Censorship Starts At Home: Turkish Gov’t Controls The Press, Repeatedly Claims It Does Not Control The Press
from the ENJOY-YOUR-FREEDOM-they-gunpointed dept
The government of Turkey, headed by exceedingly thin-skinned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has devolved into a corrupt, anti-democratic state that still respects the freedom of the press in theory, but, in practice, only respects the freedoms of its favored press outlets, which are free to write anything the government allows them to write.
Journalists who retain their independence tend not to retain their literal freedom. The Turkish government has jailed more journalists than any other government but China’s. The excuse for jailing people who write what the government doesn’t like is the same excuse used everywhere to justify unjustifiable encroachments on people’s freedoms: terrorism.
Jonathan Spicer’s investigative report for Reuters digs into the how of Turkey’s censorship regime, which starts with a government entity erected by Erdogan — one specifically designed to ensure his regime has an ongoing source for government-approved “reporting.”
Directions to newsrooms often come from officials in the government’s Directorate of Communications, which handles media relations, more than a dozen industry insiders told Reuters. The directorate is an Erdogan creation, employing some 1,500 people and headquartered in a tower block in Ankara. It is headed by a former academic, Fahrettin Altun.
Altun’s officials issue their instructions in phone calls or Whatsapp messages that sometimes address newsroom managers with the familiar “brother,” according to some of these people and a Reuters review of some of the messages.
The Communications Directorate does — what else? — directs communications. The Erdogan administration claims this means nothing more than the normal PR work of government: issuing statements, holding press briefings, and offering comments. But that’s not how it actually works.
There are independent press outlets in Turkey. They’re under constant attack by the government. Then there are the unofficial official press outlets — ones controlled by the Directorate but with a thin veneer of plausible deniability. The biggest media outlets in the country are owned by people close to Erdogan, providing a willing mouthpiece for the president’s version of current events.
If Erdogan’s government isn’t directly oppressing journalists by jailing them, it’s applying indirect pressure by pulling state-sponsored ads from publications the Directorate claims have “breached media ethics.” From 2019 to 2020, papers owned by Erdogan’s inner circle received less than 16 days of suspended advertising. The other five papers not controlled by the Turkish government? 554 days.
And, of course, government claims of media ethics breaches mainly targeted content critical of the government, such as investigative reporting on suspected corruption.
And while the Directorate is a home-grown government enterprise, its base of operations (if not its sphere of influence) is much broader.
The body employs media monitors, translators and legal and public relations staff inside and outside Turkey. It has 48 foreign offices in 43 countries worldwide. These outposts deliver to headquarters weekly reports on how Turkey is portrayed in foreign media, according to an insider.
When the government is this good at censorship and this dedicated to silencing critics, sooner or later those it wishes to silence will just start doing the work themselves. It’s not a chilling effect in Turkey. It’s a never-ending blizzard. And it even affects those working for press outlets the government likes.
Self-censorship is now mostly automatic in mainstream media, according to several industry sources. It has existed in some form for years.
The TRT editor said that when Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006 – the first Turk to do so – the state broadcaster did not mention the news until then-Prime Minister Erdogan offered his official congratulations. “It was such a relief that I remember to this day, because we would never have covered it if there were no congratulations,” the editor said.
And that was before Erdogan ascended to the presidency. Since then, things have gotten much worse. An independent press remains, but just barely. How long it will continue to survive seems to be almost entirely in the government’s hands.