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[OPINION] Why is Erdoğan trying so hard to silence digital media?

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has tried to keep a tight grip on the media landscape since coming to power in 2002. During his two-decade rule, Erdoğan managed to bring Turkey’s well-established media conglomerates into his partisan business circles. But in recent years, digital media has effectively exposed Erdoğan’s undemocratic behavior and corrupt machinations. While the AKP is restricting free expression in Turkey through the implementation of a new social media law, Erdoğan has politicized the security and intelligence apparatus and pro-government media, targeting critical Turkish journalists abroad to silence the last free voices ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections set for June 18, 2023.

Turkey was home to a diverse and free media until businessmen began buying media outlets and bidding for state contracts in the 1980s and especially the early 1990s. Businessman Aydın Doğan, the owner of Doğan Holding, bought the Milliyet newspaper in 1979 and controlled more than 50 percent of the media sector for many years. He later expanded his media empire with Turkey’s main media houses such as the Hürriyet and Milliyet newspapers, Kanal D TV, CNN Türk and the Doğan News Agency. However, the Erdoğan government managed to fine him an astronomical TL 6.8 billion (equivalent to $4.5 billion at the time) for unpaid taxes in 2009. Doğan was subsequently excluded from all state tenders and was forced to sell his media companies to the Demirören Group for $916 million, far below their market value in 2018.

Turkey’s Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) became a tool for Erdoğan to take control of all the mainstream media. Turkey has a poor record when it comes to property rights, and the TMSF took over billionaire Mehmet Emin Karamehmet’s Merkez media group; the company had a licensing agreement with Forbes before Erdoğan’s AKP came to power. Erdoğan continued the practice of illegal confiscation by the Turkish state, and the TMSF later seized the Star Group’s assets in 2004. The group was co-founded by businessman and opposition leader Cem Uzan, who was highly critical of Erdoğan and currently lives abroad. Erdoğan instructed the TMSF to sell this media group, which owned Turkey’s first private broadcaster — Star TV — to pro-AKP businessmen Hasan Doğan and Ethem Sancak shortly before the 2007 elections. A year later, the TMSF seized the giant Ciner Group media conglomerate, which owns ATV and the Sabah newspaper. On Dec. 5, 2007, businessman Ahmet Çalık’s Turkuaz Media Group bought the Sabah-ATV Media Group, Turkey’s second-largest, from the TMSF for $1.1 billion. Turkey’s two state banks, Halkbank and Vakıfbank, provided Çalık with $750 million for this purchase. Çalık has been a close ally of Erdoğan for many years and had appointed Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s 26-year-old son-in-law, as general director of the holding company.

Erdoğan has turned over Turkey’s established mainstream media to his partisan businessmen and spread propaganda through the media to ensure that his AKP increased its votes by 12 percentage points in the parliamentary elections in 2008.

The 2013 Gezi Park protests were the first nationwide demonstrations and unrest to threaten Erdoğan’s rule. The protesters were mobilized through social media, and Erdoğan recognized the powerful role social media plays in influencing the masses. The AKP has not been able to control social media with the same force it used on the mainstream media. The Hürriyet daily reported in May 2014 that the party had formed a 6,000-strong troll army in September 2013 to shape public opinion on the internet. In the conventional media, however, things looked different. Erdoğan dealt the final blow to the free media after a coup attempt on July 15, 2016. Within three months of the failed coup, the AKP government had shut down 170 newspapers, magazines, television stations and news agencies. Hundreds of journalists were imprisoned, and thousands were put out of work.

The Erdoğan government continued its war on the media by targeting journalists in exile in Western countries. Pro-Erdoğan Sabah newspaper reporter Abdurrahman Şimşek recently targeted four journalists in exile: Cevheri Güven in Germany and Abdullah Bozkurt, Bülent Keneş and Levent Kenez in Sweden. Şimşek published their addresses along with secretly taken photos on the front page of Sabah. Turkish citizens with alleged ties to the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) attacked and injured Bozkurt in Sweden in 2020, journalist Erk Acerer in Germany in 2021 and Ahmet Dönmez in Sweden in March 2022. The pro-Erdoğan media have also targeted prominent Turkish journalists Abdülhamit Bilici, Metin Yıkar and Adem Yavuz Arslan, all of whom live in the United States. These high-profile editors currently reach millions of Turkish viewers through YouTube channels, and the Erdoğan government is trying hard to silence them.

Turkey passed a law in 2020 that forces the largest online social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and TikTok to open offices in Turkey and hand over critical information about their users to the Turkish government. Moreover, under a new social media law passed on October 13, 2022, online censorship has been tightened by criminalizing the spread of “fake news,” which can be punished by up to three years in prison. Human Rights Watch, Article 19 and other international human rights groups have strongly criticized Turkey’s restrictive internet law, which arbitrarily blocks and removes websites and other online content.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other international election observers have not recognized Turkish elections as free in recent years, according to a 2018 report by Deutsche Welle, saying that excessive media coverage tilted the playing field in favor of Erdoğan. The Erdoğan government has succeeded in controlling the mainstream media, but social media and some prominent journalists continue to pose a major threat to Erdoğan’s propaganda war as they continue to report on high inflation rates, the economic crisis, drug trafficking and corruption and other illegal activities of the AKP rulers. Erdoğan made his fear of independent journalism clear at a press conference in Ankara on Nov. 8, 2022, when he demanded that Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson extradite Bülent Keneş, the former editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman, as the key to approving Sweden’s NATO bid.

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