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Press Freedom in the New Turkey

The complexity of the Turkish media scene cannot be understood without knowing its background.
Turkish policemen watch from the roof of Ataturk Cultural Center at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 18, 2013. Performance artist Erdem Gunduz became the new symbol of anti-government protests in Turkey on Tuesday after his eight-hour vigil in Taksim Square earned him the nickname "the Standing Man". Gunduz said he was protesting in solidarity with demonstrators who were evicted at the weekend from Gezi Park adjoining Taksim, an intervention by police that triggered some of the most violent clashes to date. W

Press freedom is a key issue for Turkey. After successfully eliminating the former militarist-Kemalist regime, Turkey is still starting down the road to a liberal democratic regime of which press freedom is an indispensable element. But as I emphasized in my first article for Al-Monitor, Turkey is now undergoing a post-Kemalist transition characterized by bizarre political alignments and in which everything is tangled with everything else.

Naturally, this situation is reflected in the Turkish media scene. Under the former regime, the mainstream media could never criticize the Turkish military. Renowned Turkish journalists praised the army but trashed the democratically elected civilian governments. The military supported the efforts of the mainstream media to discredit democratic political institutions. Under the Kemalist regime, political parties competed with the military, and not with other political parties. The mainstream Turkish media and journalists were always army partisans. They did not support elected political leaders such as former Prime Ministers Adnan Menderes and Turgut Ozal, but the generals. In 1960, the military overthrew Menderes and hanged him. In 1993, Ozal died under suspicious circumstances. There is now a court case about his death. The Ankara public prosecutor decided that Ozal was poisoned by a junta inside the army. 

It is because of this tarnished political past that the majority of Turks today support the campaign that was launched with the slogan “You hanged Menderes and poisoned Ozal, but we won’t let you consume [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan." In the polls since the Gezi events, support for Erdogan has exceeded 50%.

According to some, under the former regime, the Turkish media was more powerful than the military. Turkish capitalists who owned the media exerted pressure on civilian governments in cooperation with the military. Elected civilian governments came under direct attack by the mainstream media whenever they advocated democratic steps in such taboo issues as Islam, the Kurds, Cyprus and the Armenians. "Secret files" leaked to the media by military intelligence were used as tools of character assassination against politicians who deviated from Kemalism. Governments were wary of the media and refrained from making democratic reforms.

The 1988 polemic between then-Prime Minister Turgut Ozal and the biggest media baron of the time, Erol Simavi, was the best example. Simavi owned the daily Hurriyet, the most important mainstream media organ of the times. On April 19, 1988, he published a front page open letter to Ozal, calling him a "dictator,” just as Erdogan is labeled today.

Simavi wrote, “In a system of separation of powers, there is tri-partite order: legislative, executive and judiciary. But you have turned it into a single power. Now, it is all about Ozal …" Simavi then listed his warnings: "Do you know what is listed in my book of separation of powers as the first estate of the country? The press. And the second?"

What did Simavi have in mind for the second power? In the May 3, 1988, edition of Hurriyet, he revealed what he meant by the "second estate."

"In the world, they say the fourth estate is the press. This is not valid for Turkey. Is the first estate in Turkey the army? No, it is the press. The second is the army, because it is the press that grooms the army for coups …"

This was the point of view of the biggest ever media baron of the Turkish media on media-army relations and press freedom. For the Turkish mainstream media, press freedom was used to prepare the ground for a military coup, to attack the elected civilian governments in cooperation with the military. That media had always defended the army, which was the real ruler, while attacking the political leaders, who were the so-called rulers. In return, the military always made sure that the big state contracts went to the media bosses and added to their wealth. The media bosses and even some pro-army editors-in-chief had more power than the Turkish prime ministers. Whenever Turkish political leaders dared to challenge this reality, they always faced the same headlines: “Dictator declares war on freedom of press."

One cannot understand the debate on press freedom in Turkey without understanding this historical background. The very crucial concept of freedom of press was exploited by the elites of the Turkish mainstream media. Because of this background, a vast majority of the Turkish public mistrusts the Turkish media bosses and journalists, as all reliable polls attest.

