ISTANBUL — The mainstream Turkish press has been strongly criticized domestically and internationally for its coverage of the political unrest in Turkey -- coverage widely thought to be the result of self-censorship due to government pressure. Despite the criticism, Turkish authorities continue to exert control over the country's media.
The Turkish journalists trade union claims 22 journalists have been fired from their jobs over their coverage of the anti-government protests, while 37 others were forced to resign.
Fringe left-wing newspapers have been raided by police the month and journalists have been detained under the country’s anti-terror laws. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly accused national and international media of being behind the unrest as part of a conspiracy against him and his ruling AK Party. But the crackdown has also extended to the mainstream media, according to Asli Aydintasbas, who presents a media program on the TV channel CNNTurk.
"I think media has been targeted by the government for reporting for the events," she said. "A few weeks ago, the government took over one newspaper and television network, and they appointed a former AKP member of parliament as the new editor[-in-]chief, a former journalist as well, but the line has clearly changed, [and] nine columnists have left. And the newspaper turned into yet another pro-government outlet, that’s just [in] a couple of weeks. Yes, there are people who have lost their jobs, also in pro-government outlets, who just called for a less aggressive stance in [the] Gezi Park protests."
The anti-government protests were sparked by plans to re-develop Istanbul’s Gezi Park into a shopping mall. Also this month, the owners of a popular magazine whose latest edition was devoted to the Gezi park unrest shut the publication down, fueling growing unease over media freedom.
Ironically, the initial days of the unrest saw widespread criticism of the Turkish press, including by the European Union, for its failure to cover the events. One night at the height of the unrest a news channel ran a documentary on penguins, drawing condemnation and ridicule by many in Turkey. The protesters have now adopted the penguin as a symbol.
Such was the level of the criticism of the media that Kadri Gursel, a political columnist with the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, claims it has had a dramatic effect on the media.
"It was like an electric shock for the mainstream media; it [the mainstream media] has found will and courage," he said. "Because they’ve faced their so-called clients, or readers or viewers. Before Gezi Park, the media was taking into account of one viewer, Mr. Prime Minister himself. Now, ... for the first time, we got encouraging signs, but I can't be categorically optimistic."
Gursel’s caution is in part due to the fact that most of Turkey’s private sector media is owned by large business conglomerates whose interests extend far beyond journalism. He believes many media owners are, for now, prepared to give their journalists a freer hand to report. But Gursel warns that stance could change.
"The government always have enough tools of pressure to use against media owners, media outlets. Threatening the economic interests of media owners, because media owners have other investments in other sectors of the economy ... and profitability is depending on the regulations and government decisions," he said.
But political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University believes traditional media in Turkey have been so discredited over their reporting of the Gezi Park unrest that they have become increasingly irrelevant to many, while social media have grown in importance.
"The youngsters don’t care about media; they are just communicating through Face[book], through Twitter, and through there own means," he said. "They don’t watch TV, they don’t read newspapers, so these media outlets are all old and they [are] completely out of fashion and whether they write the truth or they don’t, they [are] completely outdated..
Along with condemning mainstream media, Prime Minister Erdogan has also strongly attacked social media, describing it as an evil threat to society, and he has promised to take action. With anti-government protests ongoing in several cities, observers warn the battle is likely to continue, both on the streets and in the media.