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Istanbul: When President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law suddenly quit as finance minister in late 2020, four staff in Turkey’s leading newsrooms said they received a clear direction from their managers: don’t report this until the government says so.
The resignation of Berat Albayrak, which he announced in a Sunday evening Instagram post, was reported by international and independent Turkish news outlets. The lira soared on hopes of a new direction for the beleaguered economy.
But for more than 24 hours, the pro-government TV stations and newspapers that dominate the country’s media landscape stayed virtually silent about the most dramatic rift in Erdogan’s inner circle in his nearly two decades in power.
The episode illustrates how the Turkish mainstream media, once a more lively clash of ideas, has become a tight chain of command of government-approved headlines, front pages and topics of TV debate. Interviews with dozens of sources in the media, government officials and regulators portray an industry that has fallen in line with other formerly independent institutions that Erdogan has bent to his will, including, his critics say, the judiciary, military, central bank and large parts of the education system. Government pressure and media self-censorship share the blame, according to the people interviewed by Reuters.
Directions to newsrooms often come from officials in the government’s Directorate of Communications, which handles media relations, more than a dozen industry insiders told Reuters. The directorate is an Erdogan creation, employing some 1,500 people and headquartered in a tower block in Ankara. It is headed by a former academic, Fahrettin Altun.
Altun’s officials issue their instructions in phone calls or Whatsapp messages that sometimes address newsroom managers with the familiar “brother,” according to some of these people and a Reuters review of some of the messages.
When Reuters contacted the Directorate for comment, a senior government official familiar with Altun’s approach said it is “absolutely not” the case that Altun sets the news agenda. Altun “occasionally briefs editors and reporters as part of his job. Yet those tasks have never been carried out in a way that could be viewed as infringing on the editorial independence of news organisations or violating the freedom of the press.”
The official declined to comment on whether the Directorate instructed media to hold off reporting Albayrak’s resignation. Albayrak didn’t respond to Reuters’ request for comment about the media coverage, sent via an affiliate.
Erdogan’s supporters have other tools to shape news coverage. The biggest media brands are controlled by companies and people close to Erdogan and his AK Party (AKP) following a series of acquisitions starting in 2008. State advertising revenue is funnelled largely to pro-government publications, a Reuters examination of the data found. Conversely, government-appointed regulators direct penalties for breaching Turkey’s media code almost exclusively to independent or opposition news providers, a Reuters review of these penalties showed. Criticising the president and alleging official corruption can fall foul of regulators.
“The mainstream media in Turkey serves the function of concealing the truth more than reporting the news,” said Faruk Bildirici, a journalist who worked for 27 years, until 2019, at the country’s largest newspaper, Hurriyet, where he was also ombudsman. Since a change in ownership in 2018, Hurriyet too has become pro-government.