The new media (dis)order in Turkey

The new media (dis)order in Turkey

On May 19, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu reserved an important part of his speech during an election rally in Zonguldak to attacking daily Hürriyet.

“You cannot give instructions to us. Media bosses can no longer manipulate governments in Turkey,” Davutoğlu said, making serious accusations against the newspaper - from conspiring against the government to encouraging terrorists.

He was referring to an editorial in Hürriyet on May 19 addressed to President Tayyip Erdoğan. (The full text in English is in today’s edition.) The editorial complained about the harsh criticism from both Davutoğlu and Erdoğan over the last two days for its reporting of the death sentence given to Egypt’s toppled president Mohamad Morsi (reported with almost the same language as Erdoğan used later). Hürriyet asked the president: “What do you want from us?”

“Will you send us into exile? What will you do?” the open letter read. “Why should we live in fear? … If you mean that we are afraid of defending our right to freedom of the press, free speech and freedom to criticize, which are all guaranteed by the constitution, then you should know that we will defend these freedoms with no fear.”

It is actually embarrassing for today’s Turkey that a mainstream newspaper editorial has to address the president in defense of its basic rights, and to talk about fear as the country heads to a critical general election on June 7.

It is not in vain that Hürriyet is named the “flagship” of the Turkish media. The elder sister of the Hürriyet Daily News in Turkish, Hürriyet is considered to be the most influential, mainstream and independent newspaper in the country. Established in 1948, it has been owned since 1994 by the Doğan Media Group, the biggest in Turkey, led by Aydın Doğan. Hürriyet has survived a number of campaigns against it waged by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) since the 2007 election - from boycott calls by Erdoğan to unfair financial probes - despite its efforts to remain at an equal distance from all political parties. 

In that sense, the “What do you want from us?” question has an additional meaning. Hürriyet is trying to say that if the government wants the flagship of the Turkish media and one of the bastions of freedom of speech (“Hürriyet” means “freedom” in Turkish, by the way) to simply became another member of the influential pro-government “pool media,” then it will defend its position as much possible. (The “pool media” is the name given to those media companies with no transparent ownership and financed by a number of construction companies that win huge government tenders.)

Erdoğan and Davutoğlu may think it could make one or two extra populist points to attack the mainstream media, accusing it of being in nostalgia for the “old Turkey.” But in the long run, restricting media freedom in Turkey will harm the quality of Turkish democracy, harm the freedom of investments in the country, and increase the gap between the country and the EU, membership of which was a top priority when the AK Parti first took power. One doubts whether that last target is still valid.