Special Report-Insiders reveal how Erdogan tamed Turkey’s newsrooms

·17-min read

By Jonathan Spicer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - When President Tayyip Erdogan's son-in-law suddenly quit as finance minister in late 2020, four staff in Turkey's leading newsrooms said they received a clear direction from their managers: don't report this until the government says so.

The resignation of Berat Albayrak, which he announced in a Sunday evening Instagram post, was reported by international and independent Turkish news outlets. The lira soared on hopes of a new direction for the beleaguered economy.

But for more than 24 hours, the pro-government TV stations and newspapers that dominate the country's media landscape stayed virtually silent about the most dramatic rift in Erdogan's inner circle in his nearly two decades in power.

The episode illustrates how the Turkish mainstream media, once a more lively clash of ideas, has become a tight chain of command of government-approved headlines, front pages and topics of TV debate. Interviews with dozens of sources in the media, government officials and regulators portray an industry that has fallen in line with other formerly independent institutions that Erdogan has bent to his will, including, his critics say, the judiciary, military, central bank and large parts of the education system. Government pressure and media self-censorship share the blame, according to the people interviewed by Reuters.

Directions to newsrooms often come from officials in the government's Directorate of Communications, which handles media relations, more than a dozen industry insiders told Reuters. The directorate is an Erdogan creation, employing some 1,500 people and headquartered in a tower block in Ankara. It is headed by a former academic, Fahrettin Altun.

Altun's officials issue their instructions in phone calls or Whatsapp messages that sometimes address newsroom managers with the familiar "brother," according to some of these people and a Reuters review of some of the messages.

When Reuters contacted the Directorate for comment, a senior government official familiar with Altun's approach said it is "absolutely not" the case that Altun sets the news agenda. Altun "occasionally briefs editors and reporters as part of his job. Yet those tasks have never been carried out in a way that could be viewed as infringing on the editorial independence of news organisations or violating the freedom of the press."

The official declined to comment on whether the Directorate instructed media to hold off reporting Albayrak's resignation. Albayrak didn't respond to Reuters' request for comment about the media coverage, sent via an affiliate.

Erdogan's supporters have other tools to shape news coverage. The biggest media brands are controlled by companies and people close to Erdogan and his AK Party (AKP) following a series of acquisitions starting in 2008. State advertising revenue is funnelled largely to pro-government publications, a Reuters examination of the data found. Conversely, government-appointed regulators direct penalties for breaching Turkey's media code almost exclusively to independent or opposition news providers, a Reuters review of these penalties showed. Criticising the president and alleging official corruption can fall foul of regulators.

"The mainstream media in Turkey serves the function of concealing the truth more than reporting the news," said Faruk Bildirici, a journalist who worked for 27 years, until 2019, at the country's largest newspaper, Hurriyet, where he was also ombudsman. Since a change in ownership in 2018, Hurriyet too has become pro-government.

"Journalistic concerns have been replaced by efforts to get along well with the ruling party and realise their wishes," Bildirici said. "The party gives instructions to determine the agenda...and the editors-in-chief, Ankara correspondents or TV programme directors are the main contacts" with the party and with the Directorate of Communications.

Reuters sent questions about pressures on Turkey's media to Erdogan's office and the regulators for television and print media. Erdogan's office did not respond.

In an initial statement to Reuters, the Press Advertising Institute (BIK), an affiliate of the Directorate that oversees print media and their websites, dismissed criticism that it has become a tool for censorship that punishes negative stories about the government. It said it is "not concerned" with publications' "views or ideology."

Subsequently, on Aug 10, BIK announced it had suspended issuing penalties for ethics breaches after Turkey's Constitutional Court upheld several complaints against the Institute by independent newspapers. The Court ruled that BIK "violated freedom of expression and freedom of the press" and it called on parliament to amend relevant laws. The government didn't comment on the ruling.

The regulator for broadcast media, the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), rejected suggestions that it acts as a censor or takes instructions from Erdogan.

As Turkey approaches presidential and parliamentary elections, which are due in the course of the next year, Erdogan finds himself trailing in many polls. His unorthodox policy of slashing interest rates set off a currency crisis and inflationary spiral even before the war in Ukraine caused a surge in global energy and food prices. The lira has lost more than a quarter of its value this year and annual inflation is 80%, deepening poverty among Erdogan's main working-class and lower-middle-class supporters.

