Turkish journalists vow to fight on as media freedoms continue to shrink at home
ISTANBUL - Turkish journalists say they are determined to push for media freedom even if the takeover of their country’s biggest media conglomerate by a pro-government company and new online restrictions signal fresh limits on dissent ahead of elections.
“This is our country,” a prominent journalist said at a meeting of like-minded reporters in Istanbul. “We have to make our voices heard,” said another.
Free speech activists have decried the sale of Dogan Media, Turkey’s biggest media group, to the Demironen conglomerate, a company known to be close to the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for a reported $1.1 billion.
The Dogan empire includes Turkey’s leading daily Hurriyet and the CNN-Turk news channel. Baris Yarkadas, an opposition lawmaker, said the takeover meant that companies close to Erdogan control about 90% of media outlets in Turkey. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu called the takeover a “great danger” for the country.
“This sale means the death of pluralism and independent journalism in Turkey’s mainstream media,” Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative of Reporters Without Borders, a media freedom advocacy group, said in a statement. “The government now has complete control of the media in the run-up to general elections in 2019.”
One big pro-government media group is led by Serhat Albayrak, a brother of Erdogan’s son-in-law and Energy Minister Berat Albayrak. Views critical of Erdogan are mostly confined to online outlets or smaller opposition newspapers supported by foundations, trade unions or small political parties.
By contrast, Turkey’s biggest media belong to conglomerates that have many economic interests outside publishing and have been accused of using their newspapers and TV and radio stations to curry favour with the government.
Demironen Holding, which bought the Vatan and Milliyet newspapers from Dogan in 2011, is active in the energy and retail business, among others. Reports said Demironen owner Erdogan Demironen apologised to Erdogan after the Turkish leader expressed his displeasure with a story in the Milliyet newspaper several years ago. After his phone call with Erdogan, Demironen burst into tears, the reports said.
Critics also say that the Erdogan government is pressuring rich media companies to discourage criticism. Dogan Media, long seen as critical of Erdogan, was hit with a $2.5 billion tax fine in 2009, in a move considered politically motivated. Reports said Dogan’s founder, Aydin Dogan, 81, sold his media empire to Demironen to avoid arrest.
Dogan newspapers have generally been supportive of government policies. Still, the Demironen takeover was greeted with scepticism by prominent representatives of the media affected.
“Especially from the point of view of the people’s right to know, the lack of diverse views and the lack of diverse news approaches to events are gradually causing the media to become ever more monolithic,” wrote Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News, an English-language newspaper that is part of Dogan and will be transferred to Demironen along with other papers and TV channels.
“The lack of press freedom therefore inevitably becomes a problem of democracy,” Yetkin wrote in a column.
Turkey has been severely criticised in the West for clamping down on media dissent. In February, a court in Istanbul sentenced three prominent writers, brothers Ahmet and Mehmet Altan and Nazli Ilicak, to life in prison for allegedly supporting a coup attempt against Erdogan in 2016.
More than 140 journalists are behind bars, the Turkish Journalists Association says, and approximately 10,000 media workers have been fired in a crackdown on free speech in recent years.
As Turkey prepares for local, parliamentary and presidential elections next year, there have been reports of a plan by Erdogan to have the vote this year to take advantage of a wave of nationalism triggered by the military intervention in Syria. Erdogan denied the reports but his government is strengthening its grip on online media and access to internet content potentially critical of the president.
The Turkish parliament approved a bill that forces streaming services to get a state licence. Turkey’s internet watchdog BTK said it is taking “serious measures” to rein in virtual private networks programmes that allow users to circumvent internet restrictions. Turkey has blocked websites, such as the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, to fight what authorities say are outlets spreading anti-Turkish or terrorist propaganda.
The European Union said an end to pressure on the media under the state of emergency introduced after the 2016 coup attempt is a precondition for a return to normal relations between Ankara and the bloc.
“We think that the Turkish institutions, thanks to the efforts which have been undertaken, are strong enough for the state of emergency to end,” EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said at an EU meeting with Erdogan on March 26 in Bulgaria. “We would ask Turkey to have a new look on at the imprisoning of journalists.”
There is no sign that the EU demands will make a difference in Turkey. Police recently stormed the offices and the printing shop of a small leftist newspaper in Istanbul. Reports said the Ozgurlukcu Demokrasi Gazetesi (Newspaper of Libertarian Democracy) would be taken over by a state-appointed manager.
“It’s horrible,” the editor of an opposition outlet in Istanbul, who spoke on condition of anonymity like other government critics interviewed in the city, said about the Dogan takeover by Demironen. Another reporter offered a more upbeat assessment. “This, too, shall pass,” he said.