What is happening to the Zaman newspaper and the larger Feza publication group is a microcosm of what is happening in Turkey. In essence, this can be summarized as Turkey’s rapid descent to electoral fascism. It doesn’t take much to recognize that all critical voices in the country are silenced one after another.
The political system in such a context may still have all the trappings of a democracy: The ballot box functions, elections are held, and the majority is represented in Parliament. But individual rights and liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly have little to do with the ballot box. Similarly, an independent judiciary or a free media that provides institutional checks and balances are now totally absent. An increasingly autocratic system that glorifies the leader is now firmly in place. With these hopeless domestic dynamics, we are all reduced to waiting for strong but ultimately futile condemnations from the West.
In addition to growing dynamics of electoral fascism in today’s Turkey there is also a sense of unprecedented political and societal polarization. Some may differ with that point on the grounds that Turkey has always been a very polarized country. It is certainly true that during the 1960s and 1970s ideological polarization between left-wing and right-wing movements produced serious political violence and anarchy in Turkish streets. Yet, the ideological polarization of those decades lacked the scale, scope and depth of today. This is mainly because the digital revolution has radically changed mass media and mass politics.
There was no 24-hour news cycle in the 1970s, no Internet and no social media. A world of only one TV channel had limited power to polarize the country at the mass level. Compare this with today as dozens of news channels, almost all of them driven by partisanship, ratings and sensationalism fail to provide fact-based analysis, objectivity and often basic information. It should be no surprise that polarization becomes the norm when independent journalism is a rare commodity. In this sea of polarization the Zaman newspaper was one of the few symbols left dedicated to quality journalism.
In order to analyze what to expect for media freedom in Turkey, one has to separate the contextual from the structural and systemic. The contextual dimension of what is wrong with media freedom in Turkey has to do with the fact that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has emerged in the last few years as a hegemonic force engaged in state-sponsored propaganda at unprecedented levels. During the 1990s, when Turkey was governed by weak coalition governments, owning a media outlet was a more lucrative business than it is today under AKP hegemony. Media companies could make use of weak coalition governments for their own benefit. Since political parties were much weaker than the AKP, they were often desperately competing for media support. As a result, media barons established a system of journalism whose main function was to simultaneously serve their business interests and the political demands of partners in coalition governments.
Under the AKP, the monopolization of power has changed the system. The massive presence of a single-party AKP government, and Erdoğan’s total intolerance for even the slightest critique, has emasculated the media barons of the old system and eliminated their leverage. A much more subservient and less pluralistic media structure has emerged. In short, the AKP has become the only game in town and managed to silence powerful dissenting voices in the mainstream media.
Beyond these contextual elements, however, there are also daunting fundamental challenges related to media freedom in Turkey. A large part of the problem is related to the ownership structure and crony capitalism characterizing the media business. It will take much more than contextual changes to alter these deeply rooted dynamics. Almost all media owners in Turkey are people with no direct or indirect connection with the profession of journalism. Most are politically well-connected businessmen who have paid enormous fortunes to purchase newspapers and TV channels, in order to enhance their chances of winning public contracts and tenders.
When you take these factors into consideration, what is now happening to Zaman and the larger publication group Feza compounds the tragedy of Turkish journalism. Zaman has now become a clear symbol of Turkey’s slow descent into fascism.