June 6 (Bloomberg) -- Amid efforts to discredit negative foreign press coverage and counter with their own English-language take on the news, Turkish politicians found support in an advertorial from HSBC Holdings Plc.
Titled “Turkey: inside the new global growth machine,” the piece was printed in the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph on May 29 and then published on the website of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office, which translated it as “Toward a Turkish Empire.” The website listed the piece under a section called “Turkey in the world press” and didn’t note that it was sponsored content.
The incident highlights an administration struggling for favorable press after a year dominated by anti-government protests, a corruption scandal and accusations of authoritarianism in the 11th year of Erdogan’s leadership. The prime minister has lashed out at the foreign media, saying it provokes dissent, distorts the news and employs “agents” to participate in what he says are coup attempts against him.
Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek tweeted a translation of the HSBC advertorial to his 1.7 million Twitter followers, saying it was an example of what news looks like when it’s “objective.” Pro-government commentators praised the story in print and circulated it online.
The writer, James Hurley, didn’t respond to messages left at the Telegraph Media Group’s offices in London. The piece carried an HSBC Commercial Banking logo and showcased trade between U.K. businesses and Turkey.
Turkey is ranked 154th of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, dropping from 113th in 2004. U.S.-based media watchdog Freedom House downgraded the country to “not free” from “partly free” in its report this year.
“I don’t see Turkey as a country where you have total government control -- there is a free media and there is a lively debate,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch, said by phone from Istanbul yesterday. “But the media in Turkey is now so polarized, and that’s part of the reason why the government feels the need to shout the loudest, and is pouring all this money into drowning out other voices.”
That includes backing its own English-language press. In the past year, the pro-government Sabah and Yeni Safak newspapers have launched English-language versions. They join state-run Anadolu agency’s English service and compete with offerings from Dogan media group and Zaman.
“Unfortunately, we ignored the media in English in Turkey, we didn’t care about how we were perceived from outside and we didn’t try to make public relations or public diplomacy,” Yasin Aktay, the ruling party’s head of foreign relations, said by phone yesterday. “We couldn’t defend ourselves in English.”
Politicians also publicly shame journalists whose reporting they find unflattering. Gokcek, the Ankara mayor, is known for starting social media campaigns against journalists, including a Turkish reporter for the British Broadcasting Corp. who said she received death threats as a result. The Turkey correspondent for Germany’s Der Spiegel said he got thousands of death threats, prompting him to leave the country temporarily, after Erdogan criticized his coverage of a mining accident that killed 301 people.
On June 3, Erdogan labeled CNN’s Istanbul-based correspondent Ivan Watson an “agent” in a speech at parliament, prompting condemnation from U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, who said it was “a ridiculous accusation.” Watson was detained and kicked during a live broadcast on May 31 by plainclothes police as he reported from Taksim Square on the Gezi anniversary.
“CNN’s lackey, he was trying to do something there,” Erdogan said. “CNN International, local, broadcast non-stop last year for 8 hours. Why? To stir up my country, to present my country differently to the world. Now he’s been caught red-handed.”
Aktay, the party’s foreign relations chief, also writes a column for Yeni Safak, which he says is now being translated into English. He said CNN wasn’t carrying out journalism in its report from Taksim and criticism of Watson’s brief detention was unfair.
“What we do is criticize journalists to remind them to be honest,” Aktay said. “Recep Tayyip Erdogan is being criticized because he replied to CNN, but he is right.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Isobel Finkel in Istanbul at firstname.lastname@example.org
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