Istanbul Dispatch: Press Freedom Alla Turca


In May, a ship full of civilians — but not full of humanitarian aid — sailed from Turkey to join the Free Gaza flotilla. Having warned the Mavi Marmara that it would not be allowed to breach the blockade, Israeli commandos raided the ship. In the clash, nine Turks were killed. I’ve lived in Istanbul for five years and I’ve spoken to hundreds of Turks about these events. A Turkish documentary filmmaker and I have filmed some of these conversations. Something will immediately strike the viewer: the Turkish people have no idea what happened. This is because the most basic facts about and surrounding these events have not been reported in Turkey.

In billing the flotilla as a humanitarian mission, the IHH — the expedition’s Islamist sponsor — exploited the Turks’ Achilles heel: their generosity. Turks think of themselves as charitable and compassionate, as indeed they are. They genuinely believe, because this is what has been reported here, that the Palestinians are starving. They know almost nothing about the reasons for the blockade. They believe that the ship was on a humanitarian mission and nothing but a humanitarian mission. They are bewildered that anyone would have interfered with such a noble-minded endeavour. They do not know that there were no humanitarian supplies on the Mavi Marmara. They do not know the most rudimentary facts about Hamas. As one man said: “These are elected people. It’s not like they took over by force, via a coup.”

Almost no one in Turkey understands any language but Turkish. If this obviously thoughtful man was unaware that indeed, Hamas took over precisely by force, via a coup, it is because he had no way to know. The men and women to whom we spoke were astonished when we told them that Israeli officials had invited the ship to disembark at Ashdod and deliver the aid overland. But they were not disbelieving — and importantly, when we told them this, it changed their view. Many spontaneously said that they knew they could not trust what they heard in the news, that the situation confused them and that something about the story just didn’t sound right.

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP, came to power in 2002. Journalists struggle to find the right catchphrase to describe the nature of this party, usually settling on something like “mildly Islamist” — to which the party’s critics reply that this is like being mildly pregnant. The ensuing theological debate quickly crowds out what is perhaps the more important observation: whether this party is mildly Islamist or gravid with a mullahcracy, it is in its instincts, and in keeping with Turkish tradition, profoundly authoritarian. It is no different from other Turkish political parties this way. But the intersection of authoritarianism and Islamism, no matter the degree of the latter, is not giving rise to a sterling candidate for EU membership, whatever David Cameron might think. The fate of the Turkish media since the AKP came to power illustrates this point.

When Western journalists note in a casual aside that press freedom has experienced certain setbacks under the AKP, they are failing to do justice to the severity of this calamity and its ramifications for Turkey and the region. The calamity is exacerbated by the tendency of the foreign media to repeat, without scrutiny, the very idiocies peddled in the Turkish press, where the range of opinion on offer has become severely limited. The result is the growth of a grossly distorted and dangerous consensus about Turkey, here and abroad — to wit, that Turkey under the AKP has become more democratic and politically healthier, even if it is a bit up the duff with Islamism.

When the AKP took power, four large private groups owned almost all the country’s media-a concentration of power already far too dense for political health. The largest was the Dogan group, which controlled some 70 per cent of the nation’s print and broadcast outlets. The group enjoyed warm relations with the AKP until 2007. Then its outlets began reporting details of the Deniz Feneri scandal, the biggest charity corruption case in German history. Billions of dollars raised by this Islamist charity, Dogan newspapers announced, had found their way into AKP coffers. Soon thereafter, the Turkish Ministry of Finance began investigating the group, then levied upon it the largest tax fine ever assessed on a Turkish company. The company is appealing, but if the appeal fails, it will be annihilated.

Then there is Sabah, the second-biggest media conglomerate, which controls the largest-circulation daily in Turkey and the powerful ATV television channel. Facing bankruptcy in 2007, it went up for sale. Curiously, all but one bidder dropped out at the last minute. The bidder left standing was the Calik group, whose CEO is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. A Qatari company, Al-Wasaeel, mysteriously swam up from nowhere to partner Calik’s bid — in defiance of Turkish law, which forbids the foreign financing of the media — and two state banks led by figures close to the AKP, Halk and Vakif, lent Calik $750 million to finance the transaction, even though private banks in Turkey and abroad had declined.

