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Turkey's Independent Media Brace for New Crackdown

FILE - Media workers, holding signs reading "We can't breathe" protest government pressure on free speech and independent media, during a rally in Istanbul, Turkey, June 29, 2021.

Rights groups are voicing alarm over a Turkish official's announcement of new legislation and controls on the foreign funding of social media in Turkey.

Dokuz8 Haber is one of many Turkish news portals that have launched on social media in recent years, offering independent journalism.

Like many others, it receives support from foreign sources. But this month, Fahrettin Altun, the head of the Turkish President's Communication’s Directorate, accused foreign-funded media organizations of acting as a fifth column in Turkey, undermining the government, he claimed, at the bidding of foreign powers.

Dokuz8 chief editor Gokhan Bicici dismisses the allegation, saying the attack is a response to the portal’s success in challenging what he says is the government’s grip on media.

"Ninety percent of mainstream media outlets are in control of the government (under government control). But they are facing the fact that these media outlets (are) no more effective to have a control over (to control) the public opinion. They want to make legislation that directly targets independent and critical media organizations. They defend these regulations with the thesis (that) those media outlets are supported by foreign governments to have the support of society," Bicici said.

Altun, in a statement, said new regulations would be introduced to monitor and control foreign funding of media.

The announcement drew swift condemnation from rights groups.

This year, the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders, RSF, ranked Turkey 143 out of 180 countries in terms of media freedoms.

The group’s Turkey representative Erol Onderoglu says foreign funding plays a key role for independent media because fear of government retribution deters many Turkish citizens and companies from giving financial support.

"I am concerned because it has always been very difficult in Turkey to develop a local system for funding independent journalism projects. Many of the serious news portals are so dynamic thanks to international donor contributions. I think the government knows very well where to target," Onderoglu said.

Turkish officials have also announced they are considering new legislation to punish disseminating so-called fake news on social media.

Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst for Global Source Partners, says the threat of new controls coincides with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mounting political challenges.

"The main motivation is Erdogan's approval ratings dropping as we speak. Erdogan understands one of the main pillars of his long reign is his ability is to control the news flow to the public. But social media, YouTube, and these alternative media (have) become the number one news source. And he is getting desperate; we have another COVID wave - I think it has started - and the economy is in a miserable condition, Yesilada said.

Turkey is scheduled to hold both presidential and parliamentary polls in 2023, although some observers see the increasing pressure on independent media as a sign that there could be early elections.

But the government insists any new measures are aimed at only protecting the integrity of the media and will conform to international norms.