Protesters in Turkey
Protesters carry the Turkish flag and shout anti-government slogans during a demonstration at Gezi Park near Taksim Square in central Istanbul June 3, 2013. Photo by Reuters
Text size
Reuters
Riot police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators in a protest against Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Ankara. May 31, 2013. Photo by Reuters

"Don't bring the Dogan Group newspapers into your homes," recommended Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to members of his ruling party in 2008. "The media have lost their reliability in this country. I'm calling on you to start your campaign against them and to bar media that convey false information from entering your homes. I'm completely clear on this issue," he stated.

This past week, when masses of Turkish demonstrators protested against Erdogan, they also expressed profound disappointment with the established Turkish media, which didn't offer suitable coverage of the demonstrations - preferring instead to write about a horse that the Turkish president received as a gift on his visit to Uzbekistan, and the granting of an award to the prime minister for his successful fight against smoking in his homeland.

The demonstrators' claim is only partially correct. Some of the newspapers and the many television channels - 23 national, 16 regional and over 200 local stations - provided extensive coverage of the demonstrations. There were paradoxes as well, though. For example, the English-language Hurriyet Daily News - owned by the huge Dogan Holding conglomerate - criticized the conduct of Erdogan and the police from the get-go, whereas CNN Turk (jointly owned by Dogan and Time Warner) relegated their reports to the margins.

The same paradox was evident in the Turkish-language daily Zaman and the English-language Today's Zaman, owned by the religious movement headed by Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is the leader of the religious order that bears his name and is considered an ideological supporter of Erdogan. Despite the ideological ties between the two men, Zaman decided to criticize the exaggerated use of force and the suppression of freedom of expression, just as it opposed Erdogan's support for the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza in May 2010.

Zaman also made a dramatic announcement about the severance of its ties with the government news agency - which is under the aegis of Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc - for "bad journalistic behavior." The ostensible reason is that the agency charges high fees, but the real reason is that although it is a public news agency, it prefers government reports to those of the opposition, and that the coverage of the demonstrations was disgraceful.

Erdogan despises the Turkish media (with the exception of those that support him), and is directly or indirectly responsible for the arrest of over 50 journalists for "crimes against state security." Turkey thus joins the list of countries most inimical to journalism, along with Syria and Iran. It would be a mistake, though, to attribute the professional corruption that characterizes many of the media outlets to Erdogan alone.

It was not Erdogan who formulated the press laws, which date from the period of Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1923-1938 ), and which prohibited the activity of parties other than his own Republican People's Party. Nor did Erdogan decide on the criminal law that dictates which groups cannot be criticized (the army and security services, the economy and the Turkish nation ). And, most important, it was not Erdogan who developed the system of cross-ownership and the complex network of ties among big business, the media and the government. He is only making sophisticated and effective use of it in order to achieve his objectives.

The detention and arrest of journalists in Turkey is focusing international attention on the state of freedom of expression in that country, but behind these newsworthy events is a gloomy and difficult daily grind in which journalists are afraid to write, report or film - not because of the tough law but because their employers have worldwide economic interests.

The owners of those media outlets need "favors" from the government or the prime minister, or they don't want to cause damage to their business associates - who, coincidentally, also have newspapers or television networks, and whose counterattack is liable to be painful.

This phenomenon is nothing new. For example, the traumatic 2000-2001 bank crisis in Turkey, when the major banks crashed, could probably have been prevented had the journalists been able to report freely on the situation. But when some of the bank owners were also newspaper owners, or had loaned money to the newspaper owners without proper guarantees, there was a determined effort to ensure the failure was not reported.

One of the vestiges of that crisis relates to press mogul Mehmet Emin Karamehmet, a billionaire who until recently headed Cukurova Holding, one of the four huge media groups. Last month, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzlement against Pamukbank, which he headed until the government assumed control of it. None of the many journalists who worked in the company was able to report on his conduct as chairman of the board of directors, because not only would such a whistle-blower have been fired on the spot, he would also have been unable to find work with another newspaper - because no owner of a media outlet would employ a journalist who had harmed an important business colleague.

Good relations

The story of Aydin Dogan - the business mogul on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people - is different. Dogan was targeted by Erdogan when one of his newspapers published an article about the ostensible link between Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party on the one hand, and a charitable organization called Deniz Feneri, which operated in Germany and was convicted of illegal money transfers.

Shortly after publication, the Turkish tax authorities sued Dogan for tax evasion in a huge sales transaction. It demanded repayment and an astronomical tax bill of $2.5 billion. Dogan was forced to sell one of his television stations and two newspapers in order to pay the fine. At the time he became a symbol of the Erdogan regime's harassment of the press. Now, though, when he is competing for the management of the national lottery, participating in government tenders to purchase power stations and drilling for oil in northern Iraq, it is important for Dogan to maintain good relations with Erdogan.

Erdogan has a closer relationship with Calik Holdings, which has far-flung business dealings. This company, owned by Ahmet Calik, acquired the media corporation Sabah-ATV for $1.1 billion in 2007, as part of another company's debt repayment. The CEO of Calik, who controls its media company, is Berat Albayrak, aka Erdogan's son-in-law. On the eve of the sale, it emerged that Calik lacked the funds to complete the transaction, and no bank wanted to risk such a large loan. According to reports in Dogan's newspapers, Calik turned to Erdogan, who "recommended" to two government banks (whose board of directors are appointed by the government ) that they give Calik the $750 million loan; the rest was paid by a Qatari company, and the transaction was finalized. Erdogan received a media empire that will support him, and Calik received capital.

In another affair that took place about a month ago, leading columnist Hasan Cemal was fired from the newspaper Milliyet when he wanted to publish an article defending the newspaper reporter who revealed the contents of the discussions between Abdullah Ocalan, head of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party ), and representatives of the Kurdish party - with whom the government is holding reconciliation talks. Erdogan was furious and accused the paper of intending to undermine the reconciliation process.

Milliyet was owned by Dogan, who sold it to Erdogan Demiroren, who appointed his son Yildirim as CEO of the newspaper. Yildirim is also the president of the Turkish Football Federation, and his father is also the owner of the large natural gas company Milangaz. In order to win the sports appointment, Yildirim requested - and received - a recommendation from Erdogan. And when that's the nature of the friendship, how can his newspaper criticize the prime minister? There's not even any need for censorship: it's already built in.

The Turkish public has long since lost its confidence in the established press, but the close ties connecting big business, government and the media are not a real obstacle to information. Thousands of bloggers, millions of Facebook subscribers, and those with Twitter accounts (including the prime minister, who has 2.5 million followers, although he called the social networks as "the worst menace to society") are a huge source of information that is not published in the traditional media.

According to a survey by an Internet research group at New York University, there were over two million tweets on Twitter on the Friday afternoon when the violent clashes began in Taksim Square, most of them in Turkish. In other words, they emerged from Turkey and addressed a Turkish audience.

In addition, a large group of courageous journalists continues to publish penetrating articles of criticism and to expose corruption, both in the established media and in blogs and private websites. Although the demonstrations and behavior of the media aroused awareness of the ills of the Turkish news media, it is doubtful whether they will be able to change them.