Political analysts say the president will need as much media help as he can get if he is to extend his tenure to a third decade leading Turkey, a NATO member and regional military power that sits at the crossroads of global migration, trade and history.

In May, Erdogan's government proposed a law it says would fight media "disinformation" without defining what that is, a step that some free speech advocates said would double down on a years-long crackdown on critical reporting. One article in the proposed bill says anyone who spreads false information relating to security or public order could face up to three years in prison. Parliament will discuss the bill when it returns from recess in October.

THE DIRECTORATE

Altun, the man who runs the media machine, was little known in the news industry in 2018 when Erdogan named him president of his newly launched Directorate of Communications. Altun, 45, previously worked at universities and then at a pro-government think-tank.

The Directorate, with an annual budget of around 680 million lira ($38 million), was tasked with coordinating government communication. It grew out of the old Directorate of Media, Press and Information, whose main role was issuing press cards to journalists. But its responsibilities reach much wider, including countering "systemic disinformation campaigns" against Turkey through a unit the Directorate established this year.

The body employs media monitors, translators and legal and public relations staff inside and outside Turkey. It has 48 foreign offices in 43 countries worldwide. These outposts deliver to headquarters weekly reports on how Turkey is portrayed in foreign media, according to an insider.

"It's a huge structure, but decisions are taken at the very top by Altun and his deputies," the person said, speaking without authorization on the condition of anonymity.

When major news breaks that could spell trouble for Erdogan or his government – especially events relating to the economy or the military – Altun routinely contacts editors and senior correspondents to set out a coverage plan, this person said.

After Albayrak quit as finance minister, citing health reasons, four sources said Altun's message to the media was to remain silent until Erdogan accepted the resignation with a statement the following evening. Only then was Albayrak's resignation reported by the big Turkish TV stations and papers.

"Thirty long hours we were waiting for a green light regarding coverage," said a veteran editor at state-owned broadcaster TRT. TRT didn't respond to a request for comment. It and several other broadcasters mentioned in this article purchase video and other news services from Thomson Reuters.

Erdogan faced another crisis in February 2020 that prompted the Directorate to contact newsroom leaders: An airstrike in northwest Syria, where Russian jets were operating at the time, killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers. It was the deadliest attack on Turkey's armed forces in three decades.

Yet the following morning, mainstream TV stations were leading with a different story: a dispute with the European Union over Syrian migrants. Coverage of the attack was limited to official government statements. Three people with knowledge of the matter said newsroom managers were doing what the Directorate asked.

"A request was made not to share the information," another source, a veteran reporter, told Reuters. "In that case you cannot use anything other than official statements."

The senior government official rejected these sources' accounts. Asked more generally whether the Directorate provides specific instructions to newsrooms, the official said it "does not give instructions to media executives in any way." The official explained that it is "perfectly natural, however, to brief reporters on the context of certain public statements in order to prevent the public from being misled. Such briefings are provided through various channels."

DEALS AND DISTRUST

A series of acquisitions over more than a decade has put the main media groups in the hands of companies and people close to Erdogan and his AKP.

The process began in 2008 when Turkuvaz Media Group, which is supportive of the government, bought the Sabah newspaper and ATV broadcaster. Those outlets are now among the government's most strident defenders. Turkuvaz did not respond to questions from Reuters.

The state's grip on the media tightened after the coup attempt of 2016, which Erdogan blamed on supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen denies any involvement. Using emergency powers, Turkey's government closed around 150 media outlets, many with alleged ties to Gulen. Gulen did not respond to a request for comment about Turkey's media landscape.

The last major media takeover was in 2018, when news tycoon Aydin Dogan, who had been an opponent of Erdogan, sold Hurriyet and other news media to the pro-government Demiroren Group, whose business spans energy, lottery and real estate. Dogan had previously faced years of government pressure on his business, including asset sales that critics say were forced by the government and a demonstration by Erdogan supporters at his Hurriyet newspaper offices.

Dogan Group said it largely left the media business in 2018 as part of restructuring and declined to comment on any pressure to sell. Dogan himself had no further comment.

