The previous month has seen most of Turkey’s mainstream media – already in tenuous orbit of the real world – spin off into outer space. This is the culmination of a process that’s been going on for quite some time now, but has been dramatically accelerated by the Gezi protests.
For the past couple of years, it’s been clear that whenever serious crises strike with the potential to damage the government, the domestic media largely stays silent until Ankara offers an explanation, which it then prints uncontested.
Many Turkish journalists say they first noticed this in the aftermath of the Van earthquake in October 2011, but I only noticed it later, with the Uludere tragedy in December the same year, when the Turkish military killed 35 Kurds in a botched airstrike. Last year I wrote a story looking at the issue of press self-censorship in the context of Uludere, which you can find here.
The reason I’ve chosen today to write about this is that we’ve just witnessed one of the most blatant examples of the way in which the government is wrenching the Turkish media further and further from a credible representation of reality.
On July 1, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay was recorded in the central Anatolian province of Kırıkkale talking about the Gezi Park protests. He said the following:
“There are those who are unable to stand Turkey. There are those who envy Turkey’s growth, both in the country and abroad. There are those who are jealous. They have all come together – on one side the Jewish diaspora. You saw the stance of the foreign media during the Gezi Park protests. You saw how they immediately bought into the protests and began reporting on them without evaluating them.”
Though not particularly shocking in a Turkish context, his words made explicit what some people already felt was an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Ankara’s response to Gezi.
The chief villain of the protests, according to the government, has been the ‘interest lobby’ – a shadowy group of international businessmen bent on leeching off Turkey and destroying its success.
What happened next, however, is extraordinary. Atalay’s office issued a statement denying he had made the comments.
“It is out of the question that the Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay made a statement that the Jewish diaspora was behind Gezi Park incidents,” the press office said.
“His statement actually made reference to the exaggeration of the Gezi Park incidents by the international media through hours-long broadcasts and unconfirmed reports. Any sign, remark or intention targeting the Jewish citizens in Turkey or the Jewish people in other countries is out of the question.”
This is about as categorical and demonstrable a lie as you can make, given the recording linked above.
Nonetheless, his denial was reprinted without contradiction or contextualization by swathes of the Turkish press, including the state news agency (linked earlier).
It was a good illustration of the corrosive effect that the government’s control over Turkish media (or, more generously, the Turkish media’s unwillingness to question the government) is having on the country’s political culture.
Having made an embarrassing gaffe, Atalay’s people decided it was easier and less damaging to lie than to apologise. In making this calculation, they no doubt knew that most of the press would simply print his statement verbatim, accept it, and move on.
This indicates a state of affairs in which politicians are utterly unaccountable for their own words and actions, even when making the baldest of lies.
Of course, a critic would counter by saying that some Turkish press did report the controversy less charitably, so readers can decide for themselves what to think.
This is true, however it also leads us to the real danger posed by this divergence between the pro-government ‘reality’ and the alternative narratives put forward in what might now be termed the ‘dissident’ press and the foreign media.
The further Ankara’s narrative drifts into outer space, the more zealously it and its friendly news organisations will attack reporting that punctures that narrative and reveals its absurdity.
Sure enough, in their denial of the ‘Jewish diaspora’ comments, Atalay’s press team attacked Cihan News Agency.
“Unfortunately, a news agency twisted the remarks of the Deputy Prime Minister, which can be easily seen from reports published by other news agencies and voice recordings of his speech,” his statement read.
If the government starts putting forward line that are obviously false, they will have to work harder to police the media, which in practical terms will mean the firing or ‘resigning’ of journalists who are unwilling to toe those lines, as well as increasing hostility and pressure on anti-government press.
Indeed, in recent days, media organs friendly to Ankara have been purging reporters and editors. Yavuz Baydar wrote this excellent piece, published this morning, summarising recent developments.
While we’re on Atalay’s comments, one aspect of them I found hilarious was his statement that there are “those who are unable to stand Turkey… who envy Turkey’s growth…”
The ‘foreigners can’t stand our awesomeness’ line has been a popular one with Turkish politicians in recent weeks. The funniest articulation of it came from Minister of European Union Affairs Egemen Bağış, in a now infamous press release in which he responded to EU criticisms of Turkey’s handling of the protests by saying:
“Turkey has the most reformist and strongest government in Europe and the most charismatic and strongest leader in the world. Should anyone have a problem with this, then I am truly sorry. Only for those who feel overwhelmed, the leadership of Prime Minister Erdoğan is a problem.”
Jealous foreigners have been accused both of plotting, as well as overreacting to the protests. I can picture it clearly…
Monsieur Sarkozy’s face whitened as he pored over the latest sheaf of economic data from Turkey.
He still remembered that visit to Ankara in 2011. As they both grimaced for the camera, the Turkish Prime Minister had clasped his hand in a vicelike grip and, pulling him closer, whispered: “Are you on tiptoes?”
Now this latest report on Turkey’s relentless rise to greatness was too much. His hand slowly clenched into a fist, which he smashed onto the desk. “He’s so bloody charismatic!” he squealed. His secretary looked up in shock.
As he met her eyes, however, his face contorted into a sinister grin. After being ejected from the Elysee Palace, he had spent months bitterly reflecting on his failure to crush Turkey. Now, he had new, more powerful friends, and they just might help.
“Sylvie! Get me Bolton!” he barked. A few minutes later he was on the phone with the former US Ambassador to the United Nations, and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
“John, have you seen these latest figures from Turkey?”
“I’m looking at them now,” the latter replied through gritted teeth.
“We must act!” Sarkozy seethed.
Bolton swung back in his chair and thoughtfully tousled his moustache. “What if…” A plan began to take form. “What if we got a load of pampered middle class Turkish kids and made them camp in a park?”
“What?” said Sarkozy.
“Hear me out! If the police try and stop them, they’ll throw stones. Maybe flip a car or two. Perhaps a Molotov cocktail.”
“I’m not sure that’s enough, John. The Turkish people love Erdogan! You hear me? They LOVE him!” His voice quivered with barely-suppressed Islamophobia.
“But that’s the beauty of it. The protests don’t even need to be big. If we get the foreign media to exaggerate them…”
“… Then Erdogan will inevitably resign and Turkey will collapse,” Sarkozy cut in, an expression of euphoric realisation creeping over his face. “John, I could kiss you!”
“I still hate you,” Bolton replied coolly, but by that time the former president had already slammed down the phone.
“Sylvie!” he said. “Get me the Jews. I’ve got a plan.”
04/07/13 – CORRECTION – Originally I wrote that the news agency targeted by Atalay’s office for ‘twisting’ his statement was Doğan; in fact it was Cihan. Thanks BM!