BACKGROUND: It was with the publication of the first newspaper not controlled by the state in the 1850s that the relationship between media and government became part of Turkey’s political life. Despite the autocratic government of the time, oppositional movements began to express themselves through media outlets. With the establishment of the Republic, a very strong censorship mechanism was applied to the media for two decades. The first steps towards what can be termed true freedom of the press was made with the transition to democracy in 1946.
In this regard, media in Turkey has a tradition of taking care to nurture its relations with the forces in power, often exercising self-censorship. But the media has also been an important counter-force to the political power. For example, during the Democratic Party’s first years in power in the 1950s, the press – exasperated with the single-party rule that had preceded its election – fervently supported DP leader Adnan Menderes. But in his second term, the media turned completely against him. A similar trend could be seen during Süleyman Demirel’s tenure in power in the 1970s: the major media outlets first took a balanced position, but in subsequent years turned in opposition to the government. To a certain degree, Demirel came out as the most tolerant leader with regard to freedom of opinion, and the one who refrained to the greatest degree from using the privileges of governmental power to exercise control over the media. During the Turgut Özal era in the 1980s and early 1990s, a clear trend was observable whereby the government sought to create media outlets supportive of its policies. However, even though he was instrumental in creating newspapers like Günes and Sabah, which were owned by some of his supporters in business, Özal was unable to rid himself of the heavy opposition from the established media. During the shorter terms in power of Mesut Yilmaz and Tansu Ciller, similar attempts to create favorable media outlets could be observed.
The coming to power of the AKP in 2002 as a single-party government has seen the birth to a new style in media-government relations. The government’s honeymoon with the mainstream media came to last for five years. Buoyed by the liberal intelligentsia’s support for the AKP, the usual honeymoon that a new government enjoys turned into a sustained relationship, ranging from uncritical support to, at most, moderate opposition. Most interesting has been the uncritical attitude of formerly leftist journalists and influential columnists. Most of these had already been seduced by the liberalism of Turgut Özal. The Özal era actually saw a paradigmatic shift occur in the ideological orientation of mainstream Turkish media. Faced with a reformed moderate Islamist government, seemingly bent on further liberalization, the neo-liberals (most of whom had belonged to the left in the 1970s and 1980s) found it natural to wholeheartedly embrace the AKP.
In fact, genuine, ideologically motivated support has combined with the familiar temptation to be close to the forces in power and with the commercial interests of media barons to determine media attitudes to the AKP government.
Indeed, the coming to power of the AKP coincided with the initiation of a large-scale privatization program. This in turn opened opportunities for the owners of media groups to branch out into other sectors and compete in privatization tenders. This opportunity was embraced by Aydin Dogan as well as Dinç Bilgin and Turgay Çiner, then owners of Dogan Publishing (publishers of Milliyet and Hürriyet dailies) and the Sabah Group, respectively – the chief forces in the mainstream media. As privatization developed, the Dogan Group took over the formerly state-owned oil company, Petrol Ofisi – as well as a government bank, Disbank, which it later sold. These business diversifications made it in the interest of the owners of the media holdings to be on good terms with the government – given the expectation that their media outlets’ attitude toward the government could influence their chances in privatization tenders, not least in the backroom deals that appear to have characterized many of these. Indeed, the AKP government has according to numerous reports made it a practice to use soft state power – i.e. utilizing the power to accord or not accord various companies the licenses and tenders they seek. This arguably played an important role in the favorable stance taken by mainstream media toward the AKP during its first term in power.
But during 2007, this picture began to change. Opposition to the AKP grew in the business community as well as among the liberal intelligentsia, following the mounting polarization of Turkish politics and the increasingly ideological approach of the AKP government. Hence major media outlets that had previously been moderately pro-AKP began to sound more critical, Sabah and Hürriyet newspapers in particular picking up the banner of moderate opposition to the government’s policies during the headscarf crisis of early 2008.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government had grown accustomed to advancing with strong support from major media outlets. This new situation, however, appears to have caught the government unaware. Indeed, Erdogan’s first reaction to the change in the media took the form of public scoldings of the major media outlets, shedding new light on how the freedom of the press is viewed by the AKP. The government strategy to seek growing influence over media outlets, a strategy that had been in the works for some time, was now accelerated.
