Politics and the mass media in Turkey.


What will be the future of the Turkish press


© Prof.Dr.A. Raşit Kaya

This article sets out to examine the linkages between the media and politics in Turkey. It argues that, rooted in the world of politics from the outset, Turkish media is always marked by a high degree of political parallelism. As regulator and funder, the state (political majority) exerted strong control over the media. In the 1990s with the explosive growth of private broadcasting, media owners acquired considerable autonomy and used their media properties to intervene in political decisions that had a central role in the capital accumulation. Today, deeply divided into two camps, media is the principal locus of the bitter political strife.

     The centrality of the media to social life is easily taken for granted today. By the same token, there is nearly universal agreement that the media play a vital and defining role in politics.  This being the fact, a commonly asked question is whether the media reflect (mirror) or distort and manipulate society? This question haunts theoretical discussion in mass communication research and has hardly received an unanimous answer. But, if we were talking about Turkey, this question could be taken inversely and asked as “does the state of media reflect the state of society?” Then the answer would certainly be an affirmative one if the interlocutor were familiar with the ‘Turkish politics’.

   As a matter of fact, in almost all countries media systems are shaped by the wider context of economic and political history, structure, and culture. The early press was generally commercial enterprises concerned with the “production of texts for use in law, medicine and trade” (Thompson, 1993; p.370). While in most parts of Europe regular newspapers have begun to appear in the early seventeenth century, in the Ottoman Empire even printing in Turkish (and/or Arabic) was forbidden until the end of the eighteenth century. In such a context , advent of a commercial press would inevitably clash with the existing institutional setting characterized by a pre-capitalist, undeveloped economy, patrimonial structure of political controls. Hence arises the singularity of the Turkish Press history. Turkish Press (media) was rooted exclusively in the world of politics and literature contrary to its Western counterparts.

Historical Background
Ottoman Roots

   First newspapers during the Ottoman period were published in the early years of the nineteenth century by the foreigners to promote and maintain foreign interests in the Ottoman territory. Their latent goal probably was to foster a capitalistic development (Kaya, 2009). The first Turkish-language newspaper was founded by Mehmet Ali Pasha, then quasi-sovereign governor of Egypt, to counter the foreign sources of information. The first Turkish-language newspaper published in Istanbul in 1831 was Takvim-i Vekayi which was founded under the auspices of the Sultan Mahmut II.  It took about thirty years for the first privately owned Turkish-language newspaper to appear, and it was followed by several others. Thus, the press became the major arena of the political strifes in the 1860’s since the authoritarian political system was characterized by the concentration of power and the absence of institutionalized means of political competition. In the steadily declining empire, faced with a serious economic crisis and territorial losses a generation of intellectuals, namely Young Ottomans/Turks affected by the nineteenth century’s great intellectual and political movements emerged from the ranks of bureaucracy –governing elites- launched themselves in journalism. They took the chance to scrutinize the authoritarian institutions and pressed for their modernization. Indeed, “Young Ottoman Press” has played a vital role in the proclamation of the first constitutional monarchy (Meşrutiyet) in 1876. However, the “Meşrutiyet” was very short lived. Taking the Ottoman-Russian war as the pretext,  Sultan Abdulhamit II dissolved the parliament and re-established the authoritarian rule of the absolute monarchy. Already under the heavy burden of a licensing system a thirty year long term of a draconian censure began for the press. Thanks to re-proclamation of the constitutional monarchy in 1908, Turkish press has enjoyed an atmosphere of a true free press freedom for the first time. However, the World War I brought back the strict censorship.

   As is known, after the armistice that gave an end to World War I, Istanbul, the capital of the empire was occupied by the allied forces. This occupation roused an outburst of national sentiment. A new National Assembly summoned in Ankara called for a popular resistance to wage a “War of Independence” (1920-23). The country was sharply split between the nationalists waging an armed struggle and the proponents of collaboration with the occupant. So was the press: Divided into two opposed camps, the Turkish press were the host of fierce quarrels.

Republican Era

   In the early years of the Republic, under the single party rule, press freedom did not exist in practice. Especially, after the enactment of the Law (Takrir-i Sükun) on March 4, 1925 to suppress the upheavals that took place in the South-East Anatolia, five daily papers prone to oppositional views were closed down immediately. Another one was forced to cease its activities. However, after the new press law enacted in 1931 oppositional views became more or less tolerated by the single party rule. Consequently, different newspapers, divided into two major camps, one promoting the ideas of “Kemalist Modernization” and statism as the economic policy, the other, while advancing liberalism as the economic policy, defended the traditional conservatism. These papers of which the main function was political advocacy were addressed to small elite, mainly urban, better educated, and politically active since their circulations were very small by the standards we have today. Both sides contended not only for the right to express their own causes and interests but also to suppress other views. In such a context it was the radical (socialist) press which was victimized.

