Journalism in Turkey has always been a political contact sport. Even so, the size of the tax penalty given to the Dogan Media Group – Turkey’s largest – had global reverberations. The conflict between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Dogan first surfaced when the papers dug into the allegations swirling around the premier of corruption. Erdogan publicly accused the group’s founder, 73-year-old Aydin Dogan, of blackmailing the government for policies favourable to his investments.
The public attacks escalated and tax officials fined Dogan €2.3bn – more than the value of the group’s market capitalisation. The fine was condemned by governments and press advocates around the world as political retribution. Aydin Dogan resigned. There was talk that Erdogan was becoming the “Vladimir Putin” of Turkey. “He took it very personally,” says Hanzade Dogan, the elegant 36-year-old vice-chairwoman of the Dogan Newspaper Group and Aydin’s daughter, speaking to Monocle in her spacious corporate office in an unnaturally quiet corner of Istanbul.
“Turks are colourful, the country is colourful,” she says. “And when I say colourful I mean chaotic – things change very quickly and that speed and chaos reflects on the newspapers being sold.” While newspapers must resonate with their readers, she says, they also have a special responsibility to society. “It’s your job to investigate,” she says. “If you find out what is behind closed doors, the authorities will not like it.” Dogan carefully weighs her words, aware that they have an impact outside of her organisation.
Dogan is careful not to antagonise already tense relations with the prime minister. She attributes the problems to the weakness of Turkey’s political system in setting limits on those in power. “If you have a well-established democracy and rule of law, the authorities still won’t like your reporting, but tough,” she says. “I believe Turkey still has steps to take in that direction, we are not there yet.”
The prime minister’s growing confidence and forceful approach to the media is encouraged by his huge electoral support and dominance of Turkish party politics. “Today there is too much concentration of executive power which makes it difficult for the Turkish media to speak as freely as they would like,” Dogan says. While there is still fear of angering the prime minister – especially at Dogan’s papers, for commercial reasons – observers say there is little “chilling effect” on expression overall. At the time of going to press, the Dogan Group was still waiting for the court to decide on their legal request to strike down the tax penalty. There was no deadline set. “It will be a painful couple of years for us but we are confident that we will win the court cases,” says Dogan. She explains that they are in talks to sell some assets, but “the reason is not directly related to the tax case”. Or perhaps the government has already won.
This dynamic country of 77 million people is gaining confidence and becoming a regional power. Turkey’s vibrant newspapers are playing a key role in the transformation. Informing much of the non-internet savvy public, they provide a counterweight to political power as well as common topics of political discussion for the men in tea houses across the country.
Despite the spectacular battles over basic rights such as freedom of expression, Turkey is still winning the larger war to democraticise itself. Turks seem to enjoy a good fight for its own sake and taboos are constantly being broken – and staying broken. “There is a cacophany of voices here,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It’s a good thing for democracy but it’s quite a painful process as well.” Turkish publications are reinventing themselves along with their society.
You can see Turkish punchiness, passion and taste for volume over subtlety in the design, layout and bright colours of their media. Newspaper racks are filled with colourful broadsheets that in the West could easily be mistaken for children’s literature. The tiny shops selling newspapers and magazines leave no bare wall space – every square centimetre of commercial space is filled.
Perhaps the most tastefully designed Turkish daily is Zaman, owned by supporters of the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gulen. Monocle met Zaman’s art director, Fevzi Yazici, 37, in the newspaper’s graceful new office building. Small-boned and intellectual, Yazici is soft-spoken and calm. So why all the bright colours in Turkish papers? “Some people say this is the Mediterranean style,” he says. “We get excited easily and are colourful people. We’re not boring, we know how to live.” But he notes there is also a more prosaic explanation: a lack of design education. Most newspaper designers in Turkey, he says, have studied computing or journalism. “If you don’t study colour, you don’t have control.
“I think it comes from our culture also,” he adds. “In the West, you don’t have ornaments hanging inside your car. In India, you see them everywhere. We are in the middle of the East and the West. We are more controlled than in the East, but more colourful than the West.”
Yazici says that Turks’ tastes are getting even louder. Last April, the paper was redesigned to be even flashier. The changes are a response to attracting younger readers – Turkey’s youthfulness is a demographic fact: half of all Turks are under 28. By comparison, Germany’s median age is 44, the UK’s 40, and the average is 37 in the US.
Another reason for the special look of Turkish newspapers is the unbelievable quality of political news here. “Can you imagine the British army planning to overthrow the government?” Yazici asks. “We might have big headlines on the front pages, but the size of our fonts are not big enough for the size of our stories.”
