Why Turkey’s mainstream media preferred penguins to protest

Kerem Oktem, in Istanbul, reflects on the pernicious influence of the government and business interests on Turkish broadcasters.

Momentous protests in Taksim Square, Istanbul, followed after police brutally crushed an environmental activist sit-in at the adjacent Gezi Park on Friday 31 May 2013. Yet, the Turkish mainstream TV stations, including MNSBC affiliated NTV and CNN Turk, failed to cover the protests. In terms of press freedom, Turkey ranks number 154 according to Reporters without Borders (RSF), just after Mexico and before Swaziland and Azerbaijan. At least thirty-three journalists are in jail, and many more have been cowered into submission by pending court cases and highly precarious contractual arrangements. RSF also labels Turkey as an “enemy of the internet” with more than 15,000 websites banned, including notably and for several months Richard Dawkins’ personal website. Turkey’s media is, by all means, one of the least free in Europe, several places behind Russia. Failure to cover the protests does not come as a surprise. As police brutality in Istanbul spiralled out of control on Sunday night CNN Turk instead chose to air a documentary on penguins, leading to much creative ridicule directed at the station – including the cover of a comic magazine showing penguins with gas masks and goggles – and an online petition urging CNN International to pull its name from the Turkish franchise.

The failure to cover the initial events around Taksim, where tens of thousands of youth and political activists engaged in street battles with police indiscriminately firing teargas bombs, was one of the triggers of public outcry and solidarity among Istanbulites. But how come the news did not get out even though all major media outlets had live transmission vehicles on the ground, and reporters were trying to do their job – being tear-gassed and subjected to police violence in the process? The answer lies in the ownership structure of the main media companies and government interference with editorial policy. All major media groups in Turkey are now part of larger corporations with diversified interests ranging from banking to the hospitality sector. They depend on government contracts and are therefore under pressure to make amends. A forceful reminder of this unhealthy relationship between media patrons and the government was the tax evasion case brought against the (more independent) Doğan Media Company in 2009, owner of the flagship TV channels Kanal D and CNN Turk and two of Turkey’s most influential right- and left wing liberal newspapers Hürriyet and Radikal. The Tax Office issued an unprecedented fine of 3.2 bn USD. While the fine was eventually lowered, more court cases were brought against the company, which in turn had to sell some of its smaller operations. Yet, the real price paid cannot be measured in money but in the loss of editorial freedom.

The endeavour to shape the editorial policy of Turkey’s mainstream media has gone even further in the last few years in the form of news black outs sanctioned by local courts and direct government intervention. Two cases stand out: on 28 December 2011, a Turkish military airstrike targeted a group of smugglers known to local military authorities on the Syrian border. Thirty-four local villagers near the hamlet of Roboski (Uludere) were killed due to wrong intelligence, and in the ensuing days both military and government agencies failed to provide help for survivors and the relatives of the dead. Only after several days did the mainstream media report the event. Another news black out followed the bombing of Reyhanli, a town at the Syrian–Turkish border on 11 May 2013. Again, the news seeped through only gradually.

Apart from shaping the content of broadcasts, the increasing frequency with which the Prime Minister’s office has been communicating directly with senior editors is an influential factor. A high-profile case of this is a non-written request on part of the Prime Minister’s office to keep President Abdullah Gül’s state visits and public appearances of low profile in newspapers and TV programmes. This is a clear indicator of the power struggle, which has been unfolding between the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister; but it is also a worrying sign of the extent to which editorial independence in all mainstream media outlets has been eroded.

Yet, the Taksim protests and their reverberation throughout the country and beyond may yet become a turning point from the point of view of press freedom and the freedom of expression. Eventually, President Gül requested the media to broadcast the events freely and fairly. The chief editors of the major news outlets, and especially NTV, whose burnt out news van now adorns Taksim Square, apologized for their failure to inform the public. As news from Istanbul and the rest of the country started to flow again chief editors might feel empowered to be less responsive to the directives issued by the Prime Minister who in only a few days, and because of the struggle for a few trees, has lost much of his national and international reputation. Newspapers like Radikal and Hürriyet, which covered the events appropriately from the first day, might also be an inspiration.

Kerem Oktem is a research fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and author of the book Another Empire? A Decade of Turkey’s Foreign Policy under the Justice and Development Party. This articles was republished on the Guardian Comment Network.  

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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