Elected autocrats help the media learn its place

June 12, 2015
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's Presidential Palace complex is pictured in Ankara, Turkey

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s Presidential Palace complex is pictured in Ankara, Turkey, May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The ruler of Turkey the past dozen years suffered a setback this week when his party lost its absolute majority in parliament. 

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, until last year prime minister, now president, has been the most consequential Turkish political figure since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged a republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s and 1930s. Through one victory after another, he got used to winning.

Whereas Ataturk laid down a strict secular regime — most religious symbols were banned from public view — Erdogan, whose AK Party expresses Muslim values, relaxed the rules. He won, and kept, the support of the Muslim masses. Moving deliberately, avoiding a direct confrontation with the once-interventionist generals and the secular establishment, he had by the end of the 2000s established political hegemony.

That was cut back in the past week’s parliamentary elections. The vote for the AK Party dropped below 50 percent. The right-wing Nationalist Movement Party gained and is the most likely coalition partner for the AK Party. The big surprise was the surge of the People’s Democratic Party, a liberal, leftish group with roots in the large Kurdish minority. As president, Erdogan has more limited powers than he did as prime minister. His plans to change that went out the window with his party’s losses. But in preparation for his transition to the new thousand-room presidential palace, he weakened the prime ministerial powers and counts on the loyalty of the party he created.

In his 12 years in power, Turkey, with a population of nearly 80 million, has prospered, and its weight in the world has increased. Erdogan reached out to the Kurds, gave the majority greater religious freedom and poured money into health, housing and welfare, which benefitted the poor. But in one thing, Erdogan both led and followed a trend, common among countries where democracy is either recent, or shaky, or both. He saw the news media as enemies, attacked them and confined them in a smaller space than they had occupied in his early, more liberal years.

He led the trend because his contempt and dislike was so evident and proactive. In his past few years as prime minister, he found newspapers and the news channels intolerable, as they probed corruption allegations against his colleagues and his family, broadcast widespread protests and criticized his policies.

Many journalists were jailed on a variety of charges. In 2013, 49 were in jail, more than in any other country. But he then found a better way. Big corporations with diverse interests either owned, or were pressured into buying, media properties – and were left in no doubt that if their media operations didn’t support the government, there would be no state contracts.

Leaked transcripts of phone conversations between Erdogan and the corporate bosses and media executives make grim reading, as the latter reveal their craven obedience to his angry demands that protests be ignored and opposition leaders kept off the screens.

One phrase he used time and again: “know your place,” directed at both the Turkish media but more commonly at foreign reporters working for the Economist, the Guardian, the New York Times and others. For him, the possession of a political mandate was everything; the “place” of the news media was far below that of political power. He believes that media should be largely confined to supporting the government because, after all, the people had.

That stance is increasingly common, and in that sense Erdogan is a follower as well as a pioneer. It informs the attitude of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has also pressured media proprietors to curb a journalism already hemmed in by tougher press laws. He has “a winner take all approach to governing,” with his confidence resting on a two-thirds majority in parliament.

It’s the natural response of South African President Jacob Zuma, who excoriates the press for reporting on the country’s many murders and rapes, and who has said in several speeches that the only motive the press has for its existence is to make money. In a speech to journalism students, he said that though journalists pretend to work in the public interest, “they were never elected.”

His view is shared by Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez, who has pointedly asked if freedom of speech “belongs to corporations or to ordinary citizens.” It’s a good question in itself, but one designed, in this context, not to empower public speech but to silence that of her critics, especially those employed by the Clarin media group.

The past master at this — and a friend of Erdogan’s — is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has confined the opposition media to a few radio and TV channels — small and poor — and a handful of publications. For him, as for Zuma and Fernandez, the media are just a business, and thus have little democratic standing, certainly nothing to rival presidents and governments with the strong backing of the public, as Putin has.

We may be seeing another powerful leader limbering up to dismiss the news media in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After a year in office, he has yet to hold a press conference. He detests the news media because journalists, especially from English-language TV channels, insist on asking questions about the 2002 riots and massacres in Gujarat when he was a newly elected chief minister there. He was held by many to be complicit or negligent, though the supreme court cleared him of these allegations. Modi, however, is a compelling speaker, and an aficionado of social media.

Like many other leaders, including President Barack Obama and China’s Xi Jinping, he has his own channels of influence and disdains journalism. More than that, corporations that need state patronage, as in Turkey, increasingly enfold the media into their embrace, not for profit, for there are more often losses, but for leverage over government.

Turkey leads and follows the trend: a disturbing one for journalism. The combination of media corporations that need governments, and governments that no longer need the mainstream media, render the central, self-defined task of journalism — holding power to account — archaic. If journalism is to retain, or recover, something of that mission, it must again make the case for its democratic necessity, for its responsibility as a necessary civic bulwark against authoritarianism and corruption.

6 comments

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Posted by JimTheDiver | Report as abusive

there may be liabilities associated with govt restricting free press, but lets not pretend so called free press is so fabulous either. what you get with free press is the likes of david corn and the rolling stone rape slanders. Free speech can be achieved with free internet. i dont think we really need to overturn hell and heaven to protect those CNN/Fox/MSNBC loons’ right to lecture us everyday with a smirk.

I like that in Turkey at least there exists a notion of knowing your place.

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

Modi has disregarded the English media because they are a bunch of immoral, money making and corrupt guys.Modi won in spite of all lies peddled in media. The media needs Modi and not the other way around.

Posted by mohan3501 | Report as abusive

“to sell advertising”
to different markets within a society with different social situations and viewpoints, hence some tension with “government line”s and some advertisers. Reuters readers are unlikely to be the “best” market for beer and hamburgers.
“Free speech can be achieved with free internet”
But now there is “metadata retention” of what you read at any websites, and who you communicate with, in western “limited democracies” such as Australia. And very dubious protections for journalists and their sources about an increasing scope of government “operational matters” and “commercially sensitive” deals, etc.
And website censorship lists which must be blocked by ISPs, but must remain secret.
Turkey has also “led the way” in monitoring, suppression and disruption of Internet social networks and information sources to shape the results of “democracy”.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

Reuters propaganda machine did not post my original comment questioned the Charlie Hebdo publication. But I bet they will allow this comment to be psoted to give the impression of a free press……..

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

If the legacy communications industry can clean up its act there might be more concern and support for its diminished access to some political leaders, such as the story that broke this week about the Clinton campaign denying access to a pool reporter. However, many of us who love fair and complete reporting are finding the legacy industry very disappointing these days and have for some time.

So much of “the news” today consists of 15 second sound bites with no depth, and, 1/3 of those 15 seconds is biased editorial rather than journalism. In fact, this opinion piece contains more researched examples than most news. It would be great if the communications industry would adopt some minimum standards, and, perhaps even professional licensing as other professional organizations have. After watching the superficial and political-agenda based reporting in Ferguson, Mo. last summer, I believe a biased press can hurt just as many people as a bad physician or unethical attorney. Licensing/certifying journalists and the organizations they work for might be a way to make readers and journalists appreciate and support each other, once again. Also, with licensing, that new billionaire who buys a news outfit won’t be able to diminish the ethical standards of the journalists as easily.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive