13 August 2013.
Press freedom has become a burning issue in Turkey after the police crackdown on protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and the way Turkish media initially avoided covering it.
As police fought running battles with protesters in June the mainstream news channels opted to air documentaries – including, infamously, one about penguins.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently remarked: “Not everyone has to like us. I’m being frank. There is no such obligation.”
That appeared to suggest tolerance for opposing views. But many sacked journalists are sceptical.
Since the Gezi Park protests – the biggest challenge yet to the AKP government after 11 years in power – at least 75 journalists have been fired or have resigned, the Turkish Journalists’ Union says.
Tugce Tatari was one of them. She has been a columnist since 2007 for the daily Aksam, which was taken over by a Turkish state-run fund, TMSF, in May this year. Soon after, a number of journalists lost their jobs, herself included.
Ms Tatari says they were sacked because of their coverage of Gezi Park, where anger over redevelopment plans mushroomed into wider criticism of the government.
“Those who opposed the PM, who objected to him in their columns, those who said the police used excessive force, were all fired, one by one. There was a crisis in the country.
“For the first time, there was a mass movement. The PM wants everyone who has spoken out about this to be sacked, because he cannot tolerate any sort of criticism.”
Another prominent columnist, Can Dundar, was one of the latest casualties.
He was dismissed from the daily Milliyet, after three weeks of uncertainty when his columns were not published.
“I am not the first, and I will not be the last,” Mr Dundar wrote in his personal blog after his dismissal.
Mr Dundar’s case sparked a huge debate in Turkish media, with a fellow journalist claiming the prime minister’s adviser Yalcin Akdogan had played a significant role in the process. Mr Akdogan denied that. The BBC contacted him, but he declined to comment.
Mr Dundar was also sacked from a television channel two years ago after having attended a protest about arrested journalists.
Speaking to the BBC, he said: “We have been told Mr Akdogan made a call. But the government then defends itself, saying ‘we never said such things’. So the blame rests on media bosses or editors. If they are really disgruntled about this, they need to speak out. They need to do this, not only for press freedom in Turkey but also for the future of Turkish democracy.”
Mr Erdogan’s conservative, Islamist-rooted party increased its majority in the last election. When it first came to power there were high hopes that the AKP would democratise Turkey, after years of military interference in politics.
Earlier this month 22 journalists were given sentences ranging from six years to life imprisonment in the Ergenekon case, alongside senior military officers, politicians and academics convicted of plotting a coup against the AKP government.
The government says the imprisoned journalists are being held not because of their journalism but because of criminal acts.
However, the campaign group Reporters Without Borders ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries – putting its record on press freedom below those of Iraq, Afghanistan or Russia.
More journalists are imprisoned in Turkey than anywhere else in the world.
The Turkish Journalists’ Union says 63 journalists are still behind bars in Turkey, while more than 120 journalists have been released pending trial.
Today critics of the AKP government claim they have borrowed tactics previously used by the military to influence the media.
In 1997 pressure from the military forced the resignation of an Islamist prime minister. During that period several columnists were sacked, headlines were manipulated, and certain Islamist papers were banned from military press conferences.
Many claim that now the government “whispers” to media bosses or editors, complains about certain headlines, phones the broadcast news galleries and even boycotts those who fail to meet specific demands.
But a columnist for the conservative daily Zaman, Mumtazer Turkone, says such things never happen. “Someone from the government never says, ‘If you do not do this, we will not do that’ directly. These measures are applied by the media bosses. Or maybe the papers are too sensitive to government reactions, so they apply these measures themselves.”
According to Akif Beki, a former adviser to Mr Erdogan and now columnist for the daily Radikal, it is the media bosses and not the government who are to blame for the increasing number of sacked journalists.
He told the BBC that “it is not like the government asked for these 70-80 journalists to be fired and then media bosses showed them the door”. He insisted that each case had to be considered individually.
But he also said the AKP government had failed to rid itself of “old reflexes” towards the media.
“They can still perceive criticism as a rejection of their existence, a categorical denial of their being. That is why they sometimes overreact.”
The BBC contacted four government ministers, but none was available for comment.
Some critics point to a questionable relationship between media bosses and the government, via their activity in other industrial sectors.
There is no judicial or ethical code preventing these media moguls bidding for public contracts.
Recently the winning bidder to build Istanbul’s planned third airport paid $60m for media assets that had been seized by the state, including the daily Aksam.
Professor of Communications Haluk Sahin from Bilgi University says the state “is one of the biggest actors in the Turkish economy.
“The PM may decide personally who is going to win which government auction, which contract will go to whom. Media bosses who happen to be businessmen have started to act on the suggestions made to them directly or indirectly and carry out instructions, in order to do business with the state. It is obvious that media bosses prefer to win contracts rather than make news.”
A $2.5bn (£1.6bn) tax bill imposed on the Dogan conglomerate in 2009 was an example of the pressure the government can bring to bear on media owners.
Can Dundar fears that Turkey may be in a downward spiral.
“I suppose they will continue the suppression until all the papers in Turkey come out with the same headlines, until all the columns write about the same things. We’re almost there,” he lamented.
By Selin Girit