21st Century Authoritarianism: How the Turkish Government Manages the Media

By: Kevin Truitte, Columnist

Photo credit: Reuters

The Turkish government holds enormous influence over the country’s media. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political allies dominate the domestic information environment and use this control both to suppress material unflattering to the country’s leadership, as well as propagate pro-government perspectives. As President Erdogan consolidated power over Turkey during the past decade, he and his allies have increasingly employed political, economic, and legal means to gain influence over the media and silence outlets that threaten the state’s official narratives. However, this is done while maintaining the veneer of a free and pluralist press. Turkish media consists of outlets ostensibly offering different viewpoints, with even a small sprinkling of token opposition. Turkey’s information environment reflects a new 21st century model of illiberal media control.

In modern autocratic states, authorities actively work to abrogate press freedoms. Authoritarian leaders—in countries such as Russia, China, etc.—prioritize control over the most influential mediums and their constituent outlets. Coverage of sensitive topics is distorted, and pro-government media outlets flood the information environment with propaganda to blur the line between fact and fiction. Alternative perspectives are subjected to attack and ridicule, often labeled “unpatriotic” or “immoral.”[i] This is done in an opaque manner to obfuscate the role of the government in influencing decisions made by the media. Political control over the press comes in the form of direct influence or by acquisition of these outlets by government-allied businessman, who advocate for the ruling regime in exchange for economic support.[ii]

Turkish media today is an important government tool used to influence the public, while seemingly emulating a liberal, Western-style free press. Pro-government media outlets such as Yeni Safak and Sabah report on a vast array of issues, but also shape their coverage in a way that portrays the Turkish government in a favorable light.[iii] For example, during the 2016 failed coup, both outlets echoed Erdogan and lambasted the United States for failing to extradite cleric Fetullah Gulen, a political rival of the president who the Turkish government held responsible for the plot.[iv] Yeni Safak and the Daily Sabah have even been labeled “a tactical arm of the AKP’s foreign policy.”[v]

Turkey’s media environment has a history of state involvement that pre-dates the rise of Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the 1980s and 1990s, a liberalization of media expanded control of the press beyond state-owned agencies.[vi] However, this liberalization came with legal restrictions. The Turkish government could shut down press outlets on vague charges of undermining national unity. In the wake of the 1980 coup, the military-dominated government, allied with the country’s secular nationalist elite, did just this — targeting outlets spreading material they considered threatening to social stability and the Turkish state-building project.[vii]

When the AKP under Erdogan came to power, it appeared that this new regime would loosen restrictions on the media. The AKP government initially sought to expand freedom of expression and liberalize the press, in part to meet requirements for European Union membership. However, by 2005, the Erdogan-led government appeared to backtrack from these reforms. That year, Turkey’s parliament introduced a law criminalizing the vaguely worded “denigration of Turkishness,” which effectively banned criticism of the Turkish state. This law was also used to prosecute journalists and others for acknowledging the Armenian Genocide or historical massacres of Kurds or other ethnic/religious minorities in the country.[viii] Additionally, the AKP-led government passed laws prohibiting media outlets from “violating the existence and independence of the state of Turkey, inflame[ing] societal hatreds,” or “prais[ing] terrorism”– which could be interpreted as objectively reporting on terrorist groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or the Islamic State.[ix] These laws were used to arrest journalists that reported on purges of the ruling elite’s adversaries. Beginning in the late 2000s, journalists who covered the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials — which prosecuted members of the military, bureaucracy, and press accused of plotting against the Turkish government — were imprisoned. Reporters that covered the PKK were also arrested for “praising terrorism.”[x] In 2012, when corruption investigations targeted top politicians and the Erdogan family, coverage of the probes was banned on “national security” grounds.[xi] After the 2016 failed coup, the government arrested dozens of journalists under the country’s state of emergency, as part of a broader crackdown on political opponents.[xii] Broad legal language has enabled the government to suppress critical reporting, while encouraging journalists to stay in the regime’s good graces by slanting their coverage to be more favorable to the ruling elite.[xiii]