   Transition to a multiparty system in 1946 thanks to the democratic atmosphere of the post-war period also affected the media framework of Turkey. Firstly, newly founded Democratic Party (DP) allied itself with the oppositional press, and such a political instrumentalization led to the emergence of a political party press in Turkey. As a result, fight for freedom of press became the central theme of the political competition. Secondly, when the dailies ‘Hürriyet’ and ‘Milliyet’ were launched in May 1948 a commercial press of which principal purpose was to make money rather than to serve a particular political cause was born. They were aiming to be financed by advertising. However, limited development of media markets also limited the development of a mass circulation press. With the market poorly developed, the commercial papers were far from being self sustaining. All newspapers were bound to be largely dependent to direct or indirect state subsidies. Especially, government advertising was the most important form of subsidy.

   Multi-party politics led to the 1950 election victory of the opposition Democratic Party. It has promised more press liberty and made this promise one of the central signs of its electoral campaign. Immediately after the elections, by the enactment of a new press law on 15th, July 1950 freedom of the press and journalist’s right to union   was formally recognized by the state.  But, the big question was how the new majority party would nurture these freedoms?

   Events unfortunately proved otherwise. As the economic situation in the country deteriorated the press began to voice criticisms against the governmental policies. The DP government offered both the carrot and the stick to silence these criticisms. On one hand, the press law was amended, and authoritarian clauses empowering the authorities to take legal action against the journalists and/or owners were adopted. Now, the state could shut down the publication and/or impose long prison terms to journalists prosecuted for defamation against public officials. On the other hand, DP developed strong clientalistic relations with ‘certain’ owners and/or individual journalists, and favored them with state subsidies or commercial benefits.

   After the military intervention on May 1960, a new law passed by the military rule did not only extend the press freedom but also provided guarantees against the discharge of unwanted journalists. Moreover, the new Constitution adopted in 1961 brought significant protection to civil liberties and rights.  1960s also witnessed a considerable economic growth and a substantial increase in the rate of industrialization. Under such favorable circumstances a new phase of development has been opened up for Turkey’s incipient commercial press. With the introduction of imported new printing technologies and equipped with better distribution facilities, rising circulations could now be expressed by hundreds of thousands. Emergence of a commercialized popular press which adopted consensual views and concentrated on entertainment at the expense of political news marked the end of the party press. Nevertheless, like many other countries where there is a lack of capital accumulation, in Turkey too, considerably high degree of interrelationships between the state and media owners, either through subsidy and regulation or in the form of clientalist ties persisted.

   When opted for a market based and outward oriented strategy for economic ‘modernization’ in the 1980s, Turkey experienced major change in all her main structures -economic, social and political. One concrete illustration of these changes is the quasi-total transformation of the media environment.

Media in Turkey Today

      In the late 1980s and early 1990s Turkey has quickly moved from having a poor media environment to a new and rich media landscape trough a process of transformation in communications infra structure. As a matter of fact the market-based and outward oriented strategy for economic development has resulted in taking a shortcut to a more information-based economy as a World Bank confidential report concluded that:

 … during the 1980s, Turkey had laid the foundation for her transition to an information-based economy. A strategy for economic modernization predicated on open competitive markets forced the private sector to become more information-intensive. Growth in foreign trade and investment (direct and portfolio) increased the two-way flow of information between Turkey and the world economy. Massive public investment in an advanced communications network increased the economic return on informatics applications and, together with import liberalization, supported diffusion of this technology throughout the economy (World Bank, 1993).                                                    

    Indeed, the growth in public investment in an advanced communication network generally indicates an expansion of the media infra-structure and an increase in media outlets and products.

Print Press

    First significant change has occurred in the landscape of Turkish Print Press. Now, the majority of national newspapers were employing the latest technologies which could easily compete with their American or European counterparts. As for the periodicals a very important increase in titles for weeklies and monthly journals as well as a specialization of content is observed during the period.

    Despite the improvements in printing technology and presentation of the newspapers, overall readership of national dailies has stagnated until mid 1980s. In fact, people have never been avid readers in Turkey. Favorable demographic factors such as high population growth, higher literacy and urbanization rates did not change this situation. Nevertheless, during the second half of the 1980s a noticeable and steady increase was achieved reaching a circulation of nearing four millions in 1993. Moreover, the printed daily press has not been negatively affected as regards to advertising revenue by the legalization of the private television. However, this was due to intensive advertising campaigns leading to severe promotion wars:

Indeed, the newspapers vying for market share practically gave out everything to their readers, from buses to penthouse flats, from cars to toys, from furniture to cooking pans and finally encyclopedias. The’ lucky’ reader could also win (!) a dinner with a lady movie star or a popular lady singer (Kaya, 1994, p.387).  

    This increase in the readership of national papers has brought the virtual elimination of the regional and local press. Moreover, major three popular papers, namely dailies Hürriyet, Sabah and Milliyet, all engaged in the distribution of “encyclopedias’ to their readers, increased the market share to almost 80 percent of the total circulation but mostly at the expense of these traditionally recognized as serious (opinion) papers.

       Newspaper industry in Turkey today is a big business characterized by increasing concentration of production. The initial capital required to set up a national newspaper is considerably big. But, its earnings quality is quite low precisely because of the extremely competitive market. Under these circumstances, overall financial situation of the Turkish national press is quite weak and vulnerable.

