Black february? In Turkey Gov’t pressure over media, business increases

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks referring to the Feb. 28 memorandum, asking why businessmen and media are not included in the post-modern coup case, have raised concerns about the government’s increasing grip on the media and business world.

Reminiscent of the Feb. 28 memorandum (also known as “andıç”) that left a deep scar on Turkish politics, overthrowing the then-government and urging the media to cooperate with coup perpetrators, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government is taking steps towards smearing the media and businesspeople with the help of controversial laws and giving orders to owners of media groups to fire journalists who adopt a critical stance against government policies, as well as cancelling tenders given to certain holdings and businessmen.

This time by the hand of the government instead of the military of Feb. 28, the media is suffering from pressure, threats and legislation aiming at punishing journalists because of their reports about corruption allegations regarding a graft probe that was made public on Dec. 17, which dealt a blow to the government’s legitimacy.

For those in the business world who adopt a critical stance against the government because of the recent implementations and the corruption scandal, the government aims to punish them, by cancelling key tenders. A striking case in point is the national warship project (Milgem) contract, which was awarded to Koç Holding subsidiary RMK Marine for $2.5 billion in January and was cancelled by the government after Koç Holding declared its support to the Gezi Park protests.

In another case, the authorities carried out sweeping raids on the Koç Holding-owned Turkish Petroleum Refineries Corporation (TÜPRAŞ) over suspected tax (ÖTV) evasion. The Finance Ministry, along with police and gendarmerie forces, launched the raid after they detected large-scale tax evasion in inspections last year in oil-distributing companies in July 2013.

The media, which undertook an important role in the Feb. 28 process by acting in accordance with the military’s instructions, is adopting a similar approach in the current graft probe, which has shaken the AK Party rule, by covering up the corruption scandal.

Besides manipulating public opinion for the benefit of the government, the partisan media is turning a blind eye to the draft law on the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which is currently being debated in Parliament and foresees a nine-year prison sentence to journalists and media executives for publishing confidential MİT documents — a blow to freedom of the press. Thus, the draft introduces severe penalties for obtaining and publishing these documents via print or visual media.

Efforts to punish journalists through the government-led draft laws are not limited to legal arrangements. In some cases, direct instructions from government officials to media executives for the dismissal of journalists who wrote pieces news on the graft probe and for publishing documents regarding the violation of legal processes in government-led actions, turned out not to be “individual cases.”

Nazlı Ilıcak, a senior columnist, was fired from her long-time post at the pro-government Sabah daily after she adopted a critical stance towards the government regarding the corruption investigation and questioning the government’s legitimacy, as well as calling on those ministers, whose sons are detained, to resign.

The statement from Sabah said it had parted ways with Ilıcak due to a disagreement over a number of issues, declining to elaborate on a possible link between Ilıcak’s dismissal and her critical stance over the corruption case. The move came against a backdrop of a series of dismissals of journalists over the past year due to government pressure on the media, reminiscent of the Feb. 28 memorandum.

Besides direct instructions by alleged government officials for the dismissals of opponent journalists, Adem Yavuz Arslan, a columnist in the Bugün daily wrote in his column that black propaganda is being carried out against him by the government. Aslan complained of growing black propaganda becoming more violent as details of the corruption investigation continue to emerge, saying: “Non-partisan journalists are called and threatened. Those who threaten journalists are authorized people. They menaced non-partisan journalists with facing mass arrests unless they adopt a more positive stance to the government-linked bribery allegations. Those journalists who were manipulated and acted in coordination with the military were relatively more fair and moderate when compared to the current government attitude.

A recent example of the fierce pressure put on the media is the expulsion of Azeri journalist Mahir Zeynalov, who recently shared his ideas criticizing Erdoğan on Twitter, raising more concerns about media freedom.

 Today’s Zaman’s online editor Zeynalov was ordered to leave Turkey after he commented on the corruption scandal shaking the government. Zeynalov said officials denied his application to renew his permit to work as journalist, adding, “I was told that I insulted high-level officials and the Interior Ministry was informed in order to deport me.” Lawyers for Erdoğan filed a complaint against Zeynalov in December over two tweets in which he said the prime minister had interfered in the judicial process.

An alleged conversation between the top manager of Habertürk TV and Erdoğan revealed interference with the channel’s reporting about the opposition National Movement Party (MHP), urging top manager Fatih Saraç, deputy chairman of the Ciner Media Group, at the channel to remove the news ticker on the MHP.

In another leaked audio video, Saraç pushed Habertürk editor-in-chief Fatih Altaylı to manipulate the results of a poll conducted by the Konsensus Research and Consultancy Company in favor of the AK Party government. Later, Altaylı accepted the allegations saying the media is being routinely pressured by government officials.

Many other veteran journalists and columnists were also urged to resign or be dismissed by owners of newspapers and TV stations, prior to the graft operation last year due to their anti-government articles, such as Hasan Cemal, who parted ways with Milliyet daily on March 18, 2013; Derya Sazak, whose column was suspended in Milliyet; and veteran journalist Yavuz Baydar, who was fired from the Sabah daily after his editorial board censored him because of his pro-Gezi Park stance.

Despite the fact that graft probe goes beyond a few political figures and seemingly signals more widespread corruption, no lessons are being learned from the issue of “andıç” with constant censorship of the media and the media’s manipulative reports in favor of the government.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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