Survival in Turkey

Selin Bucak

Turkeys history is rife with examples of journalists being arrested, attacked, jailed or exiled. This has not changed under the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, although his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 promising democracy and freedom for all, including journalists.

The initial years of the AKP government aside, Turkey has become the biggest jailer ofjournalists in the world since 2010. As ofjune 2019, there were 98 journalists convicted, 90 arrested and 167 wanted, according to the Stockholm Centre for Freedom (2019).

“This is the most oppressive period in the history of the Turkish Republic,” said Prof. Dr. Emre Kongar, academic, author and journalist at Cumhuriyet newspaper. “There is a pressure on the media that has not been seen in any other period, including following the military coups”.

First of all, [the media is controlled] through outlets that they [the government] bought themselves or made their allies purchase. Those journalists outside of these groups are under immense pressure. They are constantly beingjudged because of the work they do and the articles they write, and they are being punished. Following most events, the government is also instituting a reporting ban, which is enforced by the courts. The government has direct control over how events are presented to the public.

(Kongar, 2019)

Fear of litigation, violence and financial pressure have all been used by the government to silence journalism. In this climate, investigative journalism has been stifled, at a time when it is needed most. However, as it has always happened in Turkish history, a number of investigative journalists are continuing to defy the authorities.

Undeterred, but under constant pressure and with a diminishing number of free and independent news outlets, some have turned to book publishers to disseminate their work.

For Kongar, books have become the saviours of investigative journalists in Turkey.

During this period, investigative journalism becomes even more important, because news is being hidden from the public. Because they are hidden, what’s happening in the background is not very clear. That’s why books are becoming increasingly important. When there is this much pressure on the media, books where journalists can expose wrongdoing become important. They can only do this by publishing books.


Journalist and academic Haluk §ahin has also highlighted this phenomenon, and in his view, “a book can become a lifeboat for an investigative journalist. That’s why the investigator also needs to be a good writer” (§2012, p. 59).

Although the current desire to control the media has shone a spotlight on press freedoms, it is far from the first time Turkish investigative journalists have had to work under oppression. The periods following the three military coups that punctuated the last century also saw freedom of expression limited by the state.

In the 1990s, there was a clear rise in violence against journalists, with Turkey ranking as the second most dangerous place to report from. The first was the Bosnian civil war (Deutsche Welle, 2019).

Therefore, to understand how investigative journalism evolved in Turkey and why there is still an opportunity for it to survive and thrive under the current government, we need to consider its origins.

The development of investigative journalism

Since the founding of the republic in 1923, Turkey has been ruled by numerous authoritarian regimes. Even outside of the military coups — there were three by 1985 - life has always been difficult for journalists. Successive governments adopted policies to limit the power and reach of the press. The closure of papers and magazines has always been commonplace.

Following the introduction of a multi-party system in Turkey in 1946, the media started evolving, giving a platform to different voices. New publications that held contrary views to the establishment began springing up. This freedom proved short lived, however, with the government starting to interfere following the elections in 1950 that brought the Democrat Party to power.

Between 1946 and the military coup of 1960, one of the most important publications was a weekly magazine called Akis — set up in 1954 by Metin Toker. Taking Time magazine in the West as its inspiration, Akis was the first political weekly in Turkey. It became a platform for investigative journalists, and over time, it increasingly took a critical stance against the ruling Democrat Party (Kurt Ôncel, 2013, p. 94).

In 1960, the government, which was becoming increasingly oppressive, shut down Akis. Many of its journalists were sent to prison. But the magazine had already made an impact. Under Toker’s leadership, journalists at the magazine had become both researchers and writers ($ahin, 2012). University graduates, who had doctorates and knew different methods of research, became journalists.

The military intervention on 27 May 1960 was the first coup in Turkey. It overthrew the government of Adnan Menderes, who was seen as becoming increasingly authoritarian. A National Unity Committee was established, composed of military officers, and members of the Democrat Party were put in prison.

In 1961, a new constitution was prepared, which was adopted following a referendum held on 9 July (Kaya, 2011). Some consider this the most democratic constitution Turkey has ever had.

The constitution of 1961 introduced significant innovations. It strengthened the supremacy of the constitution by establishing a constitutional court, effectively restricting the powers of the elected branches of government, and strengthening the safeguards of fundamental rights and liberties through the rule of law.

