How Did Things Get So Bad for Turkey’s Journalists?

The free press is always a casualty along the road to authoritarianism.

The Zaman editor in chief, Ekrem Dumanli, stands in a crowd of supporters and newspaper employees holding signs that say, in English and Turkish, "Free media cannot be silenced."
The Zaman editor in chief, Ekrem Dumanli, is escorted out of the newspaper's office in Istanbul after it was raided by police officers. (Murad Sezer / Reuters)

ISTANBUL—When a diplomatic row with the United States sent Turkey’s national currency into free fall in early August, the news made headlines around the world. In Turkey, however, readers were hard-pressed to find any mention of the crisis on the next day’s front pages. There was no ban on reporting the news—or, rather, the government had no need to impose one. The vast majority of the country’s mainstream media is owned by relatives or allies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s strongman president. Self-censorship is pervasive; critical journalists are jailed, fined, or fired. Some have fled the country. In press-freedom rankings, Turkey hovers between Russia and Iraq.

In his speeches, Erdoğan regularly vilifies journalists as “terrorists” while stoking fears of terrorism among his voters. He frequently eschews facts and voices conspiracy theories, including the idea that Turkey’s allies are secretly working to undermine the country’s supposed economic might. Like many strongmen, he takes criticism personally. Since becoming president in 2014, he has sued some 2,000 people for “insulting” him. Dissenting voices struggle to be heard. In the run-up to this summer’s elections, Turkey’s state broadcaster devoted 181 hours to Erdoğan and his allies, but only 16 hours to his main rival despite being legally required to give equal airtime. While Turkey’s journalists have never experienced the level of independence their American colleagues enjoy, there was a brief period of relative press freedom in the 2000s. When that golden era came to an end is difficult to pinpoint. Erdoğan and his government did not destroy Turkey’s free press with a single action or piece of legislation. Instead, they chipped away at it, bit by bit.

In 2002, the election victory of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) seemed to herald swift change. Erdoğan broke the army’s stranglehold on politics and society, implemented democratic reforms as part of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, and made conciliatory inroads toward the country’s Kurdish minority. His victory also heralded an era of unprecedented freedom for Turkey’s press, which had faced restrictions throughout history. Notably, the AKP liberalized the press law, introducing greater protections against state interference, strengthening journalists’ right to protect their sources, and largely replacing prison sentences for certain violations (ranging from “compromising the judicial process” to “encouraging sexual assault, murder or suicide”) with fines. Emboldened by these reforms, newspapers began covering subjects once deemed taboo, like minority rights. “When me and my friends look at the stories we did then, we say, ‘Wow, we were brave,’” Ezgi Başaran, a former newspaper editor in Turkey now at the Oxford’s St. Antony’s College, told me. “There is no way these stories would be published now.”

But true media diversity remained an illusion. A small group of competing tycoons owned most mainstream-media outlets, often influencing the editorial line to their advantage. (Turkish media owners were, and remain, free to invest in other sectors, regardless of conflicts of interest.) Doğan Media Group, then Turkey’s leading media company, owned five major national newspapers and numerous TV stations, including the country’s leading daily Hürriyet and CNN Türk, while also investing in the energy, tourism, and finance sectors.

Self-censorship persisted. Even without explicit threats, many editors and reporters toed an invisible line for fear of legal consequences. Court cases against journalists increased and legislation remained restrictive, despite the new press law. “Insulting” Turkishness, the government, or certain state institutions has also been a crime since the 1920s. Turkey’s constitution guarantees a free press, but also criminalizes reporting that threatens national security. What constitutes such a threat is left deliberately vague. (Similarly, Turkey’s anti-terror law allows the state to prosecute journalists for unspecified “terror propaganda.”) Mehveş Evin, a prominent journalist, told me that Turkish reporters simply did not touch certain topics—like Erdoğan’s family. “But I would still call the time between 2002 and, say, 2011 or 2012 the most pluralistic and free time,” she said.

But in 2007, roughly around the time the AKP won its second election, the climate shifted. Erdoğan, until 2014 Turkey’s prime minister, won a dispute with the strictly secularist military over his choice of president. Then the police stumbled upon an alleged coup plot by a clandestine organization dubbed Ergenekon, prompting a series of high-profile trials, followed by another coup-plot case code-named “Sledgehammer” in 2010. The trials saw hundreds of military officers convicted, along with numerous journalists, judges, and academics. The list of accusations was long: Ergenekon, which was said to include both civilians and military officers belonging to Turkey’s “deep state,” allegedly conspired to assassinate public figures and finance global terror groups with the sale of chemical weapons, among other nefarious plans. But much of the evidence was questionable. Years later, even the government disowned the trials as a sham.

“With Ergenekon, [the AKP] started taking apart the Turkish state as we knew it,” Nevşin Mengü, a well-known television anchor who covered the trials as a junior reporter, told me. The trials crippled the military and loosened the old secular establishment’s grip on state institutions. After 2007, Turkey’s reforms slowed and the AKP’s influence on the judiciary and the bureaucracy grew. Still, few realized the magnitude of the shift that had taken place. “We believed the state would be stronger than the government. I’ve now understood that no system is immune to this,” Mengü said.

