INTERVIEW: Bilge Yeşil on the Turkish media, past and present

INTERVIEW: Bilge Yeşil on the Turkish media, past and present

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Bilge Yeşil on the Turkish media, past and present

Demonstrators hold banners with the picture of Erol Önderoglu, local representative of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), during a protest against the arrest of three prominent activists for press freedom, in front of Metris prison in Istanbul. REUTERS photo

The closure of dozens of outlets and detention of journalists accused of links to the Gülen movement after the recent attempted military coup has turned the spotlight on Turkey’s media once again. 

But problems in the Turkish press are nothing new. A new book by CUNY associate professor Bilge Yeşil, “Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State” (reviewed in HDN here), traces the question back to the 1980s, when the economic structure of the current media system took shape. 

Yeşil spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about her work. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The book focuses on Turkish media since the 1980s. The 1980 military coup and the economic and political order it ushered in is key to understanding the situation today. Why is that era important for understanding the current media landscape in Turkey?

The 1980s were really important because they set the stage for the new commercialized media environment and the political-economic relationships between the government, state institutions, and the military. The military coup of Sept. 12, 1980 was an important turning point because it set the stage for all the legal pressures used throughout the 1980s and up to the present: The legal pressure that can be found in the press law, the anti-terror law, the new penal code and the new constitution. We have seen that materialize in the imprisonment and prosecution of journalists, the closing down of magazines, TV channels and radio stations. These all go back to the 1980 constitution, the penal code, the press law and whatnot. 

In the 1980s there was also a new economic model, where market principles become the most important principles to be followed by the state and private enterprise. Up-and-coming business tycoons - [Hürriyet's owner] Aydın Doğan is one of them - started dabbling in the media industry. They first started buying up newspapers and in the 1990s they got into commercial TV channels. This commercialization and conglomeration of the press and TV, and the blurring boundaries between newspaper and TV station ownership, is not an exclusively Turkish phenomenon.
But we see how business tycoons entering the media in the 1980s and 90s tried to use their newspapers and TV channels to extract certain favors from governments, or to establish certain alliances with the military or higher state bureaucrats by providing positive coverage or suppressing critical reporting. The establishment of that kind of political-economic, patron-client relationship was a turning point in the Turkish media. The media bosses were not just trying to extract favors from the government in terms of privatization deals, or getting state bids, or favorable credit from state banks. They become powerful players in terms of managing the information flow.

When combined with the legal pressures that resulted from the post-1980 coup constitution, we see this immense pressure to turn a profit by media companies. That takes us to sensationalized and entertainment-oriented content, especially from the 1990s with the first commercial TV channels and the tabloidization of the press from the 1980s. 

I also want to make the point that when I say the “Turkish media” it’s completely for reasons of brevity. I talk about Kurdish or pro-Kurdish newspapers in the book, but for reasons of brevity in English I say the Turkish media. For a number of reasons it became a lot cheaper to buy media outlets during the 1980s, which made it easier for new players to enter the sector.

Exactly. I don't want to say that before 1980 everything in the Turkish press was fine and there were no problems with censorship or political-economic alliances with the government. If you look at the history of the Turkish press from the 1950s onward you see how each newspaper is openly aligned with certain political parties. That kind of politicization has a long history in Turkey. 

But before the 1980s there were what is referred to as "journalist families" in Turkey. These families had prominent members running or managing a newspaper, with some sort of professional background in journalism. In the 1980s business tycoons started buying the financially troubled newspapers owned by these families. They were financially troubled because, with the neoliberalization of the economy, the prime minister of the time Turgut Özal imposed certain tariffs and quotas on newsprint. That made it much more difficult for the press families to cover their costs because they had no other business interests. Some of the journalists I talked to while writing the book said Özal's policies were used as a stick to strong-arm certain press families. Certainly his economic decisions took a toll on these families, and many of them had to sell their newspapers on the cheap.

Another economic difficulty came with technological changes. The shift from traditional printing press technologies to computer-assisted technologies also introduced a new cost item for newspaper owners. Meanwhile new distribution monopolies were emerging, whereby if you're not part of a big group you're excluded from the network, which introduced new costs. Journalism became more and more costly for the traditional press families, so new business tycoons came in to buy their newspapers.

