Implications of the Zaman media group takeover for Turkish democracy

MediaKit: Fifth Anniversary of the Zaman Media Group Takeover
March 4, 2021
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Implications of the Zaman media group takeover for Turkish democracy

By KERİM BALCI

Editor-in-Chief, Turkish Review

On March 4, 2016, Turkish media group Feza Gazetecilik was taken over by a politically motivated decision of an İstanbul court. The takeover was problematic for several reasons, not least the essential illegality of the court itself, created only recently by the Turkish government to be used as a tool of legal suppression of all opposition groups in the country. This article appeared at Turkish Review’s Vol 6, Iss. 1-2 in 2016. Being a publication of Zaman Media Group, Turkish Review managed to have two issues published even after the takeover, but ceased its operations after the Coup Attempt of July 15, 2016. The original of the article is made available here with the permission of the author. 

Feza Gazetecilik was the publisher of Zaman and Today’s Zaman dailies and Aksiyon newsweekly, as well as the home of the Cihan news agency. The Sixth Criminal Court of Peace of İstanbul appointed a three-member board of caretakers to take over full control of Feza Gazetecilik on claims that media outlets owned by the group were in fact governed by Fethullah Gülen, an Islamic scholar based in the US, and that the group’s publication policies were in line with the activities of the so-called Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) and the Parallel State Structure (PDY).

The takeover was problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, the so-called criminal courts of peace were created only recently by the Turkish government to be used as a tool of legal suppression of opposition groups. By all accounts these courts — in fact judges, as there is only one judge in each court — are unconstitutional. These courts are project courts that were reportedly founded only after the criminal had been matched to the crime and judged by the president of the country.

Istanbul 6. Sulh Ceza Hakimligi Zaman Gazetesi’ne hukuksuz bir sekilde kayyim atadi. 4 Mart 2016 / Kursat Bayhan

The illegitimacy of the legal apparatus trivializes all other wrongdoings, but for the record let us mention that there is no legally established document that refers to a terrorist organization by the title of FETÖ or PDY. The prosecutors base their allegations on a strictly confidential “Red Book” that defines threat perceptions of the Republic of Turkey. The “Red Book” is not a legal document and cannot be seen by the prosecutors or judges, let alone the advocates of the accused.

But the topic of this paper is not the absurdities of the takeover. Rather, it deals with the long-term impacts of the takeover on the Turkish media scene, Turkish democracy and the regional peace.

Koza Ipek Holding’e kayyum atandi Mahkeme kararini teblig icin gelen yetkililer binaya polis zoruyla girdi. Calisanlari disari cikaran polis, protesto icin toplanan kalabaligia tomayla mudahale etti. Bazi gazetecileri de goz altina aldi. 28 Ekim 2015 / Zaman / Mehmet Ali Poyraz

FROM PARTIALLY FREE TO IMPRISONED

Turkey’s press freedom record has been consistently dropping for the past 10 years. Freedom House’s record for Turkey shows a continuous rise from 48 in 2006 to 71 in 2016, 100 being the worst possible record. The Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) Press Freedom Index confirms these findings, with Turkey’s ranking dropping from 98th in 2002 to 151st in 2016 within a list of 180 countries indexed. Although useful for comparisons, these indices do not tell enough about the repercussions of a particular decision by a government to suppress critical media in the country. The takeover of Feza, better known as the Zaman Media Group, is yet to find its place in 2017 reports of both indices, but it’s aftershocks have already been felt in the political scene in Turkey.

The Turkish regime has developed media takeover strategy well before the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule. Already when the AKP came to power in 2002, the Star Media Group, owned by the controversial businessman and opposition figure Cem Uzan, was taken over by the Saving Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) on charges that the group was unable to pay its tax loans. The AKP refined this strategy in the following 14 years. The government had to involve pro-government businessmen to acquire media groups taken over by the TMSF — in 2004 Star daily and in 2007 for the Sabah-aTV group — starting with the İpek Media Group in late 2015 the government realized that by simply appointing a caretaker to the media group on claims that the group was linked to terrorist activities, it would be able to convert the group into pro-government media without spending a penny. In fact, in the cases of both the İpek and Zaman takeovers the caretakers actually benefitted

from the funds they confiscated.

