Press freedom, Turkish style

If Turkish citizens are taking to the streets to denounce Israel, who can blame them, given the AKP’s stranglehold on the media.

injured soldier on flotilla 311 (photo credit: Courtesy: IHH)
injured soldier on flotilla 311
(photo credit: Courtesy: IHH)
In May, a ship full of civilians – but not full of humanitarian aid – sailed from Turkey to join the Free Gaza flotilla. Having warned the Mavi Marmara that it would not be allowed to breach the blockade, Israeli commandos raided the ship. In the clash, nine Turks were killed.
I’ve lived in Istanbul for five years and I’ve spoken to hundreds of Turks about these events. A Turkish documentary filmmaker and I have filmed some of these conversations.
Something will immediately strike the viewer: the Turkish people have no idea what happened.
This is because the most basic facts about and surrounding these events have not been reported in Turkey.
In billing the flotilla as a humanitarian mission, the IHH – the expedition’s Islamist sponsor – exploited the Turks’ Achilles heel: their generosity.
Turks think of themselves as charitable and compassionate, as indeed they are. They genuinely believe, because this is what has been reported here, that the Palestinians are starving.
They know almost nothing about the reasons for the blockade. They believe that the ship was on a humanitarian mission and nothing but a humanitarian mission. They are bewildered that anyone would have interfered with such a noble-minded endeavor.
They do not know the most rudimentary facts about Hamas. As one man said: “These are elected people. It’s not like they took over by force, via a coup.”
Almost no one in Turkey understands any language but Turkish. If this obviously thoughtful man was unaware that indeed, Hamas took over precisely by force, via a coup, it is because he had no way to know. The men and women to whom we spoke were astonished when we told them that Israeli officials had invited the ship to disembark at Ashdod and deliver the aid overland.
But they were not disbelieving – and importantly, when we told them this, it changed their view.
Many spontaneously said that they knew they could not trust what they heard in the news, that the situation confused them and that something about the story just didn’t sound right.
TURKEY’S JUSTICE and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials as the AKP, came to power in 2002. When Western journalists note in a casual aside that press freedom has experienced certain setbacks under the AKP, they are failing to do justice to the severity of this calamity and its ramifications for Turkey and the region. The calamity is exacerbated by the tendency of the foreign media to repeat, without scrutiny, the very idiocies peddled in the Turkish press, where the range of opinion on offer has become severely limited.
The AKP has brought under its influence most of the media in Turkey, and what it hasn’t purchased or neutered, it has terrified. Since taking office in 2003, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched an energetic series of lawsuits against Turkish journalists and cartoonists for character defamation. No one knows how many have been sued, though the number is probably in the hundreds, and Erdogan has refused to answer this question when asked in parliament.
The government, meanwhile, has been locking down larger and larger portions of the internet: more than 1,000 websites have been banned, among them YouTube.
So what’s left? Chiefly such newspapers as Zaman and Yeni Safak – the AKP’s unofficial mouthpiece – which are staunchly Islamist and connected to or controlled by the AKP or the Gülen media empire.
Now, cronyism and government influence over the media is nothing new in Turkey; it would be completely misleading to suggest otherwise. What’s new, and disturbing, is the agenda this media consolidation is now serving and the eagerness of foreign journalists to swallow it whole and promote it.
If Turkish citizens are taking to the streets to denounce Israel, who can blame them? Here’s what they’re reading in the Turkish press. Yasin Aktay of Yeni Safak, a popular figure on the talk-show circuit, writes: “Israel is contrary to logic, to human rights and to democracy.”
Ali Bulaç, a columnist for Zaman, describes Gaza as “a concentration camp that in reality surpasses the Nazis camps”. In Ortadogu, Selcuk Duzgun warns: “We are surrounded.
Wherever we look we see traitors. Wherever we turn we see impure, false converts.
Whichever stone you turn over, there is a Jew under it.
And we keep thinking to ourselves: Hitler did not do enough to these Jews.” Abdurrahim Karakoç of Vakit adds: “It is impossible not to admire the foresight of Adolf Hitler... Hitler foresaw what would happen these days. He cleansed off these swindler Jews, who believe in racism for a religion and take pleasure in bathing the world in blood, because he knew that they would become a big curse for the world... The second man with foresight is evidently Osama bin Laden... It was Hitler yesterday, and it is Osama bin Laden today.”
What is astonishing, then, is not that we see so much hostility towards Israelis among Turks, but that we see so little of it.
Given the level of anti-Semitic propaganda to which they are exposed, this can only be attributed to their basic decency.
The Turkish Penal Code clearly prohibits incitement on the basis of religion, but no one is ever prosecuted for writing this garbage, although the prime minister has, par contre, sued a cartoonist for depicting him as a cat caught in a ball of string – after all, that was really offensive.
Turkey’s religious affairs department has recently been given the right to request the banning of anti-Islamic and sacrilegious websites. They are duly banned.
