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‘When this is all over, I will cry my heart out’ - Inside Turkey’s pro-govt press

Updated: Dec 15, 2019

“Journalism“ as practiced by CNN's Jim Acosta and his functioning as a mouthpiece for the Democratic party, is for thousands of journalists in Turkey, working for the government-controlled media the only option to remain employed and survive. Some of the journalists working at these newspapers find themselves in passive resistance and some are participating in a more active struggle.

We know the threat this pro-government media monopoly poses to the free flow of independent news and information. But what about the thousands of journalists in Turkey who work for these media outlets?

This is what a few had to say:

“I know what I'm doing is treachery“, Murat said. Murat - who identifies politically as a socialist - is a journalist at one of Turkey’s most fiercely pro-government newspapers. He referred to the paper as an “ideological bulletin” and a “rag”.

“Nobody even reads it; we just fill the pages”, he added.

The circulation of this and similar newspapers accounts for almost 90 percent of the market in Turkey. On any given day, as many as 10 to 15 newspapers use identical quotes from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quotes in their headlines. Only a handful of independent newspapers remain.

A few, journalists working for pro-government media spoke about the challenges of doing their job and offered exclusive insight into how the pro-government media machine operates. (The journalists’ names have been changed here to protect their identity.)

A presidential son’s favorite sport

Murat, who covers sports, gave startling examples of the way in which journalists like him are made to work. “Even the president’s routine messages of congratulation to medal-winning sports personalities are prominently featured”, he remarked.

“We give a lot of coverage to archery, which is the favorite sport of Bilal Erdoğan, the president’s son, and to the activities of sports personalities such as Hidayet Türkoğlu and Hamza Yerlikaya, who are outright supporters of the president. All the pro-government media do this.”

Murat explained further how his paper supported Erdoğan’s “Yes” campaign in the 2017 referendum on the adoption of a system of presidential government.

“(Soccer players) Rıdvan and Arda started a ‘Yes’ campaign on social media. I wrote a headline for the page, so that it looked as though all footballers were saying ‘Yes’. The headline was: ‘Footballers say “Yes” for a strong Turkey.’ But when a football fan is barred from entering the stadium for carrying a ‘No’ placard, that’s something that you cannot report on.”

Murat defended himself by saying that he does not write for the political pages and that all sports-oriented media outlets are essentially “the lowest of the low”. In his view, no one is persuaded to vote for Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party by reading his paper.

He added that he did not want to lose his only source of income.

For Erdoğan and about Erdoğan

Irfan, who until last year worked as an online editor at a pro-government newspaper, told: “There is a process of manipulation going on and I am an actor in this.” His understanding of responsibility, however, differs from that of Murat.

Erdogan was jailed in 1999 for reciting this poem

Irfan worked for the TürkMedya group, which includes such newspapers as Akşam and Güneş. TürkMedya group is owned by Hasan Yeşildağ, who went to prison at the same time as Erdoğan in order to protect him. (Ed: Erdoğan was jailed in 1999 for reciting a poem.)

With regards to editorial policy and the selection of news, Irfan explained:

“News about inflation not reaching its target or stories about defendants accused of membership of the Gülenist movement being released on bail would never make it onto our site.

News about the leader of the CHP opposition party, Kılıçdaroğlu, would not normally be featured unless there was some hint of a scandal. It is all completely arbitrary, and you have to think about it in terms of the stakes involved: Everything is for Erdoğan and about Erdoğan.”

Irfan claimed that journalists at his former paper apply this simple “Erdoğan rule” at all times. But that alone is not enough to curry the proper favor.

“If you put up headlines that are not powerful enough, you’ll be regarded as a weak link and you’ll be taken off the job”, he said.

According to Irfan, there is no recourse against this system and no one to turn to.

“You live with that sadness”, he explained. “We came into this game with our eyes open. They don’t force you to work for them. Now I see online that 2,000 people have shown interest in the job I was doing. There is nowhere you can turn to in resistance.”

Irfan said that although it is known that he is not an AKP supporter, he is viewed in the places he works as “harmless” and is allowed to stay in his job.

Still, Irfan and those like him are overlooked for promotion in favor of employees who have a photograph of Erdoğan on their desk or as their computer screen saver. Irfan has been unemployed for months and is now applying for jobs online for which there are thousands of applicants. He no longer cares whether his next job is with independent or pro-government media.

Blocking the unions

Yusuf, who worked at Turkuvaz Medya until last year, stressed that the absence of unions at pro-government media had sped up government influence in the newsroom.

The dissolution of unions within the media sector is not new. Aydın Doğan, owner of the influential Doğan media group until its sale in 2018, took the first steps to impede unions in 1991.

In 2008, a businessman close to the government, Ahmet Çalık, entered the media sector by buying the Sabah-ATV media group. Çalık also took measures to prevent unionization. The Sabah-ATV group was later transferred to Turkuvaz Medya, which has very close ties to the government. One of its board members, Serhat Albayrak, is the brother of Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdoğan’s son-in-law.

Yusuf said that the onslaught against the news at Turkuvaz Medya, the sacking of staff members who did not support the AKP and the high-levels of self-censorship began in 2008. He recalled how the situation at his media outlet changed after that.

