Turkey Book Talk episode #136 – Taner Doğan on “Communication Strategies in Turkey: Erdogan, the AKP and Political Messaging” (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury).

The book is based on over 100 interviews with AKP supporters, activists, officials, strategists and pundits, as well as attending events and closely examining Erdoğan’s messaging as his rhetoric shifted from emphasising Ankara’s EU membership goal towards hard-edged nationalism.

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Turkey Book Talk episode #108  –  Erkan Saka, associate professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, on “Social Media and Politics in Turkey: A Journey Through Citizen Journalism, Political Trolling and Fake News” (Lexington).

The book looks at the transformation of social media use in Turkey over the years, as well as the government crackdown on social media platforms and users.

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Turkey Book Talk episode #103  –  Jonathan Rugman, foreign affairs correspondent at Channel 4 News, on “The Killing in the Consulate: Investigating the Life and Death of Jamal Khashoggi” (Simon & Schuster).

The book examines the run-up and aftermath of the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Khashoggi by a 15-man hit squad in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul Consulate on 2 October 2018. It also delves into Khashoggi’s complicated professional and personal life, as well as the bitter diplomatic rivalry between Ankara and Riyadh that the killing shone a light on.

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Become a member to support Turkey Book Talk and get a load of extras: A 35% discount on any of over 400 books in IB Tauris/Bloomsbury’s excellent Turkey/Ottoman history category, English and Turkish transcripts of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire archive of episodes, and an archive of 231 reviews written by myself covering Turkish and international fiction, history, journalism and politics.

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Turkey Book Talk episode #98  –  Nur Deriş on the extraordinary life of journalist Sabiha Sertel (1895-1968).

Deriş is co-editor of “The Struggle for Modern Turkey: Justice, Activism and a Revolutionary Female Journalist” (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury).

The volume is the first ever appearance in English of Sertel’s autobiography “Roman Gibi” (Like a Novel), a fascinating window into an era covering the war of independence and Turkey’s entire single-party period until 1950.

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This book is one of over 400 books in IB Tauris/Bloomsbury’s Turkey/Ottoman history category, which you can get a 35% discount on if you sign up to become a Turkey Book Talk member. Members also get English and Turkish transcripts of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire archive of 90+ episodes, and an archive of 231 reviews written by myself covering Turkish and international fiction, history, journalism and politics.

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Turkey Book Talk episode #66 – Cengiz Erişen of Istanbul’s Yeditepe University on “Political Behavior and the Emotional Citizen: Participation and Reaction in Turkey” (Palgrave Macmillan), focusing on the months between the June 2015 and November 2015 elections.

Our conversation also takes in the current campaign for the snap presidential and parliamentary elections, the surprisingly energetic performance of main opposition candidate Muharrem İnce, and the critical importance of the Kurdish issue.

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Emotion

Here’s my review of the book from a couple of weeks ago.

Support Turkey Book Talk by becoming a member. Membership gives you full transcripts in English and Turkish of every interview upon publication, transcripts of the entire Turkey Book Talk archive (over 60 conversations so far), and access to an exclusive 30% discount on over 200 Turkey/Ottoman History titles published by IB Tauris.

Turkey Book Talk episode #44 – MAX HOFFMAN on “TRENDS IN TURKISH CIVIL SOCIETY,” a joint report published by the Center for American Progress, the Istanbul Policy Center, and the Italian think tank IAI.

Download the episode or listen below.

Here’s a link to the report itself.

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PM Erdoğan’s jet

July 24, 2014

As Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flies around on his apparently never-ending election campaign, the symbolism of “Erdoğan’s jet” and who he invites onboard is coming under increasing scrutiny. These days, only reporters from the most craven pro-government media outlets – the usual suspects of Sabah, Yeni Şafak, Star, Akşam, Türkiye, Yeni Akit – tend to be given the golden ticket to fly on Erdoğan’s private “ANA” jet; a place on board is almost used as a carrot to reward docile behaviour. As daily Hürriyet’s ombudsman Faruk Bildirici wrote in a piece last month, the reporters accepted onto the plane are guaranteed not to ask difficult questions, choosing to do little more substantial than perform as the AKP’s media arm, “as assistants to help Erdoğan comfortably transmit whatever message he wants to the public.”

