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.