This was also an era when there was a big growth in the number of columnists at the expense of proper reporters. Today we can recognize that tendency: A cacophony of columnists and little genuine investigative journalism.

This became a more pronounced problem from the 1980s - especially from the early 1990s with the advent of commercial TV. If you look at Turkish newspapers in the 1960s and 70s you could still see a lot of opinion and demagoguery, but not as much sensational or entertainment-oriented material. In the 80s the shift from a closed, protectionist, statist economic model to a market-oriented neoliberal economic structure also played a role in the introduction of the dominance of lifestyle issues in the newspapers. This becomes more pronounced in the 1990s and of course today. 

There’s a neat contrast we can draw between the AKP era of today with the 1990s. In the 90s media bosses were very much under the sway of the generals. Today they are under the thumb of the AKP-dominated regime and there are new red lines.

Interestingly, those red lines keep shifting. If you look at 2007-08, that was a key turning point. The media back then learned that certain corruption or bribery scandals must not be covered, particularly after huge tax fines leveled against Doğan Media Group for reporting on the issue. Then again, during the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot trials, the media learned that there was another red line regarding the military and the Gülen movement. In 2013 with the Gezi Park protests new red lines emerged, and after the corruption scandal of December 2013 more red lines emerged. Now with the coup attempt there are even more red lines. As the enemies and friends of the government shift depending on the political and economic conjecture, so do the media's red lines.

I'm quite astounded at their ability to adapt. Especially if you look at some columnists. People are always pulling up past columns penned by people like Cengiz Çandar or Hasan Cemal or Ekrem Dumanlı saying, "Oh they wrote this back in year X and look what they're writing now." But it's not just about columnists shifting their alliances. Whole media groups also shift their alliances. The most prominent example I can think of right now is how Zaman newspaper changed its editorial line in practically one day on Dec. 17, 2013 when the corruption scandal erupted. You can see how a media conglomeration or a media boss can turn overnight into an enemy of the government or a friend.

That's obviously related to the economic structure of the media sector. Most of the big media companies don't make much money and media ownership has become a kind of tax that Turkish business tycoons have to pay: They lose money in the media but the friendly coverage they give to the government helps secure contracts for big infrastructure projects.

Exactly. Again this is not specifically a problem that can be imputed only to the AKP government. It has pretty much been the case since the late 1980s. We cannot think of Turkish media companies as business operations. Rather they're politically infused businesses. In media studies this phenomenon is referred to as media companies being operated as "loss leaders." We can't look at them in terms of profits or the quality of their journalism. Their relationship with the government is to both extract favors and to do favors for the AKP government. A good illustration comes from the wiretapped conversations of pro-Erdoğan businessmen related to the sale of Sabah newspaper in 2013. These businessmen recognized that they would lose a lot of money but said they had to do it. So they created a "pool" of money by gathering resources together in order to keep Sabah in the hands of pro-Erdoğan businessmen. 

What about any green shoots of hope? The Gezi Park protests of summer 2013 seem like a very long time ago now, but they inspired some original initiatives, particularly in digital media. 

The citizen journalism sites are very valuable in terms of their efforts to at least objectively report as much as possible and provide critical insights into political and economic developments. 140journos is probably the first among several, and there is also dokuz8HABER. There were a few others that jumped into citizen journalism after Gezi but did not survive. Dokuz8HABER also has an English version and it is running a lot of workshops around Turkey to train people in terms of reporting from the ground up. Another initiative that really gives me hope is Turkey's first fact-checking initiative, Doğruluk Payı (Share of Truth). 

Of course, citizen journalism has limitations as well as possibilities. I think they're still grappling with issues of objectivity and reporting, but I don't see anything problematic about this. It's something that's still in the development phase. Maybe in 10 or 20 years we'll look back at 2013, 2014 and 2015 and say "this is how citizen journalism initiatives started, even though they faced problems in their early years." I call these initiatives "information activists." There's a great hunger and yearning for information and objective reporting. All the issues with mainstream media in Turkey, especially the lack of critical and investigative reporting, has created a yearning for information. That is the void that these new initiatives are trying to fill.

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