Protests in Turkey show Erdogan’s Control over Mainstream Media

Middle EAst

penguins CNN

While one of the biggest protests was taking place in Istanbul in decades, the mainstream media turned a blind eye to reporting what was happening in the streets. The major TV channels such as CNN Turk and NTV chose to broadcast a cooking program or a documentary about penguins, instead of showing images of the clashes during which the police used brutal force, and teargas on peaceful protesters that were trying to stop the  demolition of  Gezi Park.

The mainstream media failed to report on the initial events and fueled the anger of many Turks who questioned the media blackout.

Emre Caliskan, a Turkish freelance journalist, points out one of the main reasons, “the majority of media companies have investments in other sectors and they are afraid to lose their contracts and be in the blacklist of the government”.

The media outlets in Turkey are owned by large conglomerates with interests in other sectors such as construction, energy, finance and tourism, as the study ‘Caught in the Wheels of Power’ published by TESEV states.

“Media owners were extremely dependent on the clientelist relations with the state which enabled them to acquire tenders to undertake massive projects financed by the public. This has prevented these companies from performing the watchdog function expected from the media in established democracies”, concluded the study.

Dr. Ceren Sözeri, co-author of TESEV report and professor at Galatasary University, gives an example of the close relationship between media owners and government. “A few weeks ago, Ferit Şahenk who owns Dogus Media, one of the biggest media groups in the country, took a big public procurement from the government, a new port for Istanbul called Galataport. As Prime Minister mentions, Şahenk always says that “Thank you my Prime Minister we have expanded thanks to you”, states Ceren.

One of his channels is NTV, whose chief editor resigned and apologised for the failure to inform the public about the protests. The protesters burnt out one of NTV’s news van which stands now as a symbol at Taksim square.

Self-censorship is a common phenomenon in the Turkish media that affects in particular journalists and reporters who fear to be fired. The European Commission has reported that several journalists have lost their jobs for writing articles openly critical of the government.

“The government interpretation of freedom of speech is becoming sharper and sharper by time. If you do not share the agenda, discourse and views of the government, then you do not have space in the media to express them”, affirms Emre.

Turkey was placed near the bottom (154 of 179 countries) of the World Press Freedom index and labelled the world’s biggest prison for journalists last year by Reporters without Borders.

Some TV channels did broadcast the Gezi protest images, such as Halk TV which belongs to the opposition political party (CHP). However, the Turkish public watchdog has fined these channels for “harming the physical, moral and mental development of children and young people” by broadcasting coverage of the Gezi Park protests.

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In this case, as in the Arab protests, social media has shown to be the key channel used to report and find out what was happening in Turkey.

“The social media was very useful since the beginning. After the first attack we shared information about “where the police is”, “which way is safe” and “where to reunite”. In the first 5-6 days the news about Gezi park were only in the social media”, explains Ufuk Tanişan, who has been protesting in Gezi Park every day.

On the first night, more than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests, according to a study by New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory.

The great influence of social media was also shown when a campaign was launched on Twitter to raise money for a full-page ad to call for support in The New York Times. More than $50,000 was collected in 21 hours and the ad was published in the newspaper on 7th June.

The discourse of the government has been very critical towards social media. Erdogan defined it as “the biggest menace to society” and protesters were detained for posting “misinformation” via Twitter.

People in Turkey have turned to social media, and alternative and independent sources to inform themselves, such as Bianet, an activist media organisation with a version in English, and  What is happening in Istanbul?, a website that was created by a group of activists in Gezi. This website aims “to provide up to date and verified information on the events in Istanbul as the majority of Turkish mainstream media continues to either ignore the mass movement that we’re witnessing on the streets of Istanbul, or distort the facts”.

Ceren highlights that “one of the positive gains of the Gezi resistance is that people are more conscious about the media in the country and that small and independent media outlets will gain more importance in the near future”.