Associates of the sect leader Fethullah Gülen, who has been exiled in the US since 1998, control many of these media outlets. No one is quite sure what the reclusive Gülen’s agenda really is, but there is no doubt that before the AKP came to power, he was prosecuted here for trying to establish an Islamic state. Nor is there any doubt that he is close to, and supportive of, the AKP. When Gülen is mentioned in the Western press, usually in passing, almost never is the most important fact about him noted: many Turks fear he’s their Ayatollah Khomeini. I do not know if they are right. But I don’t know that they’re wrong, either, and the people here who tell me his influence is a major cause for concern have proved right about many things. Outside a handful of academic publications, Gülen’s name is rarely mentioned in the Western media, and when it is, he is usually described — as the New York Times recently put it — as a “provincial Turkish preacher” who organises inspiring summer camps.

The AKP has by this means brought under its influence most of the media in Turkey, and what it hasn’t purchased or neutered, it has terrified. Since taking office in 2003, Erdogan has launched an energetic series of lawsuits against Turkish journalists and cartoonists for character defamation. No one knows how many have been sued, though the number is probably in the hundreds, and Erdogan has refused to answer this question when asked in parliament.

Then there is the hydra-headed Ergenekon case. Ergenekon, supposedly, is an ultra-nationalist terrorist gang that schemed to foment unrest in Turkey by blowing up mosques full of supplicants, shooting down Greek fighter planes and assassinating the Turkish Nobel laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk. The unrest unleashed by this, according to prosecutors, was to be used as a pretext to topple the AKP. A sprawling investigation into this alleged network of shadowy coup-plotters has resulted in the arrest of many prominent journalists critical of the AKP, including the Ankara bureau chief of Cumhuriyet, who is still rotting in jail. Last year, in protest, the front page of Cumhuriyet was left blank but for the words: “If we go silent, who will speak?” I don’t recall seeing this reported anywhere in the international press. If it was, I will assume charitably, David Cameron merely overlooked it. Surely he would not deliberately have ignored it. That would have been cynical.

The government, meanwhile, has been locking down larger and larger portions of the internet: more than 1,000 websites have been banned, among them YouTube. Most of these bans have been initiated by the judiciary, not the executive, but the AKP has done nothing to change the laws the judiciary is enforcing.

So what’s left? Chiefly such newspapers as Zaman and Yeni Safak — the AKP’s unofficial mouthpiece — which are staunchly Islamist and connected to or controlled by the AKP or the Gülen media empire. Now, cronyism and government influence over the media is nothing new in Turkey; it would be completely misleading to suggest otherwise. What’s new, and disturbing, is the agenda this media consolidation is now serving and the eagerness of foreign journalists to swallow it whole and promote it.

If Turkish citizens are taking to the streets to denounce Israel, who can blame them? Here’s what they’re reading in the Turkish press. Yasin Aktay of Yeni Safak, a popular figure on the talk-show circuit, writes: “Israel is contrary to logic, to human rights and to democracy.” Ali Bulaç, a columnist for Zaman, describes Gaza as “a concentration camp that in reality surpasses the Nazis camps”. In Ortadogu, Selcuk Duzgun warns: “We are surrounded. Wherever we look we see traitors. Wherever we turn we see impure, false converts. Whichever stone you turn over, there is a Jew under it. And we keep thinking to ourselves: Hitler did not do enough to these Jews.” Abdurrahim Karakoç of Vakit adds: “It is impossible not to admire the foresight of Adolf Hitler…Hitler foresaw what would happen these days. He cleansed off these swindler Jews, who believe in racism for a religion and take pleasure in bathing the world in blood, because he knew that they would become a big a curse for the world…The second man with foresight is evidently Osama bin Laden…It was Hitler yesterday, and it is Osama bin Laden today.”

What is astonishing, then, is not that we see so much hostility towards Israelis among Turks, but that we see so little of it. Given the level of anti-Semitic propaganda to which they are exposed, this can only be attributed to their basic decency.

The Turkish Penal Code clearly prohibits incitement on the basis of religion, but no one is ever prosecuted for writing this garbage, although the prime minister has, par contre, sued a cartoonist for depicting him as a cat caught in a ball of string — after all, that was really offensive. Turkey’s religious affairs department has recently been given the right to request the banning of anti-Islamic and sacrilegious websites. They are duly banned.

