Turkey was already notorious for its growing liquidation in the country’s media outlets. Erdogan’s strong men regime was pretty determined to not to provide even a glimmer of hope for the opposition, going after every journalist or media profession who criticizes the government. Not surprisingly, this has not changed with the COVID-19 crisis. One of the most popular anchormen in the country, Fatih Portakal, faced criminal charges after tweeting about the government’s pandemic strategy. The pandemic, therefore, became a great showcase for observing that politicians with authoritative tendencies will continue to play politics even at the expense of people’s lives.
On April 7, Turkey woke up to yet another attack on freedom of speech coming from the President of the country. It came as a little of shock when the citizens of the country heard that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was filing a criminal complaint against one of the top famous TV presenters in the country, Fatih Portakal from the FOX TV channel. This is not the first time that such incident is taking place in the country, which has been an ostensive manifestation of the country’s democratic breakdown. Turkey is still suffering from the authoritative tendencies of the incumbent government. One of the most evident indicators of Turkey’s democratic backsliding in recent years was the unreasonable number of journalist the country has imprisoned. In fact, according to a graph introduced by the Economist Turkey leads the world in jailed journalists. The country faces acute restrictions on its media outlets. 2020 World Press Freedom Index ranks Turkey 150 out of 180 countries. Unfortunately, this downfall did not change with the novel coronavirus outbreak either. Leaders with authoritative tendencies are prone to control the media in order to silence the opposition. Leaders who fear their place in the Palace are certainly more ambitious to do so. They will continue to play politics even at the expense of certain people’s lives. The pandemic is a great showcase for observing this ambition.
President Erdogan, after the 26th meeting of the Presidential Cabinet, which was organized by a videoconference from the Huber Residence in Istanbul Tarabya, said that the cabinet has discussed the economic aspects and security issues related to the coronavirus outbreak. He then called for a National Solidarity Campaign against the outbreak recalling the historical emergency measures that were imposed during the nation’s War of Independence, known as the National Tax laws (Tekalif-i Milliye). These measures have allowed the government to seize citizens’ personal wealth and belongings to aid the nation during preposterous times. However, it was not long before there were voices raised to criticize this statement on the grounds that the government was trying to heat the ground for a possible future economic measurement imposed to its citizens. Among the critics, was a popular TV anchorman called Fatih Portakal. He tweeted, cynically, that ‘’what if the government asks for money from the ones who have deposit money and savings by saying that ‘we are going through difficult days’. Imagine they would say we would pay after the Corona! Unfortunately, I cannot say this is impossible!’’ The president himself and the Banking Regulation and Supervision Authority sued Fatih Portakal for spreading lies on social media and manipulating the public. Ahmet Özel, one of the lawyers of the President said, “These are statements entirely false and intended to manipulate the public. Therefore, we have filed a criminal complaint against Fatih Portakal under the Turkish Criminal Code and BRSA legislation to the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office.” Although Fatih Portakal’s case was more salient due to his popularity, he was not the only media professional that was attacked during the Covid-19 crisis. Hakan Aygün, the former executive editor of the Halk TV Channel, was also arrested for his tweet teasing the President’s “National Solidarity Campaign” that was launched to ask citizens to provide financial assistance for individuals and families who are in a difficult situation because of the coronavirus. It is clear that even a life or death situation like this could not manage to contain Erdogan in his attempts of silencing the opposition voices. The government keeps pushing the journalists who even slightly criticize them.
Politicians with authoritative tendencies mostly perceive the political environment as a zero sum game in which they either win or lose. They make sure that all is under their control. Long-term prison sentences of journalists and other media workers create an icing effect on others and have major restrictive effects in public debate as well. Media, therefore, is an essential component of democracies making sure that the citizens of the country are exercising freedom of opinion and expression, which is one of the basic human rights. Hence, it is crucial that the media in all of its forms is free, sonorous and pluralistic especially during such novel times. A habit of the Turkish government to crack down on journalist in order to kill the public awareness especially during the last couple of years is being evoked during the pandemic as well. Hakan Aygün and a more popular figure like Fatih Portakal was another very important commination act signalling that the government was determined to assure the silence of the opposition. Erdoğan is playing politics at the expense of these journalists’ lives. For him, it has come to a situation in which the purpose is not just to control the opinion of the public but more importantly to make sure that no other citizen, who is unpleased with the incumbent government, would feel that she is not alone and ever find the courage to mobilize. It is far more evident that the President fears a possible snowball effect that would mostly likely to cause his presidency. All in all, Turkey is not a totalitarian regime. There still is a possibility that the country could elude this challenge and go back to its heydays of democratic progress by mobilizing against such illiberal processes. Media is an important tool for such mobilizations. Hence, the possibility of the media being an encouragement mechanism for the opposition to take action against the government hangs like a scary painting in the minds of the incumbent government causing it to crackdown on journalists more than ever and it seems that the coronavirus is not going to change that.