The buyout of Dogan completed the shift of the mainstream media behind Erdogan. Financial documents, reviewed by Reuters, show the acquisition has weighed on Demiroren, the country's largest media owner. The group's media business logged a net loss of 1.75 billion lira after the deal in 2018 ($97 million at today's exchange rates, and $330 million at the time), according to the documents. That was a sharp increase from a 468 million-lira loss the year before. The group had more than $2.8 billion in debt to several lenders in February 2020, the documents showed.

In a statement to Reuters, Demiroren said the agency's reporting about the group "is continuing its biased, manipulative and provocative attitude. It is continuing a manipulative strategy about Demiroren Medya that aims to incite the public and mislead it." It did not directly answer Reuters' questions about the impact of the deal on its finances.

THE "BEATING BAT"

Newspapers and broadcasters that survived and still criticise the government face the "beating bat" of the media regulator, said Osman Vedud Esidir, a journalism professor at Firat University in Elazig. Esidir previously worked for regulator BIK, leaving in 2018 after a dispute over where his job should be located.

When BIK rules that an article has breached its ethics code, it punishes the newspaper concerned by suspending state advertising - advertising by government and affiliated bodies, such as state banks.

A Reuters review of BIK reports showed that in 2019 and 2020 - the most recent years for which full and detailed figures are available - articles about corruption were judged by the Institute to be "against public ethics" or to "generate misperception," as were pieces that criticised the government. The BIK reports didn't detail how many articles fell into these categories and Reuters couldn't determine the numbers.

Ethics-related advertising suspensions imposed on the largest national newspapers, based in Istanbul, more than doubled in 2020 to 328 days from the previous year.

Almost all the suspensions were imposed on the five most prominent independent newspapers. Together the five were disqualified from some 4 million lira in 2020 state advertising payments, which BIK distributed to other newspapers, the Reuters review found. A report by professional body the Turkish Journalists' Association (TGC) said suspensions in 2021 continued to centre on independent newspapers.

One of the newspapers, Evrensel, whose three-year ban from receiving official advertising became permanent earlier this month, said the "arbitrary" penalties are straining its finances. BIK "has completely transformed into a censorship mechanism during the AK Party period for papers whose stories disturb the government," said Fatih Polat, its editor-in-chief. The other four newspapers - Sozcu, Korkusuz, Cumhuriyet, Birgun - didn't respond to Reuters' request for comment.

On Aug. 10, Turkey's Constitutional Court published a detailed ruling on complaints by independent newspapers, including Evrensel, that BIK violated freedom of expression and freedom of the press with its ad suspension penalties. The Court said BIK's actions "went further than the aim of regulating the ethical values of the press and have turned into a tool of punishment." It recommended that parliament amend relevant legislation. BIK said in response it will pause evaluating press ethics.

"The government strategy is to make everyone see, hear and read only" the government line, said Esidir, the journalism professor.

BIK is run by Cavit Erkilinc, who was appointed by Erdogan in April. He did not respond to questions sent via BIK.

Ebubekir Sahin, who leads RTUK, the radio and television regulator, is one of six current council members appointed by the AKP and its allies.

RTUK issued 22 fines worth 5 million lira ($570,000 at the time, or $275,000 today) to independent channels in the first six months of last year, said RTUK council member Ilhan Tasci, one of three members selected by opposition parties. No pro-government channels were fined in that period, Tasci told Reuters. He described RTUK as "dependent on...instructions from the ruling party and the Palace" – a reference to Erdogan's office.

In a statement to Reuters, Sahin rejected suggestions that the regulator acts as a censor or that Erdogan tells it what to do. "Not once has there been an instruction by our honourable president or those around him about penalties on channels or regarding our works and processes," he said.

It is a "false perception" that RTUK primarily fines independent channels, he went on. "We stand at the same distance from each broadcaster. For us, there are only broadcasters that violate the rules and those who abide by the rules."