    However, critical financial situation of the print press has not kept ‘traditional’ owners from trying to continue to publish nor has it discouraged newcomers from entering into the business. In such a context newspaper ownership pattern has been changed drastically. New entrepreneurs who had made their capital accumulation in other fields such as banking and/or construction entered into the newspaper business on the one hand, and the ‘traditional’ owners began investing in areas outside the media industry on the other hand.

    Previously, in the early days of commercialization, there were quite a large number of small independent publications, and owners were diffused. During the second half of the 1990s, however, publications were now concentrated among large private corporations owning newspapers and other periodicals, often with interests in commercial broadcasting  –there were parallel developments in broadcasting media as well- , and with deep involvement in a wide range of industrial sectors. By the same token, late 1990s and early 2000s witnessed a rapid move from commercialization towards conglomeration, and the media market has come to be dominated by a very few groups through buyouts1. Doğan Group (DYH) is the largest of these groups and owns a chain of seven national dailies, including an English-language daily newspaper2.

Broadcasting Media in Turkey

    Although state controlled radio broadcasting has begun in Turkey in 1927 it did not have a significant part in the (public) political debates until 1950s. After the transition to multi-party political system state radio broadcasting has considerably extended its infra-structure and radio broadcasts were geared almost exclusively to the presentation of the majority party’s (DP) viewpoints, to the detriment of any equity or objectivity.  This is essentially why the state monopoly Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT) was established as an autonomous institution under constitutional protection by the new political regime that fallowed the military intervention in 1960. However, another military intervention in 1971 gave an end to this autonomy by an amendment to the Constitution. Turkish radio and television under direct control of the state operates as the transmission belt of the majority party (parties) ever since.

    Television broadcasting in Turkey began quite lately in 1968 when compared to its all neighbors. In fact, for the nation wide regular daily broadcasts, the constitutional amendment giving an end to TRT’s autonomy was waited. The only television channel, which began broadcasting in color in 1984, used to offer programs for about five to six hours daily during the week and about ten hours a day on the weekends. Since 1986, TRT has began programming five channels, four of which offering a more specialized content in principle.

    State monopoly in TV/Radio programming and transmissions was protected by the article 133 of the 1982 constitution until July 1993. Despite this legal framework the private sector had already entered the market in the early 1990s. Taking advantage of the opportunity created by high-power satellites with transmission footprints that covered mainly western Turkey, and of the development of cheaper antennae capable of receiving direct satellite broadcasters, a private sector station, then co-owned by the son of the late president Özal, began broadcasting into Turkey from Germany and effectively and surprisingly challenged the TRT monopoly.

    In effect, the Magic Box Company affiliated to Rumeli Holding  -a private firm that had dealings within a wide sphere of business operations ranging from the construction sector to the world of banking-  initiated its first test broadcasts in March 1990 through the channel baptized as Star 1; declaring itself “Turkey’s first private television”. The Turkish public and the authorities were not expecting such an initiative since there was no prior debate as to an eventual abolishment of the Public Monopoly. Many were skeptical as to the success of the fait-accompli, since satellite dishes were needed to receive these broadcasts reaching Turkey via satellite. But, the private television company started campaigning, together with the dish-manufacturing firms to promote the sales of new satellite dishes to assure penetration of its own broadcasts,

    It turned out that the results of the campaign had not to be waited in order to reach quite a large number of viewers. For many municipalities tempted by the allure of satellite broadcasts, especially by the broadcasts of Star 1, RTL, of which the attraction was surely due to its erotic broadcasts and the CNN, set up their own “television stations” in their areas, thus converting the hitherto satellite broadcasts into quasi-terrestrial ones. In this way, a large number of viewers in several different regions of Turkey were suddenly given the possibility of watching private television broadcasts without taking any extra trouble to receive them in their houses.

    As a matter of fact, high television penetration rate and populist zeal of local authorities in several municipalities and the reluctance of authorities to enforce the law encouraged many others to follow the example of Magic Box.

    The immediate consequence of this stunning development without the preparation of an initial judicial basis was a chaotic development. The public, in general, was pleased to have new entertainment outlets. This feeling was also stirred up by the best-selling popular papers who had taken a stake in the process. Technological necessity and imperatives of a future integration with the European audio-visual landscape were two grounds on which the matter was debated and defended by. But, the main reason was the widespread and visible dissatisfaction with the TRT’s political output. It was claimed (and hoped) that the abandonment of the state monopoly would be instrumental to give an end to use of the television for political purposes by the government of the day. All of the arguments were indicating political acceptation of the market-originated evolution.

    All of the major political parties and organizations of media professionals, in contrast, have generally remained silent, unsure of how to further their political interests in the most efficient way. The question of an integrated communications policy has been reduced to problems of freedom of expression at a normative level, a situation then and now, favored by the private media. Media politics has never been the main election issue. In sum, the debates over media policy have been a superficial one in spite of the challenge imposed on the constitutional order.

    Governmental policies have been characterized by constant hesitations and decisional hiccups. Despite the comfortable majority in the parliament declared ready to endorse the abandonment of the state monopoly, necessary amendment to the constitution was not brought to the agenda until July 1993.