This is a really good read; the topic choice is very important as transparent media is essential to the well-being of democratic institutions! Turkey along with many others countries are facing the ambiguous nature of the novel COVID-19 outbreak. That being said, tension and speculation between governments and citizens is heightened, previously even the most democratic governments have been ousted for corruption and mismanagement of government funds. Citizens are left with almost no option but to hope their governments act in their best interest to combat COVID-19, which puts media outlets, citizens, and workers in a vulnerable position.
It’s terrible that even now Erdogan is trying to silence the media when there are so many more important things he should be working on. Silencing the media plays a large role in democratic backsliding and jeopardizes the legitimacy and transparency of democratic governments. The fact that lives are being threatened by his illiberal tendencies, and even in time of pandemic he continues to try to silence his opposition and derail mobilization efforts of citizens is telling of his intentions. That being said, hopefully the Turkish citizens are taking note of his actions in lieu of the decreased media coverage.
The ability to exercise free speech and expression is one of the most fundamental aspects of democracy. Threats to those civil rights and civil liberties should serve as red flags for any campaign and should be met with resistance. Turkey still has a chance to save their democratic institutions, hopefully the future is brighter after these hard times pass.
Beyza Işık Aksoy
Megan, thank you for this insightful comment. I am pretty hopeful for the future as well!
Beyza, that was a neat and aptly written article. However, I do disagree with some of your assertions you make about the great president of Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Unequivocally, as you highlight, the suppression of media is a troubling development in Turkey. The freedom to write and speak as you wish is a central tenet of democracy. However, I do want to note that this right does ebb and flow depending on the context and climate of a country. For example, during the American Civil War, we had a previous president who jailed media members who disagreed with his policymaking and suspended the right to trial (habeas corpus) so that these critics would remain in jail ad nausea. Sounds Familiar Beyza, doesn’t it? Well, this president is uniformly revered and respected and graces the five-dollar American bill.
Therefore, if we apply the current context and climate that Turkey faces, Erdogan’s actions are not ill-founded or ill-suited. For example, Covid-19 needs to be met with uniform policymaking and, subsequently, collective action by the people of Turkey. As a result, the media duty under these times of crisis is to communicate calmness, quell the fears of Covid-19, and act as an informational tool in accordance with the government’s Corona task force. The media should not give conflicting messages or incite the anger of the people during these times of crisis since the consequences mean peril. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Turkish media can foment a mass protest, which would ultimately result in the contagion proliferating and an unthinkable number of people getting sick and dying. As a result, I do think the media should be responsible or face government censorship. The period to exact criticism and scrutinizes government action should occur after the Cvid-19 reaches its conclusion. Anything before that is irresponsible.
All in all, next time you analyze a government action, it is always important to note the climate and context that the nation faces. As you alluded to in your paper, Erodgan has been infringing on rights and liberties guaranteed by the constitution for years. Still, due to exigencies and dangers faced by turkey – ISIS, Russia, Covid-19, Syria, – I believe that Erdogan has protected the sovereign which is the number one duty of any chief executive. Therefore, appreciate your president a bit more and be grateful that he gives the optics of being a strong man in a climate replete with villains and usurpers. Inshallah, in a hundred years the five-dollar lira will have a picture of Erdogan too.
Feel free to disagree -I’m all ears!
Beyza Işık Aksoy
Thank you for your input Lucas! However, I think your sympathy for Erdoğan has a clear effect on your interpretation of the issue. In a country that has a huge potential it usually becomes very sad to witness such acts of restriction on even the basic freedoms, especially when they become this heightened. Nevertheless, it would be only ‘unprofessional’ to conduct this debate through our personal thoughts of the president. I am confident that my analysis was based upon the ‘facts’ of aforementioned case and was in strong touch with the relevant literature on democratic backsliding. It is therefore, evident that both of the media professionals did not ‘inflicted conflict’ or ‘incite the anger of the people’ rather just tweeted their minor criticisms regarding a certain aspect of government’s pandemic strategy.
