Inside the Turkish Government’s Propaganda Machine

By Kate O’Sullivan and Laura Benitez Apr 8 2014

A Turkish protest for internet freedom in February. Photos by Charles Emir Richards

“Journalists wanted for international news agency,” read the Guardian job ad. As an editor in an industry where legitimate opportunities are few and far between, you apply for pretty much any full-time job you see, so apply we did. A couple of months later, we arrived in Ankara, Turkey, ready to “write history” as the first international journalists to be welcomed into the Anadolu Agency (AA) family.

We joined the agency in January, supposedly to edit English-language news, but quickly found ourselves becoming English-language spin doctors. The AA’s editorial line on domestic politics—and Syria—was so intently pro-government that we might as well have been writing press releases. Two months into the job, we listened to Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç talking some shit about press freedom from an event at London’s Chatham House, downplaying the number of imprisoned journalists in Turkey. Soon after that, we got the chance to visit London on business. We grabbed it and resigned as soon as we hit UK soil.

Established in 1920, the AA was once a point of national pride. Today, it’s at the end of one of the many sets of strings in the ruling AK Party’s puppet parade. Most of Turkey’s TV stations are heavily influenced by the state, and the few opposition channels can expect to have their licenses revoked at any time or be banned from broadcasting key events, such as live election footage or anything that might detract from how fantastic the government is doing.

For example, Turkey’s media regulator, RTUK, fined the networks that aired footage of last year’s Gezi Park protests. Funnily enough, the watchdog is made up of nine “elected” members nominated by political parties—and the more seats in parliament a faction has, the more influence it possesses.

Media outlets that aren’t being hounded by RTUK can always look forward to direct intervention from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan himself. In 2009, independent mogul Aydin Dogan’s media group—made up of various newspapers and TV channels, CNN Türk, and a news agency—was fined $2.5 billion for evading taxes. Incidentally, the audit came just after one of the group’s platforms published news on the Lighthouse charity scandal, which saw a German court convict three Turkish businessmen for funnelling $28.3 million into their personal accounts.

In one recent leaked recording, Erdogan is heard asking his former justice minister to ensure that Dogan be punished. Since then, the Dogan empire has been bound and gagged accordingly.

Police crack down on a free speech protest in Istanbul in February.

The international media relies increasingly on local sources when reporting domestic affairs overseas. The Gezi protests aside—which had nearly as many “live blogs” as protesters—much of Turkey’s English-language news came via Today’s Zaman, the largest English-language newspaper in Turkey. The leadership of the Zaman newsgroup is closely linked with the Islamic teacher and international education mogul Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of the AK Party who now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

Read more at VICE

Turkish Discontent: Gezi Protests Spawn New Party

In late May 2013, a larger protest was sparked after police violently broke up a sit-in in Gezi Park. Protesters were demonstrating against plans to raze the park, one of the last green spaces in the center of the European part of Istanbul, and replace it with a shopping center.

The protests that erupted in Turkey in May 2013 saw a local environmental protest bloom into a nationwide pro-democracy movement. A new political party has formed to channel this dissatisfaction into political power, but the hurdles to success are high.

Gezi stands for democracy. For freedom. For having a political say and personal responsibility. For parks and trees. And for daring to say “no” to those in power. And for being able to believe in, hope for and love whatever you wish, exactly as you please. That’s what makes it a bit of a miracle that suddenly all sorts of different people were uniting behind a common goal.

But Gezi has run out of steam. The protests that were sparked when Turkey’s government announced plans to raze Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in the center of the European part of Istanbul, and replace it with a shopping center, have now subsided. In June, thousands took to the streets, first in Istanbul, and then throughout the entire country. Now, the demonstrations are few and far between.

“That’s exactly why we’ve decided that we have to take it a step further and found a party,” says Cem Köksal. The 37-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair is greeted by young people on the streets here in the Kadiköy district of Istanbul. Köksal is a rock musician and guitarist who also writes and produces music. He and his comrades-in-arms want to challenge Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their plan is to grow a political force from the seeds of a pro-democracy movement.

“Erdogan said to us demonstrators that we shouldn’t protest on the street, but instead stand for election if we want to change something,” says Teoman Kumbaracibasi, 42. “That’s us!” Known as “Teo,” he is also widely known as an actor on a TV series.

‘Our Goal Is Not the Opposition, but the Government’

In October, Kumbaracibasi and Köksal founded the Gezi Party (GZP) with 26 others. The party is a colorful mix of young and old, left-wing and conservative, blue-collar worker and university student. What unites them is a shared dissatisfaction with Erdogan and his authoritarian government. On Saturday, the GZP will open itself to new members. “There are hundreds who want to join us even though they have no idea exactly what we want,” says Kumbaracibasi. “Thousands,” Köksal corrects him. Just a month after launching, he adds, the party has already attracted 31,000 fans on its Facebook page.

Indeed, Facebook is where all these people found each other. “A few months back, we didn’t know each other at all. Now we are constantly working with each other, like each other, love each other,” says Nursun Gürbüz, who works for an export company. Together, they want to achieve something big. This ambition is broadcast by their party logo: a man whose legs are taking root in the ground like tree trunks and whose arms are holding a green ball. The message here is: We embrace Gezi, we embrace the entire world. The group wants to field candidates for the 2015 parliamentary elections. “And our goal is not the opposition, but the government,” Köksal says.

Read more at Der Spiegel