against the military, and claiming that evidence had been planted on a defendant’s phone. According to Terkoğlu, “The usual arrest process would happen like this: first you were presented as a target by the Gülenist media. They would explain that you were a coup plotter, a terrorist, someone who secretly aimed to bring down the government. What an interesting coincidence that at just the same time, Gülenist police would begin to wiretap your phone and follow your car. After that, Gülen’s press mouthpieces would start publishing documentary evidence against you.” In the OdaTV case, digital forensic experts in Turkey and the United States determined that damning documents about a media strategy to support an anti-AKP coup found on OdaTV hard drives were planted by hackers. Such evidence was in fact in many instances first leaked to a liberal paper called Taraf, which shared with Gülen and Erdoğan an enmity towards the then-powerful military establishment, before it was widely reported on by Gülen media.

Terkoğlu told me that the seizure of Feza Media Group should be understood as part of an ongoing power struggle between Gülen and Erdoğan and the rhetoric of journalists from the Gülen media should not be taken at face value: “Our experience from the past shows us that neither side actually cares about freedom of expression or of the press. If Gülen had been the winner, you can be sure that now Erdoğan’s newspapers would be getting seized and would be talking about press freedom.” Gülen has always been a political pragmatist, Terkoğlu told me, and his movement is now attempting to ally with Erdoğan’s other opponents using universalist appeals like the right to freedom of expression: “Politics,” Terkoğlu said, “is the art of presenting your problem as if it is everyone’s.”

The problem of the AKP trying to shut down or absorb media critical of the party is certainly a shared one. Most mainstream media outlets in Turkey are owned by huge conglomerates with billions of dollars of holdings in other industries. In 2004, 2007, and 2013 the government took over media groups, including several of the most popular TV channels and newspapers, as payment for debts owed by parent companies. In 2009, Doğan Media Group, the largest of its kind in Turkey, and, until then, a staunch opponent of the AKP, was slapped with a $2.5 billion tax fraud penalty and forced to sell off two of its newspapers. In each instance, news outlets appropriated by the state were then sold to businessmen close to Erdoğan. With varying degrees of rapidity, each of these papers joined the ranks of pro-government “pool media,” so called both because of the allegation (which emerged amid the 2013 corruption scandal that marked the Erdoğan-Gülen split) that a government minister had instructed business owners to “pool” hundreds of millions of dollars to buy news organizations, and because these outlets draw on the same “pool” of nearly identical pro-AKP headlines and coverage.

Even those conglomerate-owned news outlets that have not changed hands have become increasingly cautious in their criticism of the AKP. The government has become extremely litigious in prosecutions and civil suits against journalists and news organizations for insulting government officials. Those same conglomerates also bid for lucrative public contracts. In the past, close relations with one of several political factions or with the military could help conglomerates in their dealings with the state. Increasingly, the AKP is the only show in town.

What remains of the opposition print media are a few tabloids, a handful of relatively small center-left and leftist publications and websites, Kurdish newspapers and news agencies that have faced closures since the 1980s, and now, the struggling Gülen movement media. Last October, the Gülen movement-associated Koza İpek Media Group was placed under state trusteeship. The day after the trustees took over, a group fired from Koza İpek’s Bugün daily began renovating a room in Can Erzincan TV’s building and set up shop as Özgür Düşünce. This past month former Zaman journalists similarly founded Yarına Bakış, and those who left Today’s Zaman founded Turkish Minute. Each revival is a shadow of its predecessor, run on a shoestring budget.

I visited Özgür Düşünce’s office in April to talk with Cihan Acar, a twenty-seven-year-old reporter who showed me footage and photos he had taken during the seizure of Bugün. The footage showed him having a lemon squeezed into his eyes after being tear-gassed and being fired with his colleagues for defending Bugün’s final headline, “THEFT BY TRUSTEE.” The morning we met, Acar had just come from a court hearing for criminal defamation of a prosecutor over a tweet he had published in 2014. Acar had tweeted a captioned link to an article of his that discussed the prosecutor in question. The statute of limitations to try him for the article itself had passed, but his tweet publicizing the article was apparently still fair game. Such forms of intimidation have now become so routine in Turkey that he did not think to mention it to me until well into our interview.

Acar had started his career at Zaman before, he told me, being “transferred” to Bugün. When I asked him if it was common for journalists to be transferred among Gülen-affiliated publications (it is), he backpedalled, true to the movement’s reputation for opacity. He said that it was not a transfer per se, just that Bugün and Zaman had “similar editorial lines” and so Bugün decided to offer him a job. Throughout our interview, during which he repeatedly referenced Meydan newspaper and other Gülen-associated outlets as some of the last bastions of good journalism in Turkey, Acar steadfastly refused to acknowlege any connection with the Gülen movement or even say the words Hizmet or Hocaeffendi, as Gülen’s followers refer to him. As we looked at his photos from Bugün’s seizure, I pointed out that the crowd of demonstrators were dressed like conservative Gülen supporters, and unlike those who had recently attended the trials of a pair of left-liberal reporters. Acar shrugged, saying “some of those gathered are our readers; others are supporters of democracy. Some might just be people who were in the street and became interested.” If the protesters outside Bugün looked similar to those who gathered outside Zaman in March, it was simply because the two publications had similar editorial lines.

