Turkish Media is Biased, and Not Just Towards Erdogan


On July 21, Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar published an article titled "In Turkey, Media Bosses are Undermining Democracy" in the New York Times. The following Tuesday, he was fired from Sabah, the daily newspaper in Turkey for which he was an ombudsman, proving the very point he had made in the article. Press freedom in Turkey has suffered greatly in the past decade for several reasons related to government policies. Baydar's article, however, highlights a much deeper problem with the freedom of press in Turkey that is related to its basic media model.

Baydar's Times op-ed explained the media corruption in Turkey by tracing the relationship of powerful media owners to the government. Rather than arguing, he showed through these connections the real reasons behind the heavy self-censorship and editorial processes in the Turkish media companies. He gave tangible examples of other business interests of some media owners in telecommunications, banking, and construction, and the consequent transformation in news coverage upon these owners acquiring large-scale business contracts from the government. He included names such as the Demiroren Group, which owns the daily Milliyet and is also in the liquid propane gas business; the Dogus Group, which manages the news channel NTV and has recently won a bid for the $700 million Galataport construction project in Istanbul; and the Ciner Group, which owns Haberturk TV and has won a number of contracts for energy and electricity distribution in the past years. "The kiss of death to our profession," Mr. Baydar explains, "has been bestowed by owners who consciously destroy editorial independence, fire journalists who voice skepticism and dissent and block investigative reporting."

Without going into details on the number of jailed journalists in Turkey — which is the world's highest — and writing yet another article about the government crackdown on press freedom, I will refer interested readers to the Committee to Protect Journalists's (CPJ) 2011 Special report titled "Turkey's Press Freedom Crisis." If not that, a simple Google search would provide many articles written by some very brave journalists that would satisfy any inquiries. Instead, in this article, I will take Baydar's investigative approach and take it further to examine Turkey's media problem on a broader scale.

Europe and North America can be generally broken down to three categories in terms of the countries' media models to measure the political parallelism: the liberal model, the democratic corporatist model and the polarized pluralist model. The liberal model, otherwise known as the "North Atlantic" media model, usually includes market-dominated media with low political parallelism and non-institutionalized self-regulation. This model applies to countries like Britain, Ireland, the U.S., and Canada. The democratic corporatist model, also known as the North/Central European model, applies to countries like Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries. In this model, we can see a historically strong party press, but a shift to neutral commercial press, commentary- and information-oriented journalism that has institutionalized self-regulation, strong state intervention to protect press freedom, and a politics-in-broadcasting model of governance with substantial autonomy.

The polarized pluralist model, also known as the Mediterranean model, is a bit different. It applies to the Mediterranean countries that are culturally closer to each other than other countries in Europe and tend to have similar traditions, like France, Italy, Spain, and Greece. The main difference of this model to the others is that there is high political parallelism, which means a stronger integration of media into party politics. In this model, political loyalties are supposed to supersede professional journalism as newspapers are generally affiliated to a certain political party or view.

Looking even at this brief description of these models it's evident that Turkey's media model has the most ties to the polarized pluralist. Much like in these countries, in Turkey, too, media outlets often operate based on political or ideological affiliation. As Taha Ozhan puts it, "The media sector's relationship with the government is not the only problem [Turkey] faces today. The media establishment, media bosses and journalists are shaped by their ideological tendencies, as well as the government's positions." Journalists as well as media bosses in Turkey have apparent ties to certain political stances, if not specific party affiliations. These heightened ideological differences and polarization have led to blatant media wars throughout the past decades and have thus compromised the very notion of free press by doing so. Certain media companies today are criticized of bias towards the ruling AKP government. But in reality, almost all media companies in Turkey — regardless of their ideological differences — deserve criticism for bias, for none of them have adhered to global standards of true press objectivity.

This is not to say that the accusations by the opposition against the AKP government have been wrongful or should be discredited in any way. But as liberal Turkish crowds continue to bash the AKP for jeopardizing freedom of press in Turkey, although with good reason, they must not constrain themselves in the specific details and overlook the bigger picture regarding the objective press problem in Turkey if they truly want to elevate the Turkish press freedom towards the higher standards of western Europe. Turkey needs to improve its media culture and establishments by freeing journalism from its ties to the government-elect — whatever political affiliation this may mean. Turkey can only direct itself on a truly democratic path if the media companies turn towards high, independent professionalism as seen in the democratic corporatist or liberal media models, rather than being constrained under the rule of partisan bureaucracy that we see today.