A strange thing happened less than a week after militants from the Islamic State in the Levant, or ISIL, seized Turkey’s consulate in Mosul June 11, taking 49 consulate workers hostage. News of the hostage crisis virtually disappeared from Turkey’s airwaves and newspapers.
The reason: Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained about media coverage of the standoff—complaints that were given the force of law June 16 when a Turkish court issued a gag order banning coverage of the situation. One of the court’s rationales, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, was the danger of press reports that “display state weakness.”
That incident is but one of a number of ways in which Erdogan’s government has eroded press freedoms in recent years. Last year as police used tear gas and water cannons to try to break up thousands of protesters demonstrating in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, CNN Turk aired a documentary about penguins – even as CNN International carried live coverage of the protests. Journalists were arbitrarily arrested, beaten, subject to interrogations and their photos and videos deleted, according to the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders.
Scores of journalists were forced from their jobs by media organizations whose owners looked to appease the government.
Turkish media “is a sector whose very professional genetics is being dismantled in terms of editorial independence,” says Yavuz Baydar, a Turkish blogger, newspaper columnist, and Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. “Mainstream, very common stories with clear news value are filtered out, cleansed of content...most of [the] journalism in practice there is stenography.”
The restrictions are a turnabout for Erdogan, who moved from the prime minister’s office to the presidency in August. Soon after his AK Party took power in 2002, media was allowed to report on subjects that were formerly taboo. That included discussion of the massacre of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians by the Ottoman troops during World War I and efforts by minority Kurds to attain independence.
“When I was there, one or two newspapers were pro-AK Party,” says W. Robert Pearson, who was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003. “Now the number of papers and media outlets that are willing and able to criticize the AK Party are quite restricted.”
Analysts say the change began in 2007, after a Turkish court ordered the video-sharing service YouTube blocked for airing videos insulting to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. That year, as Human Rights Watch reported, a Turkish military prosecutor ordered a probe of the investigative magazine Nokta, which had examined links between the military and supposedly civilian organizations and aired allegations about plans in 2004 for a military coup.
“Unfortunately in the last several years the government has stopped this push to open up the country and it has become very authoritarian,” says Nate Schenkkan, a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based rights group Freedom House, who covers Turkey. “Any kind of direct criticism against the government gets punished very easily and quickly.”
Though rights groups had condemned Turkey’s restrictions for several years, it was not until the government’s response to the Gezi Park protests last year that Turkey’s Western allies began to change their view of Erdogan’s government, he says.
The initial protests at the park in central Istanbul began in opposition to a proposed shopping mall at the site. Police violently evicted peaceful protesters, which spurred additional demonstrations elsewhere in the country and further police violence.
“There’s a real shift in perception in the U.S. especially but also in Europe after the Gezi protests,” says Schenkkan. “The level of international attention was so much higher and it was clear that the response of the government was anti-democratic. It has really changed the way that people understand Turkey.”
Those concerns have been heightened during the past year amidst restrictions on coverage of government corruption. Last month, the government shut down a news portal, Gri Hat [Grey Line], known for reporting corruption in the export of arms to groups in Syria. In February, a recording of an alleged phone call between Erdogan and his son emerged on the Internet in which they discuss hiding millions of dollars in secret funds. Erdogan threatened to prosecute those who circulated the recording, and the government briefly blocked access to Twitter and YouTube.
Restrictions on media haven’t been limited to the legal arena. The recent trend has been for media outlets to practice self-censorship by firing journalists who cross the government or powerful interest groups.
“We’re facing a broad cover attack, a crackdown,” says Schenkkan, of Freedom House. “There have been dozens, if not hundreds of journalists fired in the past couple of years from major media groups in Turkey.”
The shrinking space for dissent and free speech is likely to continue to have consequences for how Turkey is governed, say critics.
“No media freedom, no democracy, that’s an equation we know,” says Baydar, the Turkish columnist, who himself was fired from his job as ombudsman at a pro-government newspaper after publishing an opinion piece in the New York Times criticizing Turkish media restrictions. Baydar compares Turkey’s current trajectory with that of Russia, Azerbaijan and Venezuela—other countries that have slid towards authoritarianism while restricting press freedoms. “If the media is unable or too afraid to fulfill its role, too intimidated.... There is no other exit for Turkey and it’s society than shifting to authoritarian rule.”
Interactive graphic produced by Jack Howard. Source material from CIA World Fact book.