Somehow the subject of politics came up with some work colleagues the other day. As usual my Turkish friends were running down the government and in particular the former Prime Minister, now President of the Republic. In this instance, the subject was corruption, and Mr Erdoğan’s allegedly ill-gotten wealth. ‘Did you know,’ one said, ‘he is Number 9 on the Forbes Rich List?’
I try to avoid getting into these discussions if at all possible for reasons which may become clear as we go along. However sometimes the assertions being made are so outrageous I just can’t hold my tongue. I cast an occasional glance at that list compiled by the people at Forbes, just to see if I or anyone I know has made the cut – and I’m sure I would have heard if the Turkish President had joined the stratospheric company of Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and Warren Buffett. I said as much, but my informant was adamant – so I withdrew, resolving to glance at the list when I got home.
Well, that’s what I did – and sure enough the same three guys are top of the heap, with a couple of Kochs and four Waltons filling most of the other spots up to number eleven. I was interested to learn that there are actually 1,568 dollar billionaires in the world, of whom twenty-four are Turks. There are some well-known names among the latter of course, with the best of them, food manufacturing mogul Murat Ülker, coming it at No: 410. Sisters will be pleased to know there are five Turkish billionaire women, though, to my surprise, no Sabancıs. Not surprisingly, I have to say, there were no Erdoğans.
I mentioned my findings to another colleague, whom I knew to be no great fan of the present government. He seemed not at all fazed, either by the claim whose truth I was checking, nor by the absence of Tayyip Bey from the list. Of course, he hides the money, and divides it amongst his family, I was told. OK, rich people do that, of course, but it doesn’t stop the Waltons, the Kochs and the Eczacıbaşıs from featuring – though it may possibly account for the absence of Sabancıs.
How can you know? Maybe the Erdoğan clan do have the $36.2 billion necessary to make the Forbes Top 10 stashed away in shoeboxes under their beds. Maybe the AK Party government does have a secret agenda to return Turkey to some kind of medieval Islamic hell of floggings, hand amputations, beheadings, compulsory burqas for women, and mosque attendance for all five times daily. If they do, it is by definition secret, and they are showing remarkable stealth and patience in implementing it.
What disturbs me is not so much the gossip that circulates among political opponents, but that the same dubious assertions are given publicity and credence by academics who should know better.
One of the blogs I follow is ‘Changing Turkey in a Changing World’, run by a group of academics affiliated with the Royal Holloway University of London, whose stated aim is to ‘examine Turkish politics and society within a global context.’ A recent post featured an interview: ‘with Dr Erkan Saka about Media Freedom in Turkey/conducted by David Klein (Drexel University)’. Dr Saka is said to be an assistant professor in the Communications Department at Istanbul’s Bilgi University which, according to Wikipedia, ‘ranks third among private foundation universities in Turkey for its undergraduate placement according to the 2011 National Student Selection and Placement Center (National Exam Center) and is ranked among the top 10 institutions of higher education in Turkey, according to Webometrics.’
First up, let me make it very clear that I am not criticizing the good people at Changing Turkey. Their interviewer had done his homework and was able to state early on that ‘according to certain statistics, while much of the mainstream media in Turkey is run by only a few large media conglomerates, 65 percent of them hold an oppositional editorial line towards the government.’
In spite of that, our learned Bilgi University expert on ‘news media, public relations and corporate communications’ asserted that ‘I think’ media freedom is worse than in the 1990s. He recognised that the AK party has lost the support of the Gülen Movement newspapers, and that the Doğan Group, which accounts for 40% of Turkish media, is generally opposed to the government. He accepted that ‘AKP really doesn’t have enough manpower to use the media institutions they have as propaganda tools.’ He even stated that he agreed with the interviewers ‘implication’, which, as you will recall, was in fact a very clear statement based on statistical evidence, that 65 percent of the Turkish media ‘hold an oppositional editorial line towards the government.’ However, Assistant Professor Saka dismissed this as a ‘theory’, and preferred to run with his own personal conviction – ‘I still think there is a lot of pressure from the government on mass media.’ As far as I could see, his main basis for this belief was that ‘it is incredibly difficult to find a job in mass media here in Turkey because you have to be very partisan.’ I suspect teaching staff in, and graduates from media studies programmes in universities around the world would be able to inform Prof. Saka that landing a job in the mass media is not easy anywhere in the world.
With all due respect to Bilgi University, I find it breath-takingly outrageous that a tenured academic can so glibly fly in the face of powerful evidence contradicting his position. In the interview, despite seeming to admit that the Doğan Group does not support the government line, he went on to suggest that ‘the Doğan media group is still hesitant to be too oppositional because there is always the pressure of tax issues and such.’ Well, who knows? At this stage, admittedly, they have not been advocating armed rebellion – but their ‘Hürriyet’ newspaper, which I read regularly, has never hesitated to criticise the AK Party government, its leader, his ministers and their policies. In spite of that, Mr Aydın Doğan, founder and owner of the company that bears his name, is comfortably ranked at No. 1,502 on that Forbes billionaire list.
As an interesting comparison, Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest-serving post-war Prime Minister, is ranked 197th on the Forbes list. Not only did he hold the Prime Ministerial position for nine years, he actually owned and controlled much of his country’s print and television media. The 78 year-old tycoon is currently barred from participating in politics as a result of convictions for tax fraud and soliciting minors for sex, and faces additional charges of bribing witnesses in the latter case. As far as I am aware, Mr Berlusconi has not relinquished his controlling interest in his media empire, yet in spite of that, Italy ranks a respectable 49th on an international Press Freedom report published by Reporters Without Borders earlier this year. On the same list, Turkey places a dismal 154th, marginally ahead of such democratic basket-cases as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea.
Citizens of the United States may be disappointed to learn that their own land of the free occupies 46th slot on the borderless reporters’ list, lagging behind, for example, Romania, Latvia, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Well, I don’t know what objective criteria these ‘reporters’, whoever they are, use for their assessments. Even a casual glance over the list would, in my opinion, be sufficient for a moderately well informed citizen of the world to dismiss it as manifest nonsense.
I am curious to know whether the people behind this seemingly authoritative website have the linguistic skills or resources to read and view the news media in all 180 countries they claim to be objectively evaluating. From a purely empirical standpoint, I see no shortage of criticism of the government in Turkey’s daily media. I see far less in that of New Zealand, though my native land ranks highly at No. 9 on the Press Freedom list. Sometimes I think that, if journalists in the USA made the kind of pointed criticisms and personal attacks on their country’s President and elected leaders that I see in the Turkish press, they could well end up in Alcatraz, Guantanamo or whatever institution currently ranks as the penal equivalent of Fort Knox. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea (Bradley) Manning did far less, and see what happened to them.
I just hope that ‘Reporters Without Borders’ are not relying on Bilgi University’s Asst Prof. Saka when assessing freedom of the press in Turkey.