    In the three years that followed the de facto break of the broadcasting monopoly, no step has been taken to regulate the electronic communications. One of the reasons of this delay was obviously the unpreparedness for the exacting task. Yet, another factor, and not the least important, was the lobbying of the existing private channels and independent producers who benefited from the existing situation which meant no or minimal obligation for them. De facto situation was also comforting for the governments since the fear of restrictive legislation was forcing the private stations to be very careful in maintaining good relations with the government.

     One of the methods employed to prolong the advent of a regulation was the government’s desire to seek a consensus among all political parties. Such a democratic gesture was, however, traditionally uncommon in Turkish politics. Whatever the real intentions were, it served to postpone the elaboration of a bill, thus, avoided any regulation. Despite the declared common agreement in principle, all parties were quite capable to refuse the parley.

    In the end, the government and all parties, seemingly by the fear of being unpopular, were obliged to proceed to an amendment to the Constitution in July 1993. Apparently, the warning of the National Security Council (thus the ‘raison d’état’)  about the Islamic radio  and television stations that had recently began to flourish in many towns all over Turkey had been influential in the decision. Once the biggest obstacle was eliminated, a legal framework could be prepared to regulate the electronic media. Consequently, the law on the “Establishment of Radio and Television Enterprises and Their Broadcast” has been adopted on April, 1994, and as a licensing and supervision authority Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) has been established. Considering the events, it is very hard to evaluate the changes in the Turkish media landscape as an outcome of a mediated deregulation policy. Rather, it was a “deregulatory policy” that followed only the logic of “fait accompli”.

    All the while, through a process of transformations in communication infrastructure a quantitatively rich media environment had emerged in Turkey. However, it was not accompanied by a commensurate development in qualitative terms, and through parliament-appointed “Supreme Council” the government could exert strong control over the electronic media

    The broadcast media in Turkey today have very wide dispersion since in addition to main terrestrial transmitter stations; satellite dishes and cable systems are widely available. With a population of 72 million and nearly 18 million households equipped at least with one TV receiver, and a very long average viewing time -226 minutes a day in 2008- Turkey is one of Europe’s major television markets. However, as there are a large number of channels competing with one another the audience is highly fragmented. The largest TV broadcast outlet is state owned TRT which broadcasts via five national and two international channels. In addition, in 2009 there were 102 national private televisions and  35  national private radio stations- Total number of TV channels and radio stations were 317 and 1082 respectively-. Foreign companies may own as much as 25 percent of a Turkish media enterprise.

Consequences of the Change in Media Structures

     Since the second half of the 1990s the Turkish television viewers are free to zap among a considerable number of television channels. This new competitive environment claimed to have introduced a ‘new blood’ into television broadcasting with their offering the viewer opulent bounties, private TV stations have managed to win the viewer over their side. No one can deny that their news coverage is in many respects, of better ‘quality’ than the insipid broadcasts of the state television. But, increasing conglomerate control of the media institution, together with the almost crude commercialism promoted by the private televisions had an inevitable impact on economic and socio-political functions of the media system.

     Firstly, this situation of the Turkish mainstream media had many far reaching repercussions as to the content (İnal, 1992). Indeed, the media contents have come to be dominated with shoddy culture of mass commercialism by a preference to sports, scandal and popular entertainment. Television program roasters and newspaper pages are filled with gimmickry. Incorporation of entertainment in informative programs blurred almost completely the traditional differentiation of mass media content into three genres –news and current affairs, entertainment and advertising -. Similarly, the distinction between hard news and editorial comments has virtually vanished.

    Secondly, in Turkey, unlike many European countries, deregulation and development of commercialization did not decrease the degree of political parallelism in media institution. Instead, it increased the instrumentalization of the Turkish media by the business interests. An obvious correlate to instrumentalization is the low level of journalistic autonomy. In fact, journalism in Turkey where a formal protection of editorial autonomy has never existed, has to a significant extent not been an autonomous institution, but has been ruled by external forces, principally from the worlds of politics and of business.  On one hand, the weak consensus on journalistic standards and very limited development of professional self-regulation together with the demise of the unions as a consequence of the turn towards neo-liberalism in the 1980s, imposed staff cuts especially among the reporters, and selective remunerations have all contributed to total elimination of the presumed (relative) autonomy of the journalism as a profession. On the other hand, same factors reinforced the pre-eminence of the commercial interest in the operations and policies of the mainstream media outlets.

     Turkish media system is always marked by a high degree of political parallelism but the peculiar developments of the linkages between mass media and politics in 1990s should be evoked to grasp the true nature (impact) of the changes in media landscape. In this respect we must recall the fact that the media, especially the newspapers are not profitable in Turkey, and are largely subsidized by their owners primarily as a means of enhancing their political influence. However, it should also be underlined that one-to-one connection between the mainstream media and political parties is uncommon today as it was the case previously. The mainstream media are now associated not with particular parties, but with general political tendencies.  Consequently, in the 1980s and 1990s, the political slants of the media outlets were not necessarily those of the individual journalists, but the preferences of the owners. The closer parallelism between the mainstream news organizations and the parties of the right-wing has always been visible in the rightward tilt of their news contents although they presented themselves as speaking for the common citizen and ‘common sense’.

