Andrew Finkel/ When Propaganda Fails

 

Andrew Finkel has been a journalist based in Turkey since 1989, during which time he has corresponded for a variety of print and broadcast media including The Times, The Economist, TIME, and CNN. More unusually, he has worked in the Turkish language press, on television, in the news room and as a featured columnist. He was a regular contributor to the Latitude section of the international edition of The New York Times and his free-lance articles and editorials have appeared in a The Washington Post, The Guardian, Observer, Foreign Affairs, Financial Times and Le Monde Diplomatique. He is also the contributing editor and restaurant critic of Cornucopia Magazine. Finkel is a founder of P24, an NGO whose mission is to strengthen the integrity of independent media in Turkey. His last book, Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know is published by Oxford University Press and a novel, The Adventure of the Second Wife will appear both in English and Turkish later this year.

The British say it about the police but it may be equally valid for the press – a nation gets the one that it deserves. Yet even I, a long-time resident of Istanbul, wonder what heinous sins Turkey has committed to have merited a fourth estate so seemingly unfit for the purpose to which any theory of democracy or universal rights would have it assigned – namely to hold power accountable, to ensure a reliable flow of information, and to facilitate a free and rational discussion that helps define the public good.

I realise this criticism is at odds with the more conventional depiction of Turkish media as more sinned against than sinning. The country has long been notorious for its rough-handling of the press. The number fluctuates, but there are currently over 140 journalists behind bars and this is the thin end of a very long wedge. The imposition of emergency rule after the failed 2016 military coup accelerated a purge in which over 170 media organisations were shut down–  from a large circulating daily to the temporary closure of  Kurdish language cartoon channel. Thousands of media workers have lost their jobs.

“Reporters have been hounded and harassed on social media; sometimes they have been arrested for their tweets. They have been forced to censor themselves. They have been left careerless. They have feared for their lives. And they have watched their profession become a farce.” writes Suzy Hansen in the aptly named “What remains of the Turkish Press”, a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Yet if journalism has become a victim of the new authoritarianism in Turkey, mainstream media has long been an accomplice in its own suppression. Even before the current governing party was conceived (in 2001) Turkish media had been an eager handmaid to those in power.  The difference between now and then was that the press barons of the 1990s understood how to make a newspaper and used that know-how to gain entry into non-media businesses. They did so with a crooked cop’s instinct of knowing when to break the rules and when to behave. The bottom line was that to barter influence you had to influence in the first place, to be producing newspapers people wanted to buy or televisions channels they wanted to watch. Today’s owners are contractors, shopping mall owners, healthcare or energy magnates. Press ownership they regard as an unwelcome levy for the business they have already been doing with the government. Rather than grapple with the difficult financials of selling news content in a digital age, they have a fully-functional business model based on running media as a loss to gain advantage in other businesses and have zero interest in speaking truth to power.  If The Guardian or New York Times guard their reputation, it is because integrity has commercial value.  The Turkish press resorts to polemical headlines and photo-shopped reality.  There are days when upwards of eight newspapers have the identical banner headline. Even more tasteful is that pro-government columnists accuse real journalists of treason – and with Stalinesque zeal incite the public prosecutor to do his worst.

A commonly given figure is that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) now commands the absolute loyalty of some 90 per cent of titled media. Its ability to dictate the public narrative would seem beyond dispute. Turkey’s President Erdogan was an early exponent of the populist rhetoric with which now much of Europe contends, a man who defied conventional wisdom that elections were won in the centre ground and instead collapsed that centre and dragged society towards an extreme. Much of his success was founded on the consumer boom of the mid-Noughts and elaborate network of patronage. But he came to power vilifying the old secular elite, re-introducing religious values into public life, and promising to forge a new pious generation and to make Turkey a great historical power again.  When things went wrong, be it in foreign policy or in unstable currency, it was depicted of as the work of foreigners, envious of Turkey’s success.

It seems paradoxical, then, that with so much media ammunition at its disposal,  government still feels compelled to lodge case after case of “presidential insult” or warn off advertisers or otherwise go to great lengths to silence dissent. It is not just journalists but even school children who are detained for critical tweets. One explanation for this insecurity is the old saw that even paranoids have enemies. What we are beginning to witness in Turkey is that while the ruling party may have scored substantial victories in its Kulturkampf with the old Republican elite, it may now be losing the war. It is not so much that the other side is winning but that a style of discourse based on confrontation and polarisation, on charges of treachery and unabashed name-calling, no longer works. It may be too much to hope for – but it is still a hope – that a Turkey which disappeared into the well of demagoguery is now coming up for air. 

