LONDON – The ruler of Turkey the past dozen years suffered a setback last 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 Justice and Development Party (AKP) 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 last week’s parliamentary elections. The vote for the AKP dropped below 50 percent. The right-wing Nationalist Movement Party gained and is the most likely coalition partner for the AKP. 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 benefited 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.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The opinions expressed here are his own.
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