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06 April

‘Journalists afraid to ask questions because of censorship’

Ceren Sözeri, P24 expert, is deeply concerned about gag orders and internet ban: 'The sitıation is scary'

This week's guest for Monday Talk, researcher Ceren Sözeri, says the government's broadcasting ban can be considered censorship because the regulation that they base the ban on is in conflict with Article 28 of the Constitution, which says: “The press is free and shall not be censored.”
 
Two newspapers, Cumhuriyet and Hürriyet, responded harshly to Davutoğlu regarding the selective ban on media outlets attempting to attend the funeral prayer for the murdered prosecutor. Hürriyet is from Doğan media, a group that includes the Hürriyet daily, the Radikal news portal, the Posta daily, CNN Türk and the Kanal D television station, all of which were banned from covering the funeral. Other banned outlets included the İMC, Samanyolu and Bugün television stations. The Sözcü, Taraf, Millet, Bugün, Zaman, Cumhuriyet, Ortadoğu, Yeniçağ and Birgün dailies were also prevented from entering the mosque.
Sözeri investigates what businesspeople own which media company and examines how some media bosses expand their investments tremendously after receiving government contracts. She elaborates on the issue in her response to our questions.

Did the public received the information it needed from the media on March 31?
On March 31, we had a blackout almost all over the country, but nobody knows the reason yet. The same day, we had a hostage crisis that ended with the death of three people; and the Balyoz case, which was significant in the struggle against military tutelage, ended in the acquittal of all suspects.
Throughout the whole day, we were unable to get satisfactory information from the media regarding these issues. The climate of censorship is widespread, so journalists are afraid of asking questions. On March 31, they just covered the official declarations of government officials. Ironically, they broadcasted the national education minister's explanation about the blackout without any question. This is not surprising because almost every media owner has invested in the energy sector via public tenders; they produce electricity via hydroelectric power plants and fossil fuel plants. Some of them distribute electricity to the cities. That's why the media cannot investigate the underlying reasons for the blackout.

What is your opinion about the government's ban and the media's response?
The government uses regulations to prevent the coverage of sensitive issues in order to protect itself rather than to oversee public order. For example, coverage of the hostage crisis was banned by the government on the grounds of national security and public order. Government officials say that those kinds of broadcasting bans are implemented in other countries as well; however, this is not true.
The hostage crisis following the Charlie Hebdo massacre was covered by many media outlets. However, every mainstream television station in Turkey, without any questions, respected the government's ban on the coverage of the events surrounding the hostage crisis at the courthouse.
Moreover, during the prime minister's press conference, journalists couldn't ask any critical questions about the death of the prosecutor; only one journalist asked a question about the police operation based on "the criticism of the main opposition party leader.”
We will never be able to learn who killed the prosecutor, as was the case in some other critical cases. Only a few journalists share their suspicions and questions about it on social media. In addition, the government implemented an accreditation process during the prosecutor's funeral and prevented coverage by some media outlets -- such as the Doğan Group and pro-Gülen movement media outlets -- on grounds that they had published photos of the hostage with a gunman, with posters of the illegal organization in the background.

‘Government's practice called censorship’
According to the government, publishing the photo meant support and propaganda for a terrorist organization. Your comment?
The government's practice is called censorship because the regulation that they base the ban on is in conflict with Article 28 of the Turkish Constitution, which says, “The press is free and shall not be censored.” Besides, the regulation is also in conflict with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to freedom of expression, which says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” Therefore, the broadcasting ban on March 31 was illegal, but the media obeyed it without questioning it.

Two newspapers, Cumhuriyet and Hürriyet, responded to Davutoğlu harshly regarding the selective ban on media outlets attending the funeral prayer for the murdered prosecutor. Did you expect such a response to Prime Minister Davutoğlu from other media outlets?
Journalists and journalism will be saved if only journalists show solidarity with each other to fight government censorship. If they had been able to do this, they would not have faced such bans. Experienced journalists/columnists, whose salaries are 20-30 times that of reporters, should lead the way and stand up for journalists' rights. It would have been naïve to expect young reporters to rise up and stand against the government or media bosses.
The government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have never been satisfied with the loyalty of the media owners; they always ask for more. The supporters of the AKP [ruling Justice and Development Party, AK Party] government are rewarded with public tenders; on the other side, the opponents or media outlets that are perceived/accepted by the government as being “opponents” are punished with cancellations of accreditation, prosecution, lawsuits, tax fines, etc.