Such obfuscation of associations with the Gülen movement serves only to reinforce theories, now the government’s official line, that it is a covert and ubiquitous conspiracy ring and that Gülen media are not entitled to press freedoms because they are mere mouthpieces for the conspiracy, not legitimate journalistic enterprises. Yet not everyone who works at Gülen media is a Gülenist and not all the journalists toed a strict editorial line at Bugün, Zaman, or Today’s Zaman. A foreign journalist with no personal connection to the movement who worked at Today’s Zaman after the ErdoğanGülen conflict began told me that apart from the unspoken red line not to write critically of Gülen, he was given free rein to report on whatever he chose. The journalist asked me not to use his name out of visa concerns—several foreign journalists have recently been prevented from renewing their visas or even turned back at airports. He wrote extensively for Today’s Zaman on urban development issues and told me that he was never asked to change an article for political reasons. Now, the journalist complained, aside from a website on food tourism, there are precious few outlets left interested in and able to pay for his in-depth English-language reporting on Istanbul. Although Today’s Zaman had a small circulation, it was read by diplomats and foreign journalists, who often mined the paper for ideas for their own stories.

Since the March 4 seizure, Today’s Zaman has halved in length and increasingly relied on wire service reports and translations from Zaman. On March 30, Zaman’s trustees appointed the managing editor of an intensely pro-government daily, Yeni Akıt, as the paper’s new editor-in-chief. He pledged on Twitter to devote a special section of Zaman to news about the Fetullahist Terror Organization/Parallel State Structure.

Erdal Güven, editor-in-chief of an independent Turkish news site called Diken, criticized the relative indifference of many opposition journalists to the crackdown on the Gülen-affiliated media. “They believe that . . . we are getting even now. Two years, three years ago, four years ago, it was us that you were criminalizing. . . . Now it’s your time to pay.” That, Güven told me, is why few anti-government demonstrators or journalists showed up in front of Zaman besides modestly-dressed Gülen movement adherents. But, he said, “it should not blind people about the big picture….The opposition media, which includes now [for] a few years the Gülen media, is being destroyed.”

Rivals treat Gülen media appeals to press freedom with the same skepticism that Gülen media treated Kurdish and ulusalcı journalists’ similar appeals in the past. The country’s media has long been suspended in webs of affiliations with industrial conglomerates, political factions, and violent anti- and para-state groups. This makes it easy for one to claim, when opponents are threatened, jailed, or physically attacked for their journalism, that it is not really a press freedom issue since those journalists were never free in the first place: they were simply mouthpieces for their powerful affiliates. Indeed you would be hard pressed to find exposés on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party in the pages of Özgür Gündem, nor are you likely to find criticism of Fethullah Gülen in Bugün or of Aydın Doğan’s business practices in his newspapers. But if instead of an idealized free press we think about the degree to which there exists a competitive press, in which mud slung in all directions informs a mass audience, it is clear that the country has moved from diversity toward monopoly in the past decade.

Of the non-Gülen media journalists I interviewed, the only ones uninterested in talking about the Gülen media’s past sins were Çağdaş Kaplan, a reporter for Diçle News Agency who has been on trial since 2011 for allegedly spreading propaganda for the Kurdish insurgent PKK, and Bayram Balcı, who worked for the Özgür Gündem newspaper since its founding in 1992. Like Gülen movement publications are going through now, Özgür Gündem has had more than ten reincarnations under different names as it has been repeatedly shut down for having PKK sympathies, and in the 1990s, many of its journalists and even distributors were murdered with impunity.

Kaplan told me that the Kurdish media had come up with the slogan “the free press cannot be silenced” that supporters of Gülen media were now chanting, and he was glad to see that others were now using it. He pointed at a December 1994 front page of Özgür Gündem-successor Özgür Ülke framed on a wall in Özgür Gündem’s office. Headlined “IT WILL BURN YOU TOO,” the page showed the aftermath of three coordinated bombings that hit the newspaper’s offices and printing facilities in Istanbul and Ankara. The Kurdish media, Kaplan said, had long “warned that others who crossed the government can also be burned. We said the same when we were tried [in court]. We said, ‘you will need justice too; you will face the same pressure.’”

For his part, grey-stubbled and endlessly smoking Balcı had no patience for a leading question I asked about the Gülen media’s unsympathetic coverage of Kurdish press freedom issues before the movement’s split with the AKP. “In this country there are liberal newspapers; there are fascist newspapers; there are Erdoğanist newspapers; there are Cemaat newspapers; there are national intelligence service and Ergenekon [proxy] newspapers. . . . The one thing that has united them is showing a common enemy against Kurdish newspapers. They want press freedom just for themselves.” As far as Balcı was concerned, however, they should all get their own papers.


Noah Arjomand is a PhD candidate in sociology at Columbia University. He is writing a book on the production of international news in Turkey.

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