The wonderment of this story is that, certain honourable exceptions aside, the Western media embraces the idea that the main threat to press freedom here comes from the military and from the antediluvian, anti-democratic secular elites, who in the received narrative long to return to what Michael Thumann, for example, in the Wilson Quarterly, published by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, calls a “decaying old order”. On the other hand, he continues:
“Pious Muslims lead the way toward modernisation…The AKP is conservative, but contrary to critics’ suspicions it is not a religious party…after eight years in power the AKP has not pursued any Islamist objectives, such as establishing laws based on religious sources.”

What he’s missing, and what anyone who lives here could tell him, is that you don’t need to establish laws based on religious sources to pursue Islamist objectives, you just need to enforce laws based on religious sources. If you enforce the tax code, laws on foreign financing of the media and laws on religious incitement selectively, well then, voila! — you’ve got yourself an Islamist press, all without writing a single law based on religious sources, and mirabile dictu, people like Thumann are none the wiser.

I have no great love for Turkey’s secular elites, who are pretty much as decayed as described. It’s the enthusiasm for the AKP’s equally decayed elites and the credulous swallowing of its party line that puzzle me. The party does, certainly, cultivate the foreign media carefully and shrewdly and sometimes you can see precisely where the effort pays off. In the wake of the bloodletting on the Mavi Marmara, for example, the veteran Middle East specialist Hugh Pope published a defence of Erdogan in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz. “Erdogan’s rhetoric may often be pugnacious and out of date,” he wrote, “but his ideology is not devoted to Israel’s destruction. Just over two years ago, he entertained Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to a long dinner in his official Ankara residence. Naively perhaps, but certainly sincerely, Erdogan believed that he had brought Israel and Syria to the brink of face-to-face talks or even a peace deal. Yet just days later, and having given no warning, Olmert launched Israel’s winter 2009 assault on Gaza. This was the turning point, not the outburst against President Shimon Peres in Davos a few weeks later.”

I’ve seen that explanation repeatedly in the Western media. I know exactly where it comes from. I’ve personally heard it from two senior figures in the AKP, both very smooth guys, fluent English speakers, who tell this story to journalists in cosy little salon settings, off the record, in precisely these words. You get tea and biscuits, they tell you this story and a few others like it and the story just keeps getting repeated, verbatim, in the press, as if the journalist writing the story had been a first-hand witness to this dinner. What seems to escape those repeating it is that clearly the AKP has an interest in spinning it this way — but that doesn’t mean it’s what really happened or that it’s the most salient point.

Indeed, I’d say one of the sources of this story — at least, the one from whom I last heard it — has a massive credibility problem on the face of it, because he followed this anecdote by denying the genocide in Darfur and proposing that whatever was happening there paled in comparison with the crimes against humanity being perpetrated in Gaza. That part never makes it into the press, even though I know at least a dozen other foreign journalists heard him say this. Watch for variants on the long-dinner-with-Olmert story, you’ll see it everywhere — Erdogan was so personally hurt, because he doesn’t smoke, in fact he hates smoking, but Olmert does, and he’d even dispatched his aide to get Olmert a cigar.

I am regularly invited to lectures for foreign journalists here sponsored by the Gülen movement. The series is called, in a perhaps unintentionally ironic pun, “Covering Turkey”. The speakers are usually high-ranking AKP officials who speak off the record. I’ve become accustomed to seeing their slant on recent events reproduced the next day, almost verbatim, in the foreign media. Likewise, the West’s major media outlets — the New York Times, the Economist, the Financial Times — always quote the very same handful of English-speaking experts, who are inevitably close to the AKP or the media organs it controls. Amberin Zaman, who writes for the Economist, is actually employed by Today’s Zaman and Taraf, the latter a newspaper always described in the West as “plucky” and “courageous” for its vigorous willingness to publish information about the Ergenekon case that has obviously been leaked to it by the AKP. (I might suggest different standards for assessing a Turkish newspaper’s pluckiness. Is the editor in jail? No? Not so plucky.)

