Turkey’s Instruments of Repression and Declining Press Freedom

In the last post, I found that several Freedom House measures of basic freedoms have been deteriorating in Turkey for a long time, especially when it comes to freedom of expression.  Freedom House (hereby FH) also publishes specific measures of freedoms of the press (data available here), a component of the freedom of expression & beliefs score used previously. Similar to the Freedom of the World publication, FH use subscores to calculate aggregate press freedom scores that are then divided into three statuses, Not Free, Partly Free, and Free. And like the Freedom of the World status, Turkey’s press freedom status has been constant at Partly Free since 2005, only becoming Not Free in 2013 and thereafter.

There are three subscores for press freedom:

  1. A legal environment category focusing on the laws and regulations influencing media content and the government’s inclination to use these laws and legal institutions to restrict the media’s ability to operate:  legal and constitutional guarantees for freedom of expression; the potentially negative aspects of security legislation, the penal code, and other criminal statutes; penalties for libel and defamation; the existence of and ability to use freedom of information legislation; the independence of the judiciary and of official media regulatory bodies
  2. A political environment category, evaluating the degree of political control over the content of news media including editorial independence, access to information and sources; official censorship and self-censorship etc.
  3. An economic environment category. This includes the structure of media ownership; transparency and concentration of ownership; the costs of establishing media as well as any impediments to news production and distribution; the selective withholding of advertising or subsidies by the state or other actors; the impact of corruption and bribery on content; and the extent to which the economic situation in a country impacts the development and sustainability of the media.

In the below graph I show the combined press freedom score for Turkey, as well as its subscores for the legal, political, and economic environments. For the sake of brevity here, the focus is on percentile ranks and Turkey’s performance relative to the world distribution, with higher percentiles implying more freedoms.


The above graph shows a total Freedom of the Press score for Turkey that is stagnant up until 2009 and then starts to slide downwards. The legal environment subscore has been falling consistently since 2005 when it began around the 40th percentile. (This matches the timing of changes to the Turkish penal code, which according to analysts, made prosecuting journalists easier. (See for example here) In 2014, it had fallen to the 16th percentile, an absolutely abysmal deterioration. The political environment subscore was rising somewhat until 2008, and has been decreasing afterwards, from around hovering around the median country in the world to the 22nd percentile. The economic environment subscore has remained largely constant up until 2012, followed by a smaller, but not insignificant, ten-percentile drop.

To illustrate the enormous freedom deficit in terms of the legal pressures on Turkish media the below figure shows the score for the legal environment for press against the Political Rights score in 2005 and 2014, similar to the previous post, with green dots indicating an autocracy and blue dots indicating a Freedom-House-defined electoral democracy: 

Strikingly, legal pressures on Turkey’s media have increased to the point where its 2014 value is equal to that of the median autocracy in the world. In fact, in 2014 there was not a single electoral democracy in the world that had a worse legal environment for the press than Turkey.

Overall, Turkey’s international standing in terms of freedom of the press, as measured by Freedom House, has been decreasing substantially for a decade, driven by legal reforms allowing persecution of representatives of the media, followed by increased political pressure for censorship, and eventually an increase in economic pressures on the media. Along several dimensions, the larger share of this deterioration occurred before 2013.

Noteworthy from the first figure above is the extent to which legal pressures have led political pressures on the media in Turkey. In other words, the capacity for arbitrarily denying freedoms existed long before the government gained extensive control over it. And so one reason why early reforms increasing the judiciary’s ability to use anti-terror legislation against speech (something human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the government for) has been so damaging is not simply that it allowed the judiciary to impinge on media freedoms, but that it may subsequently have become too powerful a tool for the government not to seek control over it. The power of these special courts manifested itself clearly during the Balyoz, Ergenekon, the KCK trials; both in the arbitrary nature of the arrests as well as the degree to which much evidence was fabricated. The political motivations behind arrests of Kurdish politicians and journalists following the AKP’s 2009 election setbacks in the southeast – stifling AKP’s attempts at conquering the Kurdish vote – are one example, the ludicrous arrests of two journalists involved in writing a critical book about the Gülen movement is another.

These trials may have been described as a democratic cleansing of Turkey’s deep state and terrorism, but in implementation they quickly turned into blatant witch hunts to settle political issues that should have resolved by the public democratically, not by political elites in the courtrooms. (The number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey today are still dwarfed by the numbers from 2012 still dwarf those imprisoned today. As a rule, the overwhelming majority of imprisoned journalists tend to be Kurds.)

Politically embarrassing leaked recordings and other incriminating documents found its way from what must have been surveillance units within the security establishment to select newspapers, often those affiliated with the Gülen movement.

The combination of an overpowered judiciary and segments of the media willing to engage in character assassinations, to “eat their own”, and publish manufactured news is an old characteristic of Turkish public discourse (the latter not unique to any specific segment of the media). A key difference in the events of 2011-2013, is that when the cold war between two political elites burst out into the open, it was the government that won the first battle. In the past, it has often been the opposite case.

Herein lies a common misinterpretation of Turkey’s institutional problems to date. It is not simply the concentration of power under the Erdoğan regime that is the problem, but rather the marriage between it and the preexisting overpowered mechanisms for denying freedoms. And so to take stock of how low Turkey has fallen in terms of basic freedoms requires the realization that much of the groundwork already existed long before 2013. What changed was the unprecedented political discretion over instruments of repression previously forged during a period when naïve analysts thought Turkey represented some kind of model reformer.




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