(Kaya, 2011, p. 1)

As a consequence, the 1960s saw the rise of critical thinking in Turkish society'. With the freedoms granted by the new constitution, the public was exposed to new ideas. Journalists became investigators. Abdi Ipekçi, a prominent journalist who was later murdered in 1979, published his book called Ilttilalin Içyüzü (The Inside Story of the Revolution) in 1965, looking into what led to the military coup, its execution and the National Unity Committee that was formed in its aftermath.1

The case of the fictitious furniture

Although the relatively liberal atmosphere created in the 1960s under the new constitution was interrupted by another military intervention in 1971, with negative repercussions on press freedom, a new coalition government came to power in 1974, and in time, all this culminated in what is considered the first genuine work of investigative journalism in Turkey (Ertem, 2018, p. 658). In 1975, a series of articles was published exposing fraud by the nephew of the prime minister at the time. These articles were later turned into a book.

The term “investigative journalism” came into wider use following the publication of this book by journalists Ugur Mumcu and Altan Oyrnen. Entitled Mobilya Dosyast (The Furniture File), it exposed a fictitious furniture export operation conducted by' the nephew of Prime Minister Siileyman Demirel.

At the time, the government was trying to incentivise foreign trade, offering a 75% tax refund on certain products in a bid to attract hard currency. While working at Anka Ajans — a news agency — Oymen and Mumcu received a tip-off phone call alerting them to a fraud involving furniture that was being exported by Yahya Demirel - the nephew. Demirel had set up an export business that was supposedly selling high-end furniture to countries such as Italy, Libya and Cyprus. However, the sales were really being made to fictitious companies in Geneva and Liechtenstein. Oymen, after travelling to Switzerland and tracking down the addresses at which they were registered, discovered that these companies did not exist. Oymen and Mumcu found out that Demirel’s company was in fact buying up low-quality' furniture and wood in Ankara on the cheap. The company then booked the fake sales and raked in hefty tax refunds from the bogus operation.

“We wrote all these articles about it and they kept saying they' were lies. They filed lawsuits against us so we turned all our articles into a book to give to the courts,” said Oy'men (2019).

Both Oymen and Mumcu were acquitted.

Mumcu s name has now become synonymous with investigative journalism in Turkey. Following the publication of the Furniture Files, he went on to pen numerous investigative pieces. Sadly, like many other journalists in Turkey, he became the target of a violent attack. He was assassinated by' a bomb placed in his car outside his home in Ankara in 1993 (Milliyet, 1993). His work established investigative journalism as a respected profession in Turkey. Following his death, his family' set up the Ugur Mumcu Investigative Journalism Foundation.

His daughter, Ozge Mumcu, said:

After my father was murdered, our family' founded the Ugur Mumcu Investigative Journalism Foundation ... to encourage young people who are concerned about social problems and have ideals of hard work and humanity to enter the field of journalism.


The changing media landscape in the 1980s

On the morning of 12 September, 1980, there was an announcement on the radio, heard everywhere in Turkey'. The military once again had taken control of the government and declared a state of emergency. The liberal constitution of 1961 was suspended, to be replaced by a new one in 1982. Although the new constitution was voted for by 92% of the population, the electorate gave it their backing under threat of imprisonment for abstention (T24, 2017).

In the aftermath of the coup, 517 people received death sentences, 50 of which were carried out. Six hundred fifty thousand people were apprehended, 210,000 cases were opened and 30,000 people were fired from their jobs for being “unfavourable”. One hundred seventy-one were killed during torture, and 300 in total died under suspicious circumstances. Journalists received prison sentences totalling 3,315 years and 6 months (T24, 2015).

The new regime had journalists firmly in its sights, with 3 shot dead and 31 imprisoned, and 927 publications were banned. Underlining the scale of the clampdown, around 40 tonnes of newspapers, magazines and books were burned by the government.

The military regime ended with the elections of 1983, which brought to power Turgut Özal, who would remain prime minister until 1989 and then become president, a position he held until his death in 1993.

The government of Özal oversaw a period of considerable change in the media landscape. While it sought to limit the freedom of the press as much as possible, the regimes economic policies gave rise to a burgeoning new class of tycoons who would go on to monopolise the ownership of news outlets. This was a development that would determine the shape of the Turkish media for years to come.

In his book on investigative journalism, Haluk §ahin recounts a conversation with prominent journalist Emin Qöla$an in 1990, when he talked about his work in the 80s.

Both Ugur Mumcu and I came to journalism from other fields, bringing in new concepts. Between 1977 and 1980, when the government slacked off, there was a move from bureaucracy to journalism. Most of these were politically driven. A journalist had to be very careful not to be manipulated. And then the 12th of September happened and investigative journalism stopped. Everything was secret, nothing was leaking. And we couldn’t use whatever did leak. But after 1984 there was a real explosion.

(2012, p. 58)

Prior to 1980, newspapers had been owned by families who had been in journalism for generations. After 1980, they started coming under the ownership of businessmen who were new to the media. Aydin Dogan, who bought Milliyet newspaper from Ercüment Karacan in 1979, was one high-profile example. Prior to this acquisition, Dogan had mainly been involved in the energy sector and had import and export businesses (Adakli, 2003).

After the purchase of Milliyet, Dogan went on to set up DTV — later Kanal D — in partnership with another conglomerate, Dogus Group. By 2003, the Dogan Group owned eight newspapers, numerous magazines, four TV channels, four radio channels, a distribution business, internet sites, a music producer and a chain of bookstores (Adakli, 2003).

Dogan’s influence on the media landscape has been significant, but his has been just one empire. The Qukurova Group, owned by the Karamehmet family; the Uzan family’s eponymous Uzan Group; the Bilgin family’s Sabah

Group and Dogus Group, founded by Ayhan §ahenk, have also been influential businesses in media.

The rise of the conglomerates led to the monopolisation of the industry as a whole. This was especially true when it came to distribution channels. By 2003, there were three main distribution channels, owned by the Dogan, Uzan and Bilgin families. Any independent organisations were at the mercy of the three giants who controlled distribution (Adakh, 2003).

In an interview with Hurriyet, Professor Bilge Yesil, author of “Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State”, said: “The 1980s were really important because they set the stage for the new commercialized media environment and the political-economic relationships between the government, state institutions, and the military” (Armstrong, 2016).

From the mid-1980s, media assets were turned into empires. The heads of these empires had the means to invest in and import the latest technology, and the technological developments at the time paved the way for investigative journalism to find a new outlet: television.

The violence of the 1990s

The early 90s were peppered with violence. In 1992, 12 journalists were assassinated in Turkey, the highest number in any country that year (Committee to Protect Journalists, n.d.). The Helsinki Watch Report on this the following year wrote:

During 1992, scores of journalists, editors and writers were beaten, interrogated, tortured, charged, tried and sometimes convicted for what they had written, edited or published in Turkey. Most were charged under the ver}' broad Anti-Terror Law for such offenses as “criticizing” or “insulting” the president, public officers, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk or the military; printing “anti-military propaganda”; “praising an action proscribed as a crime”; “praising a terrorist organization”; or spreading “separatist propaganda”.

(United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1993)

In 1993, Mumcu was killed. The following year, the office and printing house of the pro-Kurdish newspaper Özgür Úlke were bombed, killing one and injuring dozens.

In another incident, a bomb was placed in the car of Ahmet Taner Kislah, former culture minister who was also a professor and a writer, resulting in his death in 1999 (Hiirriyet, 1999). Many others were killed, and investigations to find those responsible are still said to be continuing.

Those years were considered one of the darkest decades for journalism in Turkey. However, even in the face of constant threats of violence, investigative journalism was able to thrive. The rise of private TV channels looking for sensational content to drive ratings at the time also aided investigative journalists who needed a new channel of distribution.

§ahin wrote that the 90s were also a period marked by rampant corruption, which provided plenty of material to write about (2012, pp. 68—69). He was working as editor of a TV program called Arena at the time, alongside Ugur Diindar. Arena was famous for its investigations, and §ahin says that the show used to be inundated with calls from whistleblowers. This was a time when private TV channels could broadcast hard-hitting journalistic pieces.

It was discovered that news and debate increased ratings. Journalism was freer than it had ever been or would ever be. . . . Turkey believed in the importance of seeming democratic to the European Union. This was an exciting and fruitful period for an investigative journalist. And it was a sad and shocking period for citizens.

(Hurriyet, 1999)

Arena carried out investigations into a number of high-profile scandals that rocked society. The team unmasked an international organ mafia, revealed that Alzheimer patients at a care home in Istanbul were being beaten up and found out that numerous historical artefacts stored in Dohnabahce Palace in Istanbul were being left to rot.

Justice and Development Party and Erdogan

There are many reasons for the rise of Erdogan and the AKP. One reason for such strong support for a new and unknown party at the time of the 2002 elections was the hope of a bright new era.

