“He cannot even be a village head,” a Turkish newspaper headline said in 1998 about Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This infamous headline is still being recalled by Erdogan almost every week as evidence that he is able to tackle all barriers. He exploits it to portray himself as a victim.
The headline was referring to the ban on Erdogan from participating in politics. In 2003, the Turkish parliament lifted the ban on Erdogan and he became prime minister. Erdogan made the headline a symbol of his fight against his opponents and often portrayed himself as a victim of the critical media. The ban came after he was jailed in 1999 on charges that he “incited public to hatred and animosity” as he recited a modified version of a famous poem. About 14 years later, he tried to jail me for “inciting the public to hatred and animosity” after I tweeted about his corruption ring that included a businessman who is on the U.S. global terrorist list.
Twitter has become Erdogan’s nightmare - a platform where information flows uncontrolled. In the new Turkey, uncontrolled information is something Erdogan doesn’t like.
Erdogan’s biggest project: controlling the media
Erdogan’s biggest achievement in the past decade in his ambition to embolden his power was to co-opt many newspapers and TV networks, forcing pro-government businessmen to purchase some and intimidating others to avoid publishing critical stories. This huge propaganda machine is the primary reason why the people still support him despite his deeply anti-democratic policies and corrupt way of ruling. Most Turks are forced to watch TV networks that polish his image every day.
Erdogan’s ultimate aim was to become the Turkish media’s editor-in-chiefMahir Zeynalov
In 1997, critical media, through incendiary front page headlines, created conditions in which the military forced a civilian government to resign. Erdogan was then the mayor of Istanbul and a member of the party that the military ousted. He understood the strength of media and he neither forgot nor forgave the traditional media that did everything to undermine his government.
The prime minister knew very well that the hidden military regime in Turkey got its strength from a powerful media. He understood that controlling media would both help reduce the military power as well as eliminate his biggest enemy. His ultimate aim was to become the Turkish media’s editor-in-chief.
Until recently, even state-run news agencies and TV networks were not that pro-government. The state-funded Anatolia news agency, which is the government’s mouthpiece today, was largely controlled by journalists critical of the government. That, now, has completely changed. A tremendous amount of taxpayer money has been spent on the news agency, making it one of the world’s biggest news agencies. Its value, however, significantly fell as the media giant turned into an Erdogan-led propaganda machine.
The country’s biggest media empire was Dogan, which included more than 70 media outlets and largely ignored the government’s democratic policies, playing an exceptionally negative role in the country’s democratic progress. In one of these examples, the Hurriyet daily published a front page headline, saying that the “411 hands were raised for chaos,” in reference to a parliamentary vote that lifted the ban on headscarves in universities.
In this period, media close to the Gulen movement played an important role in supporting the government’s intention to democratize the country and lent its support to many government policies it welcomed and hailed as democratic.
Newspapers are now govt bulletins
Since 2007, when the fight against Turkey’s so-called “deep state” kicked off, Erdogan also started to co-opt journalists and force businessmen to purchase media outlets. Recently leaked documents and voice recordings indicate that Erdogan created a pool, where businessmen put huge sums of money into public tenders they received, and the money was spent on purchasing newspapers. Those purchased newspapers are nothing but government bulletins, often publishing false stories to discredit opponents.
Considering the strength of the Turkish media, Erdogan could more or less be considered as successful in silencing dissent. There is only one platform left for free speech: Twitter.
Twitter was a nightmare for Erdogan during the Gezi protests last summer. He described the social media platform as “evil,” but ordered the deployment of Twitter armies to confront critics. Pro-government social media trolls did in fact give a hard time to users criticizing the government, often through insulting them and engaging in demagoguery. But leaked voice recordings, posted on YouTube, were widely shared on Twitter, prompting the government to shut it down.
Erdogan’s authoritarian government blocked the access to Twitter in late March, but had to lift the ban in two weeks after the Constitutional Court reversed the ban. Erdogan openly criticized the decision, saying that he doesn’t respect to the high court’s ruling and vowed to ban it again. The government is now looking for ways to ban access to Twitter.
With newspapers and TV networks parroting Erdogan’s insults everyday, Twitter is the only platform that people can freely express critical opinions and share information on without any control. Locked in a regime survival bid at home, Erdogan doesn’t care that his image sinks in front of the world by banning Twitter.
Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov