Burak Bilgehan Özpek: The press freedom is under a greater threat in Turkey

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The concerns over freedom of press have intensified with the Gezi protest which took place in June 2013. At first, the protests started with the modest demonstrations of environmentalists groups united against the demolition of Gezi Park in İstanbul’s famous Taksim Square, yet they evolved into widespread demonstrations attended by thousands following the disproportionate use of police force in burning the tents of environmentalists located in the park.

Nevertheless, the media tenaciously ignored the events and did not find the biggest civilian demonstrations ever happened in Turkey and the disproportionate use of police force to suppress them newsworthy. This situation led to the perception that the media failed to act independent from the government in its reporting. In addition, the purges of various journalists with the Gezi Protests brought the potential governmental pressure on media to the attention of both Turkish and international public opinion.

Since 2013, the declining freedom of press conditions in Turkey has been an important indicator of the country’s worsening performance on its path to democratization. This leads scholars to define the attempts of the Justice and Development Party government to dominate the media discourse within the framework of a “defective democracy”. In other words, these were the characteristics of a regime where there are regular elections as the basis of the legitimacy of the government but individual rights and freedoms are systematically violated. These regimes need the support of the public opinion just like liberal democracies, but this support is in turn used as the basis of more illiberal practices. To maintain the public support, the manipulation of attitudes towards the government are manipulated, and realities need to be spinned. At this point, the media proves critical as they are the tools to ensure this public support for the illiberal regimes and their legitimacy which results in pressure on the media and a threat to media freedom.

The researches on the freedom of press in Turkey demonstrates that in order to manipulate the public opinion and voting behavior, the government arbitrarily changes the legal framework and sets the terms of the conditions regarding economic dependence of media outlets, whereby those critical of the government are punished and in line with it are rewarded.

The specific findings dealing with the legal constraints vis-a-vis press freedom are as follows:

First of all, acquiring data on freedom of expression gets harder as the number of institutions and social media accounts that provide regular data decreased.
The legal framework surrounding freedom of expression is narrower as compared to the previous year, evidenced by the increased number of journalist under investigation and under custody as well as the imprisoned journalists.
RTUK (Radio and Television Broadcasting Council) and the Press Advertising Board (BIK) that have control over the distribution of yellow press cards licensing journalists have cancelled the press cards of 620 journalists in 2016.

When it comes to threats and physical attacks to journalists, , according to the figures released by the Journalists Union of Turkey, in the first half of 2016, 5 journalists have been killed, 6 have been assaulted, 12 have been openly threated and 19 have been precluded from reporting arbitrarily. Among these cases, the assassination attempt of Can Dündar is important to underline, as he was assaulted right in front of the court, where he was defending himself for a case brought against himself for reporting on the linkages of Turkish Intelligence Agency and an armament shipment to jihadist Syrian groups and was pointed as a target by the President.
Broadcasting bans became the norm as their number increased from 11 for 2014-15 period to 21 for 2015-16 period.
Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the companies and media groups known to be affiliated with Gülen movement have been confiscated. This situation has been aggravated after the July 15 coup attempt with 3 news agencies, 16 TV channels, 23 radio stations, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines, 29 publishers and distributers being shut down.
With regards to social media, Turkey has been the country with the most content removal requests on twitter.
The RTUK fines continued to disproportionately target those media outlets critical of the government. For example, of the three mostly watched TV networks, RTUK has fined more independent and impartial Star TV, 6 million TL and Kanal D, 5 million TL, whereas pro-government ATV channel was subject to only 1 million TL fines. Furthermore, as of the end of 2016, the number of blocked web sites have increased from 83.393 to 113.056 when compared with the previous year.
In the aftermath of July 15th, the confidence in the court’s independence in redressing potential violations of rights and freedoms are quite low. Two members of the Constitutional court have been put under custody and as of September 2nd, 2345 judges and prosecutors have been suspended. Thus, the high security risk serves as an excuse to overthrow the legal guarantees.

The dependency between the media and the state could be identified as a threat to separation of powers as it tends to create an asymmetrical dependency of the individual on the state. This could be grasped by examining the income that media companies have acquired from the state both directly and indirectly as well as the arbitrary enforcement of state taxation and opaque application of public procurement in transferring ownership of media firms. The results can be summarized as follows:

Public funds have continued to be disproportionately allocated to the news agencies which have favorable content to the government. This pattern can be observed both from the distribution of state advertising among different media outlets by BIK, as well as the advertisement share of media outlets from partly state owned enterprises. The figures on both are disproportionate to market shares of the media firms as evidenced by their circulation rates and proportionate to their tone of recording vis-a-vis the government.
The enforcement of taxation collection also continues to be a punitive control mechanism enforced by the state in that those media firms with a diverse tone vis-a-vis the government have been punished and those singlehandedly support it are pardoned.
Finally, the cross ownership structures between the government and media became further entangled with non-transparent procurement mechanisms, the details of which are not accessible even the members of the parliament.

All in all, this assessment points to a clear need for a structural transformation of freedom of the press in Turkey. Alongside the parameters taken into account, several dimensions of the media-press relationship in Turkey remain to be investigated in greater detail: the relationship between the local press and local governance mechanisms, financing of the social media support groups of political parties -the so-called ‘trolls’, backgrounds of media owners and their board of governors, and the lack of transparency in public procurement processes to name a few. Nonetheless, we have sufficient evidence that press freedom is under a greater threat in Turkey as compared to the previous years and the country previously defined as a defective democracy is under the risk to evolve into a competitive authoritarian regime.

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