The transformation of Turkey’s news media in the neoliberal era
The neoliberalization of Turkey started with the “24 January decisions”, just before the 1980 military coup. Privatization was the main means of carrying it out. In the 1990s, the Ozal government started the transition of public and cultural places into places of consumption through big construction projects. The second and most intensive period of this construction and shopping mall rush began under the AKP since their coming to power in 2002. The Gezi uprising started in June 2013 by just a couple of environmentalists in order to prevent the cutting of trees for the construction of Topcu Kislasi Shopping Mall in Inónü’s Gezi Park. The Gezi uprising gathered opposition to environmental massacre, the wiping out of the common spaces of the city by shopping mall construction and the government’s desire to replace a symbol of the Republic (Inónü’s Gezi Park) with a symbol of the Ottoman Empire (Topcu Kislasi). These three foci of opposition by protesters constitute the basis of the neoliberal project the government carried out, intertwined with its project of Political Islam.
In a short period of time, the Gezi uprising united and revealed reactions against all aspects of social destruction created by accumulation by dispossession. As well as this, during Gezi, the main elements of accumulation by dispossession - privatization, financialization, manipulation of the crisis and state redistributions, as well as their effects on society - became clearer. The mainstream news media were among the most protested targets. The messages written on the burned broadcast truck of NTV, which later became one of the symbols of the Gezi protests, gave a clear idea of what the demonstrators thought about the media: “Fabricated news for sale”, “media for sale by owner”, “Tayyip Loves NTV”. Penguins became a symbol of media censorship after a documentary about penguins was broadcast by CNN Türk during one of the biggest protests of the Gezi Resistance at Taksim Square. The Gezi Protests revealed media-government relations and the media’s role in accumulation by dispossession. Also during the protests, journalists and media workers who tried to protest or at least to offer solidarity to the protestors, immediately lost their jobs. At this time, simply producing the news became a dangerous act of heroism committed by journalists.
The mainstream media dramatically collapsed during Gezi, but the start of the decay began after the 1980 coup when neoliberal policies were carried out in Turkey (Adakh & Aydogan, 2018). The deunionization of the media, technological developments, conglomeration and concentration of media ownership and the emerging star system were the premises of the breakup before Gezi. Except for a few resignations and protests, the commodification of intellectual creativity and the precarization of journalistic labour through dispossession carried out by the state and corporations were received silently by mainstream news media employees.
The state of the mainstream news media in Turkey is related to privatization. The privatization of the news media in Turkey resulted in the concentration of media ownership. The concentration of media ownership led to three very problematic issues regarding the freedom of the press. Firstly, the media moguls, with a lot of different investments in other businesses like energy and construction, were easily influenced by the government, especially in the neoliberal era. State redistribution happened to be effective political tools for Erdogan in the matter of controlling and dominating the media. Secondly, contrary to liberal belief, privatized media networks became useful for state control. Wanting to protect their investments and profit rates, media moguls have used the hierarchical structures of the news media to suppress journalists in two intertwined ways. First, they broke unionization among journalists. As a result of de-unionization, journalists have become fragmented, weak and precarious (Keten & Aydin, 2018). It was very easy for media moguls to control and suppress them. The star system in the media and unemployment were the carrot and stick used to silence journalists. In the meantime, media moguls, editors or big media stars have internalized self-censorship, which renders government interference mostly unnecessary. Thirdly, journalists have also internalized self-censorship, and have willingly given up the freedom of the press in order to keep their positions.
A freelance journalist working in Turkey has described self-censorship as a panopticon applied by journalists to themselves (Narin, 2019). This journalist has stated that the insecurity of freelance working, lack of unionization and lack of Press Labour Code protections can lead to fear and fear can turn into self-censorship. Fatma Yoriir, a reporter from Arti-TV, claimed that journalists are performing self-censorship to not just the government, but also the opposition. According to her, the process that leads journalists to self-censorship is related to government oppression, but firstly and most importantly, to the structural oppression of media outlets (ibid.). Self-censorship creates a very dangerous atmosphere for the freedom of the press and is also very hard to uncover. One journalist from the mainstream media, who doesn’t want to give their name, noted that their colleagues try to anticipate events that would anger the government as news and they won’t cover them at all. According to this journalist, self-censorship is spreading like a virus among journalists in Turkey.8 However, even these aspects of media domination are not satisfactory for Erdogan’s regime because he seeks total control, which is, of course, impossible.
In this chain of domination, no one is protected against the waves of creative destruction that neoliberalism creates. The norms are determined by the capitalist system itself (Gambetti, 2012: 37), which is, in Turkey’s case, Islamic neoliberalism. So, every single individual who makes up this system is expendable, irrespective of their power. The only decision to be made is to liberate market equilibrium, which will decide who to eliminate (ibid.: 31). The leaked telephone conversation in 2014 between Erdogan and Demirdren, with the latter crying on the phone, creates a vivid example of such media censorship and control. The phone call strikingly demonstrated that the most powerful media moguls are themselves also expendable and afraid of President Erdogan. On 28 February 2013, Milliyet Newspaper carried news of the “Imrali Tutanaklari” (Imrah Proceedings) in its headlines. The news was about the “Qdzum Siireci” (Peace Process), aimed at resolving the long running Kurdish problem. In 2012, Erdogan stated that the government was in negotiations with jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. Milliyet revealed that Ocalan was in talks with the Kurdish Party at that time. In the phone call with Demiroren, the owner of Milliyet, President Erdogan insulted the editor in chief Derya Sazak and the reporter Namik Durukan, who covered the Imrah Proceedings news. President Erdogan wanted them to be dismissed. After the president’s scolding and insults, Demirdren can be heard crying and saying, “how did 1 get into this, for whom?”9 Based on examples like this, the privatization and corporatization of the news media in Turkey can be seen to have ended up in a tangled and distorted relationship with the government.
Privatization is used not only as an economic tool but also as a political tool to establish new power relations. According to Ekman (2014: 99), the mainstream news media play a very important role during the processes of accumulation by dispossession. The media support privatizations, enable financialization and provide ideological legitimation for both. In some cases, the media also perpetuate privatization and financialization.10 Privatizations have accelerated during the AKP era. In 1995, the number of public utilities was 278. Through privatization, the number in the early 2000s has reduced to 240. During the AKP era, there are only 71 utilities left that are owned by or associated with the state.11 One of the privatizations affected newspapers particularly badly: the sale of the SEKA paper mill in 2018. After privatization, newspapers became dependent on the import of paper and the foreign exchange rate. And after the exchange rate fluctuations, newspapers have made a loss on both sides.12
The Gezi uprising was a breaking point that saw the collapse of the mainstream news media and since then the AKP has rapidly intensified its authoritarian policies. The fact that as soon as they came to power Erdogan and his government began to clash with the military bureaucracy was seen by many as an attempt at democratization. However, the main reason for this clash, besides the obvious power struggle, was to get the bureaucracy out of the way, since the bureaucracy had the power to hinder or at least slow down the privatization of public properties. Privatizations started in the 1980s, but were not that fast until the AKP came to power (Yesil, 2016: 72-88). The 12 September 2010 referendum on the amendment of the constitution, which had also been supported by the Gillen movement before it entered a war of hegemony against Erdogan, was designed to get the judiciary out of the way so that it would not be an element slowing down the accumulation by dispossession process. The change to the constitution was heavily supported by the mainstream news media. It was presented as a great attempt at democratization and an opportunity to get rid of the constitution the military had written after the 1980 coup. The rule of law in Turkey owes its failure today to this change.