Merdan Yanardag, editor-in-chief of Tele1, told Reuters that "fines imposed on Tele1 last year alone were approximately six million liras." Reuters was not able to independently verify the figure. Yanardag said the channel incurred fines for broadcasting contrary to Turkey's foreign policy and insulting Sultan Abdulhamid II, one of the last rulers of the Ottoman Empire. Reuters confirmed that Tele1 was fined over a Dec. 2021 broadcast that said "Turkey is pursuing imperialist adventures in Syria and Libya" and critical comments in July 2020 about Sultan Abdulhamid II. He is admired by many AKP supporters.

Yanardag called the RTUK a "tool of oppression" that punishes ethical and independent outlets like his "on ideological and political grounds."

"It is extremely challenging financially," Yanardag said.

When a matter is urgent, RTUK officials call newsrooms to demand changes to broadcasts, said Tasci, the RTUK council member. He cited as an example deadly wildfires that raged in Turkey's southwest last summer, leading the government to reveal its water-bomber planes were in a state of disrepair.

"RTUK instructed channels to show extinguished fires rather than ongoing fires," he said. The intervention was inappropriate, he said, because RTUK's mandate is to assess broadcasts after they have aired. Reuters was unable to determine in detail how channels covered the fires.

Responding to these comments, Sahin said, "We are always in close contact with radio and television executives. Our understanding is that imposing a penalty is our final preference. We first prefer communication."

During Turkey's fires last year, Sahin said RTUK "drew attention to the success stories, human stories" in order to counter "distorted news."

SELF-CENSORSHIP

Officials in Altun's Directorate regularly send Whatsapp messages to mainstream media newsrooms guiding them to highlight or avoid certain comments from cabinet or party members, according to screenshots seen by Reuters. AKP lawmakers also regularly call newsrooms to demand that certain speeches are covered or to change the way they are portrayed, according to several reporters. One said that editors routinely tell reporters that the Directorate of Communications itself reviewed and changed headlines and lead paragraphs of articles, "and we have to coordinate with them."

Self-censorship is now mostly automatic in mainstream media, according to several industry sources. It has existed in some form for years.

The TRT editor said that when Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006 – the first Turk to do so – the state broadcaster did not mention the news until then-Prime Minister Erdogan offered his official congratulations. "It was such a relief that I remember to this day, because we would never have covered it if there were no congratulations," the editor said.

Pamuk told Reuters he had been unaware that TRT delayed covering his award in 2006, a time when the media was "relatively free" compared to now. "In my 50 years of writing…the media/newspapers and reporting had never been bowing to the government as they are doing now," the novelist said in an email.

"The government is like your child or lover," another veteran TV journalist said of the self censorship. "You can guess very well what disturbs or annoys them."

ELECTION TEST

In the run-up to presidential and parliamentary elections to be held by next June, polls suggest that an informal six-party opposition alliance would secure a majority in parliament and that potential challengers could defeat Erdogan in a presidential run-off.

For the media, March 2019 municipal elections may offer a glimpse of what lies ahead, political analysts say. The vote stands out as the biggest electoral defeat of Erdogan's rule, with the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) stunning AKP mayoral candidates in Istanbul and Ankara – despite months of campaigning by Erdogan.

On the evening of the vote, with 98.8% of ballots counted and Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition CHP pulling ahead in Istanbul, state-owned Anadolu Agency abruptly stopped releasing results. Anadolu, which is the only media source for election results, did not explain the halt and did not declare a winner. Anadolu, which distributes video news in English via Reuters, didn't respond to the news agency's request for comment about its coverage.

People working in four mainstream newsrooms described a state of confusion and paralysis that night as managers awaited word from the Directorate or other officials on what to do. At one newspaper, editors gathered round a table debating how to write headlines that described the results in a way that would not upset the government, said one person involved. "They were literally in pain trying to write headlines," said the veteran reporter.

A TV editor said the message newsroom managers delivered to staff was to "act as if there was no problem or no unusual situation." As both parties declared victory in Istanbul, mainstream TV channels covered speeches by Erdogan and the AKP but largely ignored Imamoglu.

It wasn't until the next morning that the national election council unveiled official full vote tallies. It gave Imamoglu, who didn't comment for this article, the edge in Istanbul. The AKP challenged the result, leading to recounts and eventually a rerun, which Imamoglu won with 54 % of the vote.

((reporting by Jonathan Spicer; editing by Janet McBride))