Why the Turkish media is very French

Why the Turkish media is very French

If you have been following public discussions about Turkey, you must be aware of one unpleasant fact: Media freedom in this country is not great. Not at all. Turkey is on the blacklist of countries that routinely imprison journalists, and many Turkish media personalities complain of being compelled to censor themselves.

I have addressed this issue a few times in this column, and tried to bring some nuances to the discussion. One oft-neglected fact is that quite a few of the jailed journalists are accused of venerating the terrorism committed by organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — with statements such as “Suicide bombing is the road to liberation.” And such pro-terrorist remarks would probably lead to prosecution in some EU countries as well. So, the situation is not entirely black and white.

But there is certainly a black side, because Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws, and the hawkish prosecutors who love to exploit them, are far from liberal. Ideas can easily become criminalized, and the accused can be detained for long periods of time. This situation was no better before the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, but it has not improved much since then, either.

However, beyond the legal level, there is a more subtle issue that keeps Turkish journalism far from free: It is the nature of political power in this country, and how the media is attuned to it. What I mean is that the central government in Ankara is such an economic power center that all big bosses in the country, including media bosses, feel the need to please this Leviathan. Only the Leviathan’s masters change over time. Fifteen years ago, its masters were the generals. Today, they are elected politicians.

This is far from being a uniquely Turkish problem. In fact, one country that seems to suffer from the same trouble is none other than Turkey’s source of inspiration through the past century, France. I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the French media, so I am basing my argument here on someone who seems to know it better: Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper. A few weeks ago, I came across his piece titled, “The French media: In bed with power.” And I said, “Aha, I know what he is talking about.”

“Whereas American and British journalists aim to sell newspapers, and sometimes even to keep power honest, France has a different tradition,” Mr. Kuper said in his piece. “France has no Rupert Murdoch, no magnate who owns media to make money… rather, French billionaires typically own media, to support their main moneymaking businesses.” According to Mr. Kuper, these media-owning French billionaires need to please the central government in Paris, because it is an economic giant: “In France, contracts often come from the state. Inevitably, French owners court politicians rather than ordinary readers or viewers.” Mr. Kuper also explained how this patrimonial system works under the current President of France: “France’s media-political embrace climaxed under President Nicolas Sarkozy. He gave himself the right to appoint the directors of state TV and radio. His links with private media barons are almost hilarious, featuring the manifold entanglements of a Brazilian soap opera or Victorian novel… Vincent Bolloré, [a] billionaire in media, lent Sarkozy his yacht.”

Now, if you replace the word “France” with “Turkey” here, and replace the French names with the corresponding Turkish ones, you will get a perfectly fitting picture. You will get the picture of two separate media traditions that are similarly “in bed with power.” In both France and Turkey, free market capitalism is weak and state capitalism is strong. In both countries, “the Republic” is a Leviathan that is not tamed enough. 

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