‘Pro-gov't media outlets useful for getting important public tenders’
Would you tell us about the recent state of the media in Turkey? Who owns what?
There have been five big groups in the media: The biggest group has been the Doğan Group, and then Sabah-ATV, which was sold to the Çalık Group in 2007 for $1.1 billion with credits from public banks. The third big group has been Çukurova, which was owned by businessperson Mehmet Emin Karamehmet. Then came Ciner Group and Doğuş Group.
The change is that Çalık Group left the media scene allegedly because of tensions between the government and the Hizmet movement [Gülen movement]. We learned from the recordings related to the corruption scandal that the media outlets of Çalık Group were allegedly sold to businesses close to the government, and then the so-called pool-media was established. In addition, Sabah-ATV was sold again to Zirve, which was owned by businessperson Ömer Faruk Kalyoncu from the Kalyon Construction Company, but we were not able to learn the amount of the transaction from any public records.
Again, in the recordings related to the government corruption scandal from Dec. 17-25 [2013], Sabah-ATV was allegedly sold for $630 million -- a huge difference from the selling amount in 2007. This is very strange, because if the company had lost so much value, nobody would have really bought it.

Why do you think Zirve bought it then?

When we look at the investments of Zirve or Kalyon, we see that it is the company that constructs almost all roads and infrastructure systems in Turkey, including the third airport in İstanbul. So even if Sabah-ATV was a losing business, Zirve bought it because pro-government media outlets would have been very helpful for winning very important public tenders.

‘Losing media outlets sold through TMSF’
So, businesspeople who are involved in businesses unrelated to the media like to own media outlets in order to get favors in government contracts in Turkey…
This is not a new thing. Çukurova Holding's Mehmet Emin Karamehmet had said in 2011 that he had no interest in getting involved in the media sector, but received a request from Özer Çiller, Karamehmet's former schoolmate and the husband of former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, to save the daily Akşam; then, in order to support the newspaper financially, he founded Show TV.

Nobody expected Karamehmet or others to practice good journalism. We see something clear in the words of businessperson [Ethem] Sancak, who said that it was his “duty” to have media outlets that would support then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan because Sancak is a fan of Erdoğan.

This type of approach has been persistent in the sale of losing media outlets through the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund [TMSF]. Because of Çukurova's approximately $455 million debt to the government, the TMSF confiscated a company, BMC, that produced military vehicles, as well as all media outlets owned by Çukurova's Karamehmet. Show TV was sold to Ciner Holding for $402 million. The sale was done by Çukurova Holding.

The TMSF said that it had received only $87-97 million from this transaction. Apparently, Show TV was a losing business, and the TMSF, which is responsible for this sale, gave priority to commercial receivables instead of public receivables. Hence, the Ankara 4th Administrative Court canceled the transaction.

Who bought Sky360 and Akşam from Çukurova?
Sky360 TV and the Akşam daily, rather small compared to ShowTV, were bought by Ethem Sancak. And then, Sancak was rewarded with the sale of BMC -- Sancak was the only businessperson in the bid for the sale of BMC! Additionally, his nephew Murat Sancak bought the Star daily and TV24. Murat Sancak also owns an interesting business; he is the only producer of a specific credit card point of sale device used all over Turkey.
 
‘No wonder they have almost no coverage of environmental struggles’
You've listed more companies rewarded by the government in your research. How have they been expanding their businesses?
The government rewarded another company, the Albayrak Group, which owns the pro-government Yeni Şafak daily and TVNET. The Albayrak Group has expanded its investments in the construction sector; additionally, it received tenders from the Defense Ministry to produce tanks and airplane engines. The owners of the Albayrak Group are frequent travelers on the foreign trips of government officials -- they now manage the Mogadishu port as well as sanitation and infrastructure work in Pakistan. Another eye-catching development in the Albayrak Group's business is that they control almost all water and gas meter-reading businesses in Ankara and İstanbul.

There are more companies that have obvious government contracts. İhlas Group -- the owner of the pro-government Türkiye daily and TGRT TV, İhlas news agency and various magazines -- has received tenders related to the Bağcılar Municipality's wireless network and the renewal of the Gaziosmanpaşa district.
Beyaz Holding -- the owner of the pro-government Kanal 7 and Ülke TV -- has almost all educational and cultural projects of municipalities in Ankara, İstanbul and other cities. Plus, they have projects to provide courses for high school students to prepare for national university exams. And we've been thinking that the prep courses are being closed by the government!

And back to the four big companies that own most of the media outlets in the country -- among their investments are hydroelectric power plants. No wonder they have almost no coverage of the environmental struggles going on all over the country against hundreds of power plants. And why don't the media cover corruption scandals well? So these media groups receive government tenders easily, almost without competition.
 
‘Gov't threatens with its tax inspectors and fines’
What about previously very powerful Doğan and Doğuş groups?
Doğuş follows a pro-government policy in its coverage; and Doğan has been perceived by the government as being in opposition to the government, although its readers and viewers do not perceive it as such. The Doğan group tries to maintain a difficult balance by including pro-government people in its debate programs, but the government has never been very satisfied by this. Those two groups do not receive many tenders from the government anymore but they have to deal with the government since they have various investments. Doğuş is trying to expand into the entertainment business, including food and restaurant chains. And they always have the threat of the government, which can mobilize its tax inspectors. Therefore, we can get news only from the independent and/or opposition media.

