Media is the Message Now: An Interview with Dr. Hakkı Öcal on Foreign Media Outlets in Turkey

June 17, 2019

No harm can come from free communication. But we need to know, who is doing what and why. These +90 and Gulf-sponsored media outlets are targeting Turkish politics but Turkey is strong enough to resist them.
Hakkı Öcal

Faruk Yaslıçimen, Politics Today’s Editor-in-Chief interviewed Dr. Hakkı Öcal, a renowned senior Turkish journalist and a regular contributor for Milliyet daily and also a faculty member of Ibn Haldun University Faculty of Communication about the increasing activeness of foreign media outlets in Turkey.

Dr. Öcal, as you know there are foreign media companies that are recently opening branches in Turkey and making publications in Turkish. I would like to ask first of all, do you remember similar examples of such concentrated efforts in the media sector in history?

Years ago, I remember almost a similar case. All major American and British media companies and government corporations had all of a sudden started their Kurdish broadcasts and publications in print in Iraq. Months later we found out that the U.S. was going to invade Iraq. So, the fact that foreign media companies nowadays are showing keen interest in Turkey and are publishing in Turkish makes me feel edgy. I don’t feel comfortable not because that anybody is going to invade Turkey but the logical extension of what they did in 1991 signals a kind of intervention. For instance, before the invasion of Iraq, the Voice of America (VOA) started its Kurdish broadcast overnight. In Turkish we have a saying, “fol yok yumurta yok,” and VOA created a publication company named Middle East Broadcasting House in Maryland (MERNA) that targeted Iraqi Kurds via satellites. The signals were downloaded and distributed through U.S. naval ships in the Gulf to Kurds. So, they established direct communication. Jokes aside, this little anecdote has nothing to do with Turkey right now.

This is a very serious joke indeed…

I don’t want to alarm anybody but that is just a historical fact. Anyway, in the BBC’s founding corporation document it states that the people of the United Kingdom need to communicate directly with the corners of the world where their own government does not provide independent, verified and multi-faceted communication for their own people. By the same token, the United States of America stopped VOA broadcasting in Turkish after Turgut Özal allowed private media broadcasting and they said ‘now Turkish people have an independent and verified information and communication system in the world therefore we don’t need to communicate with Turkish people directly.’

Aren’t Turkish citizens informed independently about what’s happening inside and outside of the country? This is what it means if foreign media outlets start broadcasting in Turkish for Turkish people.

So, they are both aware of and state that they are deliberately communicating not with the governments but the people, citizens of a country and manipulate…

Well, they don’t say manipulate because it does not sound nice or democratic. The word is to allow them to respect the people’s right to information and if their government is not providing this we are doing that. This is also in the VOA Charter that was passed in 1942.

Why have they all of a sudden started communicating directly with the Turkish people now? Is the Turkish media not doing this? Aren’t Turkish citizens informed independently about what’s happening inside and outside of the country? Don’t they get information from any other local sources? This is what it means if they start broadcasting in Turkish for Turkish people. They are giving the message that “Turkish people! You don’t have independent information channels where you obtain information about what’s happening in your country and in the world. So, we are going to provide these for you.” It also means that “Turkish media companies online broadcasting and publication outlets are not doing this. But we do.” Is this really the case?

We have to accept that recently media ownership changes are frequent in Turkey. Most of the time the reason is economic and print media is not profitable anymore due to online publications. So many traditional publishers are getting out of printed media and switching to other lines of business. Internet publication in Turkey is very rich and plural but not paying well. When you run a website, yes you may survive, but this is not going to make you rich. Traditional publishers used to make a lot of money out of the print journalism business. But now they don’t find online platforms profitable enough and prefer to concentrate more on the mining industry or transportation in order to make more money.

Unfortunately for the last fifty years in Turkey as elsewhere, traditional print media bosses have not been journalists themselves, but businessmen.

Unfortunately for the last fifty years in Turkey as elsewhere, traditional print media bosses have not been journalists themselves, but businessmen. Their first priority has been to make money. So, when diminishing returns become the case, they can get out of the industry easily. Some investor groups get together and create pools to take the ownership of such businesses. These are not the traditional media bosses as we know, but they are what we emphatically call Anatolian Tigers or their sons who represent the second generation. Since they don’t have enough money to buy such huge multimillion-dollar conglomerates, they pool their assets to purchase them. Due to this method, they are disparagingly called “the pool media,” which accounts for companies supporting the AK Party government or the Erdogan Administration.

