The orange broadcasting van layon its side in the glare of an arc light on Istanbul’s Taksim Square while protesters clambered over it. On its bonnet was scrawled “government crony media for sale” and on a side panel “Where were you yesterday?”
The anger of many demonstrators involved in four days of clashes with police across Turkey has turned increasingly on media they see as cowed by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Major newspapers afforded only brief references to Friday’s first outbreak of unrest, stepping up coverage only after Erdogan himself commented on the unfamiliar scenes of chaos.
Television stations remain cautious and sparse in coverage.
“TV channels were broadcasting documentaries on Friday night when violent clashes were going on in Istanbul,” said student Sami Sertac. “I follow foreign media and social media to find out what is happening in my own country.”
Hundreds of people gathered in front of the pro-government HaberTurk TV channel in Istanbul on Sunday while 2,000 others assembled before broadcaster NTV on Monday to protest at its unrest coverage. The two channels had no immediate comment.
Supporters of Erdogan, who deny that he fosters a secret Islamist agenda in the constitutionally secular country, reject accusations he has crippled the media and argue he has in fact abolished many taboos.
Smaller newspapers such as Taraf, Yurt and Sozcu that criticize the government almost every day operate unhindered. The internet provides a vent for tens of thousands.
The destruction of a small Istanbul park ignited the unrest that has rocked Turkey since Friday. The protests turned into a broader demonstration against Erdogan, accused of using his huge parliamentary majority to impose authoritarian rule, and produced some of the worst riots in decades in the country.
State influence over the media is nothing new in Turkey.
Before Erdogan swept to power in 2002, journalists and publishers risked retribution if they dared criticize the armed forces, the self-appointed guardians of Turkey’s secular order, or dwelt on Turkey’s war with Kurdish rebels in the southeast.
Political leaders, however, were fair game for mockery or accusations of corruption or incompetence.
These days, a military humbled by the jailing of top generals over alleged coup plots against Erdogan can be freely criticized. The ‘Kurdish problem’ can also be debated; but journalists see a peril in mocking or criticizing Erdogan.
While Turkish media have barely covered the unrest, social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook have become a focus for Turks opposed to Erdogan, who remains for all the current criticism unrivalled in popularity.
The unrest has thrown up no leader on the streets and parliament, where Erdogan’s AK party enjoys a huge majority, is bereft of credible rivals.
International media gave wide coverage to the mass protests, during which at least 1,700 protesters have been detained and hundreds injured.
Hundreds of government critics from across the political spectrum have been jailed in past years, including activists, lawyers, students and military generals on coup charges.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists says that over a dozen columnists were fired or quit under government pressure in the past year.
Critics say the ownership structure of Turkish media firms, often held by large conglomerates involved in other businesses, allows the government to exert more control.
The Sabah-ATV group, one of Turkey’s largest media organizations, was sold in 2008 to Calik Holding, a group with interest ranging from energy to finance and known as being pro-government. Two state-owned banks helped fund the deal.
Dogan Holding, once Turkey’s largest media group, was fined over $2.5 billion for alleged tax evasion in 2009. But the case slipped under the radar after Dogan, which also has energy, manufacturing and finance interests, sold two dailies and a television channel as part, it said, of a routine restructuring.
The government denies political motivation.
Outspoken columnists such as Hasan Cemal, Amberin Zaman andNuray Mert lost their jobs after criticizing Erdogan’s policies. With his 45 years journalism experience, Cemal’s departure in particular shocked the Turkish media.
The result of dismissing prominent journalists is self-censorship, those in the industry say.
“They intimidate and then silence dissent. A call from Erdogan’s office is enough to end a journalist’s career,” said Ahmet Sik, who spent more than a year in detention in 2011 for writing a book about investigations into a plot against Erdogan.
“Now all journalists know the red line. It is Erdogan. No criticism but flattery. That is the only way to keep your job,” said Sik. “There is a man who rules; Erdogan.”