In the devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023, killing more than 50,000 people and injuring another 100,000, Seyfettin Uygun had a narrow escape fleeing a building that was badly damaged when the severe tremors caused widespread destruction.
Having avoided injury himself, the local journalist set out to document the human toll as he searched among the rubble in the southern Turkish town of Antakya. The task became particularly distressing when he discovered one of the bodies he had photographed was the mother of his girlfriend.
I met Uygun in March while taking part in a fact-finding mission organized by the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), of which I am vice-chair. He told his story while guiding the party through the ruins of his home town.
The fake construction site
A little over a month after the double quake – the first, magnitude 7.8, struck at 4am, the second, magnitude 7.7, at 1.24pm – Uygun found himself making national headlines.
He had published a story in his regional newspaper about a visit by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seeking re-election on May 14. The president had attended an official ground-breaking ceremony for a new hospital in Hatay province. But, as Uygun exposed in his article, the construction site was fake, a Potemkin village-style charade that acted as a photo-opportunity for Erdogan.
After its publication, Uygun became the target of death threats, reportedly from pro-government agitators, a move strongly condemned by journalism associations, but hardly unexpected.
The Turkish government controls 90 per cent of the national media, making the role of independent journalists such as Uygun essential if the public is to gain access to impartial information. This is a problem that becomes even more acute in the run-up to elections.
Over the past 20 years, the government under Erdogan’s influence has employed a wide range of measures to suppress independent media, dragging the country down the World Press Freedom Index to 165th out of 180, 16 places down on 2022.
Tactics used to suppress a free media include mass arrests, physical assaults, verbal threats, large fines, the mandatory removal or official blocking of digital news content, a tight control of social media platforms, politically sponsored troll attacks and lawsuits to prevent public participation.
Erdogan’s enduring support
Despite widespread complaints in the wake of the earthquakes that the government had failed miserably in its rescue efforts and in providing humanitarian aid, and despite an ongoing economic crisis, Erdogan continues to maintain significant popular support, according to recent polls.
His leading opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the main opposition candidate, seems unlikely to secure the presidency at least in the first round of voting. To an outside observer this may seem incomprehensible but the unfolding saga of Uygun and Erdogan’s hold on the media may allow us a glimpse of an explanation.
The elections hold a significance that reaches far beyond Turkey’s borders. As a keystone in relations between the democratic West and the wider Middle East, Turkey’s political trajectory has the potential to reshape the diplomatic landscape.
Its pivotal role in NATO, demonstrated by its veto power during the crisis surrounding Sweden and Finland’s membership bid, solidifies Ankara as a critical ally for the democratic world.
Deepening ties with Russia and China, however, are raising the stakes. ‘If Turkey sacks its strongman, democrats everywhere should take heart,’ stated The Economist in its recent cover story, describing the race as ‘the most important election of 2023’.
‘Sacking the strongman’ will not be an easy task, however, as concerns over the fairness of the contest abound, due primarily to Erdogan’s grip on the Turkish media.
Diminishing independent journalism
The diminishing space for independent journalism, along with the systematic dismantling of local news sources, raises serious questions about the existence of an informed electorate in Turkey. Erdogan’s ‘media capture’ suppresses dissenting voices and imposes a singular narrative on millions of citizens every day.
The government’s primary target remains the Kurdish media. Since June 2022, some 31 Kurdish journalists have been arrested, bringing the number of reporters in Turkish jails to 47 as of May 3, World Press Freedom Day, according to data from Turkey’s Journalists’ Union. The Erdogan administration employed its Putin-esque ‘disinformation law’ for the first time, convicting a Kurdish journalist for a report about the earthquakes.
While an IPI report I co-authored argues that independent journalism in Turkey has experienced a resurgence in recent years, especially on digital platforms, this growth is inadequate to ensure an informed electorate.
Erdogan maintains a stronghold over traditional media. The majority of Turks continue to get their news from TV networks, a significant number of which are controlled by the government directly or indirectly.
Some US-based media companies are accused of prioritizing their commercial interests and collaborating with Erdogan’s partisan media, despite the threat this poses to democracy in Turkey.
As I elaborated in a recent ProPublica investigation, Google calls Erdogan’s partisan media ‘partners’, and profits from their disinformation, propaganda and hate speech. Its search engine and Google News algorithms display a clear bias. The live data dashboard collated by Journo, the EU-supported non-profit Turkish news website that I oversee in Istanbul, reports that Google algorithms favour pro-Erdogan publishers over independent ones by a margin of 81 to 19.
Meanwhile, CNN International has persistently ignored calls to suspend its licensing agreement over the naming rights for a pro-Erdogan news outlet, CNN Turk. The Erdogan administration was said to be so pleased with CNN Turk’s coverage after the earthquakes that it offered the channel’s leading reporter and pundit seats in the new parliament. The Atlanta-based news network was criticized for siding with another strongman, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
Forced to self-censor
These are just some of the obstacles that make quality journalism the exception rather than the norm in Turkey. Under these circumstances, many journalists feel forced to self-censor, and the majority of local media outlets simply republish news agency content on inconsequential issues.