A little over a year ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a memorable argument to fight back against criticism of his authoritarian tilt and efforts to muzzle critical media. “If I were a dictator,” he said, “you wouldn’t be able to say all this.”
Two days after he made that statement, the June 7 general elections produced a big shock for Erdogan as his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since coming to power in 2002. Erdogan blamed the media, and, pushing the limits of the law, forced a new election for Nov. 1.
In the run-up to the November polls, stick-wielding and stone-throwing AKP supporters attacked the Hurriyet daily in Istanbul on Sept. 7. The police chose not to intervene as the mob — led by newly elected AKP deputy Abdurrahim Boynukalin, the head of the party’s youth branches — shattered the glass entrance and windows of Turkey’s largest media group. Less than 24 hours later, the building came under a second attack, along with Hurriyet offices in Ankara.
Boynukalin was absent from the AKP ticket in the Nov. 1 polls, but shortly afterward he got his reward, becoming deputy minister for sports and youth. The suspects in the attack, meanwhile, stood trial — free of pretrial detention — and were eventually acquitted.
The shock waves of the attacks had barely dissipated when one of Turkey’s most popular TV hosts, Ahmet Hakan Coskun, was beaten by AKP supporters outside his home around midnight on Sept. 30. The assailants, who had followed Coskun from the TV station to his home, were also released by the judges.
The onslaught took on a new turn in October as Erdogan’s “project courts” — the so-called criminal judgeships of peace — stepped in. Citing a terror-related probe against the Gulen community, judges placed Turkey’s fourth-largest media group, Ipek, in trusteeship. For the first time in Turkish history, riot police stormed the offices of a media outlet by breaking its gate. Ipek’s Bugun TV and Kanalturk channels, which were broadcasting the raid live, were taken off the air. The true purpose of the trustees — all of them AKP cronies — came to light soon as they closed down the two TV channels and their two sister newspapers on the grounds they were economically unviable.
The media crackdown intensified further after the AKP restored its parliamentary majority in the Nov. 1 polls. The Cumhuriyet daily’s editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara representative Erdem Gul landed behind bars Nov. 27 for reporting that Turkish intelligence shipped weapons to radical Islamists in Syria. Though they were released three months later, they eventually received jail terms for revealing state secrets.
In early March, Zaman, Turkey’s largest-selling paper and the Gulenist media’s flagship, ended up in trusteeship as well, along with other media outlets owned by the same group.
In May, another unprecedented incident followed. Cumhuriyet’s Dundar became the target of an armed attack outside the Istanbul courthouse where he stood trial, escaping unscathed. The gunman, who called the journalist a “traitor,” was detained, while his suspected accomplices walked free.
In the meantime, the independent, socialist-leaning IMC TV was taken off the national satellite on the orders of a prosecutor investigating the channel for terrorism links. Can Erzincan TV, another small channel that dares to stand up to Erdogan, is now under the threat of meeting the same fate.
A handful of other TV stations and papers that remain critical of the government are often the target of Finance Ministry inspectors and police raids, while journalists sued by Erdogan are regular visitors at the courthouses.
According to Serdar Sement, an analyst with S Informatics Consultancy, a research company that issues annual reports on the state of Turkish media, 70% of the print media is now a government mouthpiece. “Erdogan’s control of the media has expanded steadily since 2008,” Sement told Al-Monitor, recalling that two of Turkey’s three largest media groups, in state receivership over financial troubles, were sold to Erdogan cronies back in 2008 and 2013. With the trustees’ seizure of Gulen-affiliated media, “government control in the print media has reached an all-time high,” he said. “Including the Demiroren group, which is controlled indirectly, pro-government publications account for 70% of the total newspaper circulation today.”
In the visual media, believed to be more influential due to Turks' preference for watching over reading, government pressure has significantly mounted since the June 2015 elections, Sement noted. “The attacks on the Dogan group [Hurriyet’s owner], the assault on a popular TV host outside his home and the removal of allegedly Gulen-linked TV channels from satellites and digital platforms are all part of the same strategy,” he said. “No one the government dislikes can appear on the screen in the mainstream media today. TV channels that allow oppositional parties and civic groups to speak can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And they are struggling to survive in the pincers of courts and tax penalties.”
According to Sement, 85% of Turkey’s news channels are currently under government control, again an all-time high.
When it comes to news agencies, Turkey has five national ones, the biggest of which — the Anatolia news agency — is a public institution run directly by the government. Among the private ones, the Ihlas news agency is pro-government, while Cihan was placed in trusteeship along with Zaman. Thus, government control in this sector has reached 60%. A very important detail here is that Cihan used to be the only agency other than Anatolia capable of providing real-time vote counts from polling stations across the country during elections. With Cihan now under government control, an important means of independent monitoring and cross-checking is gone, raising concern over future elections. Independent studies have already found signs of fraudulent election activity favoring the AKP last year.
Ceren Sozeri, a scholar of mass communication at Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, believes the government is bent on thoroughly gagging all critical media. “There is a handful of independent papers and TV channels left, and they are now trying to destroy them using the judiciary,” Sozeri told Al-Monitor. “The penalties slapped [by the media watchdog], the withholding of public ads [from critical media], the arrests of journalists, the insult trials, the compensation claims and the termination of satellite broadcasts are just not enough for them.”
According to the scholar, the removals of TV channels from the national satellite have been largely illegal, including that of IMC TV, which she described as a “scandal.” The government, she said, “will continue to use these methods until the last critical voice is silenced.”
Since Erdogan “assured” that he was not a dictator last year, his loyalist judges and prosecutors have shut 15 TV channels, five newspapers, a radio station and a news magazine for “spreading terrorist propaganda.” With pro-government journalists already trumpeting “scoops” that three other news channels are slated for closure, one cannot help but wonder, “What if Erdogan were a dictator?”