Istanbul 6. Sulh Ceza Hakimligi Zaman Gazetesi’ne hukuksuz bir sekilde kayyim atadi. Gazete onune gelen 2 adet TOMA ve cok sayida Cevik Kuvvet Polisi gazete onunde hukuksuz gaspa tepki gosteren okurlara tazyikli su ile mudahale etti. Yogun biber gazli ve plastik mermili mudahelenin ardindan polis zoruyla gazetemiz binasina girildi. Zaman gazetesi calisanlarina gazete binasi onunde ve icin mudahalede bulunuyor. Bina icine biber gazi atildi. Mudahale suruyor. (Zaman/Usame ari)

The takeover of Zaman Media Group was the final battle of a lengthy war against the group. Starting from late 2013, when then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the group of being behind a conspiracy that launched the largest graft investigation in Turkish history against his ministers and members of his family, the group was subjected to verbal attacks, calls for cancellation of subscriptions, organized online and occasionally physical attacks on employees and premises, blackmailing of businesses that supported the group by their advertisements and even actual interruption of the newspaper distribution process. So, whereas on the week of the 2013 graft investigation the weekly average circulation of Zaman daily was 1,219,354, by the time the caretakers were appointed to the group the flagship publication was only publishing a little over 650,000 copies a day. Within two months of the takeover, the sales of the newspaper dropped to a mere 2,539 as of the last week of April 2016. The English daily of the group, Today’s Zaman, which was the largest circulating English daily in Turkey at some 10,000 copies a day, is now selling 372 copies. Aksiyon newsweekly was selling 10 times more than the second-largest Turkish news magazine, with some 55,000 copies weekly, and yet the new caretakers haven’t managed to publish the magazine at all. This journal, Turkish Review, had been spun off from the Feza parent company in late 2015, but has still suffered problems with its online content and subscription systems as a result of the takeover.

Unemployed by the caretakers, ex-Zaman journalists established three new newspapers, but were unable to recover the lost sales. Former readers of Zaman Media Group outlets didn’t move to other newspapers either. As of the second week of December 2013, the 38 national newspapers selling more than 1,000 copies a day had a total circulation of 5,134,274. That number dropped to 32 national newspapers selling 3,249,069 as of the last week of April 2016. The national loss is almost twice the loss from the Zaman Media Group, and in the absence of any corresponding rise in digital readership, that loss should be alarming for the future of the Turkish democracy, culture and arts.

Istanbul 6. Sulh Ceza Hakimligi Zaman Gazetesi’ne hukuksuz bir sekilde kayyim atadi. Gazete onune gelen 2 adet TOMA ve cok sayida Cevik Kuvvet Polisi gazete onunde hukuksuz gaspa tepki gosteren okurlara tazyikli su ile mudahale etti. Yogun biber gazli ve plastik mermili mudahelenin ardindan polis zoruyla gazetemiz binasina girildi. Zaman gazetesi calisanlarina gazete binasi onunde ve icin mudahalede bulunuyor. Bina icine biber gazi atildi. Mudahale suruyor. (Zaman/Usame ari)

DEMISE OF ZAMAN MEDIA GROUP AS A SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM

Still, the greatest loss the Turkish media scene saw with the takeover of the Zaman Media Group is not circulation numbers. As the largest circulation newspaper in Turkey for the decade until the day it was taken over by the government, Zaman daily had become the de facto school of journalism of the Turkish right. Despite the efforts of the Erdoğan regime to cleanse Turkish media of even the journalists that had passed through the hates of Zaman daily, editors-in-chief of several oppositional newspapers (Meydan, Yarına Bakış, Özgür Düşünce, Yeni Hayat) and of some pro-government newspapers (Yeni Akit, Karar) are former employees of Zaman Media Group. Formerly Bugün and Millet dailies, both taken over by the government as a part of the operation against the İpek Media Group and eventually closed down, were largely dependent on the intellectual capital Zaman had created in the country. Former Zaman journalists still form the backbone of digital activism in Turkish media scene and are among the frontrunners of experimental media overseas.

Zaman Media Group was particularly influential in changing the perception of news design in Turkey. Starting from 2001, Zaman revolutionized news design in Turkey and became the first and only Turkish newspaper awarded by the Society for News Design (SND)’s Best of News Designs Award. For 10 years until last summer, Zaman daily organized its +1T Design School in order to train and recruit the future newspaper designers of the country. The +1T Design School provided human resources to newspapers across the country.