In the aftermath of the election, Hie Economist wrote:

In Turkeys general election on November 3rd, for the first time in

  • 15 years one party seized an absolute majority: the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And it is a party which, though non-Islamist, has clear Islamic roots. But above all it was seen as a clean party (its Turkish initials, A and K, spell ak, white or clean). A wave of hope has swept a nation long hostage to economic mismanagement, repressive laws and corrupt politicians.
  • (2002)

That wave of hope is now long gone.

In the decade and a half since Erdogan came to power as prime minister, he has been systematically undermining the independence of the press. In recent years, his efforts to curtail free speech have become increasingly blatant, with Turkey becoming the world’s biggest prison for journalists.

On numerous occasions, Erdogan has targeted individual journalists, creating a climate of fear for reporters (Ahval, 2019). They have been subject to censorship, arrests, lawsuits, financial pressures and violence.

In 2018, at a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron, Erdogan described journalists as “gardeners” of terrorism (Deutsche Welle, 2018).

Investigative journalists who revealed corruption in Erdogans government, ties to shady organisations and dubious practices by the so-called “deep state” have all been accused of supporting terrorism and imprisoned.

In 2011, seven journalists were arrested, accused of being part of a plot to overthrow the government. They were said to be members of a clandestine group called Ergenekon which was allegedly trying to organise a coup against Erdogans government.

Investigative journalists Nedim $ener and Ahmet Sik were among those detained. The allegations were made by prosecutors who had links to the Giilen movement - a religious group led by cleric Fethullah Giilen, a former ally of Erdogan who was later blamed for being behind the failed coup of 2016 (AP News, 2018).2 The irony that the Ergenekon investigation was opened because of Sik’s investigation into the organisation which had been published in 2007 in Nokta magazine was not lost on observers (PEN International, 2011)?

At the time, Sik also wrote a book called The Imam’s Army which investigated the infiltration of the police and the judiciary by Giilen s followers. In a Q& A with the Committee to Protect Journalists while in prison in Istanbul, Sik said he was arrested because of this book, which had not even been published yet (Hurriyet, 2011). Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, compared the book to a bomb (Bianet, 2011).

Sik and Sener were eventually freed in March, 2012. Sik was later arrested again in 2016, this time for propaganda for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as well as the Giilen group, which is now called the Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO).

Just like §ik, §ener also investigated the Giilen organisation, among other issues. In 2010, he was tried over a book he wrote implicating Turkish security forces in the 2007 murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He later wrote another book on Dink’s murder called Red Friday — Who Broke Dink's Pen? and Fetullah Giilen and the Giilen Community in Ergenekon Documents. $ener said that he believed his arrest was linked to his books on Dink (Mahoney, 2011).

Pelin Linker is another investigative journalist who has been prosecuted for her work. Linker worked on the Paradise Papers investigation and wrote about the two companies in Malta that Binali Yildinm, prime minister from 2016 to 2018, owned with his sons. Linker was sentenced to more than a year in prison in January 2019 for defamation and insult (Borger, 2019). In May, the appeals court dismissed the prison sentence; however, it upheld the more than $1,000 fine that Cumhuriyet had to pay (Fitzgibbon, 2019).

Alongside this suppression of free speech through more traditional methods, such as imprisonment, Erdogan and his supporters have adopted what in many ways is the blunter tactic of seizing ownership of the media over the last few years. Following the sale of Dogan Groups media assets to Erdogan ally Demiroren Group in 2018, approximately 97% of Turkish media has come under direct or indirect control of the government (Bucak, 2018).

Through such control, red lines were drawn. Bilge Yesil describes it perfectly:

If you look at 2007—08, that was a key turning point. The media back then learned that certain corruption or bribery scandals must not be covered, particularly after huge tax fines levelled against Dogan Media Group for reporting on the issue. Then again, during the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot trials, the media learned that there was another red line regarding the military and the Giilen movement. In 2013 with the Gezi Park protests new red lines emerged, and after the corruption scandal of December 2013 more red lines emerged. Now with the coup attempt there are even more red lines.

(Armstrong, 2016)

Dogan Group’s media empire had previously been a platform for journalists who were critical of Erdogans regime for years. Now there are only a handful of independent papers left who will publish the work of investigative journalists.