In 2013, Erdoğan began to turn increasingly authoritarian. In the summer of that year, Turkish police brutally quashed a nationwide anti-government protest. The mainstream media’s self-censorship took on outlandish proportions, with CNN Türk broadcasting a documentary about penguins at the height of the crackdown. Later that year, a major corruption scandal rocked the nation. Prosecutors accused members of Erdoğan’s inner circle of bribery and money laundering. Days later, leaked recordings appeared to capture the president telling his son to hide large amounts of money.

The tapes are believed to have been released by followers of Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based imam who had been an ally of Erdoğan until a power struggle drove them apart. Until 2013, journalists at Gülen-linked newspapers had often cheered on the detention of colleagues that criticized the AKP government or the imam’s secretive movement. In 2014, they themselves became the target of police raids, and government trustees took over Gülenist media companies. The 2016 raid against Zaman, the Gülenists’ flagship newspaper, made headlines around the world.

Meanwhile, the government also reached for more subtle measures to silence critical voices. In 2009, after newspapers owned by Doğan Media Group reported on a corruption scandal, the government slapped the company with a $2.5 billion fine, forcing it to sell off two of its newspapers to a progovernment company. Businessmen loyal to Erdoğan were eagerly buying up mainstream-media outlets; those newspapers subsequently adopted a staunchly progovernment line. Journalists unwilling to comply were fired. Often the government enabled the sales, as was the case with the Sabah newspaper: In 2007, a state agency accused its previous owners of fraud and seized the paper. It was subsequently sold to Çalik Holding, whose CEO at the time, Berat Albayrak, is Erdoğan’s son-in-law. Today, Sabah has become the most influential progovernment outlet, where the president’s advisers moonlight as columnists.

Most journalists place Turkey’s point of no return in 2015. In June of that year, the AKP lost its majority in parliamentary elections. Shortly after, an attack prompted the government to halt a peace process with Kurdish militants and begin whipping up nationalist sentiment to win back votes. Their strategy helped them regain control of Parliament that year. But Turkish society, already divided along multiple lines, became increasingly polarized.

Erdoğan’s us-and-them rhetoric had severe implications for the press. “You have to be on one side. They’re pushing you to be a patriot, not a journalist,” Evin said. In 2015, she was fired from her newspaper, Milliyet, for reporting on the military operation in Kurdish cities. Critical reporting on security matters was increasingly prosecuted as “terror propaganda.” Journalists increasingly faced violence. In September 2015, a mob attacked the Hürriyet offices in Istanbul, accusing the paper of misquoting Erdoğan. A series of terror attacks and a failed coup attempt in 2016, blamed on the Gülenists, further heightened nationalist sentiment.

The government used the coup attempt to justify a vast purge of state institutions and civil society, imprisoning anyone with tenuous ties to “terror groups.” Journalists were jailed for talking to certain sources or working for Gülenist or Kurdish nationalist outlets. More than 100 media outlets were forcibly shut down. In the name of national security, Erdoğan imposed emergency rule and governed by decree. “2016 was when the rule of law ended in Turkey,” Erol Önderoğlu, a Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, told me. As of this summer, Erdoğan rules Turkey as an executive president with sweeping powers, having abolished the country’s parliamentary system.

The final nail in the coffin for Turkey’s mainstream press, meanwhile, came this spring, when Doğan Media Group, along with Hürriyet, was sold to a government-friendly corporation. Now, Önderoglu said, “the government controls more than 85 percent of national mainstream media.” Birgün, a small independent newspaper, estimates that progovernment outlets represent 90 percent of national-newspaper circulation.

These days, the tiniest criticism or inconvenient fact can get a reporter into trouble. Mengü lost her job at CNN Türk last year, after she reported that Erdoğan’s meeting with President Donald Trump lasted only 23 minutes, implying that Turkey was not as important to the Trump administration as Ankara thought. “Erdoğan told our Ankara office: ‘I want your boss to take care of this woman,’ so they took me off air,” she said.

Yet Mengü and her colleagues do not consider governmental repression or intimidation the only important factor. Press freedom also eroded, they said, because journalists in Turkey did not defend one another. “The lack of solidarity has brought us to this point. It’s the most you can do, as journalists—if there’s an attack on a colleague, get together and protest,” Başaran, the former editor now at Oxford, said.

Today’s media landscape in Turkey is not entirely devoid of critical reporting, but the remaining publications are struggling. Few businesses want to risk incurring the government’s wrath by advertising in critical newspapers; digital outlets in particular face financial difficulties. Their reporters and editors are routinely prosecuted by the courts, which have long lost their independence. More than 100 journalists sit behind bars.

“People might say, ‘Turkey never had a free press and the rule of law was never there.’ But it literally took a decade and a half to come here,” Başaran said. Western democracies ought to see what happened in her country as a warning, she added. “When you look at Poland, Hungary, and now the U.S., I do see distinct similarities in how these illiberal populist governments operate. It’s the same rhetoric.”