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For Turkish media, Taksim story reveals flaws, threats

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Angered by the station's news coverage, protesters in Istanbul destroyed an NTV news van.(CPJ/Özgür Öğret)

The coverage of the Taksim Square protests will not be remembered as a moment of glory for a number of Turkish mainstream media. While demonstrators were being tear-gassed and beaten by police a week ago, CNN Türk was airing a documentary on penguins and Habertürk had a debate on mental illness. 

NTV, another leading news channel, which had one of its news vans destroyed in Taksim Square due to people's anger at the media, had to issue an apology for their coverage. In a meeting with some 300 employees Dogus Media Group CEO Cem Aydın confessed that the criticisms were mostly justified. "Our audience felt betrayed," he said. "When the people want to receive news, they should receive it from us. Otherwise we see that great information pollution occurs." The CEO promised to use this as an opportunity to do the job better and win back the audience's trust. Indeed, in the following days, most channels, apart from those tightly associated with the government, improved their coverage of the events.

In the highly polarized Turkish environment the press is often seen as part of deeply entrenched and volatile ideological alignments. News outlets are regularly considered "weapons of the enemy" and therefore their journalists, news vehicles, and headquarters are seen as legitimate targets by angry and vindictive demonstrators. This polarization also undermines solidarity among journalists and weakens their capacity to stand up as a profession against the authorities' challenges to press freedom.  

In Turkey, however, the alignment of the media is not simply inspired by ideological partisanship. As exposed in a groundbreaking report by the leading think tank TESEV, Caught in the Wheels of Power, the Turkish media sector in the last two decades has been going through an intense phase of both liberalization and consolidation, leading at the same time to a proliferation of private broadcasters and the emergence of media behemoths.

This process of cross-ownership has been compounded by conglomerate mixing of media and non-media interests, particularly in sectors such as telecommunications, public works, tourism, or energy that heavily depend on state patronage policies.

"Companies with interests across economic sectors often rely on government contracts or regulation," write Max Hoffman and Michael Werz in a recent Center for American Progress report, "leading to situations where they are asked or decide to apply pressure to limit political criticism, which could jeopardize those interests or contracts. Numerous journalists cited instances where they were told to tone down government criticism or had columns pulled because of such concerns. This pressure manifests itself in direct pressure on news outlets owners from government officials and more subtle forms of self-censorship from editors and journalists afraid of dismissals."

This pitiful coverage of the protest movement by a number of leading media outlets was indeed preceded by a string of incidents that already illustrated that pattern of corporate and internal censorship and confirmed Marc Pierini, former EU Ankara ambassador's assertion in his report, Press Freedom in Turkey. "A media sector that is defined by corporations' drive to maximize profits in other sectors is bound to face major difficulties in fulfilling its essential role of checking and balancing the government," he wrote.  

In a detailed profile of the Turkish media landscape, Le Monde's Istanbul correspondent, Guillaume Perrier, listed some of the most egregious and visible cases of media bosses bowing to the government's whims. "Hasan Cemal, a longtime columnist of the Milliyet daily was fired after a skirmish with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the Kurdish issue," he wrote. "Amberin Zaman, a correspondent for the British weekly The Economist, was forced to leave Habertürk under pressure from a government member."   

The government has had no qualms in forcing media companies to fall into line. In 2009, the mammoth Dogan group, very critical of the Erdoğan government and close to the old Kemalist and military establishment, was targeted by a crushing tax fine and forced to sell off some of its top media jewels, like the Milliyet and Vatan dailies. Another large media group, Sabah, was sold to Calik, a company co-owned by Erdoğan's son-in-law.

These business deals have restricted pluralism, beefed up the stable of pro-government media and sent a chilling message to the rest of the sector: behave, tone down your criticism, or else pay the consequences.

The capacity of the state to intimidate owners is a major constraint on the right of journalists to report and comment on the news. Self-censorship seeps in and deprives the public of essential information. It also puts the journalists in danger by making them appear as accomplices or stenographers kowtowing to the state. In fact, as the recent events testify, the Turkish media structure and its relations with the state will define the future of press freedom as much as the legislative arsenal and legal reform packages.

Turkey's mainstream media are at a crossroads: They will have to choose between cozying up to power at the risk of further alienating the public, or fulfilling their journalistic duties and in doing so potentially losing lucrative government contracts. As former Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer said: "In the pursuit of truth, the newspaper shall be prepared to make sacrifices of its material fortunes, if such course be necessary for the public good."

Prime Minister Erdoğan is at a crossroads, too. The protests, their coverage, and the police reaction have highlighted the state of the media and of press freedom in Turkey. The government must decide whether it considers free, independent, and uninhibited journalism as a threat to its rule or as a constitutive pillar of a modern and vibrant democracy. Its choice will largely determine the future and the reputation of the country. The whole world is watching.

[Reporting from Istanbul and Brussels]

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