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23 March

Turkey, Twitter & the Political Economy of Journalism


Contextualizing Erdogan’s move means looking back to the 1980s.

21 March 2014

A few months back I wrote an Opinion piece for Al Jazeera in response to the accusation from AKP adviser Ertan Aydın that negative international media coverage of Turkey was the result of both Orientalism and a conspiracy between disgruntled opposition supporters and primarily western journalists. On this issue I wrote:

…claims that Turkey has been given a raw deal by the international media over the past year strain credulity when considering the overwhelming evidence of police violence against protesters, as well as the political instrumentalisation of the media, police and legal system in Turkey. Examples of well-documented abuses abound, so are they all simply a function of Orientalism?
This was a rhetorical question. Yes, Turkey has been the victim of slanted coverage over the years, but ultimately Turkey’s poor post-Gezi image was the responsibility of the Turkish government.

As if we needed further evidence of the willingness of the Erdoğan administration to trample free-speech rights, on the night of March 19-20, 2014 tweets began to flow across our computer and smartphone screens indicating that access to Twitter in Turkey had been blocked. Erdoğan had indicated that he would wage war on Twitter, but even seasoned observers were taken aback by the speed of the move.

There are many implications of what has happened in Turkey, but there is one that strikes me as particularly important. Our benchmark for understanding of the importance of Twitter in Turkey cannot be rooted in how Twitter is seen or used in Sweden, the United States or the UK. It’s a simple point, but one which is often lost. In Turkey, the importance of Twitter—and hence the importance of the move to block Twitter—is intrinsically linked to the political economy of Turkish news media. As we know, most news outlets in Turkey gave the Gezi protests short shrift (CNN Türk’s decision to air a documentary on penguins instead of live protest images being the iconic example), and have been weak in their criticism and examination of AKP power. Thus, in the absence of a vibrant, critical news culture, social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube became important venues for the collection and dissemination of news in Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara and beyond.

Of course, a great deal of the blame for the weak state of contemporary Turkish journalism can be placed at the feet of Erdoğan and the AKP, but it is also important to note that the current architecture of Turkish media was established during a period of rapid (some would say “wild”) de-regulation in the 1980s. This unfettered commercialization of the market led to the rise of media moguls such as Aydın Doğan: moguls who utilized their ownership power to, amongst other things, weaken Turkey’s journalism unions. This may have served the interests of private capital, but, as we have seen in Turkey over the past few years, it did nothing to aid news workers when facing the wrath of the state.

The blocking of Twitter cannot be understood without considering the state of Turkish journalism, and the state of Turkish journalism cannot be understood without a look back at the 25-year impact of neo-liberal policies and cronyism (including the pre-AKP era). So, when Erdoğan tried to block Twitter, his ability to do was aided by the presence of a weakened, largely uncritical Turkish journalism that has offered little resistance. Thus, an honest appraisal of Erdoğan’s actions should note that he not only corrupted the free market, but that he also played off of it.


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