Destructive obsession with news control: The case with Anatolian Agency

The problems with Turkey’s already deeply problematic media are multiplying.

The news analysis in Today’s Zaman on May 19 made clear that it was not only freedom and independence, but also diversity in the Turkish media — the third basic criteria which until now seemed somewhat intact — that was now under threat.

The analysis pointed out that restricting access to the media to cover events has shown signs of becoming systematic:

“To the dismay of many, only the state-run Anatolia news agency and Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) were allowed to cover visits by Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin and Health Minister Mehmet Müezzinoğlu to the people in Antakya State Hospital who had been injured by the Reyhanlı car bomb attacks.

“When main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu visited the victims at the same hospital on Monday, only reporters from TRT and Anatolia were allowed to cover Kılıçdaroğlu’s hospital visit, while reporters from the Cihan news agency, the İhlas news agency and the Doğan news agency were not allowed to do so.

“Apparent discrimination against these media outlets continued later in the week as they, apart from Anatolia — were barred from covering a historic moment in Ankara on Tuesday when the country’s central bank paid Turkey’s final loan installment, around $421 million, to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Only Anatolia was invited to cover the ceremony, while other private news agencies or reporters from newspapers were not given permission to cover the event. Anatolia reported the news only to its subscribers.”

As if international media observers were not already alarmed by the ill-treatment of the media by political executives and the proprietors themselves, these examples show an arrogant, in-your-face type of escalation.

“It is yet another very worrisome undermining of press freedom. Can’t the government see the problem? This primitive discrimination is very stupid,” said Jacob Möllerup, the ombudsman of Denmark’s public broadcaster, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR).

Ed Wasserman, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley, was also outraged at the news. “It’s not unusual for governments,” he told me, “to play favorites among media organizations and to offer prized scoops and insights to media that have proven themselves to be politically sympathetic. But these recent instances in Turkey are outrageous. The government is deliberately using instrumentalities of state power to prevent independent media from covering matters of undeniable public importance. That is an abuse of governmental discretion and a crime against freedom of expression.”

Restriction of access, discrimination and such deliberate favoring of a state-controlled media is reminiscent of a Soviet-style treatment of news control. While many believed that those days were over, it now marches on with the consent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) cadres and their loyal media managers who shamelessly cooperate with the bureaucracy to filter the news.

As a matter of fact, this aspect of Turkey’s worrisome media was already scrutinized and diagnosed by a study titled “Western Balkans and Turkey Media and Freedom of Expression Fact-finding and Scoping Study” done between September 2012 and April 2013.

With the help of collected data it outlined how unreformed — despite pledges — the TRT and the Anatolia news agency remained, obviously seen as a useful tool to make sure that “sensitive news coverage” would be covered up as much as possible.

“The governing board of the TRT consists of seven members who are nominated by the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) and appointed by the government, which also decides the director general,” it said, adding: “In recent years, the government also extended its control over the country’s biggest news supplier, the Anatolian news agency. Officially, it is an independent company with more than 600 staff in offices around the world and news services in English and other languages, including those of the Western Balkans.”

Turkish media’s gangrenous state was identified as being mainly in the domains of freedom and independence, but what is now spreading into the area of free and fair competition means that even pluralism is starting to erode. We in the profession may have entered a path to total defeat — or submission.