Pinned under government's thumb, Turkish media covers penguins, not protests

The protests throughout Turkey have brought issues of media self-censorship, government control, and ownership by large conglomerates to the fore, disgusting many Turks.

Stoyan Nenov/Reuters
TV crews film near a damaged broadcaster's satellite news network truck at Taksim Square in central Istanbul Monday. Most Turkish TV stations and newspapers were either not covering the protests or downplaying their significance.

In the first days of the protests, CNN-Turk, the Turkish version of the American news network, opted to play a three-part documentary about penguins rather than cover what is arguably the biggest news story inside Turkey for decades. The network was not alone –  most TV stations and newspapers were either not covering events or downplaying their significance. 

Since demonstrations have overtaken the heart of Istanbul and spread to at least 67 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, most Turks looking to stay informed have all but given up on the local media.

“It’s frustrating for us. The whole media is close to the government. [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan manages the media. We don’t trust any of the media, only social media,” says Erdi Sen, an engineer who is among the protesters in Istanbul. 

The Turkish media may be among the hardest hit by demonstrations in Turkey, in many cases losing the trust of both the government and protesters. The shortcomings of the Turkish media during the country’s recent unrest have pushed to the fore problems with self-censorship, government control, and ownership by large conglomerates that have long undercut their credibility.

“What we’re seeing now is really the product of what has come to be seen as a timid local media, a repressed local media that has made everyone unhappy in Turkey. This is the product of the government’s policy toward the press, particularly the high hostility from the very top toward critical media, toward individual journalists and columnists who have criticized the policies of the AKP [the ruling political party],” says Nina Ognianova, program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Last fall CPJ released a report that revealed Turkey had more imprisoned journalists than any other country. Though Turkey has reduced that number from 61 to 47 since the report came out, the culture of fear remains pervasive in Turkish newsrooms. The desire for self preservation and continued employment led many Turkish journalists to self-censor, making them hesitant to report critically on the government. 

Turkish reporters face not only overt government pressure, but less obvious pressure from their own organizations. In Turkey the majority of news outlets are owned by large conglomerates with interests in sectors as wide-ranging as energy and real estate. Good relations with the government are essential to maintaining and developing business in those sectors. 

Dogan Holding, one of the largest Turkish media conglomerates, also has interests in energy and manufacturing, among other sectors. On the company's website, it boasts that in 2011 it managed a 24 percent market share of the newspaper business in Turkey. It also owns radio stations, magazines, book publishers, and co-owns CNN-Turk, along with Time Warner. 

“That is an unhealthy structure that has been called out time and again by the journalists we talked to in Turkey over the last year,” says Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who recently authored a report on the Turkish media. “They sometimes feel constrained by the fact that they know that the owners of the newspaper have interests that go beyond the economic and political well-being of the paper or the TV channel and those are interests that sometimes contradict the idea of free and critical reporting.”

Unsurprisingly, a number of Turkish media consumers have more or less given up on traditional media outlets here, instead relying on Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.

'Too late?'

As protests in Turkey show no signs of stopping, some media outlets are starting to show a greater willingness to cover protests and issues that could displease the government. Yesterday NTV, one of the largest television news networks here and a partner of MSNBC, officially apologized for its failure to cover the demonstrations until now. 

NTV's move comes as other media outlets appear to be modestly stepping up their coverage of protests. Last night, a number of Turkish journalists covered clashes between demonstrators and police but suffered numerous jeers and taunts from demonstrators.

For many demonstrators, mea culpa statements and coverage coming this late in the protests is not enough. 

“There has been too much blood shed and they’ve only just now apologized. It’s too late,” says Sude Elderm, a music student. She adds that while she never trusted the local media, after this performance during the protests, “I’m done with them,” she says.

The media could still reform and rebuild its reputation, but with change required at almost all levels – government, owners, and individuals journalists – reforms are likely to take a significant amount of time that the traditional news outlets just don't have.

“I think there is pressure coming from the grassroots level now, especially from young people who don’t buy newspapers or watch TV news now. They’re just looking at Twitter or blogs. Things are changing rapidly. The way people consume media, especially young people is changing so the media has to adjust, otherwise it will lose all of its advertising revenue,” says Asli Tunc, a professor and the head of the Media School at Istanbul Bilgi University.

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