Cüneyt Ülsever, a columnist for Hürriyet, a leading national daily, explains further: “We prefer to shout at each other. You might think that two people talking about politics will start fighting when in fact they are friends. It is just their way of discussing the issues.”
Anyone who has been to Turkish football matches will testify that Turks are extraordinarily emotional. The local fan-club network is highly developed, with fans dutifully practising songs for the games. No other sport here compares in terms of how it holds public attention.
“Sometimes the passion for football here is as strong as religion,” says Kaan Bora, an editor at sport daily, Fanatik. The 31-year-old Besiktas fan has a sly smile and quiet demeanour. “You can’t change people’s religion or their team.”
Most of the distinctive pages of the paper are dedicated entirely to three popular teams: Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Trabzonspor. The rest are compressed onto page five or seven. The trick in crafting compelling sports stories, Kaan says, is to stoke fans’ passion. “It’s an emotional thing, characteristic of Turkish people. You want to struggle. You want to win.”
It seems that Turks don’t just want the facts. In addition to spice and flavour, they want clarity, a strong voice, and passionate beliefs. Success in the Turkish media is much more about attitude than heady thoughtfulness. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the most prestigious and influential position is that of columnist.
Ulsever says columnists have held great sway in Turkish society since print media began in Ottoman times. Even in the tea houses of tiny villages today, there are opinion leaders. “People sit around him and he utters his ideas about sports, politics, television serials – the topic is not important – even the history of the atomic bomb. Everyone believes him.”
Despite television and the internet overtaking in terms of readership, Ulsever says newspapers are valuing their opinion-formers more than ever. Like most columnists, he himself has fans and haters. The people he meets assume important people give him exclusive information – from leaders to soccer stars.
Cartoonists also enjoy a revered place in the Turkish media, largely because only they are able to criticise the powers-that-be so remorselessly. “We’re like the court jester who has the right to say whatever comes to mind,” says Bahadir Baruter, 47, a cartoonist and editor and owner of the weekly cartoon magazine Penguen. Even so, he has still faced 12 court cases for his cartoons, nine of which are still in the courts. The most serious case, he says, was against his colleague Musa Kart for drawing the prime minister’s face on the body of a cat tangled in yarn. To show support, the other cartoonists drew a zoo-full of animals with Erdogan’s face.“I drew him as a cow,” says Baruter. “I was prosecuted for that, too.”
The cartoonists were acquitted and the controversy boosted his circulation by 20 per cent, so it’s not exactly clear who had the last laugh.
Does the PM have a sense of humour? “Not at all”, he says. However things develop with Turkey’s democracy and its media landscape, one thing’s certain: Baruter will never run out of material.
Circulation figures of Turkish national newspapers
806,005. Owned by supporters of the Islamic movement of Fethullah Gulen.
501,397 Dogan’s centre-right tabloidy broadsheet
447,173. Owned by Dogan, centrist and perhaps Turkey’s most influential newspaper
344,298. Centre right, close to government; owned by the Calik group, whose CEO is the PM’s son in law
237,761. Centre-left Dogan paper, more intellectual than Hürriyet
212,040. Owned by Ciner Group which also has Haberturk Television, affiliated with Bloomberg TV
189,282. Calik-owned national sports daily
179,047. Dogan’s national sports daily, 90 per cent about football
173,356. Centrist, independently owned, unofficially controlled by Dogan who was not allowed to buy it due to monopoly concerns
149,055. Populist tabloid
All in the family
Dogan Media Group:
Turkey’s largest media group. Its six title comprise about 30 per cent of the country’s total newspaper circulation: Hürriyet, Miliyet, Posta, Fanatik, Radikal and Referans. It also owns 28 magazines and three television channels. DMG is part of Dogan Holding, one of the three largest conglomerates in Turkey, with over 20,000 employees and active in 13 countries in energy distribution, industry, trade and tourism. Founder Aydin Dogan, stepped down on 31 December; a move seen as a capitulation to the government as in the same week, the editor-in-chief of Hürriyet also stepped down after 20 years.
Despite Dogan wanting to buy the second-biggest media conglomerate in 2008, Sabah ATV, the prize went to the Calik Group, headed by Ahmet Calik. He paid $1.1bn. The deal was controversial: Calk is a close associate of the PM, and around two-thirds of the money was loaned by two state-owned banks. Another $125m came from a Qatari company – The Economist reported that Erdogan was said to have lobbied the emir of Qatar personally. The CEO of Calik Holding is Berat Albayrak, the premier’s son-in-law. Turkuvaz Group, the media arm of Calik, also owns 25 magazines and the newspapers Fotomac, Takvim, Yeni Asir, and Sabah and ATV television. Calik Holding also works in energy, textiles, construction, finance and telecoms.