As clouds of tear gas engulfed central Istanbul and anti-government demonstrators fought with police, billionaire Aydin Dogan’s news channel aired a documentary about penguins.
The scheduling made him and other media bosses targets of demonstrators who have turned the occupation of an Istanbul park into a challenge to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a police crackdown began on May 31. They say the coverage, or lack of it, of the biggest nationwide protests in years reflects a media industry driven by the desire to stay on good terms with Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
“The judiciary, the police and the media are all on the side of the AKP,” Seda Terkoglu, a 19-year-old high school student, said during a rally in Istanbul on June 2. “The mainstream media is only promoting the AKP.”
The protests, initially over the redevelopment of Taksim Square in Istanbul, spread to more than 60 cities. Demonstrators called for Erdogan, Turkey’s most popular politician in decades and a three-time election winner, to step down. They included the erosion of press freedom among their grievances, as well as what they called the government’s authoritarian approach and Islamist agenda.
Of about 3,000 respondents to an online poll by Istanbul’s Bilgi University this week, 84 percent cited muted media coverage among reasons for joining the protests, while 56 percent included the destruction of the park.
Clashes continued yesterday, while the authorities issued dozens of arrest warrants for people charged with spreading false information on social media.
Two minor opposition channels have broadcast the protests extensively. “No television channel is broadcasting what’s happening here except Halk TV and Ulusal TV,” Cansu Kelesoglu, a 24-year-old protester, said in Taksim Square on June 1, when tens of thousands gathered as police withdrew. “We are mostly following the incidents through Twitter.”
Many of the media bosses fund their broadcast and print operations with other businesses in fields including energy, banking and mining.
Billionaire Ferit Sahenk’s Dogus Holding owns a 24 percent stake in Turkey’s biggest bank by market value, Turkiye Garanti Bankasi AS, as well as restaurants and ports. Mining tycoon Turgay Ciner, who licenses the BloombergHT television channel in addition to owning the Haberturk newspaper and television station, added Show TV to his media holdings last month after the government seized it from another billionaire, Mehmet Emin Karamehmet, for failure to pay debts. BloombergHT is a Turkish-language financial news channel that competes with Sahenk’s CNBC-e.
Azerbaijan’s state oil company, which is building a $5 billion refinery in Turkey, last week won approval to buy half of Star media group, which owns newspapers and a TV station.
Dogan, who owns Turkey’s biggest media group, has good reason for concern about getting on the government’s bad side.
The company, Dogan Yayin Holding AS, was slapped with a $3.8 billion tax fine in 2009. The penalty followed a tiff with the government over allegations in Dogan newspapers of corruption by people linked to the AKP. Dogan Yayin’s shares have fallen more than 50 percent in the past five years, while the benchmark Borsa Istanbul index almost doubled.
A Turkish official who declined to be named in line with policy said the fine against Dogan was imposed in accordance with tax law. It wasn’t imposed on the orders of any political authority, he said.
Oguz Usluer, general broadcast coordinator for Ciner’s Haberturk media group, defended his group’s coverage of the protests, saying newsmen were taking care to “not broadcast actions of a provocative nature that could agitate other groups of people.” He said the media had done its job and that the demonstrations included “situations which went outside the democratic methods of protest.”
Protesters have smashed police and other municipal vehicles, hurled bricks at police and torn up street signs and paving stones to turn them into barricades.
Dogan didn’t respond to requests for comment placed to their offices on June 5. Dogus Media Group Chief Executive Officer Cem Aydin said his company is examining how to reestablish public confidence in the media.
“The criticism is justified,” Aydin said in an interview by phone yesterday. “This is a period of stuttering, of a distortion of perception for the media. The media has developed self-censorship in the name of finding a balance.”
“Incredibly, we saw three national news channels do the same thing: confine the story to their hourly news reports, while the situation was growing on the ground,” said Aydin. “And these people were our clients, so to speak, people who felt their area of life was narrowing constantly.”
On June 3, after protests spread to Ankara and a weekend of clashes left parts of Turkey’s two biggest cities looking like war zones, Sabah newspaper led with a story about the prime minister’s anti-smoking campaign.
Sabah is part of the ATV-Sabah group, which was purchased by Calik Holding for $1.25 billion in 2008 with loans from state-run banks, the biggest ever given at the time. Calik’s Chief Executive Officer Berat Albayrak is Erdogan’s son-in-law.
Awareness of shortcomings in the Turkish media may be one of the most important and lasting developments of the protest movement, because it raises questions about the health of democracy in the European Union membership candidate, James Ker-Lindsay, a specialist on Turkey and Cyprus at the London School of Economics, said by phone on June 3.
“All this talk about how the media hasn’t been covering it might not seem at first blush to be all that big an issue,” Ker-Lindsay said. “But there might be people saying, actually this really is the central point.”
The void was filled by social media, which in turn was attacked by the government for misleading the public.
In a speech on June 2, Erdogan called social media a “curse on societies” and said Twitter was spreading “lies and exaggerations.” Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said in a speech yesterday that the government “could have shut down Internet access, but we didn’t.”
Haberturk’s Usluer echoed those comments.
“This maybe has been a breaking point to show the power of social media,” he said. “But we have also clearly established that social media is an uncontrolled area where there’s serious information pollution.”
In Izmir, police arrested 25 people yesterday and were searching for another 13, accusing them of disseminating false information, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency.
A study by New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation Laboratory published on June 1 called the level of interaction on social media amid the protests in Turkey “phenomenal.” More than 3,000 tweets per minute were sent about the protests after midnight on May 31, it said.
“Dissatisfied with the mainstream media’s coverage of the event, which has been almost non-existent within Turkey, Turkish protesters have begun live-tweeting the protests,” study authors Pablo Barbera and Megan Metzger wrote.
About 47 percent of Turkish households have access to the Internet, according to a survey from the state statistics agency last year, heightening concern about whether citizens not witnessing the events are getting full access to news.
Demonstrators this week have repeatedly targeted businesses owned by billionaire Sahenk, whose group of companies includes TV channels NTV, CNBC-e and Star. There were rallies too outside the offices of Haberturk, where BloombergHT is also based.
“Mainstream media is not interested in this protest,” Sidar Kardogan, 17, a high school student, said at a demonstration in Istanbul. “People are trying to spread the word through social media. Amid all the censorship and oppression, people know what’s going on here.”