From the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 to this day, the press in Turkey has never been able to enjoy complete freedom, writes DW's Bülent Mumay as the country prepares for elections in May.
Throughout its 100-year history, free speech and free press in Turkey have always followed the same patterns of ups and downs as the country's democracy itself. From several military coups to the escalation of the Kurdish independence movement into a bloody conflict and to various international crises over the years, the fate of journalism in this country has continuously been linked to and impacted negatively by contemporary developments and current affairs.
During certain bouts of heightened political polarization and ensuing internal conflicts, hundreds of journalists would be sent to prison; some were even assassinated, and the headquarters of various newspapers and publishers suffered violent bombing attacks.
Although successive coalition governments in the 1990s made ambitious pledges to deliver on press freedom, journalists continued to be sent to prison even then, as the government used anti-terrorism legislation to silence its critics and the military continued to interfere in politics.
The country entered the new millennium facing both a democratic and an economic crisis. The people expected an easing of hardships, and furthermore called on politicians to make good on their promises of expanding freedoms.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his future comrades were part of the latest coalition government at this time; listening to the demands of the electorate, decided to seize the moment. They resigned from their Islamist parties and moved towards engaging in centrist politics: A year before the 2002 elections, they thus founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Erdogan became the party's chairman and in his pre-election manifesto, he made the following pledges regarding freedom of expression:
"Full freedom of thought and expression (...) will pave the way for society to modernize with its own power. Our Party will guarantee all civil and political freedoms, especially freedom of thought, belief, education, organization and enterprise, and ensure that people will live free from fear and worry.
"We advocate the development of a pluralistic and competitive structure in the media, which serves as a source of accurate information as well as a watchdog in modern societies. We are in favor of a dialogue based on mutual respect between politics and the media, which constitute different sides of public service."
Entering the elections with these kinds of assurances, the AKP swept the polls on November 3, 2002. In fact, the newly founded party rose to power alone, ending a long spell of unpopular coalition governments in Turkey. And it even appeared to be a legitimate alternative: "I have taken off the shirt of Islamist politics," Erdogan proclaimed at the time.
Little did voters realize at the time that the Turkish leader would change into a shirt of autocracy in a year to come – once he would realize that he no longer needed democracy to remain in power.
In his first few years at the helm, Erdogan introduced a series of liberal reforms – partly to charm the West, and partly to break the military's influence in his administration. But once he felt he had reached the peak of his power in the early 2010s, he began to renege completely on those promises.
First, he changed the ownership structures of the media by having certain businesspeople whom he previously had made rich with government tenders set up media outlets to compete with existing media. These new formats would naturally toe the line directed by Erdogan.
Next, he created a legal climate in which the slightest of criticisms against the government could be misconstrued as an insult akin to lese majeste, punishable by treason laws.
Thus, he managed to gain control over 95% of the media in Turkey directly or indirectly from his palace in the capital Ankara in the past 20 years of his rule. As for the few remaining independent media outlets, Erdogan has singlehandedly put them in a legal and financial bind.
In his 20 years in power, Erdogan has been responsible for the detention of nearly 900 journalists in total, according to the Journalists' Union DİSK Basın-İş. At least 60 journalists are known to still be in prison right now.
Opposition TV channels were repeatedly fined millions of euros over the past two decades; 90% of local and regional television channels and 70% of radio stations were forced to cease broadcasting.
Independent newspapers grew unable to pay their staff salaries after being banned from running ads to generate revenue. Subsequently, about half of the 1,800 national and local newspapers in the country had to close their doors.
According to the press freedom report, prepared by the main opposition party CHP, at least 12,000 journalists are now unemployed in Turkey as a direct consequence of Erdogan's policies. The unemployment rate in all media professions has reached 40%.
But Erdogan's "press freedom" didn't stop there: in the past few years, his government introduced a series of regulations designed to restrict digital media – all under the pretext of fighting disinformation. This has resulted in a serious crackdown on websites that are not under Erdogan's control.
But Erdogan's regime did not just stop at suppressing local media outlets in Turkey. Following his censorship of media outlets in Turkey, foreign media organizations closely followed by the Turkish public became the next target: Western media outlets broadcasting in the Turkish language have also become subject to various censorship practices imposed by the Turkish government in recent years.
The websites of many media outlets, including DW Turkish, have even been blocked by court order.
The last 20 years have been a dark time – both for democracy and press freedom in Turkey. However, if you were to ask Erdogan himself, the opposite apparently is the case: at a recent event, the Turkish President said that "(i)n 2023, the press is much freer, much freer, much more respected by the public in Turkey. Everyone can write, say and express whatever they want."
In a way, he is correct: as long as you praise Erdogan, you are free. But if you engage in the slightest criticism, you are accused of being a terrorist; and if you work for the foreign press, you are also labeled a spy.
The only way out of this dark chapter is through the ballot box.
This article has been translated from Turkish by Sertan Sanderson.