Sad truths about the Turkish media

Sad truths about the Turkish media

Fatih Altaylı is an experienced Turkish journalist and the editor-in-chief of Habertürk, a mainstream newspaper which is among the five bestselling national dailies. On Feb. 10, 2014, he joined a show on CNNTürk, hosted by journalist and TV host Cüneyt Özdemir. In a very nervous and defensive mood, Mr. Altaylı exposed jaw-dropping facts about how the Turkish government “rains instructions” on his newspaper and the rest of the media.

There was a specific reason for Mr. Altaylı to come out of the closet: Several phone conversations between him and his boss were recently exposed on the Internet and heard by millions. These conversations, apparently, wiretapped by somebody (perhaps by that famous “parallel state”), showed how much pressure Mr. Altaylı and his colleagues experienced in an effort to please the authorities.

For example, in one of the conversations, Mr. Altaylı is questioned by his boss on a Habertürk story about a baby who was born with serious defects due to doctors’ fatal mistakes. (The poor baby would die soon after the story.) “So much for a Turkey that claims to have had a revolution in health,” said the headline of Habertürk’s story. That very day, a couple of phone calls were made, and Mr. Altaylı was questioned as to why he allowed such an “unfair” headline. Soon, the reporters and editors who were responsible for the story, three people in total, were fired.

In another wiretapped conversation, Mr. Altaylı is heard while taking instructions to manipulate the findings of a poll about the popularity of political parties. He is asked to run the results by increasing the share of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), and decreasing the votes of the opposing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Apparently, these were all illegally wiretapped conversations, so it would perhaps be better to ignore them all. However, Mr. Altaylı confirmed their veracity on CNNTürk. He only defended himself, saying he “resisted” these pressures as much as he could. Then he added that such “pressures” target not only Habertürk, but the rest of the media. “Today, the dignity of journalism is being trampled underfoot,” he said. “Every day, instructions rain down from somewhere, everyone is scared.”

The boss in question, who routinely reprimanded Mr. Altaylı is also worth noting. He is not the official owner of Habertürk, who is Turgay Ciner, a prominent businessman. He is rather Fatih Saraç, another businessman who joined Habertürk in 2012 as the president of its executive board. He is an old confidante of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his entry to Habertürk was widely interpreted as a sign of the government’s “takeover” of the media group.

Finally, there is another wiretapped conservation of Fatih Saraç that is worth noting: This time between him and his superior, Erdoğan. In the recording that has also been exposed on the web, Erdoğan is heard questioning, if not reprimanding, Saraç for something on Habertürk TV: A long airing of Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP, and subtitles that highlight his messages against the government. Mr. Saraç apologizes and makes an immediate call to remove the unpleasant scenes.

All these are sad truths about the Turkish media, for sure, but also about the government. It makes it obvious that while this is a democratically elected and thus legitimate government, it is also one which neglects that there is more to democracy than just ballots.