Zaman Media Group was in the preparatory stages of establishing an industry-integrated

liberal arts and communications university in İstanbul. The takeover of Zaman Media Group will have a lasting effect on the Turkish media, not only because of the loss of what has been accomplished until the takeover, but also for the loss of projects like this Zaman University that had yet to be.

calisan gazeteciler gunu sebebiyle turkiye gazeteciler sendikasi ve basin-is onculugunde cok sayida gazeteci sishane’den galatasaray meydani’na yurudu. yuruyuse chp’li vekiller, baris yarkadas, enis berberoglu ve gursel tekin’in yanisira gazeteci can dundar’in esi dilek dundar da katildi. 10 ocak 2016 / oguzhan kose

TODAY’S ZAMAN: SMALL BUT SIGNIFICANT

Zaman Media Group also published the small but influential Today’s Zaman. Today’s Zaman was one of the two English dailies of Turkey between 2007 and 2014. At that time the main cleavage of Turkey was a secularist-religious divide, and Today’s Zaman was balancing the staunchly secularist publication line of Hürriyet Daily News (formerly Turkish Daily News). In 2014 the already pro-government Turkuvaz Group started publishing Daily Sabah, a pro-government daily AKP bulletin and, together with the change of the social cleavage in the country into an Erdoğanists and anti-Erdoğanists one, Today’s Zaman became the balancing publication vis-à-vis the Erdoğanist Daily Sabah and a collaborating Hürriyet group.

President Erdoğan of Turkey cares a lot about his portrayal in international media. Having realized that the international media was reading Turkey through Today’s Zaman, President Erdoğan concentrated his attacks on the Zaman Media Group’s English language publication. All three top editors of the newspaper had already seen Turkish courthouses several times. Despite the takeover and conversion of Today’s Zaman into a pro-government media outlet, the anger of the AKP leadership at former editors of Today’s Zaman, namely Bülent Keneş, Sevgi Akarçeşme and Celil Sağır, is yet to abate. All three names have suspended jail sentences and face continuing cases on charges ranging from defamation of the prime minister and president to establishing an armed terrorist organization to overthrow the government.

Perception of an English daily as communication channel with foreign enemies of Turkey is a symptom of schizophrenia indeed. But the fact that the Erdoğan regime was so antagonistic to Today’s Zaman is telling. Today’s Zaman was both the myth-destroyer between the pseudo-Westernizers of Turkey and the EU elite, and also an icebreaker between traditional religious segments of the Turkish society and European intellectuals. Now that Today’s Zaman is silenced, the reach of relevant opposition voices beyond Turkey is greatly reduced.   

Zaman Gazetesinin de içinde bulunduğu Feza Gazetecilik A.Ş.ye kayyum atanmasının ardından gazetenin Yenibosnadaki binasının önünde toplanan kalabalığa polis tazyikli su, boyalı su ve biber gazıyla müdahale etti. Müdahale sonrası, kayyum polis ekipleri eşliğinde gazete binasına girdi.

LOSS OF CIHAN NEWS AGENCY: MAIN SOURCE OF INFORMATION FOR OPPOSITION MEDIA

Zaman Media Group included Turkey’s largest private news agency of Turkey, Cihan. This was the main source of information for the opposition media. The pro-government media had the official news agency, the Anatolia Agency, and didn’t want to hear anything critical of the government. Cihan provided for the critical media, be it newspapers, websites, mobile outlets, radios or TV channels. Having lost their main source of information and

photography, the opposition newspapers are now either relying on pro-government agencies or on Google as source of news and images. In the last two months the opposition media had to move away from Ankara politics. There are only a few wire agencies that provide news and images from the capital and their content is either too pro-government or too expensive for the newly emerging critical media that lack the financial means they had four years ago.

