After the 1980 coup d’état, Turkey reformed its constitution, in which Article 28 states that “the press is free and shall not be censored”. However, this seemingly straightforward position comes with an important caveat, namely that the state can restrict media output in situations deemed to be of threat to national security. This addition is vaguely defined, and the Turkish government frequently exploits this ambiguity. The implications for Turkish citizens are immense in terms of the restriction of freedom of expression.
The ruling party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi/AKP) has been in office since November 2002, under its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey has a long history of restricting the free press. Under the AKP, efforts have been made to establish a pro-government media bloc, which has proven highly effective in creating an uneven political playing field against opponents. The party is known to use state-owned outlets for its own benefit (the government-owned Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) company, was found to have allocated 46% of its air time to AKP’s campaigns leading up to the 2015 June elections). Several members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who came to monitor the Turkish elections also found that Erdoğan was using his position to gain favourable media coverage throughout the campaigns.
Following the 2015 election, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a report, detailing the party’s asymmetrical access to media outlets, stating that “elections in Turkey offered voters a variety of choices, but the process was hindered by a challenging security environment, incidents of violence and restrictions against media”. Pro-AKP media and supporters specifically targeted media outlets who were allocating more airing time to opposition parties, and the CNN Türk channel of the Dogan Media group suffered particularly. Its newspaper Hürryet was openly threatened and one if its columnists, Ahmet Hakan was assaulted in October 2015.
This follows the strategy of intimidation used by the government to scare opponents into compliance. Rather than asserting direct control over the media and press, measures are taken to ensure that any government-critical content is heavily censored. Ensuring the loyalty of domestic institutions, such as the press, ensures that the government can weaponize them against opponents. Critical media outlets can be pressed by tax agencies for inordinate sums of money, or they can become targeted by the judiciary in libel or defamation suits; for example, many of the journalists covering the Gezi park protests faced charges of incitement of violence, and several were sacked or made to resign. Furthermore, the police can exercise disproportionate violence against protesters, and political opponents can become the objects of surveillance by intelligence agencies which gather information to be used as blackmail against them. Additionally, government officials often contact media outlets prior to releases to ensure that certain segments are left out or edited to present the government in a favourable light. This has resulted in a culture of self-censorship.
Many media outlets associated with the dissident activist, Fetullah Gülen, have also been heavily targeted and subjected to criminal investigations. This is due to accusations of his involvement in the uncovering of a corruption scandal in 2013 in which Erdoğan and his son were implicated as involved in a money laundering scheme. In responding to these allegations, Erdoğan sacked all of the prosecutors involved and tightened the monitoring of telephones and the internet. Both YouTube and Twitter were blocked and remained banned from access until March 2014.
After the failed coup in 2016, the government resorted to even harsher measures to control the media, and in that year alone, Erdoğan ordered the closure of over 140 media outlets. Journalists and academics continue to be especially closely monitored and subjected to charges of defamation or incitement to terrorism, and they are frequently targeted by security forces. In 2019, Reuters reported that more than 120 journalists were jailed in Turkey, making Turkey second only to China in imprisoning the highest number of journalists in the world. The authoritarian path which Turkey follows has meant a profound decline in rights and political freedoms, and many continue to observe the erosion of Turkey’s democracy with mounting unease.