An increasingly narrow coterie of trusted media figures is being granted access to the prime minister. The effect isn’t only seen in who Erdoğan accepts onto his plane; it is also there in the TV stations and newspapers that he and other prominent government figures choose to grant interviews to, and in the hand-picking of interlocutors during these exchanges. Of course, democratic governments across the world have media groups to which they are closer and which, to some extent, they rely on; indeed, the opposition parties in Turkey also have their own “reliable” media camps. But there’s something blatantly unfair about the mutually supportive state-private network that is reinforcing the AKP government in power today. The cosiness of the prime minister and the media accepted onto his jet is just one of the most obvious examples of this favouritism.

A familiar scene: Erdoğan surrounded by loyal scribes on his private jet. (Photo credit: Milliyet)

Last week, the Nielsen Company’s AdEx advertising information report caused quite a stir in Turkey, revealing how advertising provided by state companies was weighted heavily in favour of government-friendly media groups. According to the report, of the 18 national newspapers examined, the three that received the most public advertising slots in the first six months of 2014 were the pro-government Sabah, Star and Milliyet dailies. The bottom five, meanwhile, were all broadly AKP sceptics, despite two of them – Posta and Zaman – having the highest circulation figures in the country. The two newspapers known as being close to the movement of ally-turned-bête noir Fethullah Gülen – Bugün and Zaman – received almost zero advertising from state institutions. Similarly, TV stations that are known to be closer to the government received far more advertising from public bodies in the first half of the year. Two pro-Gülen television channels – Samanyolu and Bugün TV – received no advertising revenue whatsoever from state companies. While much of the recent focus has been on public broadcaster TRT’s hugely imbalanced coverage in favour of Erdoğan ahead of next month’s presidential election, the way that state institutions are marching in lock-step with government-friendly private companies also has perilous consequences.

The issue of who gets to travel on the prime minister’s private jet is only one symptom of a Turkish media stuck in a broader partisan malaise. Indeed, while those who get invited onto the PM’s plane see their role as only being to transmit whatever the prime minister says, the myopic fixation on every word uttered by Erdoğan is unfortunately shared across pro- and anti-government outlets (as I have previously written). With important exceptions, all sides are sucked into an endless, meaningless argument about where they stand on whatever Erdoğan’s latest utterances and positions are – those positions are the fuel motoring 80 percent of Turkish media’s shallow news agenda. “Important Statements from the Prime Minister” stories are only becoming more common as power becomes more centralized around one man, and the situation isn’t likely to improve after Erdoğan is elected president next month.

 

[Originally posted at Hürriyet Daily News]

Commentary vs. Reporting

October 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to post about the imbalance between undervalued journalists and overvalued commentators in the Turkish media landscape for a while. The aftermath of the Gezi Park protests saw an unprecedented purging of critical columnists from various newspapers, but such bloodspilling tends to receive attention only when it is a recognisable, big name figure who has been fired. Although it’s less discussed, intense pressure is also being exerted on the few embattled investigative reporters working these days, and in the long run this pressure may prove even more damaging to the country’s fourth estate than the silencing of some columnists.

A recent controversy involving daily Radikal reporter İsmail Saymaz illustrated this pressure with particular clarity. Saymaz had written a series of pieces in the aftermath of the killing of Gezi protester Ali İsmail Korkmaz in the Central Anatolian city of Eskişehir, about which he received an extraordinary email from the provincial governor in the early hours of Oct. 2.  In the email, Governor Azim Tuna demanded that the “dishonourable” Saymaz stop his “vile and inglorious” reporting, adding that he “shouldn’t forget the underground” (after death), where they would both meet each other in the end.

Usually, pressure from the authorities doesn’t come so openly. Saymaz has done some excellent work in Radikal, but for him – like most others – there are plenty of untouchable subjects. He himself learnt that back in 2010, when he was charged with “interfering in the judicial process” over stories he had written on the notorious arrest of Erzincan’s chief prosecutor, İlhan Cihaner, an arrest that was widely seen as part of the government’s moves to combat the “deep state.” Shortly before being charged, Saymaz had published a book about the Gülen movement’s involvement in the prosecution of the Ergenekon coup plot case, and ended up facing charges that could have lead to 45 years in jail.  Such cases seem to have had the desired effect; the major news organisations’ reporting of issues such as Ergenekon, official corruption, and the Gülen movement, has become increasingly tame, if not non-existent. As Saymaz himself has said, “We, as reporters, both censor our minds and bite our tongues while we are reporting.” Without a rigorous media doing its bit to hold the authorities to account, can it be surprising when the government behaves with such impunity?

