Tools of Control
Despite having won a major victory in the November 2015 general election, the AKP has shown little evidence of relaxing its antagonistic stance toward the media. Indeed, Turkey appears likely to head to the polls again in 2016, either for yet another parliamentary election or for a referendum on a new constitution. The AKP’s hold on the media has been, and will continue to be, an essential part of its electoral strategy: denying citizens the unbiased information necessary to make informed decisions at the voting booth and preventing the opposition from disseminating their messages and competing in the marketplace of ideas.
The AKP government relies on a diverse set of legal and extralegal methods to control the press. These include laws that criminalize “Denigrating Turkishness,” “Inflaming Hatred and Hostility,” “Membership in a Criminal Organization,” “Civil and Criminal Defamation,” “Promoting Terrorism,” and “Insulting the President of the Turkish Republic.” Of the legal mechanisms examined in this report, only two—laws regulating Internet content and allowing the government to appoint trustees to take over a company’s business—were passed by the AKP. The vast majority has existed, in various forms, prior to the AKP’s ascension to power in 2002. However, while most of these mechanisms were not invented by the AKP, the AKP government has applied them aggressively.
The Turkish government now regularly imposes media blackouts on topics that might paint it in a bad light.
The tactics employed by the government to silence its critics have evolved during the AKP’s tenure: shifting from retaliatory measures against individual journalists to attacks on the very institution of journalism. The Turkish government now regularly imposes media blackouts on topics that might paint it in a bad light and, even more alarmingly, has shown a new willingness to take over entire news outlets, seizing them outright and transforming them into pro-government mouthpieces almost overnight. This practice was best displayed in early March 2016, when the AKP government seized control of one of Turkey’s highest circulated daily newspapers, Zaman, as well as other media outlets owned by the Feza Media Group, on the grounds that the media outlets supported terrorism based on their affiliation with the AKP’s enemy, the Fethullah Gülen Movement.
In addition to using the vast legal tools at its disposal, the AKP government has also used financial pressure, intimidation, and physical violence against media offices and individual journalists.
The best example of the severity of the government’s recent crackdown on critical speech is the application of one particular law, Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code, which criminalizes insulting the president of the Turkish Republic.
According to data compiled by a Turkish daily, Article 299 was not used at all by the three presidents prior to the AKP’s capture of the post—and only once under AKP President Abdullah Gül. Under Erdoğan, however, use of Article 299 has skyrocketed, targeting journalists, authors, academics, students, and others for offenses from tweets deemed offensive to the president to mocking Facebook posts.