Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters control the Turkish media with a range of tools that include the use of regulatory institutions, advertising bans, the takeover of opposition media and the blatant threat of imprisonment for those who do not toe the official line.
This is according to a Reuters special report examining the Turkish government’s influence on the country’s media landscape.
Upon the resignation of Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law, as finance minister in late 2020, Reuters reports, citing four journalists in the know, mainstream media outlets were instructed by the president’s Communications Directorate not to report on the matter.
Pro-government broadcasters and newspapers reported virtually nothing about the split in Erdoğan’s inner circle for more than 24 hours.
According to Reuters, the episode shows how Turkey’s mainstream media, once a dynamic battle of opinion, has become a government-sanctioned chain of command.
Directorate of Communications
The Turkish president’s Communications Directorate controls the newsrooms, according to more than a dozen industry insiders who spoke to Reuters.
Former professor Fahrettin Altun heads the 1,500-strong directorate set up by Erdoğan in a high-rise in Ankara.
Altun, 45, who had previously worked at a pro-government think tank, was little known in the news industry when Erdoğan appointed him chairman of his newly created Communications Directorate in 2018.
The directorate, which has an annual budget of $38 million, coordinates government communications. Its responsibilities include combating “systemic disinformation attacks” against Turkey.
When there is important news that could harm Erdoğan or his government, Altun contacts editors and top correspondents to prepare coverage, Reuters quoted an insider as saying.
Four sources told Reuters that Altun’s instruction to the media was to remain silent until Erdoğan accepted Albayrak’s resignation the next evening.
Then Turkey’s TV stations and newspapers reported Albayrak’s resignation.
Reuters has seen screenshots showing Altun’s directorate sending WhatsApp messages to mainstream media editors to highlight or avoid certain comments by cabinet or party members. Justice and Development Party (AKP) lawmakers call editorial offices to request that certain speeches be reported or presented differently, reporters say. One editor explained that editors are often told that the Communications Directorate reviews and changes article headlines and editorials.
Acquisitions and closures
Erdoğan’s supporters can also influence the news. After a series of purchases that began in 2008, Erdoğan and his AKP control major media brands.
In 2008 the pro-government Turkuvaz Media Group bought Sabah and ATV. These media outlets are now staunch supporters of the government.
Following a 2016 coup attempt, the Turkish government used emergency powers to shut down 150 media outlets for alleged links to supporters of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdoğan blames for the coup attempt. Gülen denies responsibility.
The last significant media takeover took place in 2018, when Erdoğan opponent Aydın Doğan sold Hürriyet and other newspapers to the pro-government Demirören Group. Doğan had been under pressure from the government for years, including forced asset sales and protests outside the offices of his Hürriyet newspaper.
BİK and RTÜK
Reuters also found that state advertising funds pro-government periodicals, and government-appointed regulators almost exclusively punish independent or opposition news outlets for violations of Turkey’s media law. Regulators frown on criticizing the president and making corruption allegations.
The Press Advertising Institute (BİK), a subsidiary of the directorate that controls print media and the internet, dismissed claims that it has become a censorship weapon that punishes critical government reports, Reuters said.
Turkey’s Constitutional Court has upheld several lawsuits filed by independent newspapers against BİK, ruling that the institute “violates freedom of expression and freedom of the press” and asking parliament to amend the relevant laws.
A Reuters analysis of BİK reports found that in 2019 and 2020 — the last years for which complete and thorough information is available — stories about corruption and government criticism were classified as “against public ethics” or “misleading.” Reuters could not determine how many stories in the BİK reports fell into these categories.
Ethics-related advertising bans on İstanbul’s main newspapers increased to 328 days in 2020.
The five most prominent independent publications received almost all advertising bans. The five were deprived of 4 million lira ($500,000 at the time) in state advertising funds in 2020, which BİK distributed to other newspapers. In 2021 the suspensions were concentrated on independent media, according to the Journalists’ Association.
One of the publications, Evrensel, whose three-year ban on receiving official advertising became permanent earlier this month, said the “arbitrary” fines were straining its resources. Fatih Polat, editor-in-chief of Evrensel, said BİK had become an instrument of censorship under the AKP.
The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) rejected claims that it censors or receives instructions from Erdoğan.
The head of the RTÜK, Ebubekir Şahin, is one of the six council members appointed by the AKP.
In the first six months of last year, RTÜK fined independent broadcasters 5 million lira ($570,000 at the time, $275,000 today), said opposition-elected RTÜK council member İlhan Taşçı.
Taşçı told Reuters that no pro-government broadcasters were punished. He said RTÜK was “dependent on … instructions from the ruling party.”
Şahin denied accusations that the regulator was a censorship agency or was directed by Erdoğan.
Imprisonment for ‘false information’
In May, Erdoğan’s government proposed a bill to crack down on “disinformation” in the media without defining the term, which free speech advocates say would be another attack on critical reporting. False information about security or public order could lead to three years in prison, according to the legislation, which parliament will consider in October.
Looking ahead to Turkey’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, Erdoğan is trailing in several polls. His unorthodox tactic of lowering interest rates led to a currency crisis and rising inflation before the Ukraine war drove up the cost of gasoline and food. The currency has lost more than a quarter of its value this year, exacerbating the poverty among Erdoğan’s working-class and lower-middle-class voters.
Political observers say the president needs as much media support as he can get if he is to extend his tenure to a third decade leading Turkey. Turkey is a member of NATO and a regional military power that sits at the intersection of global migration, trade and history.