Further, your note on analyses should done considering the climate and context is a well-taken one and in fact is the way I believe I have done it. The suppression of the press is now an established practice of Erdoğan’s government and in this instance, it is the climate that makes these charges even worse. I believe that the strongman ship you are rightly referring to is needed in the implementation of strategies to overcome the crisis, not in going after opposition voices. In a country, with such high numbers of imprisonment (I presented the official numbers if you like to check) you cannot not really expect to hear lot of independent voices, right? However, the backbone of any democracy is a free and independent media and it becomes much more important during these times since the citizens are relying on media to get informed. Going after a popular public figure would only add more to the already existing fear and apprehension of the citizens. Therefore, I believe governments especially in these times should act much more responsible and handle the issue in more inclusive ways without fueling the already existing concerns.
I have always believed in the benefit of hearing opposing views, -something we dearly miss in the Turkish context for few years now- so media crackdown in Turkey should, I believe, be discussed at length. The crackdown on media on Turkey is not an instantaneous occurrence and certainly did not occur during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is rather an incremental process that involved certain changes in public procurement law and strategic replacement of businessman at the hands of AKP. In this sense, the media take over exceeds far beyond the context of COVID-19, and the oppression over the media and journalists cannot be explained by “context and climate” alone. Therefore analyses that try to approach media crackdown through contemporary developments, not only over-simplifies AKP’s way of doing things but also ignore clear signs that we can observe under AKP governance. At this point, let me share a few points that I would like to add to the discussion based on points raised by Lucas Perez.
The takeover of Turkish media through the establishment of pro-government networks or “havuz medyası” as we call it in Turkish, serves to fulfill a few purposes. First is to tilt the ground in favor of Erdoğan’s party AKP by controlling the information that your ordinary citizen can acquire. According to an unpublished project which I was a part of, over 80% of the Turkish citizens still acquire their daily news through TV. Second, havuz medyası is an extremely lucrative business. What makes Erdoğan so successful is his ability to recycle the money within the system, which previous governments and leaders lacked. A very common way of doing it is the donations that are made to the AKP by media barons in return for tax reductions. Third, havuz medyası serves as a means of reducing cognitive dissonance which is gradually more visible in the case of worsening economic conditions. A simple Google search would bring up the numbers if you are interested.
Moreover, at some point, a flawed logic has been applied to argue that mass media in Turkey can cause protests and result in a huge casualty. This is a clear indicator of the lack of knowledge on havuz medyası and disregards the agency of Turkish citizens. No one in their right mind would go out protesting in the existence of a deadly pandemic and we DON’T have such a media that would strive to do so. A significant effort of AKP has been to keep people away from the street since protests would stain his long sustained image. For the relationship between media and protest, I suggest learning more about Gezi Protests of 2013.
I agree with Beyza that conducting this debate through the lenses of our personal sympathies is unprofessional. Therefore, even though I appreciate the effort, I can see that these criticisms directed to Beyza are a product of a more emotional approach, which is what we don’t strive for our analyses as scholars. I highly recommend learning more about the politics of the 1990s in the Turkish context to see the gradual decline of media freedom, which again is independent of the COVID-19 pandemic. So that you can compare and see how our “great president” transformed the fabric of Turkish society.
From this post alone, it is evident that Turkey is grappling with some of the key indicators of modern democratic erosion. Instead of launching an executive coup to suspend the national constitution and assume total control over the country, its citizens, and its media, Erdogan is relying on legal means to protect his public image and bolster his authority. By targeting popular figures in news media and incarcerating an incomparable number of journalists, Erdogan is actively encouraging self-censorship in his constituency. Thus, instead of mobilizing against him and his explicitly undemocratic policies, Turkish citizens are inclined to limit their public speech and activism, upholding the status quo for lack of sufficient information and defense to galvanize opposing force.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced an unprecedented menace to Erdogan’s control. Endangering human lives, social institutions, and economic standards, the pandemic revealed weaknesses in all political leadership. In times of crisis, it is natural for citizens—especially citizens of a democratic state—to turn to their governments for guidance. Hence, the notion that a freely elected president would seize personal wealth and belongings from his citizens rather than work to protect and redistribute these resources is inherently disconcerting. Assuming that Erdogan is a rational leader with a desire to maintain power for himself and others with similar partisan and ideological values, this all but requires governmental efforts to obscure policy considerations and create a chilling effect on public discourse.
Of course, just like all human rights, freedom of speech and press are not absolute. Dialogue that threatens public good deserves to be limited, and such evaluations are admittedly complex. Nevertheless, the long-standing pattern of this conduct, the universality of threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the lack of evident challenges to national security suggest that this behavior is indeed a democratic backslide.