Article published at Media Diversity Institute

Remains of the repression in Egypt, an obstacle for press freedom

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Cairo has become one of the ten most dangerous places to work as a journalist. 75 journalists have been physically attacked and 81 imprisoned since February 2010, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

Mohamed El Sayed, assistant editor for the Egyptian and Sudanese affairs newspaper Al Hayat, was one of the journalists to face the dangers of being in the epicenter of the uprising in the Egyptian capital in January 2011. “We were chased by the regime, police, and military agents especially the first days of February 2011. I was detained for 17 hours with a couple of journalists in a school at the beginning of the Egyptian revolution”, explained Mohamed.

Some journalists were hounded, harassed, and imprisoned without evidence during the first days of the uprising. However, a year after the first protests in Tahrir Square, the situation has not changed much.

“I went back to Cairo for a week on the first anniversary of the uprising and the situation was the same. We were surrounded by military and police agents and they tried to harass journalists and activists”, affirmed Mohamed.

These repressive methods have contributed to Egypt’s fall in the Press Freedom Index 2011-2012 released by RWB. Egypt fell from 127th to 166th.

Remains of the regime

The departure of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, has not meant the fall of the entire infrastructure that supported the regime. Some critics state that the military is using the same old methods of censorship and intimidation of Mubarak’s regime.

The Supreme Council Army Forces (SCAF), which replaced the rais and will hold power until a new president is elected, has taken over the state media.

A few months after the revolution, people demanded the departure of those who were part of Mubarak’s regime in the public media. “The SCAF changed them but replaced them with military correspondents. 4 out of 7 state media chief editors were military correspondents who had long careers in the institution,” explained Mohammed.

However, not only journalists are being targeted, but also netizens who use internet to give their opinion. Both groups have been prosecuted before military tribunals for “insulting the army” or “spreading harmful information”. Egypt’s Penal Code and press law establishes prison and fines not less than 5000 Egyptian pounds (£530) if they are found guilty.

Some analysts believe that these terms are vague and they are used as a tool to prevent public criticism of the government and the military. “Now, there is to some extent press freedom, more than Mubarak’s period, but still restricted to critics to the SCAF”, affirmed Dr Mishrif, from King’s College London.

Maikel Nabil, an activist who had a blog about the military, suffered the consequences of criticizing the army. “He spent 10 months in prison and was condemned for two years. He was pardoned at the end of January after huge pressure from the political factions in Egypt,” explained Ahmed Kazi, journalist and activist.

The post that caused his prosecution can be found in Nabil’s blog. He wrote on March 2011, “the army did not stand by the people’s side, not even once during this revolution and that the army’s conduct was deceptive all the time and that it was protecting its own interests”.

A new agora

Even though, journalists and citizens know the consequences if they cross the red lines, they have not silenced them.

“Everyone in Egypt is talking about politics and the situation of Egypt. People express their concerns and fears about how the SCAF handles things in the country. Regardless of what the regime is doing people are participating actively”, affirmed Ahmed.

Egyptians have engaged in political debates that take place not only in the streets, cafes, and universities, but also on Facebook and Twitter. The social networks were important channels to spread the revolution and gather people in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the uprising, but also now after a year of the revolt.

“It has become a good channel for activists to communicate and to spread what happens in any inch of the country. The social media is playing a vital role in keeping the revolution going on”, stated Ahmed.

The social network has, therefore, become an important tool for communication and also a paramount source of information. For Mohammed, “twitter is at the moment the most credible source and keeps you updated all the time”.

The military has also seen the useful side of the social network. “They have a Facebook page that is used as the only channel of communication between the army and the people”, affirmed Ahmed.

The popularity of the social network in Egypt has situated the country with the highest number of Facebook users in the Arab world. Facebook had over 4 million Egyptian users in November 2010, now has over 9 million.

Social networks have converted into a new agora where to discuss and inform about what happens in the country, where the Egyptians keep demanding the reform of state media and the fall of prison and fine for criticizing the army.

Published in Mernet Newsletter April 2012