I write, I realise, from an odd perspective. I was born elsewhere, lived in Istanbul as a schoolboy briefly in the mid-1960s where I became a juvenile orientalist, infatuated with a city that was then less than two million persons- a fraction of its current (16 million is one guestimate) size.  I subsequently returned, first as an academic and then as a journalist but always with the covert mission to discover what had happened to the Istanbul of my youth, or even the Istanbul of the 1970s, or 1980s or even the Istanbul of five years ago. It is a city and a society where standing still feels like falling through air. As a migrant myself, I cannot with conscience rail against the profound cultural changes which in-migration has caused – although this resentment I know has sparked a profound lack of empathy, dividing neighbourhoods from one another. It did not stop me from being worried about the wholesale destruction of the city and the infamous megaprojects which threaten to render Istanbul a treeless wasteland in my lifetime. My concern about the construction of a third Istanbul airport- only slightly larger than all of Manhattan – failed to make much of a dent and how could it when the consortium responsible for its construction also owned one of the largest media groups – a purchase made in 2013 with generous credit from state-owned banks and from a previous owner whose CEO had been the prime ministers son-in-law.

My more pertinent idiosyncrasy in the present context is that I spent a great deal of my professional life with a foot each in two camps. I worked both for the Turkish-language and international press. The former was infinitely more fun if only in that same schoolboy sense of being one of the best ways of getting in trouble I know. That point was driven home some 20 years ago now when I was put on trial for what I considered to be fair comment in my column in one of the big national dailies but which the public prosecutor deemed to be an attempt to cause the Turkish military to be held in contempt.  This was an era far gentler than today and the maximum six years in prison demanded by the prosecutor was never likely to have been enforced. Even so it was a grim prospect and had to be taken seriously.

Turkish colleagues, at the time rather were not so much sympathetic as bemused that it had taken me so many years to have my first day in court. They had all undergone their first prosecution in their twenties, a sort of fraternity hazing ritual on the way to becoming a real journalist. Being on the wrong side of the law, tweaking authority by the tail, I realised was a necessary rite de passage not just for reporters but other professions including politicians. I recall a conversation with the not-yet Turkish president Abdullah Gül, openly contemptuous of the political aspirations of Kemal Derviş – the World Bank vice president who had been brought into government to deal with the 2001 financial crisis. In Gül’s eyes, Derviş was an alien interloper, parachuted into office without having been battle hardened by being prosecuted, kicked out of power by the military or having his party shut down by the courts.

My alleged offence, back in 1998, for the record, was to describe a “hearts-and-minds” initiative by the Turkish military in the Kurdish southeast of the country.  Troops were painting schools and repairing the damage they had themselves inflicted on the region’s small towns while trying to weed out militants. As I wrote, they “were no longer behaving like an army of occupation”, faint praise which was enough to agitate the public prosecutor’s antennae. Because I was a foreigner, the case attracted far more attention than it deserved. My second hearing coincided with a visit by President Clinton and scores of other heads of state to attend an OSCE summit. But I was sent home, under a sort of amnesty the new government had issued for “offences committed with the spoken word.”

It was an experience which left me with two enduring “takeaways”.

The first is that whereas I had always conceived of journalism as noble calling – bearing witness to unpalatable truths, disassembling conventional wisdom in order to rebuild a more solid consensus – I was discovering that hard way, that it could also be a way of polarising society, imposing hegemony, drafting its practitioners into opposing sides. In the Turkey of those days the Kulturkampf being waged was between the military and a religious right, between avowed secularists and those who were being denied entry into the republican elite. The seminal text in this, or at least a useful pointer, is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities where he depicts newspapers as vital to creating allegiances to the nation state –an abstract entity well beyond one’s immediate experience.  But he was referring to nineteenth century Latin America. There I was, being forced to take on board that some 75 years after the founding of the Turkish Republic (and a good 25 years after the Pentagon Papers or Watergate) that my faltering efforts to understand the aspirations of the Turkey’s Kurds could be interpreted as a criminal attempt to undermine the very project of nation building.  It seemed so obvious, certainly to me, most of the foreign press corps and of course many of my liberal colleagues, that the opposite was true and that only by dealing openly with those aspirations would Turkey find peace.

We were, of course, accused if not actual treachery, gross naivety to think that such dialogue was possible or that the appetite of Kurdish nationalist could be slaked with a few concessions on cultural rights.