“Every time you went somewhere on a news story they’d say, ‘Ah, you’re one of our men’. No, I’m a journalist, my friend! I’m not automatically on your side. But the pro-government staff members are all conferring with one another. They’ll say, ‘There’s a topic coming up about Kılıçdaroğlu. How should we write about it, what kind of line do you want?’ How can a journalist ask such a thing? It’s shameful!”

Yusuf has given up all hope of continuing to work as a journalist and has now started a new life far from Istanbul.

‘When this is over, I will cry my my heart out’

Deniz is a journalist working for a newspaper bought by Erdoğan Demirören, a businessman with close ties to the government. Deniz does not accept the term “pro-government” to describe his paper. He also said that his paper does not skew any of its news stories in favor of the regime.

Confirmation of just how close Demirören is to President Erdoğan came in a leaked telephone conversation between the two in 2014. In the conversation, Demirören asks of the president in relation to a news story, “Have we upset you, boss?”. At the end of the call, Demirören is heard saying, tearfully, “How did I get into the business? For whom?”.

In April 2018, the Demirören conglomerate bought the Doğan Group, publisher of the influential newspaper Hürriyet, thereby supplanting Doğan as Turkey’s largest media company. (Doğan was forced to sell well below value).

One day after news broke about the sale of Turkey’s largest media group, businessman and honorary president of the Doğan Media Group, Aydın Doğan, said he himself made the decision to sell his media group. In a written statement Aydın Doğan said: “I have left the age of 80 behind. At this point today, I have decided of my own accord to end my profession as a publisher.”

Doğan said he had worked in the media sector for 40 years and that his media group had managed to become one of the most respected and important media organizations in Europe. “As a publisher, I have attributed great importance to independent and objective journalism by remaining loyal to the universal principles of journalism. I have paid attention to protecting our state’s interests and our nation’s rights,” Doğan said in his statement.

In 2009, the Finance Ministry’s tax authority fined firms controlled by the Doğan Group TL6,8 billion (around $4,5 billion) for unpaid taxes. The record tax fine was seen at the time as politically motivated and raised media freedom concerns in the country.

Erdoğan publicly criticized Aydın Doğan in 2009 and called on his party’s supporters to refrain from buying his group’s newspapers.

Demirören’s media outlets are seen as less blatantly biased than other pro-government titles. However, his newspapers Milliyet and Vatan feature Erdoğan’s words and activities disproportionately to other political actors. There is virtually no reporting on Turkey’s second-largest opposition party, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), for example. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) is given space only on the inside pages.

Deniz sought to counter the consensus view about Demirören’s reporting. “If you look at things closely, you’ll see that all we have been doing is journalism”, he said, insisting that his paper did give voice to those who had suffered as a result of Erdogan’s policies and that it took journalistic skill to place news items critical of the government.

Still, Deniz could not deny the existence of government interference. “Yes, I sense it”, he said. “There is definitely pressure. That’s no lie.”

He offered an anecdote to illustrate the level of self-censorship:

“In one issue of the paper we gave considerable space to a report on environmental damage. The next day the Ministry for the Environment refuted these claims. I don’t know if anyone from the Ministry actually made a phone call but we took it upon ourselves not to ever give column inches to such reports again.”

Deniz has thought many times about leaving the paper. “There are certain things that I’ve just had to swallow, things I’ve had to accept just to be able to keep on going”, he said. “Tomorrow or the next day, whenever this whole thing is over, I just know I will stand up and cry my heart out.”

The agenda is that of the state

We tried to contact the heads of the pro-government newspapers Sabah, Akşam and Vatan for their opinions, but received no response.

The editor-in-chief of Milliyet, Mete Belovacıklı, insisted in an interview that the government puts no pressure on the newspaper, either directly or indirectly. Milliyet’s only concern, he said, was to publish balanced journalistic articles and to cover issues based solely on their newsworthiness.

When asked why Milliyet’s headlines constantly center on Erdoğan and things that he says, Belovacıklı replied: “In the last four to five years, the public statements that have a bearing on the agenda have all come from our political administration.”

‘At least I didn’t stay silent’

Another journalist, Nazım Ali, who worked as part of the Demirören media group, admitted that sometimes articles displeasing to the government were consigned to the inside pages.

“To the extent that those articles are (even) published, they are either hidden somewhere in the inner pages or they are put in such a way that it’s hard to understand the actual issue”, he explained. “I can tell you that this is a common and accepted practice at the newspaper.”

After publication, he was frequently called into the editor’s office to be told that “this story will create a problem for us” or “I don’t want to be getting a phone call from the district mayor’s office”.

“Every time I wrote a story I felt as though I was a ‘troublemaker’ or ‘someone who will create a difficult situation for the newspaper’ “, Ali said.

He added: “The situation at our newspaper is not as bad as that at Akşam or Yeni Şafak but it’s no walk in the park either because they are constantly trying to control you. There have been times when I’ve suffered psychological problems and I’ve even been at the stage where I’ve said to myself that I just can’t take any more. But I had to stay strong, I had to carry on.”

Ali left the newspaper some time ago. He is working on developing his skills so that he may return, in stronger shape, to his profession as a journalist.

Reflecting on his situation, he took solace in his decision not to go quietly.

“At the end of the day, I struggled hard against all that was demoralizing, all of the mobbing, and at least I didn’t stay silent, at least I made sure that I raised my voice.”

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