      While speaking in public, Turkish journalists working for the mainstream media outlets would claim that they adopt and exercise the neutral and objective model of journalism which performs a ‘watchdog’ function. But in private, as the scholarly research discloses, they are ready to accept that their news organizations relay interpretive frameworks consonant with the interests of the owners (Köylü, 2006; Tılıç, 2009). Pressures over the journalists are heavily related, on one hand, to the particularities of the political conjuncture, and, on the other hand, to the business dealings of the owner.

     The types of pressure journalists perceive in their profession to censor news content include story suppression, changing the angle and/or tone of a story, or criticism from superiors for a completed story that was damaging to the commercial interests of the parent conglomerate or advertisers. Another frequent type of auto censor is the avoidance of news stories that can impair the dealings of the owner with the political actors. 

    Thirdly, another distinctive change in Turkish media landscape is the rapid development of the conservative/Islamist media. In the early years of 1990s, Sencer Ayata who claims that “the area where the rise of religiosity as well as Islamic fundamentalism is most visible in the world of communication” reported the daily circulation of Islamist newspapers as reaching “5000” and monthly periodical as “over 700,000” (Ayata, 1993; p.52). Today, the conservative/Islamist media can almost rival the mainstream (commercial) media.

    As a matter of fact Turkey’s first conservative/Islamist TV channel (TGRT) sponsored by the conservative daily newspaper Türkiye, affiliated with ‘Nakşibendi’ order, was on the air via satellite from England even before the legalization of the private television. It was followed with others such as STV (associated with Fethullah Gülen’s ‘Nurcu’ movement, Channel 7 (known for its closeness to the Islamic Fazilet Partisi –Virtue Party-) and Mesaj TV (sponsored by ‘Kadiri’ order). Moreover, a considerable number of conservative/Islamist national and/or regional radio stations began their operations during that time. They were “private” but not “commercial” TV and radio stations since they were sponsored by religious orders, and were not dependent on advertising revenue in their operations.   


     January 24, 1980 ‘stabilization program’ had opted for a market based and outward oriented economic ‘modernization’ strategy to overcome the deep economic crisis. It was followed by the September 1980 coup which was designed to completely transform the socioeconomic and political structures of Turkey. Therefore, our analysis must begin with some attempt, brief though it may be, to evoke the policies pursued by the military regime and continued by the civilian regimes.

The Context

    During a period of total control of mass media and rigid censorship, the start for ‘restructuring’ was given by the military when they devised a new constitution that imposed strict limitations on the exercise of democratic rights and freedoms. However, the military regime had no ‘specific hegemonic project’. It was the Motherland Party (ANAP) of Turgut Özal that tried to shape a new ideological system by harmonizing all the different (and contradictory) elements of the traditional political forces (ideologies) to establish a new ‘hegemonic bloc’, in the Gramscian sense, in Turkish Politics. During these years Özal’s efforts to develop a Turkish media industry under the control of the big business can and should be seen as an integral part of the targeted new hegemonic strategy. In this connection, T. Özal has personally encouraged the big business to take stakes in the media industry. His prediction that “there would remain only two and a half newspapers in Turkey in the near future” is a telling illustration of his thoughts and intentions. Even, he did not hesitate to establish particularistic ties with certain owners, editors and/or journalists who have been the subject of polemics and public scrutiny.

    Post-1983 civilian governments of Özal have managed to complete the full integration of Turkey into the World (capitalist) market stipulated in the ‘stabilization plan’ but he could not succeed in establishing the targeted new hegemonic bloc. Despite almost unconditional support of the mainstream media Özal’s ‘New Right’ did not have the capacity to merge different interests into a “national-popular program” (Tünay, 1993). As the initial attempt to create an “expansive” type of hegemony failed, the post-1983 years in Turkey should be deemed as an example of “passive revolution”.

     1990s have been an even more difficult decade for Turkey. Two deep recessions and a worrying governmental instability were added to the troubles of the country besides the chronic socioeconomic problems. Indeed, in less then nine years six coalition governments with varying compositions and five different prime ministers in office clearly indicated the absence of a hegemonic political center. Meanwhile private broadcasting and cross-media ownership have emerged, and throughout these years mass media have increasingly become the property of large corporate conglomerates. This cemented the ties between the mainstream media and the world of politics still further, but a general decline in the strength and stability of political allegiances has enabled the media to exercise a more effective influence. Furthermore, the ‘crisis-proneness’ of the times enabled the media owners to come into their own and acquire an autonomy which has not previously been readily granted to them. The circumstances helped media owners to use their media properties as instruments to intervene in important political decisions that had a central role in the accumulation of capital. Many observers did not hesitate to claim that the media had emerged as the “First Estate” of the political realm. The claim was perhaps no exaggeration at the time. The most beneficiary of the developments was ‘Doğan Group’ which became the third largest conglomerate in Turkey.