There is of course a pro-government media but wrongly put into one basket. The real problem is that it is only the ownership that the Turkey’s political opposition doesn’t like. I mean look at some new media people, some came from Trabzon to Istanbul with their business partners and become a newspaper boss. However, the age-old Istanbul capitalists, the Istanbul bourgeois don’t like seeing someone from Malatya or from Çankırı owning a media company. They never pay attention to its content or take interest in the large variety of opinions in these newspapers. Who can say Yenişafak for example is 100% pro-government? There is also very harsh criticism in newspapers, which are unanimously labelled as pro-government.

Politics Today Editor-in-Chief Faruk Yaslicimen with Dr. Hakki Ocal during the interview at Ibn Haldun University

Politics Today Editor-in-Chief Faruk Yaslicimen with Dr. Hakki Ocal during the interview at Ibn Haldun University

So, the heart of the problem as far as I understand from what you are saying is that the overall approach to the media hasn’t changed. There are structural problems in regards to  media ownership in Turkey. But now we are living in the twenty first century. Our lives are occupied with social media and the internet. Now we have a plural atmosphere and there are pro-government as well as opposition media outlets, which are indeed influential. Given the fact that we have influential opposition media in Turkey, there is still the question as to why foreign media companies are investing in Turkey. Or as in the case of +90, they are uniting their forces and founding a YouTube channel or take Independent Türkçe. Why is this happening?

There is no historical precedence for this. I mean BBC, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle and France 24 never got together even during the Second World War. Yes, during WWII, there was no internet but many other channels that these could cooperate. The western alliance did not do this. Why are they doing this now? Especially now. What’s happening in Turkey is the answer of this question, I think. It must be something they don’t like. I guess it is a new Turkey that is becoming more active internationally. So far, Turkey was a docile member of the Western alliance. It was so pliant a member of alliance. Yes, from time to time it caused headaches like the resistance to the U.S. request to stop the opium poppy cultivation during the Bülent Ecevit period, and Turkey’s Cyprus operation caused an arms embargo but all in all, Turkey has been a quiet member of the western alliance.

To convince the Western states to lift the embargo, Turkey tried hard to explain why they had to act in Cyprus by producing arguments like saving Turks from Greek cruelty that was taking place on the island, etc. But take Ecevit’s photo later taken with Bill Clinton – that was a shameful one. From that Turkey, we came to a Turkey, a new Turkey which says “how come you can talk about embargos or sanctions?” The country now demands its rights and questions unjust treatment in contrast to the Ecevit period, when the country was trying gently to explain Turkey’s position. But Turkey today simply says “You can’t do it. If you do, I will reciprocate.” And it does.

This Turkey is different and can successfully reject the U.S. attempt to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. No other country has objected before Turkey did. Turkey gathered the The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) general assembly in Istanbul and following the convention almost all countries in the UN except six rejected the U.S. move. Turkey singlehandedly opposed the U.S. policy decision. It is the people of this new Turkey foreign media outlets try directly reach and communicate with. What are they going to say? Partly fake news that now spreads all over the place.

Are they really spreading fake news or misinformation?

Not necessarily. They are telling a version of the story in order to give a message. As you know Marshall McLuhan says in his book titled “Understanding Media” that medium is the message now. You need to reach certain conclusions from the format. For instance, you read a mainstream U.S. newspaper that the story is attributed to an “unnamed official” you may be sure that this story is fed by a government official. It is not an ordinary news story, but a targeted message. They want to install certain ideas into people’s mind; they want to have them think that the Turkish government is wrong, but the U.S., Germany or France even the whole world is against Turkey. The content of the news story is not important anymore, it is the fear that they want to transmit.

I am not simply saying the BBC, Voice of America and others spread fake information about Turkey. But the way they editorialize news items carries a message.

Nowadays, the U.S. is threatening that Turkey will be excluded from the F-35 fighter jet program. As many U.S. experts testify Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 Air Defense System is not incompatible with F-35s. But the tone of the threats, the wording of the statements, and their timing make is so clear that it is not a simple technical matter. The western media outlets and the Gulf-financed websites are going to emphasize the U.S.-based strategic opinion that Turkey is siding with the U.S.’ enemies. That’s editorializing the content. This is what they are going to do. Do not look for the age-old dictums of the free and independent phrases that the information should be balanced, that you have to carry contrary opinions in your story. I am not simply saying the BBC, Voice of America and others spread fake information about Turkey. But the way they editorialize news items carries a message. The news stories you carry as well as those you don’t also matters.

