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Turkey’s announcement on Wednesday that it will soon “regulate” foreign-funded media and require them to submit detailed reports on their activities every six months has sparked a fierce debate, with critics saying it is a is another attempt by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to erase what is left of the free press.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made his intentions clear in a news conference at the end of a two-day tour to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, saying: “We will take action against the defamatory terror. This will be worked on in the House of Representatives from October.”
Turkey is routinely listed as one of the worst press freedom violators, with dozens of journalists languishing in prison on barely supported “terror charges”.
The announcement came amid a smear campaign against independent media that receives funding from the US-based agency Christ Foundation, a private charity.
They include the liberal-oriented Medyascope and Bianet, both online news broadcasts, as well as Serbestiyet, a platform for more conservative writers. They are highly regarded and are among a handful of media outlets providing a critical counterweight to Erdogan’s multimillion-dollar propaganda machine.
Erdogan’s communications czar, Fahrettin Altun, said in a statement: “We will not allow fifth column activities under new guises. There is a need for new regulation for media operating [with the support of] foreign states and institutions.”
Altun justified the planned rules and said the United States has taken similar measures. In fact, the National Defense for fiscal year 2019 requires US-based foreign media, not funded by the US media with foreign capital, to submit semi-annual reports on the outlets’ relationships with foreign clients.
Al-Monitor columnist Kadri Gursel, who serves on the board of Reporters Sans Frontieres, a Paris-based global media advocacy group, said: “It’s no secret that most of Turkey’s independent media, especially in the digital world, receiving foreign funds to survive in a media ecosystem characterized by the devastating effects of the authoritarian pressure of Erdogan’s rule.”
Gursel added in email comments to Al-Monitor: “Multiple tools were used for this. Gaining complete or indirect government control over the mainstream media through forced takeovers was one of these tools. Another is to financially stifle small but influential independent media outlets by devising — explicit or implicit — advertising embargoes on them — a printing method still widely used.
“To deal with such financial pressures and in light of the secular business community’s unwillingness to financially support independent media in Turkey, outlets such as Medyascope have approached international donors to survive.”
The timing of the decision has led to further speculation that Erdogan, whose polls are declining mainly due to rising inflation and unemployment, is paving the way for snap elections ahead of the scheduled 2023 date.
More than 90% of Turkish media is controlled by businessmen with close ties to Erdogan. In exchange for coverage from an army of sycophantic print and television journalists, their companies, many of them in the construction industry, receive lucrative government contracts.
But several studies suggest that a growing number of Turks are turning to independent digital outlets for their news. This, in turn, may explain why the government feels compelled to tighten the rope.
In a March report, the International Press Institute said that, with 33.5 million users, the digital reach of Turkey’s independent media surpassed the 47.8 million users of the pro-government media. The report noted: “Independent media outlets receive 16.5% more interactions on social media and are closer to breaking the echo chamber. They dominate pro-government outlets in almost all dimensions, from their follower growth to the number of viral content, and at all platforms.
It added: “For example, they have five times more engagement on Facebook and reach a more diverse audience of news consumers on Twitter.”
As such, the proposed legislation is “a last-ditch effort to kill independent media outlets that are becoming more influential than ever as the government-controlled media on the other hand becomes obsolete,” Gursel said.
Merve Tahiroglu, director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington think tank, said the move is part of a broader campaign of pressure that extends to foreign-funded NGOs that are also portrayed as stalking horses for nefarious global forces to undermine Turkey. . “I think this measure is similar to the recent so-called ‘NGO’ law, which (in addition to allowing the government to replace board members with appointees) also appears to be aimed at protecting non-profit organizations that receive foreign funding under to put pressure on. Western-funded NGOs in particular feel this pressure with increased and arbitrary inspections. And that’s no coincidence,” Tahiroglu said in email comments to Al-Monitor.
“At a time when the US and Europe are trying to expand their efforts to promote democratization and human rights in Turkey by supporting local NGOs and independent media organizations, Ankara is clearly trying to monitor these activities and strengthen control over these institutions. Tahiroglu added.
One of the government’s most prominent targets is Osman Kavala, a businessman turned citizen activist, using his family fortune to promote culture and peace between Turks and Armenians and between Turks and Kurds. Kavala has been rotting in a Turkish prison since October 2017 over a cocktail of outlandish terrorism charges. His foundation, Anadolu Kultur, is one of the beneficiaries of the Chrest Foundation.
Kavala is due to appear in court on August 6. In September 2020, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 63-year-old’s continued detention violates the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court reiterated its opinion on December 10, Human Rights Day, saying: Kavala’s extended detention had an “ulterior motive, namely to silence him as an NGO activist and human rights defender, to dissuade other individuals from engaging in such activities and to cripple civil society in the country.”
Turkey ratified the treaty in 1954. The rulings of the European Court are binding on the signatories.
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