     The spectacular financial crash of 2001 was the signal of stunning changes in Turkish political life suffering a crisis of legitimacy since the early 1990s (Erdoğan and Üstüner, 2004) as the country lurched throughout the decade from one crisis to another. All the mainstream political parties proved incapable of establishing working parliamentary majorities on a lasting basis. This clearly signified the breaking up of the representational ties between the different components of the Turkish ‘power bloc’ –Big business, export oriented provincial businessmen, bureaucratic elites, the army- and the traditional political parties.

     Circumstances pushed the parties notwithstanding their reservations to seek full membership of the EU. Membership to EU seemed to have the capacity to cement a new hegemonic bloc since it had an appeal not only to the components of the power bloc but also, for different reasons, to Kurdish and Islamist opposition movements as well as the impoverished ordinary people on the street.

    In the meanwhile (Islamist) Virtue Party was closed down in the same year and some of its younger leaders who had close ties with the pious businessmen split the party to establish the Justice and Development Party (JDP). They solemnly declared that they have stripped off their old “Islamist shirt” to remove any ambivalence and promoted their party’s stance as loyal to secular republic and insistently extolled the virtues of the market economy. As a matter of fact, JDP portrayed itself as a conservative party that advocates a liberal market economy and Turkish membership in the EU.

    In effect, JDP was trying to reclaim the territory of the centre-right in Turkish politics, left practically vacant since the traditional parties were in complete disarray. In a short while large numbers of centre-right politicians and intellectuals joined to the ranks of the party. TÜSİAD, voicing the viewpoints of the neoliberal, export oriented big business and in quest of political stability, did not withhold its sympathy. The reason why they have almost enthusiastically embraced the JDP was that, this party seemed to be only political actor with considerable popular support, capable of complying with the “Copenhagen Criteria” and carrying forward integration to the EU. The appeal of the JDP to liberal and left-leaning intelligentsia rested primarily on its pro-European stance. Daily Hürriyet of Doğan Group, known as the “flag-ship” of Turkish Media hailed the formation of the JDP as an antidote to the Islamists and shrinking political centre. Its editorials and columnists were zealous to emphasize the fact that the new party called itself ‘conservative-democrat’ rather than ‘Muslim Democrat’. Indeed, nearly whole of the mainstream media endeavored to legitimize the party and its leader Erdoğan. The effects of their indirect support has been more significant than their direct political slant since the traditional parties of the centre-right and centre-left were held responsible for the situation –bankruptcies, galloping inflation, graft and corruption-. Consequently media were criticizing them severely and systematically.

     JDP’s victory of the November 2002 early elections was partly due to disarray of its opponents rather than its own strength. Nevertheless, oddity of the electoral system gave the party a solid majority. From the moment the JDP rose to power, it proceeded cautiously; focused on nurturing a recovery from the recession, pushed the liberalizing reforms required to enable Turkey to begin official accession negotiations for membership to EU.

     Favorable international conjuncture helped the economy to bounce back quite rapidly. The JDP turned out to be the most successful ‘privatizer’ of public companies and Doğan Group was one of the most beneficiaries of these privatizations.

     When JDP called for early election in 2007, big and medium sized capital owners, liberal intellectuals and academics, some sections of the politicized Kurds, religious orders could all see something for themselves in the JDP. Moreover, there was an unprecedented media backing since in addition to state owned radio and televisions the government party was now directly controlling  the second biggest media group of the country comprising mass circulation daily Sabah, and a leading private TV channel (ATV) seized by the government to recoup losses at a failed bank. Furthermore, most of the mainstream media were displaying a clear pro-government slant. However, the situation changed dramatically following the JDP’s landslide victory in the general election of July 22, 2007.  

    Encouraged by the evidence of public support and confident of the solid majority in the parliament, JDP abandoned its consensus building policies. After foreign minister Gül’s appointment to presidency, JDP could afford to discard its moderate stance. Militants and/or trusted supporters now could be more facilely appointed to the higher echelons of the state, and material rewards to its supporters could be more easily channeled.

    Although the JDP favored the development of a conservative/pro-government capital right from the outset, it had also to make concessions to big capital in general, especially to the members of TÜSİAD –Turkey’s liberal business lobby group-. As the share of the pious capital owners grew rapidly, the relations between the JDP and TÜSİAD turned sour due to the inevitable clashes of interest.