You are following these media outlets closely. Can you tell us how and what they choose to publish or how they tend to editorialize their content?

You don’t see anything coming from the Erdogan administration. The words of the Turkish side are always in the second or third paragraph. At the very top you always see accusations coming from unnamed sources or very selective headlines. The research shows that on the internet people are not going to read below the fold. They read the headline, the first paragraph, and that’s it. All the “positive” sections about the Turkish government are below the fold. People don’t read them. Therefore, when they say that they present a balanced story it is not really meaningful. Nobody ever reads the second page. The headlines are very selectively editorialized news items.

Turkish people got accustomed to the publications of BBC Türkçe, DW Türkçe and others but there is also Sputnik Türkçe, which is Russian. Even though Turkey and Russia have been on good terms for some time and are pursuing joint investments, Sputnik Türkçe still publishes a lot of anti-government content. How do you explain this?

Russia, politically speaking, has never been a hundred percent friend of Turkey. We are nowadays discussing Turkey’s full membership to the EU and NATO membership. This mechanically leads people to think that if Turkey distances itself from the Western alliance, the country will quickly align itself with Russia. I think that shouldn’t be the case and won’t be the case. Turkey will not leave the Western alliance soon or ever; I can say ever. Because since early Ottoman expansion, the orientation was towards the West. The primary aim of the Turks has always been westward expansion. Turks are western oriented.

Russia, politically speaking, has never been a hundred percent friend of Turkey. Turks are western oriented.

But let’s assume that S-400 air defense systems are placed and activated on Turkish soil and Turkey is kicked out of the F-35 program and plus in retaliation the country purchased Russian SU-57, fifth generation jet fighter. NATO cannot expel Turkey but can make life so difficult for Turkey that it leaves the Alliance. Anybody thinks that such a scenario would end with Turkey’s alignment with Russia. I think this is not going to be the case. Because Turkey and Russia have never historically been friends.

So, you mean that Sputnik Turkey’s publication policy is related to the preferences of the Russian state?

They accuse Americans, but they do exactly the same. Look at the Idlib situation right now. The Assad regime is bombing Idlib despite the agreements reached during Sochi and Astana summits. Russians are bombing Idlib too. What’s happening? Haven’t we reached to an agreement in these summits? Idlib was under the protection of Turkey, which promised to stop any violations and terrorist infiltration to Syria. They argue that Turkey is not guarding Idlib as supposed but Turkey asked them to show one example of terrorist infiltration. Indeed, there is no proof of such terrorist infiltration or activities from Idlib.

What’s happening in Idlib is not acceptable. Russia has much more stake in peace in Syria or as much benefit as Turkey does from the peace in Syria. According to some unconfirmed press reports, in the middle of the night, the Turkish Ministry of Defense had to call the Russian Ministry telling them that they had to stop the bombings. These things are not supposed to happen in an ideal partnership. Sputnik or another Russian website is not supposed to be anti-Turkey. You can well be anti-government and Russian experts or statesmen can criticize the acts of the Turkish government in Syria. This is part of freedom of information and conscience. Any Russian news outlet should be reporting this. Here, the editorializing matters. But look at the people working for Sputnik Türkçe, they are either workers of former FETO-owned news outlets or some imbalanced critical individuals.

I am following Sputnik for a long time. I have been its very vocal critic on Twitter. Whenever I catch non-journalistic behavior from them, I expose it.

There is such a thing as press freedom and freedom of expression. But the overall tendency in the Russian media, I mean the editorializing and biased selectiveness matter. I have been following Sputnik for a long time. I have been its very vocal critic on Twitter. Whenever I catch non-journalistic behavior from them, I expose it. Well, because we have to. I am a former journalist. If I were an active journalist operating in the editorial board, I would expose their non-journalistic behavior as much as I could. The first and foremost duty of journalists is to upkeep the profession’s ethics. We have to warn anybody who abuses our ages-old conventions in journalism. Everybody knows what these conventions are. What Russians are doing now is not proper journalism. It is selective mouthpiece of certain opinions, always against Turkey, always biased, always against the Erdogan administration.