The lack of corruption exposure in the Turkish media was also recently indicated after Milliyet published an interview with Ateş Ünal Erzen, the opposition Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) mayor for the Istanbul district of Bakırköy. In the interview, Erzen indirectly admitted to systematic corruption in his municipality, which caused a tiny stir before dropping off the agenda completely. The fact that the revelation effectively came as a result of a slip of the tongue, the handwringing that followed it, and the lack of any deeper subsequent investigation, all point to the Turkish media’s ineffectiveness when it comes to investigating corruption. It’s probably also worth mentioning again here the much-cited example of Hürriyet halting its reporting on the Deniz Feneri charity embezzlement scandal, after being landed with a multi-billion dollar tax fine in 2009. Through such measures, the investigative potential of journalists at major Turkish news outlets has been steadily hollowed out.

The emphasis on commentary over proper reporting should be considered in this context. Columns are indeed cheap and easy to churn out, but the prioritising of columnists over reporters is not just an economic calculation; opinions are not only cheaper, they are also less dangerous than deep reporting, less threatening than labour-intensive original journalism. Everyone has an opinion, and almost anyone can write out their views in a few hundred words, (and looking at the standard on offer, almost anyone does). This range of columnists in the Turkish media allows pro-government voices to claim with a straight face that the continued existence of the popular and rabidly anti-AKP commentary-heavy Sözcü, for example, is proof of the healthy variety of journalism on offer. Not only does this argument ignore the countless cases of sackings and news manipulation based on direct pressure from the authorities, but it also fails to address the crippling government-imposed handicaps on serious investigative journalism.

Of course, (here’s the usual disclaimer), it’s important not to look back on an imagined halcyon age of journalism in Turkey. Things have often been much worse: Jenny White recently described a visit to the offices of Milliyet in the 1990s, when she found that the paper was surviving on a grant from the state, which was handing “black lists” to the paper’s owners about who should be fired and promoted from the editorial staff. But while it’s true that things have never been perfect, it’s alarming to see the heavy hand of the amorphous deep state simply replaced by a similarly overbearing civilian authority.

Concerns about the health of the Turkish media are well-justified, but many expressions of this concern fail to appreciate that infringements on press freedom don’t just involve restrictions on what ten-a-penny columnists can write about. Equally damaging, if not more so, are restrictions on what can be reported, and the depth to which journalists can probe sensitive issues. The cacophony of news commentary in Turkey, while indicative of a vibrant and energetic society, does not in itself make for a healthy fourth estate.

On Sept. 17, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) hand delivered its latest letter to Turkey’s Ministry of Justice, expressing the group’s deep concern over the “continued press freedom crisis in Turkey.”

The CPJ had previously published a long and detailed special report on media freedom in Turkey in October 2012, and this latest letter, addressed to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, explains how the difficulties described in that report remain unresolved. It also discusses the increasingly oppressive environment in the aftermath of the summer’s anti-government Gezi Park protests, paying particular attention to the fact that open threats from officials have become worryingly commonplace, which “emboldens zealous prosecutors to go after critics.”

The letter doesn’t much dwell on the issue of ownership and conflict of interest – by no means the be all and end all, but certainly a crucial issue that must be addressed if improvements are to be made. Other than that, it makes for a good primer on the biggest challenges to freedom across all media in today’s Turkey: imprisoned journalists and associated legal irregularities, the inappropriate use of anti-terrorism laws, censorship and self-censorship, gag orders on sensitive issues, and the threats being issued by government figures with increasing brazenness. Below are some of the most salient points made in the CPJ’s letter:

“While the restrictive laws and prosecutions are central to the media crisis in Turkey, so too is the atmosphere fostered at the top levels of government. When top officials use the term ‘terrorists’ to describe critical journalists they send a disturbing message that could cause others to take action …

“With traditional media under pressure, the Internet, including social media, has become an important outlet for free expression in Turkey. But recent official comments, including threats to restrict the online flow of information, cause concern …

“Time and again, history has proven that, at times of unrest, a well-informed society has a better capacity to restore and heal itself. The government of Turkey ought to encourage a vibrant debate, a diversity of opinions, and independent reporting on news events crucial to the public …

“In mid-June, with tensions running high, you publicly accused the international media of biased coverage of the Gezi Park events, singling out CNN International, the BBC, and Reuters. Before a supporters’ rally, you said the foreign media ‘fabricated news,’ The New York Times reported. ‘You portrayed Turkey differently to the world,’ you reportedly said, referring to international media. ‘You are left alone with your lies.’ We find your suggestion that international coverage was part of a plot to subvert your government highly disturbing.