IMPLICATIONS: Newspapers and television channels like Zaman, Türkiye, and Yeni Safak, which are known to be defenders of conservative lines of thought and under the control of certain religious communities, have continuously provided full support for the AKP, without pointing at any of its mistakes. These newspapers practically act as official publishing organs of the AKP. Even newspapers like Star and Bugün, which changed hands because of their owners’ debts, have begun to act like official AKP outlets.
The state agency empowered to move in when private firms default on debts, the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (Tasarruf Mevduati Sigorta Fonu, TMSF), has provided a handy mechanism for the ideological transformation of the media landscape. The agency has at several occasions taken control over media outlets owned by holdings in debt, allowing it to run these outlets for extended periods of time (often over a year) before selling them at auctions. A case in point is KanalTürk, which was owned by maverick journalist Tuncay Özkan, which has played an important role in fueling opposition to the AKP.. The channel was taken over by the KOZA Group, whose religious links are well-known. This effectively silenced a strong voice of opposition. The KOZA enjoys good relations with the AKP government; in particular, it regularly receives tenders for public schoolbooks, a huge enterprise, with the Ministry of Education commissioning millions of books, which are distributed for free to pupils.
Perhaps more important has been the changing of hands of the Sabah group, which controlled an important part of media outlets, most notably Sabah newspaper, the largest-circulation in the country, and ATV television channel. Following a rift between its former and latter owners, Dinc Bilgin and Turgay Çiner, and the leaking of a secret protocol between them that seemed to indicate the sale was a fake transaction, the asset was sequestered, putting it under government control for a long period of time. After over a year, as the Sabah/ATV group was put to sale, only the ÇALIK group came forward with a bid. Foreign investors can own no more than 25 percent of a media outlet, and no domestic bidders were present. CALIK, on the other hand, is known for its proximity to the government. Prime Minister Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak is its CEO, and its media wing is run by the latter’s brother, Serhat. Even though there was just one offer, the auction was not annulled, and the bid of around US$1.1 billion was accepted. Equally remarkable was the financing of this deal. The state-owned Halk and Vakif banks each provided US$350 million for financing the deal – the largest credits ever provided by either bank, and this was done without any demands for additional guarantees. The remainder of the financing needed was provided through a Qatari government fund. This episode caused a scandal, displaying hitherto unseen relations among media, politics and power. Thus, without paying a penny, the ÇALIK group was able to take over one of the most significant media groups in the country.
The rise of the ÇALIK Group is itself an issue worth separate examination. The group has a substantial focus of its activities in Turkmenistan, where it has had close links with the Turkmen government. It has also participated in several privatization auctions during the AKP government’s tenure. Most specifically, ÇALIK was awarded the construction and management of the Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline without a tender procedure, and it also received a license to build a refinery in Ceyhan. ÇALIK had also taken part in the tender for the privatization of Türk Telekom. However, in this case the group stayed in the auction only to bow out suddenly when it only had a single competitor left, a Lebanese firm, which hence clinched the deal.
The major target of Prime Minister Erdogan’s irritation has nevertheless been the Dogan group, with its Hürriyet and Milliyet mass-circulation newspapers. Dogan, which also owns the English-language Turkish Daily News, moved into moderate opposition in 2007. As this happened, the government moved against Dogan, imposing a US$ 1 billion penalty for alleged tax irregularities involved in the group’s management of the above-mentioned Petrol Ofisi. Whether this will lead to changes in editorial policy remains to be seen.
CONCLUSIONS: The freedom of the press is increasingly called into question in Turkey as large parts of the media have come under the control of business interests which in one way or another are connected to or indebted to the government. While earlier Turkish governments – most notably during the era of Turgut Özal –also tried to exercise political influence over the media, the AKP has displayed a hitherto unseen determination to create uniformity in the media landscape.
The AKP Has gone to great lengths in influencing the Turkish media. This, of course, represents an asset in the ongoing struggle with the secular opposition – but also one of the reasons that the state bureaucracy has reacted through judicial channels, such as the closure case against the AKP. But if it is in fact a strength, it could rapidly turn into a liability for the AKP and make it vulnerable to scrutiny.