Now, let’s take a look at today's press freedom debates. Erdogan, who has well-understood this historical background, opted from the very beginning of his rule for a course different from that of Menderes and Ozal. The two former Turkish prime ministers had chosen to bargain with the media barons who were extensions of the militarist order. Although both Menderes and Ozal also awarded lucrative contracts to the media bosses, they couldn’t alter the militarist media system.

Erdogan, however, decided to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors and build a constituency in media. He encouraged some businessmen close to him to get involved in media and offered them enticing opportunities. Some liberal and conservative writers who opposed Kemalism congregated in the new media. Significant influence over those newspapers and TV stations remained in the hands of Erdogan and his associates.

Similarly, preacher and Imam Fethullah Gulen, one of the most targeted names by the Kemalist mainstream media, also launched his own media conglomerate. Determined to topple the Kemalist military regime, Gulen encouraged businessmen affiliated with him to procure newspapers and TV channels. Gulen’s anti-militarist media enlisted a sizable segment of liberals.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the mainstream media continue to survive, but without the influence of the old days. After the collapse of militarism, this formerly powerful force lost much of its significance. Nevertheless, many anti-Erdogan newspapers have also been founded under Erdogan’s reign. Among them daily Sozcu has achieved an incredible circulation. It is now the third-largest paper of the country, running headlines on a daily basis such as “Tayyip’s dictatorship."

Gulen and the anti-Erdogan media

Not long ago, there was an interesting media debate about Sozcu. Fehmi Koru, senior columnist of pro-government daily Star, wrote that Burat Akbay, the owner of Sozcu, had for years lived in Gulen’s hostels and still maintained his links to the Gulen movement. Koru wrote that Akbay’s daily Sozcu incessantly insulted Erdogan without ever criticizing Gulen, aside from some minor remarks on unimportant matters. 

Sabahattin Ozkibar, a writer for the tough anti-Erdogan and Kemalist daily Aydinlik, backed Koru's accusation. He said, "Sozcu is the secret newspaper of Gulen. They can’t print a single headline about the penetration of Gulen into the state structure." Earlier, Onkibar had quit anti-Erdogan, extreme neo-nationalist daily Yeni Cag complaining, “We are striking out at Erdogan any way we want, but my articles criticizing Fethullah Gulen are censored."

Turkish socialists also had a similar debate. According to anti-Erdogan socialist newspapers Birgun and Sol, leftist mainstream daily Radikal is under indirect control by Gulen. Radikal's editor-in-chief is Eyup Can, a Gulenist who was educated in Gulen schools. Radikal, too, heavily criticized Erdogan but never published headlines against Gulen. Can blocked the appearance of anything hard against the Gulen movement in his leftist-appearing newspaper.

The Mithat Sancar incident

The latest development in the Turkish media scene was mainstream daily Milliyet firing liberal professor Mithat Sancar, who went up Kandil Mountain to interview Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leaders. Sancar is as an academic much appreciated by Erdogan, who had personally handpicked him for his "Wise People" commission. When Sancar was fired, no one could claim that it was Erdogan who had him axed.

According to Turkish media analyst Memduh Bayraktaroglu, who is not an Erdogan supporter, earlier Milliyet firings also had nothing to do with Erdogan. Those fired were writers thought to be close to the PKK. But Erdogan was the leader who initiated the peace process and sat down with the PKK. Just think: strong Erdogan supporter daily Yeni Safak tried to recruit senior writer Hasan Cemal after he was fired from Milliyet.

The issue of press freedom in Turkey is very complex. Who supports whom? Who opposes whom? Who is the "true political ruler” and who is the "so-called" ruler? Why do the writers who appear to be in the opposition attack the democratic political mechanism?

You may wish to read other Al-Monitor articles on the press freedom issue from this perspective.

Rasim Ozan Kutahyali has been a columnist for Sabah since 2011 after writing for Taraf from 2008 to 2011. He is a popular political commentator on various TV programs, having started at CNNTurk and now appearing on Beyaz TV. Kutahyali is known for his anti-militarist and liberal political views. He can be reached at

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