Cihan was particularly well known — and important — for its coverage of election results. Having realized that political parties were using sophisticated forms gerrymandering, Cihan decided to cover election results from the polling stations and not rely on the counting of the central electoral bodies. Cihan served Turkish democracy by training and appointing over 60,000 voluntary observer-reporters at polling stations. The fact that the AKP government did everything to prevent Cihan observers coming close to the polling stations at the June 7 and November 1 elections in 2015 evidence the guardianship of Cihan for the free and fair electoral system of Turkey. Civil society organizations like Oy ve Ötesi [Vote and Beyond] that have been monitoring elections in Turkey will have to shoulder the burden at the next election without the help of Cihan.

kayyim atanan zaman gazetesi’ne polis kapiyi keserek girdi. 5 mart 2016 / selahattin sevi

Cihan was also a source of information for English, Arabic and Russian media outlets. Apart from producing news from within Turkey, Cihan was organized in 99 countries and was providing text and video content to world media from critical locations. Cihan had mutual content-swapping agreements with more than 50 national news agencies from Latin America to the Asia Pacific region and hence was the main source of information for the media of those countries about what is happening in Turkey. Worse than being lost, this source of information has now been converted into a pro-government agency. Cihan is now exchanging forged stories about the Turkish economy, Turkish leadership and Turkish politics with the world. Agencies working with Cihan will either lend an ear to the “Turkey the Wonderland” stories they are being told, or will give up their interests in Turkey altogether. Neither of the end results are desirable.

LOSS OF CIHAN TV NETWORK AS A SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY PROJECT

Cihan TV Network was a social responsibility project run by Cihan news agency. The project aimed to nurture local TV stations in 87 cities and some larger towns of Turkey. Turkish local media is in need of financial and technical support in order to survive. Most of local TV channels are unable to hire studios in larger cities like Ankara and İstanbul and are unable to cover national news unaided. Realizing that without national coverage local TV stations won’t be able to survive, Cihan founded the Cihan TV Network back in 2003. The network provided free news coverage, movies and cartoons to local TV channels, without the brand name of Cihan on the coverage. At its heyday in 2013, the Cihan TV Network reached 93 local channels. The network was broadcasting live news from its İstanbul, Ankara and Diyarbakır studios in the morning, at noon and in the evening, and in between the network was providing local TV channels with a selection of discussion, health, agriculture and family programs. The local TV stations were let free to re-broadcast whichever content they wanted under their own brand names.

Starting with the heads-on clash with the AKP government, many local TV stations were forced to unsubscribe to the Cihan TV Network’s services. Understanding the considerations of the local stations, Cihan TV Network was moved to a generic production company and continued to serve the local stations up until the takeover of the Zaman Media Group. Unfortunately, a few days after the takeover, the new caretaker management realized that the network was alive under a different name and a second decision by the same court ended the network, leaving the local TV stations to the mercy of the government.

Istanbul 6. Sulh Ceza Hakimligi Zaman Gazetesi’ne hukuksuz bir sekilde kayyim atadi. 4 Mart 2016 / Usame Ari

LOSS OF IRMAK TV AND CIHAN RADIO AS PREACHERS OF SUFI ISLAM

Another damage dealt by the takeover is the loss of Irmak TV and Cihan Radio stations as preachers of Sufi Islam. The two stations were established in early 2013 as a response by Zaman Media Group to the surge of radical Islamist ideologies in and around Turkey. The two channels aimed to promote a traditional Turkish understanding of Islam, which is more Sufi in tone and open to a metaphorical reading of the holy texts of Islam, when a literary reading defies the overall peaceful message of Islam. Inescapably the sermons and conversations of Gülen, the contemporary face of Turkish understanding of Islam, had its stamp on the broadcasting principles of the two channels. Thanks to this stamp, despite their religious character the two stations promoted peaceful coexistence between the believer and non-believers, between religion and science and between believers of different faith traditions.

The loss of Irmak TV and Cihan Radio cannot be the only explanation of rise of extremist terrorism in Turkey. But in the long run, this loss will make the minds and hearts of Turkish youth prey to the preachers of hatred.

At the time of the takeover, Irmak TV had a small group of Syrian TV personnel translating, subtitling and dubbing the Turkish language content of Irmak TV for an Arabic version of the station. Neither Irmak TV, nor its Arabic version, were or would ever become profitable media endeavors. The managerial board of the Zaman Media Group had supported this project because they believed in the wisdom of doing so.

Turkey is the last outpost of the West before Europe. If the rise of radical Islamist cannot be stopped in Turkey, it will become a daily problem of the European continent. In the long run, the loss of Irmak TV and Cihan Radio stations will have repercussion that even the judge that undersigned the illegal takeover decision will regret.