    Outbreak of the first confrontation took place amid a mood of growing political tension3. The line of entente cordiale seemed to have been crossed when PM Erdoğan turned over the request of Aydın Doğan (Doğan Group’s boss) for approval of a refinery in Ceyhan (a coastal town at the crossroads of the petroleum pipelines). Instead, Erdoğan told him that the permission had been awarded to “our Çalık” meaning Çalık Holding, the firm whose expanding media branch was led by Erdoğan’s son-in-law4. However, the decisive step came later to substantially recast the “relations”. Indeed, one of the most salient categories in business dealings favored by the JDP government was property-development. Religious and/or pro-government entrepreneurs enjoyed something of a golden age under JDP rule. This kind of favoritism was extending from granting developers planning permission in green belts to involvement by a number of JDP deputies in schemes. A similar demand of Doğan Group for a property in the vicinity of Hotel Hilton in Istanbul, with a superb view of the Bosporus, was rebuffed by the DJP led municipality. Doğan Group’s media outlets immediately began voicing criticisms against the government. In the course of events daily Hürriyet of the Doğan Group reported stories about a German court’s findings5. PM Erdoğan publicly instructed his supporters not to buy Doğan’s newspapers. Government’s reprisals continued as the tax authorities heavily fined the Doğan Media Group (approximately $ 525 million) for alleged tax irregularities. It is followed by another severe blow when all of the companies in the Doğan Group were banned from bidding for state tenders for a period of one year. Soon the tax fines went beyond the Group’s entire market value, reaching $ 3.7 billion. Finally, prison sentences were demanded for the publisher A. Doğan and daily Hürriyet’s editor in chief E. Özkök along with six other company executives including the daughter of A. Doğan. In the meantime, Hürriyet’s anti-JDP columnist B. Coşkun has resigned in an “amicable” deal with the management. After a while, Özkök stepped down from his post and on the following day Doğan stepped down as chairman and board member of the Doğan group of companies to cede the position to his another daughter who herself had recently stepped down as the president of TÜSİAD. Reports that these changes were negotiated with the government officials have never been denied up until now. There is sufficient conclusive evidence to believe that the JDP is pressurizing the mainstream media for political subservience6.


    In Turkey today, media characterized by a high level of concentration, is sharply divided into two major camps. On one side, there is the mainstream media, primarily concerned with increasing its commercial value through higher circulations/ratings, on the other side; there is a conservative/Islamist /pro-government media, chiefly involved in the dissemination of their viewpoints7. Both camps are essentially linked to the pre-existing economic system but parted as to the sociopolitical order. Of course, both the conglomerate control and/or unconditional attachment to a cultural/political cause raise serious questions about the consequences for news coverage, economic competition on even ground and other sociopolitical functions. Indeed, the deeply divided Turkish media give completely different slant on the events.

     No serious media analysis would argue that journalism anywhere in the world is completely neutral and stands apart from particular interests and/or causes (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). A certain life style (culture) is cultivated, promoted and defended in the media. However, in Turkey today, media outlets of opposed camps contend not only for the right to express their own interests and causes but also to suppress the other views8. In effect, the press and the broadcasting media appear to have become ever more belligerently partisan on the front page or on main radio-television news bulletins. Their first priority tends to relay interpretative frameworks consonant only with a certain life style or a particular sacred cause. Therefore, it is plausible to assert here that Turkish media is far away from performing a watchdog function in the service of the ‘public interest’ since many essential facts which might have had enormous repercussions are not known, while entirely trivial ones are brought to the public’s attention in the news selection and text construction.


     Previous decades in Turkey have been a particularly turbulent period during which the country had experienced severe economic and political crises. Successive governments were busy implementing an economic policy devised and supervised by the International Monetary Fund. Turkish ruling bloc’s principal preoccupation was maintaining the political stability. JDP’s solid majority in the parliament was welcomed as a promise of stability. Nowadays, winds are blowing in the opposite direction.

     Everyday, some crisis, tension or contention is reported by the media. Indeed, tension is running high in Turkey as arrests of alleged coup plotters, and government’s increasing efforts to amend the constitution continue. The majority party is more concerned to show that the country is ungovernable than to try to govern it itself. It became very hard to track the skirmishing amid the military, judiciary and the government. The situation in Turkey is extremely troublesome as the pro-government media and the staunch secularists keep beating the war drums.

     The intricacies of Turkish politics may seem mind-boggling to an outsider since the Turkish media cannot agree if the country is shifting toward a “true democracy” or a “civilian tutelage” to replace the alleged “military tutelage”. One can easily have the impression, even from a cursory glance at the media output that the country is split into two greatly, sharply distinguished camps, and that they are furbishing their weapons for the final settlement of accounts.

    The initial attempt of the JDP government to create an ‘expansive type of hegemony’ has failed. The power bloc has been incapable of overcoming its internal contradictions. Henceforth, membership to EU as a ‘national popular program’ cannot appeal to large sections of the society anymore. As the faltering accession talks indicate, the JDP shied away from pursuing Turkey’s EU dream, and abandoned consensus building policies. In the circumstances, Turkish experience under JDP rule can be seen as yet another case of ‘passive revolution’.

    Turkish Ruling bloc has managed to reassert its hegemony through the passive revolutions of the past decades. But, today’s ongoing skirmishes between the state institutions reveal a ferocious power struggle for the hegemonic position within the ‘historical power bloc’. As the country is going through a transformation process that is breathtaking, the media emerged as one of the principal battlefields and the journalists as the main musketeers.

    The irony is that although both the journalists and the politicians feel they are pondering to public tastes, the public’s declining confidence in them -as revealed on the polls- suggest that it is not pleased with what it is getting from the journalists and the politicians.    

Notes :

1 Principal groups with cross-media ownership in Turkey can be listed as follows: Albayrak Medya Grubu (conservative/Islamist/pro-government; Ciner Yayın Holding (mainstream); Çukurova Medya Grubu (mainstream); Çalık Medya Grubu (conservative/pro-goverment); Doğan Medya Grubu (mainstream); Samanyolu yayıncılık-Feza Gazetecilik (Islamist/pro-government).