My other more striking observation was that the press itself was a deeply corrupted institution in the way that I describe above. Although organisations like the Committee to Protect Journalists leapt to my defence, I was sufficiently cynical to advise them I was in greater need of protection from my own newspaper than I was from the Turkish state.  My own Turkish newspaper and not only not even covered my trial but had gone on to fire me for another – and I was to learn the express orders of the military dominated National Security Council. Had the Turkish press used its influence, those decades ago to defend media freedom rather than extract another lucrative privatisation deal then I believe the media today would not be in the sorry state Ms Hansen summarised so well. It was the Turkish press which tried to “finger” Orhan Pamuk when he criticised the official silence over the fate of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 and it was the Turkish press which made the Armenian editor-in-chief Hrant Dink an actual target for a nationalist’s bullet in 2007.

My own poor opinion of the Turkish media is shared by many members of the current government whose own clashes with the military resulted in them being booted out of office in 1997 in a campaign coordinated with large media organisations – in what was described at the time as “a post-modern coup.” The AKP eventually emerged from these ashes in 2002 largely without media support. Thus, the notion of a fourth estate as an institution vital to the well-being of democracy and therefore deserving of privileges and freedoms is not one to which it readily subscribed. “Democracy is not possible with the media,” President Erdogan said recently, redefining the press as not so much holding government to account but, driven by its own rapaciousness, to ransom. It is this lack of respect, I hypothesise, which has become justification for attempts to suppress media independence despite Turkey’s own legal and constitutional safeguards.

A loyalist press has parroted the government’s message but the bluster of late has begun to sound hollow. Turkey is currently transfixed by the March 2019 local elections where AKP lost the lion’s share of the country’s large municipalities with a turnout of 84.4%. The main upset was Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, responsible for a quarter of the population and a third of GDP. The AKP lost the vote by a fraction of a percentage point but was literally in denial for weeks afterwards with the city still plastered with huge posters of the loosing candidate next to the president thanking the city his victory. Finally the body which oversees elections in Turkey bowed to pressure and discovered a technicality which forced the election to be rerun. This time the AKP lost by a thumping 9% – compounding miscalculation with humiliation. Some of the city’s most conservative neighbourhoods voted for the opposition candidate – the equivalent of Surbiton in the UK voting Labour or Texas voting Democrat. It is a phenomenon which political scientists call “de-alignment” where citizens shed affiliations based on specific identity without necessarily adopting another.

 Much has been written about the campaign style of the winning Istanbul candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu in which he simply ignored the partisan accusations with his own message of inclusivity. He sidestepped the government’s monopoly over media with of course social media but also direct contact. The painful lesson for AKP was that it was the victim of what I call a “Midas Touch” – a whereby it controls the media at the expense of that media’s ability to be of any use in conveying information.

It is a phenomenon which had become apparent in the 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations in Istanbul where a sit-in to rescue and inner city park turned into an amorphous but wide-scale protest and eventually into running street battles between protestors and police armoured vehicles.  The crowds and joyful mayhem that Gezi initially provoked was an uncomfortable bit of cognitive dissonance for a government which claimed to speak the language of the street.  Media coverage of Gezi was a gestalt for many middle class professional Turks who saw how a cause close to their heart was being depicted or in many cases simply ignored.  It led to a soul searching about the other redlines in Turkish society were being drawn.  The expression “penguin press” entered the popular lexicon – a reference to a documentary on the arctic bird which a once trusted 24 hour news channel broadcast when the police intervention against the protest was at its height. It was after the crackdown on the press in the wake of Gezi that the democracy rating agency, Freedom House, decided that Turkish media was no longer “partly free” but not free at all. And only recently, so many years after the fact, alleged ring-leaders of Gezi are being put on trial for branding civil society activism as a form of high treason. My own interpretation is that Gezi was less an attempt to overthrow the state than to teach it how to behave.

Turkey, contrary to the AKP’s early years in office, is now undergoing a period of economic uncertainty and that is no doubt reflected in the government’s weak performance in the latest municipal poll.  At least half the electorate is not willing to believe the media claim that hardships are the result of some foreign conspiracy.  And there are signs, too, that there is a growing disillusionment among government ranks and a desire for a new public honesty. Even columnists writing in the government media are beginning to ask more difficult questions.

 What we are witnessing is not so much the resurgence of the old Republican elite as its redefinition. “Re-education” is a word that carries terrible historical connotations but it is still the case that societies do learn. And in an era where populism and prejudice is the black tar creeping across the European continent, it may be reassuring to discover that as a surface it is brittle and thin.