The foreign media’s willingness to relay uncritically the government line on Turkey’s obstreperous foreign policy (“not Islamist, just Ottomanist”) the Ergenekon trial (“not persecution, just democratisation”), the proposed reforms to the Turkish constitution (“not Weimar, just Germany”) and the general realities of the Turkish political system can only be described as collective journalistic malpractice. To read any major American or British newspaper is to come away persuaded that these political developments represent the triumph of daylight over the occult forces of “ultranationalism”. Rarely is it stressed that the Ergenekon case makes no sense: these retrograde ultranationalists have supposedly been in bed with the Maoist PKK, the extreme-left Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party, the Islamist Hizbollah and Milli Görüs, the ultranationalist Turkish Revenge Brigades, the Turkish Workers’ and Peasants’ Liberation Army, the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party and the Islamic Great East Raiders Front. In other words, if you put all the alleged conspirators in a room together, they’d promptly kill each other. Rarely is it mentioned that many of the defendants have been held in jail for months, sometimes more than a year, sometimes without medical care, sometimes until death and often without an indictment.

And how does Owen Matthews of Newsweek view these developments? “The army is beaten,” he rejoices in an article headlined: “Why the US should hail the Islamists.” The political logic, he writes, “should be simple. The arrest of a shadowy group of generals for allegedly plotting a bloody coup should be a victory for justice. The end of military meddling in politics should be a victory for democracy. And greater democracy should make a country more liberal and more pro-European.” The Ergenekon arrests, he concludes, are “a vital step in Turkey’s road to becoming a mature democracy. In the long term, the downfall of the army will make Turkey a stronger democracy and a more stable and mature partner. So the world would be wise to side with the AK party, not seek a return of the discredited generals.”

Let’s ignore the obvious — do you see much that looks “liberal and pro-European” coming out of Turkey these days? The leaders of Hamas are naming their kids “Erdogan”, not “Cameron” — and look at the slightly less obvious. The suppressed assumption, almost universal in the Western media, is that Turkey is divided into two camps, the anachronistic, godless, elitist generals who hunger for military coups just for the thrill of hearing the tank engines rumble, and the pious conservatives who are so forward-thinking and democratic they’re practically channelling the spirit of Thomas Jefferson with one hand and building a bridge between East and West and straight into the 27th century with the other.

It’s not so. This simply ignores the lack of democratisation across the board in Turkey, not to mention roughly 80 per cent of the Turkish population, who belong to neither camp and just wish the government — whoever’s controlling it these days — would stop stealing everything.

The struggle is taking place among the ruling elites, not the people, and these ruling elites are pretty much all thieving scum, as they will be until parliamentary immunities are lifted, voters are given the chance to elect their own MPs and government service is seen as something other than a chance to enrich oneself through cronyism and corruption. The deeper struggle here is about power and the right to steal, not religion or the military. Those are just the excuses to manipulate public sentiment, which is particularly easy to do if the media goes along for the ride.

In dry discussions in the Western media of the proposed reforms to the constitution, it is often mentioned approvingly that judges, in the new system, will be picked by the legislative branch. How very democratic. But it might be noted, though it never is, that it is the prime minister who picks the legislative branch — party leaders here have and exercise total, dictatorial control over the choice of MPs in their parties — and thus this reform would dangerously exacerbate the already authoritarian tendencies of the Turkish political system. To blame these authoritarian impulses on the military is to mistake the symptom for the cause: the cause is the general tendency of anyone in power in Turkey to abuse it, a systemic problem that the new constitution would exacerbate, not rectify. If the military is to be weakened, an even more rigorous separation of the remaining powers is necessary. Otherwise, the dictatorial tendencies of Turkish party leaders will run riot. This is obvious, and it’s common sense — but somehow it’s never mentioned.

Another favoured Western media trope — repeated to the point where it is simply accepted now as fact — is the assertion that the AKP represents an emerging Anatolian middle class and has presided over an economic miracle. There is certainly a wealthy new group of businessmen close to the AKP, but I’m still looking for the middle class and the miracle. Among OECD members, only Mexico has a less equal distribution of income than Turkey. This is a statistic anyone can find; you but have to look. How do you get a growing middle class out of that? Why does no one ask?

The Turkish people are generally well-meaning. They suspect that they cannot trust what they hear in the media. “You saw what was on TV, in the news, and what was published,” said one young woman whom we interviewed about the Gaza flotilla. “We know nothing less and nothing more.”

“It’s murky,” agreed her mother.

They have no way of knowing more. So they may be forgiven. What’s the Western media’s excuse?

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