From the late 1980s onwards, the Turkish state found that it could exploit the takeover of media by business conglomerates. By giving the state positive coverage through their media subsidiaries, these conglomerates secured lucrative government contracts.[xiv] Despite early indications that Erdogan would seek to stop these politically corrupt relationships, he instead reduced the power of companies allied with his political opponents, while subsidizing AKP-friendly businesses.[xv] Meanwhile, opposition-aligned or neutral conglomerates that did not self-sensor have not only lost contracts and permits from the government, they potentially face substantial financial penalties for politically motivated charges.[xvi] Recently, the Dogan Media Group — which owned the Hurriyet newspaper, CNN Turk, and several other outlets generally considered opposition — was purchased by Demiroren Holding. Demiroren is a conglomerate tied to the Erdogan regime and heavily involved with the Turkish energy and construction sectors—industries likely to have government contracts. The Dogan sale was funded with loans from a state-owned bank. This takeover means that businesses close to Erdogan now control more than 90% of Turkish media.[xvii]

Turkey’s media has become beholden to President Erdogan and his government. This is a result of both legal actions to repress critical outlets, as well as economic incentives to entice the press to support state interests. By controlling the media through these means, the state is able to shape the flow of information in the country. The Turkish government’s control of the press fits into a new model pioneered by authoritarian regimes, which seeks to centralize authority and control populations while maintaining the veneer of a pluralistic media environment found in Western democracies. In this way, Turkish media parallels those found in other autocratic states, such as Russia and China. Furthermore, Turkey’s adoption of this media model coincides with, and contributes to, the country’s turn towards illiberalism. An independent press is essential to a well-functioning democracy. As the Erdogan regime tightens its grip on the media, it threatens to crush what little remains of Turkey’s democratic character.








[i] Arch Puddington, Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2017).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Kevin Truitte, “The Implications of Turkey’s Anti-American Messaging,” Georgetown Security Studies Review, April 20, 2018, georgetownsecuritystudiesreview.org/2018/04/20/the-implications-of-turkeys-anti-american-messaging/.

[iv] Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “If we have an agreement on the extradition of criminals, you should extradite that person,” Presidency of the Republic of Turkey, July 19, 2017, https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/news/542/49691/abd-suclularin-iadesi-anlasmasi-geregi-guleni-vermek-durumunda; Editorial Board, “Turkish public asks U.S. for evidence it’s not behind the coup,” Daily Sabah, July 28, 2016, https://www.dailysabah.com/editorial/2016/07/28/turkish-public-asks-us-for-evidence-its-not-behind-the-coup; Yeni Safak, Twitter post, August 10, 2016, 12:30 a.m., https://twitter.com/yenisafakEN/status/763276420277637120.

[v] Timo Kivimaki, “State-Media Relations in Turkey: Daily Sabah and Yeni Safak as a Tactical Arm of the AKP’s Foreign Policy,” Asian Politics & Policy, Volume 7, Issue 2 (2015): 323-328.

[vi] Bilge Yesil, Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State (Urbana: University of

Illinois Press, 2017), 33.

[vii] Yesil, 18, 34.

[viii] Ibid., 79.

[ix] Ibid., 85.

[x] Ibid., 96-99, 102.

[xi] Ibid., 96.

[xii] “Turkey Sentences 24 Journalists to Prison, Claiming Terrorism Ties,” New York Times, March 9, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/09/world/europe/turkey-journalists-prison-terrorism.html.

[xiii] Roy Gutman, “Turkey’s bleak media scene: Arrests, closures and closed trials,” Los Angeles Times, March 3, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-turkey-media-20170302-story.html.

[xiv] Yesil, 34-35, 49-50.

[xv] Ibid., 88.

[xvi] David L. Philips, An Uncertain Ally: Turkey under Erdogan’s Dictatorship (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 46-47.

[xvii] Selin Bucak, “Dogan Media sale to Erdogan ally is blow to press freedom,” Financial Times, May 29, 2018, https://www.ft.com/content/3273aafc-4317-11e8-97ce-ea0c2bf34a0b; Servet Yanatma, Digital News Report 2018: Turkey (Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, 2018).

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