However, they have been struggling. Cumhuriyet, the independently owned newspaper famous for publishing investigative pieces exposing government corruption, was one of the few publications left that featured opposition voices. In 2018, 13 of its staff members received prison sentences for supporting PKK and FETO. The paper was already in a difficult financial position, struggling to keep its doors open since 2011, when it was denied public advertising (BBC News, 2018).

In September 2018, a controversial court ruling resulted in a new board of directors being appointed. Alev Co§kun, who was a prosecution witness in the trial against the Cumhuriyet journalists, was appointed as chairman of the Cumhuriyet Foundation. The changes led to many of the titles journalists, including Editor-in-Chief Murat Sabuncu, being fired (Ahval, 2018).


There is no denying that investigative journalism under the current regime in Turkey is incredibly difficult. Even if journalists are able to find sources, unearth documents and discover wrongdoing, there are not that many places that will publish their articles. If they do find an outlet, they are faced with immediate persecution. They work under the threat of violence and prosecution from the government.

However, it is not impossible. Book publishers have thrown a lifeline to investigative journalists. There are numerous examples of this.

In early 2019, a book was published called Metastaz. It was written by two journalists, Bari? Pehlivan and Bari? Terkoglu. The book is an investigation into the infiltration of the Turkish government by FETO and other religious organisations. It looks into events both before and after the coup attempt in 2016 and how other organisations are filling the gaps left by FETO (Haberler, 2019).

The same publishing house, Kirmizi Kedi (Red Cat), recently published the English translation of another book written by Haluk $ahin. The Turkish version was published in 2016. In the book, called Hate Trap — The Anatomy of a Forgotten Assassination, $ahin looks into the assassination of two Turkish diplomats by an Armenian-American in the United States in 1973 following recently declassified FBI documents (AVIM, 2019). He then goes on to discuss the connection between the killing of the Turkish diplomats and the assassination of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink in 2007.

In addition to such journalists who are defying the governments suppression and finding ways around its censorship, there are organisations that are actively training a new generation of investigative journalists in Turkey. One we already mentioned is the Ugur Mumcu Investigative Journalism Foundation (Umag).

Another is the Objective program that was launched by international consultancy Niras and BBC Media Action in 2013 across several countries, including Turkey. In its first year, 48 journalists responded to a call for submissions, with more than 50 projects (Platform 24, n.d.).

The works selected to receive grants in 2018 were:

  • • Desislava Senay Martinova Oztiirk, “Bonsais Journey in Turkey”
  • • Dicle Ba?tiirk, “Kanallstanbul: An International Crisis in the Making”
  • • Merve Diltemiz Mol, “The LGBTI Movement in State of Emergency”
  • • Uygar Giiltekin, “Can the Assyrians Return to Their Homeland?”
  • • Bekir Avci, “From Satellite Dishes to Wireless”
  • • Tamer Arda Ersin, “The Impact of Asbestos Release from Demolition of Buildings on the Environment and Public Health”

Repression of journalists and especially of investigative journalists in Turkey has been going on since the foundation of the Turkish Republic, save for short periods of relative freedom, and has become almost ingrained in the political culture of the country. Consequently, it is not likely to end any time soon.

As T24 columnist Metin Miinir said:

The better a journalist is in Turkey, the more likely he or she will be fired. Ahmet Sik is the proof of this. If he was in the US, he would have received a Pulitzer. In Turkey, he was fired from his job and sent to prison.


  • 1 After the adoption of the multi-party state in Turkey, there were intermittent bursts of investigative journalism. These all impacted the way the media was viewed by the public and bolstered the confidence of journalists overall. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s when the practice and the terminology came into wide use.
  • 2 Fethullah Gillen is a cleric who has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999. His organisation operates schools and charities in multiple countries. However, they have also been known to have control over the judiciary and police in Turkey. Giilen has had a friendly relationship with several Turkish leaders in the past. He and Erdogan were also previously allies. However, during the Gezi protests that took place in Turkey in 2013, cracks in that relationship began to appear. On May 2016, Erdogan officially listed the Giilen organisation as a terrorist group known as FETO. On 15 July 2016, there was an attempted coup in Turkey. The efforts of the military men who were involved in the attempt were quashed overnight, and Erdogan was quick to blame Giilen for it. Following the coup attempt, the government declared a state of emergency, which led to mass arrests.
  • 3 The draft book was seized by the government in 2011, which claimed it was a document of the Ergenekon terror organisation. A version of the book was, however, eventually published in November 2011 under the title “oooKitap” (“oooBook”). It was put together by 125 journalists, activists and academics.


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