There has been a lot going on to punish opposition and/or independent media. Would you give us examples?
For example, Turkey has seen a fine given to a newspaper for the first time when the inspectors gave the opposition Taraf daily a tax fine of $5.5 million for failing to sell used papers for recycling. This type of fine has never been given before or since. Taraf has obviously been punished for being critical of the government, especially in regards to the alleged corruption scandal. In addition, pro-Gülen publishers have been punished. The İpek Group's mining business has been stopped. There are various businesses supporting the pro-Gülen media but since there is no transparency in this regard, we do not know the extent of their losses. The government continues its clampdown on pro-Gülen media -- on Dec. 14, 2014, the Zaman daily Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı and Samanyolu Broadcasting Group General Manager Hidayet Karaca were among 31 people detained on charges of establishing, heading or being a member of a terrorist organization. The Zaman daily and the Samanyolu television station are among the media outlets that have been critical of the government for alleged corruption since two major graft probes went public in December 2013. The police operation came just ahead of the first anniversary of those graft probes on Dec. 17 and 25, 2013.

Other media outlets that have been critical of the government are the Cumhuriyet, Birgün and Sözcü dailies. They often face lawsuits by the president, prime minister and other government officials. They have to spend a lot of their time in courts rather than practicing journalism.
 
‘State controls social media and Internet more strictly’
What do you expect? What is the worst-case scenario?
There are either no regulations to prevent cross-ownership and monopolization of the media or some existing rules have not been implemented. Many opposition media companies have been punished. The majority of the members of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) [which fined TV stations TL 37.8 million in 2014] are from the governing AK Party and the opposition party members of the RTÜK cannot do anything. The Turkish Competition Board (RP) is not independent, either.

The situation is scary. We all use the Internet and its infrastructure is provided by Türk Telekom, a formerly state-owned company [now 55 percent Saudi-owned and 30 percent owned by the Turkish Treasury], which is the only provider of fixed lines and ADSL broadband Internet. There are signs that a person's right to communication and information might be abolished; the electronic communications sector is under the close scrutiny of a detective-police system. The state is controlling social media and the Internet more strictly. Unfavorable news, content and visual material are censored. Last year, the government shut down Twitter and YouTube for the sake of national security.

Çukurova Holding's digital TV platform, Digitürk, is still in the hands of the TMSF. We do not know when or how it is going to be sold by the TMSF. This process has not been transparent at all. Its sale will change a lot in Turkey since it incorporates both Internet and television platforms. It also has the broadcast rights to valuable football leagues. Whoever finally owns Digitürk might have a monopoly in the market.
 
‘Information not released based on trade secrecy’
In some purchases of bankrupt media outlets, public funds have been used through public banks, right?
Exactly. In relation to Çalık's purchase of Sabah-ATV in 2007 from the TMSF, an opposition lawmaker, Ahmet Ersin, from the Republican People's Party (CHP) posed a question in Parliament asking what had happened to the funds from the public banks. The response from Parliament was that the information cannot be released because it was a trade secret. Therefore, neither researchers nor journalists can access information that is very much in the public interest. On March 3, I asked the RTÜK for information related to the market share of radio and television companies in Turkey, but it has been a month and I haven't yet received any response.

What is the legal time period required for them to submit a response?
15 days. In the past, they at least respected the rule and responded in 15 days -- even though they were withholding most information on the grounds that it was either confidential or a trade secret. I've been working on the media ownership issue since 2006, and it's always been difficult to find out what other businesses and investments that media owners have, but this year it's been the most difficult to find out such information.

Are there no controlling or regulating agencies?
There is RP, which is supposed to prevent media monopolies, but it has not been effective since it is not an independent agency. There has been no agency left to ensure transparency and prevent monopolization in the media sector. There are businesspeople with various investments and own media outlets all over the world, but in countries where independent journalism is important, there are rules to prevent them from getting government contracts.
 
PROFILE
Ceren Sözeri
She is a faculty member at the communications department of Galatasaray University, where she earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees, and has become an associate professor. She also has a doctorate from Marmara University. For TESEV, she has co-authored the following reports: "The Political Economy of the Media in Turkey: A Sectoral Analysis"; "Caught in the Wheels of Power: The Political, Legal and Economic Constraints on Independent Media and Freedom of the Press in Turkey" and "Policy Suggestions for Free and Independent Media in Turkey.” She has published papers on the political economy of the media in Turkey, ethical issues, discrimination and hate speech in traditional and online media.

Tags: monday talk , press freedom , akp

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