In a speech marking the start of the new academic year, on October 3, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that “democracy is not possible with the media”, adding that “it is not possible for a politician to pursue sound politics if he or she is afraid of the media”. There is no doubt that Thomas Jefferson, if alive today, could not disagree more with the Turkish president, but this perspective of the role of the press in a democracy is not surprising for those who are familiar with the “Yeni Türkiye” (New Turkey) that Erdoğan and his party are building step by step by weakening the state of democracy in the country.
Yet, one who reads about the history of the Republic of Turkey knows that what is happening there is nothing new. Since the foundation of the country in 1923, working in the country as an independent journalist has never been easy. That is why there was hope there would be a new (good and democratic) chapter for Turkey when the “Justice and Development Party” (AKP – Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) came to power in the early 2000s, with an eye on the European Union’s accession, and substantially liberalized the press law and strengthened the rights and protections of journalists. That hope is long gone. Two main events can be pointed out as turning points when it comes to the relation between the Turkish president and media: the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the failed coup attempt in 2016.
The current situation could hardly be worse. In the 2018 World Press Freedom Index of the Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks 157 out of 180 countries in the world. In 2005, the country was in the top 100 (it emerged in 98th position), which means it dropped 59 places in less than fifteen years – and during that time, Turkey has been ruled by the same political party. Since 2013, Freedom House has classified Turkey’s press as “not free”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found at least 68 journalists jailed for their work in Turkey. Amnesty International counts 120 and a group of nine international organizations (among which are Reporters Without Borders and the European Federation of Journalists) claims there are more than 160 journalists in jail in the country. The number varies, but in any way Turkey is by all accounts the world’s worst jailer of journalists. However, to Erdoğan “most of those you say are in prison are not journalists, [they] are terrorists”, as, he claims, “only two of the 177 people in prison who declared their profession to be journalism have yellow press cards” (the yellow press card, as the Public Radio International explains, is a government-issued press accreditation which is often denied especially to critical and Kurdish journalists).
After the failed coup attempt in 2016, more than 150 outlets have been closed due to decrees issued under the state of emergency. It does not come as a surprise that, besides the outlets linked to FETÖ (the Turkish government blames the Fethullah Gülen movement for the coup attempt), Kurdish and opposition outlets were the most affected. In addition to those closures, there are also several examples of blocked online media platforms, like Ahval News.
The most recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report shows that 40 percent of Turks distrust the news (and just 38 percent trust them), therefore it has become normal for someone in Turkey who wants to find some alternative (online) media to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), a method that allows users to visit websites which are blocked in Turkey (like Wikipedia), even though that is an illegal practice in the country. That comes together with an alarming statistic provided by Reporters Without Borders: “nine of the ten most-watched TV channels and nine of the ten most-read national dailies [are] owned by pro-government businessmen”. The respected Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar states that 92 percent of the Turkish media are “under the direct control of the presidential palace “.
This makes the situation of journalists quite difficult. “There’s no need for censorship any more. Journalists understand what is expected of them”, a columnist told The Economist. Hasan Cemal, an experienced Turkish journalist, is of the opinion that “self-censorship is terribly wide among journalists in Turkey. Erdoğan’s government managed to establish a climate of fear over media patrons so that everyone knows what to write, what to report and neglects the rest. This suppression and self-censorship have become more and more dominant after the July 15 coup attempt, because the ‘one-man’ regime gains power every day”.
there are no many reasons to smile regarding the conditions faced by
journalists in Turkey. Nevertheless, there is one man who disagrees. “The
reforms actualized in the past 16 years have enabled the Turkish press to be
richer, diverse, and meet a more democratic and liberal structure”: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan dixit, in a message to mark Working
Journalists’ Day, on January 10.