“In late June, Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek launched a spurious and inflammatory campaign on Twitter against local BBC reporter Selin Girit, labeling her a traitor and a spy in apparent disagreement with the BBC’s coverage of the protests.

“Gökçek created a critical hashtag ‘#ingiltereadınaajanlıkyapmaselingirit,’ which in English means ‘Don’t be a spy in the name of England, Selin Girit’ and urged his followers to popularize it on Twitter. Girit received ‘a large number of threatening messages’ in response to the mayor’s actions, the BBC said in a statement.

“CPJ is also alarmed by reports of numerous firings and forced resignations of critical columnists, editors, and reporters, and in apparent retaliation for their coverage of the Gezi Park protests. According to our colleagues at the Turkish Union of Journalists, an independent media association that documents attacks on the press, at least 22 journalists were fired and another 37 were forced to quit their jobs over their coverage of the anti-government protests. As a result of direct or indirect government pressure, media owners have dismissed many popular journalists and the absence of their voices has been conspicuous.”

The letter can be read in full here.

One of the saddest aspects of the Turkish government’s response to the Gezi Park protests has been its line that the demonstrations are all a part of a “foreign plot” to bring down Turkey. As with everything else, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fired the starting pistol, singling out the phantom international “interest rate lobby” as being behind the unrest. Since then, leading government figures have been falling over themselves to slander the protests as part of a “foreign conspiracy” by forces “jealous of Turkey’s economic success.” Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan said “foreign circles” were trying to “undermine the country’s progress” through the protests: “This is totally an attempt to create a foreign hegemony on Turkey, but we are no fools.” EU Minister Egemen Bağış stated: “It is interesting to have such incidents in Turkey when … economic and development figures are at their best levels. The interest rate lobby and several financial institutions are disturbed by the growth and development of Turkey.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said a deliberate propaganda operation was being conducted by the international media to tarnish Turkey’s image. Delusional? Yes. Seductive for a sizable portion of the Turkish electorate? Undoubtedly.

Overturning every stone only to find a nefarious foreign plot hidden underneath is one of Turkey’s less attractive national pastimes. Considering the past 200 years of the country’s history, it’s understandable, if not excusable.  The current government was supposed to have broken with this paradigm. It had opened the country out to its region – both Europe and the Middle East – and was open-minded about doing business abroad and attracting investment for domestic infrastructure projects. The old embattled Turkish borders seemed to be opening to the world. However, the government’s reaction to the Gezi protests has laid bare all its latent insecurity and resentment, which has been most clear in the verbal attacks on the international coverage of the events. While mainstream domestic media has been brought (almost) completely under the thumb of the authorities, one gets the impression that the AKP’s open anger at the international media is now a kind of reflex action, indicating its frustrated inability to control what is being reported. The BBC must have been exaggerating the scale of the protests, as it wasn’t showing a penguin documentary.

Pro-government news outlets have been keen to assist in framing this paranoid narrative. While it was certainly no secret before, the Gezi protests have exposed the full extent of AKP control over the state news agency, Anadolu Ajansı, which has carried some utterly ridiculous The Onion-like headlines about foreign plots and jealous foreign powers. Pro-government newspapers have also loyally joined in, here’s daily Sabah applauding the aforementioned Anatolia for “sending a missile” to Reuters and CNN, by tweeting that 3G services had been cut in London, preventing them from broadcasting coverage of the police operation on the anti-G8 protests. Which to believe: Reuters or Anadolu Ajansı?

I also feel that this embattled sense is probably compounded by the shock of having international media ask genuinely tough questions of Turkish government representatives. Not only does this surprise AKP figures conditioned to having it easy with domestic journalists, but it also reinforces the sense among many government supporters that the international media is now “out to get” it (and, by extension, bring Turkey down). CNN International’s Christiane Amanpour was criticised by many pro-government Turks, (and praised by many protesters), simply for asking (not unusually) tough questions of Erdoğan’s advisor İbrahim Kalın. In fact, she did nothing out of the ordinary, but it must have been striking for anyone accustomed to toothless “interviews” such as the one conducted by Fatih Altaylı with Erdoğan on June 2.

