The May 12 sale of KanalTurk, the most fiercely antigovernment national television channel in Turkey, to an associate of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated a growing shift in the balance of power in the Turkish media from opponents to supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
KanalTurk was founded by Tuncay Ozkan, a maverick 41-year-old journalist with a weakness for conspiracy theories, who was regarded by many of his colleagues as having greater conviction than credibility. Nevertheless, Ozkan and KanalTurk played a key role in organizing a series of mass public protests against the AKP’s attempts to appoint Abdullah Gul to the presidency in the spring of 2007. Ozkan frequently accused Erdogan of attempting to control the flow of information in Turkey by encouraging AKP supporters to enter the media, while buying the silence of mainstream newspapers and television channels by offering their owners lucrative state contracts and privileged access to privatization deals. As a result, many of the demonstrators at the rallies that swept through Turkey in spring 2007 directed their anger not only at the AKP government but also at the lack of coverage of their protests in the mainstream press. One of the most popular slogans at the rallies was “Biz Kac Kisiyiz?” meaning “How many people are we?” This was also used as the name of the main website for the protests, www.bizkackisiyiz.com.tr.
Ozkan’s decision to sell KanalTurk to a printing house owned by Akin Ipek, a 45-year-old businessman with close links to the AKP, has caused outrage among those that protestors at last year’s rallies accused of being unprincipled. Ipek is believed to have paid Ozkan around 40 million Turkish lira, or approximately $30 million (Milliyet, May 15). On May 13 the liberal daily Radikal ran a banner headline on its front page asking simply: “www.bizkaclirayiz.com.tr?” (www.howmanyliraarewe.com.tr).
In fact, however hypocritical they may now appear, Ozkan’s accusations were not without foundation. It is an open secret in Turkey that press coverage is often influenced not only by the media owners’ political sympathies but also by the possible impact of news items on their other business interests. In most cases, however, the interference comes not from the owners themselves but from zealous editors fearful of jeopardizing their jobs.
In June 2001, for example, the then Interior Minister Sadettin Tantan, who had an almost visceral hatred of any form of corruption, launched an investigation against allegations of bribery involving some of his cabinet colleagues and was promptly fired by the then Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz. At the time, Aydin Dogan, the most powerful media mogul in Turkey, was lobbying the government to be allowed to expand his business interests into the state-dominated energy sector. When several prominent columnists on the daily Milliyet, which is owned by the Dogan Group, wrote articles criticizing Tantan’s dismissal, the editor refused to publish them for fear of antagonizing Yilmaz (Milliyet, June 7, 2001). More recently, after agreeing to give the Dogan Group an exclusive interview, Erdogan was somewhat surprised when the journalists who came to his office were accompanied by a team of businessmen anxious to discuss the Dogan Group’s bid for a privatization tender.
There are undoubtedly many journalists in Turkey who are both conscientious and highly-principled but, in addition to having to brave pressure–and sometimes outright intimidation–from the state authorities, most also have to contend with self-censorship by their editors. As a result, any news that appears in the Turkish media invariably has to be filtered through an understanding not only of the reputation of the individual journalist but also of the political sympathies and business interests of the owner of the newspaper or television channel concerned.
The sale of KanalTurk comes soon the acquisition by Ahmet Calik, another close associate of Erdogan’s, of the Sabah-ATV media group, a purchase that was largely financed by two massive loans from state-owned banks (see EDM, April 24).
There are no reliable figures for the market shares of individual television channels. There are, however, better statistics for newspaper circulation. Until relatively recently, the Dogan group controlled around 75 percent of total circulation in Turkey, and its flagship daily, the nationalist Hurriyet, was the best-selling newspaper in the country. But the latest statistics published by the media monitoring organization Dorduncu Kuvvet, or “The Fourth Estate,” suggest that the Dogan Group’s share of total newspaper circulation has now dropped to around 50 percent, while that of newspapers sympathetic to the AKP has risen to around 40 percent.
When the sports dailies are excluded, Turkey’s total daily newspaper circulation stands at around 4.6 million for a population of around 70 million. Total readership is certainly considerably higher, however, as many institutions and companies subscribe to a newspaper that is then read by more than one employee.
According to figures published by Dorduncu Kuvvet for the week ending May 11, the best-selling daily newspaper in Turkey was Zaman with 860,000 copies, of which 845,000 are subscriptions. Zaman is run by followers of the exiled Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen. Although Gulen has avoided endorsing any political party, Zaman is an outspoken supporter of the government and several AKP ministers are known to be very close to the Gulen movement. Second comes Posta, a boulevard stable mate of Hurriyet, with 645,000, ahead of Hurriyet itself at 532,000 and Sabah, which was recently purchased by Calik, at 410,000.
Significantly, Zaman’s English language sister newspaper, Today’s Zaman, is now Turkey’s best-selling English language paper with 4,500 copies. The Turkish Daily News, which for many foreigners was their window on Turkey for over 45 years and which is now also owned by the Dogan Group, sells only 2,850 copies a day. In other words, a pro-AKP newspaper already dominates the English language press in Turkey (figures from Dorduncu Kuvvet, www.dorduncukuvvetmedya.com).