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Turkey plans further clampdown on independent media

Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AKP says it won't allow "fifth column" activity from independent media organizations.
Activists, including supporters of Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International, hold up the photos of journalists, including Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yuecel, who are currently in prison in Turkey.

Turkey’s announcement Wednesday that it will soon “regulate” foreign-funded media outlets and require them to submit a detailed report on their activities every six months has set off a fierce debate, with critics saying it’s a further attempt by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to eviscerate what remains of the free press.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his intentions clear in a news conference at the end of a two-day tour to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, saying, “We will be taking action against the calumny terror. From October onward, work will be undertaken to this end in the parliament.”

Turkey is routinely listed as one of the worst offenders of press freedom, with dozens of journalists languishing in jail on thinly supported “terror charges.”

The announcement came amid a smear campaign against independent media outlets that receive financial support from the US-based Chrest Foundation, a private charity.

They include the liberal-leaning Medyascope and Bianet, both online news outlets, as well as Serbestiyet, a platform for more conservative writers. Highly regarded, they are among a handful of media outlets that provide a critical counterpoint to Erdogan’s multimillion-dollar propaganda machine.

Erdogan’s communications czar, Fahrettin Altun, said in a statement, “We won’t allow fifth column activities under new guises. There is a need for a new regulation for media outlets operating [with the support of] foreign states and institutions.”

Altun justified the planned rules, saying the United States has implemented similar measures. In fact, the National Defense for Fiscal Year 2019 requires US-based foreign media, not US-media funded by foreign capital, to submit reports every six months regarding the outlets’ relations to foreign principals.

Al-Monitor columnist Kadri Gursel, who serves on the executive board of Reporters Sans Frontieres, a Paris-based global media advocacy group, said, “It’s not a secret that most of Turkey’s independent media, particularly in the digital realm, receive foreign funds to survive in a media eco-system which is characterized by the devastating consequences of the authoritarian pressure of Erdogan’s rule.”

Gursel added in emailed comments to Al-Monitor, “Multiple tools have been used to that end. Taking full or indirect government control of the mainstream media through forced acquisitions has been one of these tools. Another is to financially suffocate small but influential independent media outlets by — explicitly or implicitly — masterminding advertisement embargoes on them — a pressure method which is still widely in use.”

“To cope with such financial pressures and in the face of the reluctance of the secular business community to financially support independent media in Turkey, outlets like Medyascope have reached out to international donors to survive.”

The timing of the decision has raised further speculation that Erdogan, whose poll numbers are wilting mainly because of rising inflation and joblessness, may be clearing the path for early elections ahead of their scheduled date in 2023.

Over 90% of the Turkish media is controlled by businessmen with close ties to Erdogan. In exchange for coverage provided by an army of sycophantic print and television journalists, their companies, many of them in the construction sector, receive lucrative government contracts.

But several studies suggest that a growing number of Turks are turning to independent digital outlets for their news. This, in turn, may explain why the government feels compelled to tighten the noose.

In a March report, the International Press Institute said that, with 33.5 million users, Turkey’s independent media’s digital reach was catching up with the pro-government media’s 47.8 million users. The report noted, “Independent media outlets receive 16.5% more interactions on social media and are closer to breaking through the echo chamber. They dominate the pro-government outlets in almost all dimensions from their follower growth to the number of viral content, and on all platforms.”

It added, “For instance, they have five times more engagement on Facebook, and they reach a more diverse audience of news consumers on Twitter."

As such, the proposed legislation is “a last-ditch attempt to kill independent media outlets that are becoming more influential than ever as the government-controlled media on the other hand becomes obsolete,” Gursel said.

Merve Tahiroglu, director of the Turkey Program at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a think tank in Washington, said the move was part of a broader campaign of pressure extending to foreign-funded NGOs that are also portrayed as stalking horses for nefarious global forces out to undermine Turkey. “I think this measure is similar to the recent, so-called 'NGOs law,' which (in addition to allowing the government to replace board members with appointees) also appears to be aimed at pressuring nonprofits that receive foreign funding. NGOs with Western funding are especially feeling this pressure with increased and arbitrary inspections. And that’s no coincidence,” Tahiroglu said in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.

“At a time when the US and Europe are trying to expand their efforts to promote democratization and human rights in Turkey by supporting local NGOs and independent media organizations, Ankara is clearly trying to keep tabs on these activities and tighten its control over these institutions,” Tahiroglu added.

One of the government’s most prominent targets is Osman Kavala, a businessman turned civil society activist who used his family fortune to promote culture and peace between Turks and Armenians and between Turks and Kurds. Kavala has been rotting in a Turkish prison since October 2017 on a cocktail of outlandish terrorism charges. His foundation, Anadolu Kultur, is among the Chrest Foundation’s beneficiaries.

Kavala is due to appear in court on Aug. 6. In September 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 63-year-old’s continued detention is in violation of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The court reiterated its opinion on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day, saying Kavala’s extended detention had an “ulterior purpose, namely to reduce him to silence as an NGO activist and human rights defender, to dissuade other persons from engaging in such activities and to paralyze civil society in the country.”

Turkey ratified the convention in 1954. The European Court’s decisions are binding for signatories.

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