Coronavirus: The disastrous consequences of Turkish media's transformation

Until March 11, Turkey was “coronavirus free,” according to the AKP government. However, the government was very likely covering up cases in order to curb public unrest and save the tourism sector.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 22 October 2019 (photo credit: SERGEI CHIRIKOV/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 22 October 2019
The world has been grappling with a momentous coronavirus pandemic. By downplaying and censoring the facts, some leaders dramatically contributed to the spread of disease. China, for example, deliberately delayed informing the world about the severity of the outbreak, which led to a catastrophic failure in containing the virus.
By imposing more censorship over already-censored information channels, Iran, another authoritarian state, has become another major epicenter of coronavirus that has claimed thousands of lives. Putting further pressure on the media, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey has followed the footsteps of China and Iran in censoring information about the prevalence of the virus.
Until March 11, Turkey was “coronavirus free,” according to the AKP government. However, the Turkish government was very likely covering up coronavirus cases in order to curb public unrest and save the tourism sector, which is critical for the survival of the already ailing economy.
In one example, two journalists were arrested due to their reporting about coronavirus cases at a local hospital. Overall, censoring the real figures on the coronavirus epidemic led the Turkish people into not taking the coronavirus threat seriously, which eventually led the virus to spread exponentially. Turkey has been experiencing one of the sharpest increases in coronavirus cases.
The ongoing dire circumstances once again reminded us of the importance of a free press and access to critical information. Turkey’s shift from democratic principles to autocratic principles and media censorship has to a large extent been driven by President Recep Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, which are given their fullest expression as a consequence of the deep corruption within his inner circle.
During his tenure in office, Erdogan has established a vast patronage network based on his family members and web of loyalist politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen. This reciprocal relationship brought more power, influence and wealth to everyone in the loop.
With this cadre of sycophants safely under his thumb, Erdogan knew that he also had to control political discourse and public opinion to remain in power. along with bringing the independent media under his control.
Erdogan’s plan involved a three-pronged strategy: purchase media outlets through corruption and graft schemes; force the owners of independent media outlets to sell to pro-government conglomerates; and unlawfully and forcefully take over other media outlets by appointing state trustees.
A prime example of the first tactic was the government’s purchase of the Turkuvaz Media Group. Through a system referred to as a “pool,” Erdogan’s inner circle organized an auction to raise money, a good portion of which was received through loans from state-owned banks to Turkish businessmen.
In exchange for future large and highly lucrative government contracts, including the Istanbul Airport, the North Marmara Highway Project and many other infrastructure projects, businessmen close to him paid a total of $630 million.
THE SECOND tactic is the use of intimidation to force the owners of independent media outlets to hand over their businesses to pro-government conglomerates. Erdogan insider Ethem Sancak, for example, purchased Kanal 24 TV, SkyTurk 360 news channels and newspapers.
In some cases, Erdogan went a step further, embedding AKP officials to silence any critical voices that might remain at the purchased media outlets. The sale of Dogan Media Group, including Hurriyet and CNN Turk to a pro-government conglomerate in 2018 further expanded Erdogan’s control over the country’s media. This purchase was funded by the state-owned Ziraat Bank.
The third tactic involved the unlawful and forceful takeover of media outlets through state authority. A system of appointed trustees to run the seized media outlets was created, enabling Erdogan - long before the failed July 2016 coup attempt - to seize Gulenist media outlets such as Zaman TV and Samanyolu TV.
In the aftermath of the failed coup, however, Erdogan intensified his crackdown on the media. After the attempted coup, however, 170 media outlets, newspapers and news agencies were shut down and their assets seized, including the pro-Kurdish daily Ozgür Gündem, Today’s Zaman and Taraf. According to the International Press Institute, hundreds of journalists have been persecuted and kept in prisons, and many journalists have had their press cards canceled.
Some others were muted or transformed. For example, Cumhuriyet has begun to turn a blind eye to human rights violations after its editor-in-chief Murat Sabuncu and some other journalists were forced to resign. Facing several lawsuits, the secular and nationalist Sözcü has aligned with the views of the governing AKP.
Even correspondents of foreign media outlets could not remain immune from these repressive policies. They have faced travel bans, cancellation of state-issued press credentials and imprisonment.
Without his authoritarian control, Erdogan’s reign likely would have collapsed, as the country is much worse off today than it was 17 years ago when the AKP came into power. According to Transparency International, Turkey scored nine points lower in the organization’s 2018 Corruption Perception Index compared with its ranking in 2013.
In addition, Turkey now ranks among the countries with the highest income inequality and the largest proportion of people living below the poverty line.
Plagued by social, political, and economic problems - including violations of human rights, crackdowns on dissenting voices from Kurds, Gulenists, journalists, academics and religious minorities, and now the coronavirus pandemic - the government-controlled media have enabled Erdogan to obscure the facts, set the agenda, and influence public attitudes for his political interest and survival.
Once again it has become abundantly clear that we should always be vigilant to guard media freedom from the threats of repressive and corrupt regimes.