Still, although they may make no logical sense, countering conspiracy theories with rational facts is a fool’s errand. David Aaronovitch wrote in a recent book on the subject that conspiracists tend to be on the “losing side” and conspiracy theories are mostly an expression of their insecurity; it’s therefore both strange and sad that rumours of “foreign plots” behind Turkey’s protests are being spread by a government that won 50% in the last election.

By now, the basics are well known. The mainstream Turkish media was found to be woefully inadequate when it came to reporting the enormous anti-government protests that recently erupted across the country. As Turks took to the streets to confront ruthless security forces armed with gallons of tear gas, pressurized water, tanks and batons, those still at home turned to TV news stations only to find nature documentaries and panel shows discussing liposuction.

It’s fair to say that the protests still ongoing across Turkey have not been the Turkish media’s finest hour. In fact, these events – perhaps more than any previously – have exposed for domestic and international observers just how compromised the Turkish media has become. (As many have observed, this comes with a bitter taste for Kurds, who ask why many now protesting did little when the Kurds were complaining about scant media coverage of their own troubles.) Ironically enough, the lack of TV coverage appears only to have inspired more protests. According to a Bilgi University survey among 3,000 young Gezi Park protesters, 84% cited muted media coverage as one of the main reasons for taking to the streets. This also explains the graffiti around Istanbul lambasting the “sold-out” media, the satirical memes circulating like wildfire on the internet, and the NTV broadcast van trashed and overturned in the middle of Taksim Square.

As is now well documented, where mainstream media failed, social media stepped in. It is estimated that more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests after midnight on May 31; Twitter hashtags telling the Turkish media to do its job were trending worldwide, while CNN Türk was airing a documentary about penguins. This also resulted in large demonstrations being organised outside the Habertürk and NTV offices in the following days, which, in a grim irony, NTV ended up reporting on.

Indeed, Twitter became the only place to go to for information (and disinformation) as events unfolded; exposing the enormous chasm that now exists between independent new media and the toothless media corporations in Turkey. While this was no real revelation, (the same happened after the Uludere/Roboski massacre in December 2011, when live tweeters at the scene bypassed and shamed the established media groups), the scale of the awareness that the latest events stirred is unprecedented. Reflecting the government’s frustration at being unable to do much about what gets posted online, Erdoğan described social media as a “trouble” full of “unmitigated lies” (if he was referring to the deluded Twitter ramblings of Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek he may have had a point). One day later, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arınç declared that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but didn’t.” Still, there were other ways for the government to make its point, as 33 protesters were detained in the western city of İzmir for tweets they had posted.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

CNN International shows live coverage of the demonstrations in Taksim Square, while CNN Türk airs a penguin documentary.

Turkey-watchers are familiar with the country’s chronic press freedom problems. One of the root causes is related to the ownership structures of Turkish media companies, which opens them up to political pressure, an issue that Yavuz Baydar repeatedly – and convincingly – returns to. One small example of this which I didn’t see anyone else pick up on came with a report, released in April, by respected think-tank the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), titled “Policy Suggestions for Free and Independent Media in Turkey.” The report was thorough and fair, particularly focusing on the crippling conflict of interest that comes when major media outlets are owned by large holding companies involved in other sectors. Although the report was covered by the Gülen-affiliated Zaman newspapers, no newspapers from the Doğan Media Group (owned by billionaire Aydın Doğan – perhaps Exhibit A of the above problem) – Hürriyet, its English language arm Hürriyet Daily News, or Radikal – mentioned it.

With the large media companies so obviously unfit to perform their Fourth Estate function, the focus is shifting to new online independent media. Along with the agenda-setting Twitter, the website T24 has also developed quite a reputation in providing brave, reliable, independent reporting. Veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, for example, after being controversially fired by daily Milliyet, was taken on by T24 and has since written a series of articles based on time spent with the retreating Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels in southeast Turkey, including an interview with military head of the PKK, Murat Karayılan. The Demirören Holding-owned Milliyet would not touch such a daring project. Freely-available online and with little advertising, I’m not sure how T24 is actually funded (if anybody does, please do let me know), or whether it’s a viable long-term model for more serious journalism in Turkey, bypassing the established news organisations. Still, with mainstream media having so thoroughly discredited itself throughout the Gezi Park protests, the void will have to be filled by something if Turkey is to become more democratic.

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