The release on Thursday of thirty-two Turkish truck drivers kidnapped by(ISIS) in Mosul last month came as something of a surprise for some Turkish people. All of a sudden, pictures emerged of a Turkish state television journalist interviewing the newly released drivers, who shouted “long live Turkey” and praised Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the camera rolled.
Almost anywhere else in the world, the overseas abduction of over eighty nationals, including forty-nine consulate workers and their families who remain missing in Mosul, would induce nationwide uproar, an outpouring of public camaraderie, and overt government promises of intervention.
But not in Turkey. Here, media outlets have been banned from reporting the incident, meaning many have little concrete information regarding the fate of dozens of their captured compatriots.
Within hours of Erdoğan calling for Turkey’s press to refrain from reporting on the kidnappings—citing security concerns—a gagging order issued by an Ankara court came into force on June 17, banning Turkish media from writing about or airing reports related to the incidents.
Having seen Turkey’s once-independent judiciary gutted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) earlier this year in retaliation for a graft investigation that saw members of the prime minister’s own family questioned, few are surprised.
“When the government is unable to impose a total control over the entire media, it employs intimidating tactics through legal means to silence it in times of crises,” said Abdullah Ayasun, an Istanbul-based journalist with Today’s Zaman newspaper.
The move to silence the press is symptomatic of a growing ill in Turkey. Over the past year, the AKP has become increasingly sensitive to criticism of its actions. Last month, Erdoğan called a respected American CNN journalist an “agent” for his coverage of protests in Istanbul, rhetoric that was quickly repeated in pro-government media outlets. Dozens of Turkish reporters were fired or let go in the aftermath of last summer’s anti-government protests that centered on Gezi Park in Istanbul for covering those events. Many continue to practice self-censorship today for fear of losing their jobs.
Experts say Turkey’s government approaches sensitive public issues such as the Mosul kidnappings as a direct threat to itself. Earlier this year a Turkish court banned access to Twitter and YouTube for several months in what was seen as the AKP’s bid to quell growing criticism of its actions. Last year, a similar press ban took effect following Turkey’s worst-ever terrorist attack, when more than 50 people were killed by a double car bomb in Reyhanlı, a town close to the Syrian border.
But Erkan Saka, a media commentator and assistant professor at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Faculty of Communication, says that though the AKP is skilled at turning major public events to its advantage, it is now facing increasing difficulties in this regard.
“Events like the [Mosul] kidnappings or Soma mine disaster are harder to contain. And government failures and [illicit] connections are quite explicit. Any public debate may turn it into an anti-government vibe. Thus the government prefers to stop all mainstream media debate,” he says.
As a result, Turkey’s image on the international stage has taken a hit, with its reputation as the world’s most prolific jailer of journalists an oft-mentioned fact. Turkey’s ‘media environment’ ranking published by the watchdog Freedom House fell in May into the ‘not free’ category alongside Iran and other serious offenders.
Importantly, for outsiders looking in, Turkey’s English-language media does not face the same restrictions as news in Turkish, giving the sense to some foreign readers that the country’s press is freer than it actually is.
“In Turkey’s English-language media there is a more vocal standing against the [AKP]. This does not mean this will be left free but I believe the government is more focused to contain the Turkish-language media for the moment,” says Saka. “The government is known to be happy with controlling [the] domestic public agenda only, imagining citizens as easily duped subjects.”
A serious challenge from Turkey’s media to retake the reins of independent reporting is unlikely. Major newspapers and broadcasters are owned by conglomerates with interests in sectors that dovetail with billion-dollar government-commissioned projects. When Koç Holding, one of Turkey’s wealthiest businesses, butted heads with Erdoğan after a hotel it owns sheltered protestors at Gezi Park last summer, it found itself hit with a 50-million-US-dollar tax bill.
“As long as there is strong financial and judicial pressure over newspapers, I don’t think in the short run there will be revolt [in the media],” says Saka.
Still, the fact that in almost every public speech Erdoğan sees it necessary to berate Twitter as an illness that has corrupted Turkish society means the AKP sees it as a serious threat.
Experts believe the appetite for social media sites such as Twitter in Turkey is such that dissent against the government’s actions will continue to rumble online—if not in print or on TV. With Erdoğan contesting a presidential election next month, pictures of the released truck drivers thanking the prime minister may soon appear on television sets around the country once more.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.