The wonderment of this story is that, certain honorable exceptions aside, the Western media embraces the idea that the main threat to press freedom here comes from the military and from the antediluvian, antidemocratic secular elites, who in the received narrative long to return to what Michael Thumann, for example, in the Wilson Quarterly, published by the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, calls a “decaying old order.” On the other hand, he continues: “Pious Muslims lead the way toward modernization...
The AKP is conservative, but contrary to critics’ suspicions it is not a religious party...
after eight years in power the AKP has not pursued any Islamist objectives, such as establishing laws based on religious sources.”
What he’s missing, and what anyone who lives here could tell him, is that you don’t need to establish laws based on religious sources to pursue Islamist objectives, you just need to enforce laws based on religious sources. If you enforce the tax code, laws on foreign financing of the media and laws on religious incitement selectively, well then, voila! – you’ve got yourself an Islamist press, all without writing a single law based on religious sources, and mirabile dictu, people like Thumann are none the wiser.
I have no great love for Turkey’s secular elites, who are pretty much as decayed as described. It’s the enthusiasm for the AKP’s equally decayed elites and the credulous swallowing of its party line that puzzle me. The party does, certainly, cultivate the foreign media carefully and shrewdly and sometimes you can see precisely where the effort pays off. In the wake of the bloodletting on the Mavi Marmara, for example, the veteran Middle East specialist Hugh Pope published a defense of Erdogan in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. “Erdogan’s rhetoric may often be pugnacious and out of date,” he wrote, “but his ideology is not devoted to Israel’s destruction. Just over two years ago, he entertained Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to a long dinner in his official Ankara residence.
Naively perhaps, but certainly sincerely, Erdogan believed that he had brought Israel and Syria to the brink of face-to-face talks or even a peace deal. Yet just days later, and having given no warning, Olmert launched Israel’s winter 2009 assault on Gaza. This was the turning point, not the outburst against President Shimon Peres in Davos a few weeks later.”
I’ve seen that explanation repeatedly in the Western media. I know exactly where it comes from. I’ve personally heard it from two senior figures in the AKP, both very smooth guys, fluent English speakers, who tell this story to journalists in cosy little salon settings, off the record, in precisely these words. You get tea and biscuits, they tell you this story and a few others like it and the story just keeps getting repeated, verbatim, in the press, as if the journalist writing the story had been a first-hand witness to this dinner. What seems to escape those repeating it is that clearly the AKP has an interest in spinning it this way – but that doesn’t mean it’s what really happened or that it’s the most salient point.
Indeed, I’d say one of the sources of this story – at least, the one from whom I last heard it – has a massive credibility problem on the face of it, because he followed this anecdote by denying the genocide in Darfur and proposing that whatever was happening there paled in comparison with the crimes against humanity being perpetrated in Gaza. That part never makes it into the press, even though I know at least a dozen other foreign journalists heard him say this. Watch for variants on the long-dinnerwith- Olmert story, you’ll see it everywhere – Erdogan was so personally hurt, because he doesn’t smoke, in fact he hates smoking, but Olmert does, and he’d even dispatched his aide to get Olmert a cigar.
THE SUPPRESSED assumption, almost universal in the Western media, is that Turkey is divided into two camps, the anachronistic, godless, elitist generals who hunger for military coups just for the thrill of hearing the tank engines rumble, and the pious conservatives who are so forward-thinking and democratic they’re practically channeling the spirit of Thomas Jefferson with one hand and building a bridge between East and West and straight into the 27th century with the other.
It’s not so. This simply ignores the lack of democratization across the board in Turkey, not to mention roughly 80 percent of the Turkish population, who belong to neither camp and just wish the government – whoever’s controlling it these days – would stop stealing everything.
The struggle is taking place among the ruling elites, not the people, and these ruling elites are pretty much all thieving scum, as they will be until parliamentary immunities are lifted, voters are given the chance to elect their own MPs and government service is seen as something other than a chance to enrich oneself through cronyism and corruption. The deeper struggle here is about power and the right to steal, not religion or the military. Those are just the excuses to manipulate public sentiment, which is particularly easy to do if the media goes along for the ride.
The Turkish people are generally well-meaning. They suspect that they cannot trust what they hear in the media. “You saw what was on TV, in the news, and what was published,” said one young woman whom we interviewed about the Gaza flotilla. “We know nothing less and nothing more.”
“It’s murky,” agreed her mother.
They have no way of knowing more. So they may be forgiven.
What’s the Western media’s excuse?

The writer is an Istanbulbased American freelance journalist and novelist. She is author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too and There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters (Basic Books). This article is republished by kind permission of Standpoint magazine (, where it originally appeared in a longer version.