On an early morning in October 2011, I received a text from a columnist of a Turkish daily telling me to not give up. I was traveling in Amsterdam, still jetlagged from the day before, and I didn’t know what he meant. Then I noticed my Twitter feed was overflowing with similar messages.
It was my seventh year as a columnist at Akşam, one of Turkey’s oldest daily newspapers, and I had gained a reputation—or notoriety—for being a vocal critic of Turkey’s pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party government, known as the AKP. After I saw the tweets, I quickly searched for my name online to find out what was happening. Apparently, there was a tiny editor’s note at the end of my column that day claiming that I was taking a leave. This was news to me; it had not been previously announced, and I hadn’t demanded it. But I knew it meant this was my last article for Akşam.
Approximately 100 journalists have been either fired or forced to leave their jobs because of the AKP’s increasingly firm grip on Turkey’s news media. And once a journalist is fired, he or she is blacklisted—no more career opportunities in the country’s mainstream media. “At first, [people close to the government] approach newspaper owners at cocktail parties, receptions or foreign visits to warn them that a journalist is crossing the line,” says Can Dündar, a columnist with an avid following who was recently let go from Milliyet daily. “If you insist on crossing the line, then you face the guillotine.”
This summer’s massive government protests—sparked by Prime Minister and AKP Chairman Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans to turn Istanbul’s beloved Gezi Park into a shopping center—poured fuel on the media cleansing fire. Turkey’s Journalists Union estimates that 72 journalists have been fired just since the protests broke out in late May. AKP Chief Advisor Yalçın Akdoğan, a columnist in the pro-government Star daily, has denied all claims that the government demanded the firings.
“There have always been layoffs in Turkey’s media history, some of them with direct orders from politicians, but they were mostly isolated incidents,” says Haluk Şahin, a journalism professor at Istanbul Bilgi University who wrote for the Radikal newspaper before being fired. But Şahin says the AKP’s measures represent a new extreme: “There had never been a time when a group of writers was purged, even cleansed for ideological reasons.”
When the AKP came to power in 2002, its mission was actually to democratize Turkey. The country is a candidate to join the European Union, and the government implemented admirable reforms to meet the standards for EU membership, curbed the military’s influence on politics and lifted the ban on Kurdish-language education and broadcasts. However, starting with its second election victory in 2007, the AKP began implementing increasingly authoritarian measures and advocating an Islamist lifestyle. That same year, Turkey’s biggest daily newspaper, Hürriyet, fired Emin Çölaşan, its most popular columnist for 22 years and an acerbic critic of the government.
Çölaşan’s departure was a clear attempt to intimidate other journalists, and the AKP wasn’t bluffing: 49 journalists in Turkey are serving prison terms directly linked to their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In 2011, 10 journalists were arrested for allegedly “creating hatred and enmity in the society” and “plotting to overthrow the government” in an investigation known as the odatv.com case. They have been released, but not acquitted. “I may be free now, but they are asking for 10 to 23 years in prison,” says Baris Pehlivan, editor of odatv.com and one of the arrested journalists.
With so many journalists out of work—or in jail—now almost every newspaper in the country has a completely overhauled masthead, and some have even changed ownership.
In 2009, the government issued Hürriyet owner Aydın Doğan, Turkey’s biggest media mogul, a $500 million fine, then a $2.5 billion fine—staggering amounts that almost exceeded the holding company’s net worth. Doğan was later forced to sell two of his leading newspapers, his lucrative petroleum business and a television channel, as well as fire or demote several anti-Erdoğan journalists, in order to mend his tumultuous relationship with Erdoğan.
Although there are still a few small independent newspapers and networks strongly criticizing the AKP, Turkish mainstream media is either neutral or supportive of the government. Erdoğan’s son-in-law is the CEO of the company that owns the country’s second biggest daily newspaper, Sabah. And the government recently seized the newspaper where I used to work, Akşam, along with its sister companies and sold them to a consortium of three construction firms, all of which have boomed during Erdoğan’s reign. A former AKP parliamentarian was appointed as the editor, and Erdoğan’s cousin was hired to run the group’s news network.
“Imagine Obama’s cousin and his son-in-law running two of America’s biggest news organizations,” tweeted Benjamin Harvey, the Turkey bureau chief for Bloomberg News. “Sounds stupid, right? It is.”
Hürriyet Chairwoman Vuslat Doğan Sabancı, who is Aydın Doğan’s daughter, gave a speech in January at Columbia University in New York. Although she spoke about gender equality in the media, during the Q&A the audience was more interested in Turkey’s press freedom or lack thereof. “It’s a shame that we have so many journalists in jail,” she said.
Sabancı tried to convince the audience that the changes in Doğan Media Group, including firings and appointments, had nothing to do with government pressure, but with various other reasons, none of which she specified.
Toward the end of the evening, however, she gave up the act. “Do you believe that there’s press freedom in Turkey?” a Turkish student asked.
Sabancı sighed, then was silent for a moment. “Come on,” she said, “of course we don’t have press freedom in Turkey.”