2 Doğan Group is one of the the largest business groups in Turkey with extensive activities in the media, tourism, energy, real  estate and insurance sectors and controls almost half of Turkey’s private media. It has joint partnerships with a number of well-established international companies, including CNN (part of AOL-Time Warner), Axel Springer, OMV, Universal Music Group, Burda GmbH and Egmont Publishing. Doğan’s media group controls over 60 percent of the ad revenues in the sector.

3 On February 9, 2008 JDP passed a constitutional amendment lifting the headscarf ban in the Turkish universities and thus raised the political tension. The republic’s chief prosecutor immediately filed a closure case against the ruling party on the grounds that it was attempting to undermine the principle of secularism enshrined in the Turkish constitution. Another equally significant reason for the growing tension was the initial “Ergenekon” investigation and the avalanche of alleged coup plans, all related to the Ergenekon issue.

4 The second-largest media group Sabah-ATV was sold to unlisted Çalık Holding $ for 1.1 billion in a state-run auction. It is often considered as the blatant clue for government’s efforts to create a partisan media and JDP’s slide away from liberal outlook. It is claimed that PM Erdoğan had intervened in the bidding before and after to get the desired result. The main opposition party tabled a motion of censure and asserted that the prime minister discouraged some businessmen who wanted to enter the sale process. In effect, Çalık Group participated in the bidding as the sole company. It was also claimed that Çalık holding could not afford the price if it was not sponsored by the country’s two largest state banks. Çalık Group’s decision to form partnership with a Qatar-based company who financed part of the $ 1.1 billion was also another controversial issue.  Allegations gain some convincing ground when one recalls that Erdoğan’s son-in-law serves as one of the Çalık Company’s top executives and his brother is the CEO of Turkuvaz, media subsidiary of Çalık Holding. Sale of Kanal Türk, an intensely antigovernmental national TV station, to a close associate of Erdoğan has also shaded into the accusations.

5 Politically motivated attacks came after Doğan Group’s outlets, especially the daily Hürriyet reported extensively on alleged links between the governing JDP and an Islamic Charity (Deniz Feneri) in Germany that was convicted of fraud by a German Court.

6 Media and journalists in Turkey who criticize the current administration are under quite an extraordinary amounts of legal and economic pressure A telling illustration of the situation is that while Turkey ranked 101st in 2007 at the ‘Press Freedom Index’, it now ranks 122nd.  PM Erdoğan who had enjoyed in the past years a good deal of adulation and was habituated to the inviting questions of the journalists has started to see almost every criticism as a part of conspiracy plan. Known as an irascible man, he could not refrain himself from threatening the journalists in his public addresses for several times. His recent call for media bosses to fire the columnists who failed to toe the line was a worrying illustration of the tendency.

7 Newspaper businesses in Turkey is highly dependent on news-stand sales rather than subscription. Totality of mainstream newspapers is sold in news-stands. The case of conservative/Islamist papers is fairly confusing since they claim a very high number of subscribers whereas their sales at the newspaper kiosks represent the most insignificant part of the announced total circulation. In this connection, many people who find every morning a free copy of the daily Zaman in the doorway of their apartment houses realize that the subscriptions are financed by the Gülen Movement.

8 Alleged coup plots reported by pro-government dailies and based on illicitly leaked information are taken up by the prosecutors as evidence in their indictments.


Ayata Sencer, (1993):  “The Rise of Islamic Fundamentalism and Its Institutional Framework”, in Eralp Atila, Muharrem Tünay and Birol Yeşilada (eds.), The Political and Socioeconomic Transformation of Turkey, Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Erdoğan Necmi and Fahriye Üstüner, (2004), “National Unity versus Plurality of Identities”, Orient – Hamburg, Vol. 45, No 4, pp. 509-520.

Hallin C. Daniel and Paolo Mancini, (2004), Comparing Media Systems, Three Models of Media and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

İnal Ayşe, (1992), An Analysis of Turkish Daily Press: Event Selection, Text Construction and News Production, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Ankara: Middle East Technical University.

Kaya Raşit,(1994), “A Fait Accompli: Transformation of Media Structures in Turkey”, Metu Studies In  Development, Vol. 21, No:3, pp. 383-404.

Kaya Raşit, (2009), İktidar Yumağı: Medya,Sermaye,Devlet, Ankara: İmge Kitabevi.

Köylü Hilal, (2006), Press ethics and practice of journalism in Turkey: ‘a case study on Turkish   Journalists’ self evaluation of their codes of practice, unpublished masters thesis, Ankara: Middle East Technical University.

Thompson John, (1993), “Mass media”, in Outhwaite William and Tom Bottomore (eds.),  The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth Century Social Thought, Oxford: Blackwell.

Tılıç Doğan (2009), Utanıyorum ama Gazeteciyim, Second Edition, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları.

Tünay Muharrem, (1993), “The Turkish New Right’s Attempt at Hegemony”, in Eralp Atila, Muharrem Tünay and Birol Yeşilada (eds.), The Political and Socioeconomic Transformation of Turkey, Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

World Bank (1993), Turkey, Informatics and Modernization Report, Washington DC.

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