Istanbul 6. Sulh Ceza Hakimligi Zaman Gazetesi’ne Kayyim atadi. 4 Mart 2016 / Mehmet Yaman

LOSS OF CIHAN MEDIA DISTRIBUTION COMPANY

Many observers think of the Zaman Media Group as a religiously motivated right-wing media and fail to realize how the left-wing media is and will be influenced badly by the takeover. Zaman Media Group had the largest media distribution company in Turkey. The Cihan Media Distribution Company (CMD) was working in collaboration with theYaySat Distribution of the Doğan Media Group, and was providing the last link in the distribution chain. YaySat took the newspapers from printing houses and delivered them to kiosks and other distribution points. Employing about 4,000 delivery boys, the CMD took over the job from the distribution points and delivered the newspapers to subscribers’ doors.

There is no other national distribution company that delivered newspapers like this. Right- and left-wing newspapers depended on the CMD for home delivery, and the fact that the CMD is no longer giving that service means grave losses of subscribers for newspapers like Taraf and Yeni Asya, left-wing secular and a right-wing religious newspapers, respectively. The CMD’s extensive distribution network was used by banks, municipalities and local newspapers, too. Today the CMD sits idle and all opposition newspapers, including those established by ex-Zaman personnel, are failing to reach to their readers. 

FRANCHISING NEWSPAPERS IN 26 DIFFERENT COUNTRIES

Zaman had franchising agreements with Turkish community newspapers in 16 different countries. Half of these newspapers were daily, the other half weekly, but all of them carried the brand name and logo of Zaman. These newspapers reached 26 different countries and helped the integration processes of the Turkish and Turkish-speaking communities in these countries. Zaman Germany was the largest franchiser of Zaman, with some 40,000 subscribers in Germany.

The franchising newspapers had their brand names locally registered. Hence, the takeover will not prevent them from being published. But the kind of content the Zaman daily and Cihan news agency is producing in Turkey now is not the kind these franchising companies would like to publish and the caretaker lost no time in cancelling these franchising agreements. The quality of the content these franchising newspapers are publishing has dramatically declined and within a short time it is probable that the majority of these newspapers will cease to exist.

Istanbul 6. Sulh Ceza Hakimligi Zaman Gazetesi’ne hukuksuz bir sekilde kayyim atadi. Gazete onune gelen 2 adet TOMA ve cok sayida Cevik Kuvvet Polisi gazete onunde hukuksuz gaspa tepki gosteren okurlara tazyikli su ile mudahale etti. Yogun biber gazli ve plastik mermili mudahelenin ardindan polis zoruyla gazetemiz binasina girildi. Zaman gazetesi calisanlarina gazete binasi onunde ve icin mudahalede bulunuyor. Bina icine biber gazi atildi. Mudahale suruyor. (Zaman/Usame ari)

LOSS OF PUBLICATION PRINCIPLES OF ZAMAN MEDIA GROUP

Last, but not least, is the loss of publication principles of the Zaman Media Group. When established back in 1986, the founders of Zaman daily had a different kind of journalism in their minds. Usually called by the founders “constructive journalism” this “different newspaper” — this was the motto of the newspaper for about 15 years — had the idea of radically changing the perception of what deserves to be published. As opposed to the dominant pejorative journalistic tradition, Zaman would become a newspaper that published good news, too. Furthermore, Zaman would not collaborate with terrorists by publishing images of their acts. Zaman would resist all calls to sensationalism. Initially this anti-sensationalism principle was materialized through publishing a black and white newspaper. Late, when the newspaper was unable to resist to the call of colorful design, the editorial team of the newspaper decided to use only “full verbal sentences” as headlines. Finally, Zaman would use a high Turkish, enriched with Arabic and Persian words and Ottoman grammatical tools. All these principles were by and large kept by the editors of Zaman daily and other outlets founded within the Zaman Media Group.

One last principle was already abandoned by Zaman, well before the clash with the AKP government. This time the reason was the support that Zaman gave to the AKP in the years between 2004 and 2011. The abandoned principle was to stay in equal closeness – or at an equal distance — to all political parties.

Zaman Media Group might have lost a lot due to the takeover of the group by the AKP government, but the real extent of the loss for the general society and humanity is yet to be realized. TR