So, they are falling into the same pitfall with Western media outlets when it comes to news on Turkey? They criticize the imbalanced nature of the western media, while showing and representing another example of such behavior.

Oh, yes. I am sure Voice of America would be very happy to have Sputnik on their YouTube channel!

Do you think they are influential in Turkey?

Thank God, no! First of all, computer penetration is still low in Turkey. Yes, cell phone penetration has almost doubled during the last two years. Everybody in Turkey has 2.8 cell phones now. When it comes to desktop web penetration, the number is lower than the European average. Again, in modern Turkey, people are not totally out of oral tradition. I’ll give you an example. Boğaziçi University is an age-old modern university and anyone may presume that people enroll their kids are also very modern, rich, Istanbul bourgeois with experiences abroad. However, as the registration dates are announced in newspapers, parents start to call the university switchboard and ask “Is that the correct registration date that I read on the newspaper?” This oral tradition is still very much alive. In communication theory, we call them gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are people who should hear something and convey information to real people. Even if you read something on the internet, they don’t automatically believe it. They discuss it with real people and try to confirm the information from mouth of another real person. This is the oral tradition.

But we have a young population and Turkey is among the top social media consumers in the world. Turkish citizens spend much more time than many countries in the world and these foreign media companies in Turkey are using social media very effectively and exercise influence over the younger generations. Might this have an effect in the upcoming years?

It might in the next ten years. Young people are not political as such. They are out of touch with daily political developments. An impact on this audience is not overwhelmingly important as to change Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy preferences. A) They do not talk about politics among their peers. This is quickly observable. They are mostly engaged in music, arts, culture, but not politics.

This is true but let me object right at this point. Politics per se is not one of their enthusiasms but occasionally certain topics can immediately appeal to their interests and young people might get politicized for certain issues for a specific time. We experienced this during the violent Gezi Park protests. Those people who were thought to be apathetic to politics got politicized all of a sudden and occupied the streets. Will this partial politicization change the course of Turkish politics or not? Does social media increasingly influence the Turkish youth and lead them to politicization – especially with the satirical language of a politically charged media outlet for example?

You are right. I agree with this portrayal of Turkish youth and this is already happening. There are lots of internet-based organizations, gathering in virtual or actual spaces in which is filled by young men and women together. The Gezi Park event was organized on the internet and got out of hand because of the internet’s non-controllable character. I agree with this but this is not widespread. It is not happening all over the place. This happened only in Istanbul, a bit in Ankara and Izmir. But other than these, we did not have such an exposition in other provinces.

Gezi was an exception. Gezi happened all over Turkey. Now we have learned that the Gezi Park event took place as a result of months of preparations. I think it is not going to repeat itself. But you are right. There is grave potential there. The only thing to balance this is the family structure. In Turkey, young people are much more independent and exercise an influence on young people. A traditional Turkish family structure, for example, would tolerate a young person’s participation into a political rally, whether pro- or anti-government. I believe that +90, Gulf sponsored websites and Sputnik Türkçe are not fundamentally or single-handedly effective over the Turkish youth. They might eventually be influential, but not soon.

There are some in Turkey who regard these developments as a potential national security threat. Are you agreement with this opinion? Or do you believe that the gatekeepers can keep the gates?

The gatekeepers will keep the gates. And Turkey is a big country. Its army, its police force, satellites, etc. provide enough intelligence to maintain security. The issue concerns not national security but national politics. Maybe because I earned my life as a journalist, I don’t see anything bad that could come from free expression. No harm can come from talking, writing or making a film. It is communication, which is one of the assets among many others. Turkey is strong enough to defeat ill-effects of disinformation. If the whole world gets together and creates an anti-Turkey and anti-Islam communication in Turkey, it is not going to work. People will go to mosque, run to rallies of political parties and listen to their leaders.

These +90 and other Gulf-sponsored media outlets are targeting Turkish politics but Turkey is strong enough to resist them.

I am sure no political leader or opinion leader in Turkey, even those totally against the AK Party government, is ever going to allow anything that threatens Turkey’s national security. So, let them talk and speak. As the famous saying goes, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” No harm can come from free communication. But we need to know, who is doing what and why. These +90 and Gulf-sponsored media outlets are targeting Turkish politics but Turkey is strong enough to resist them. There are also websites being founded spreading correct information against misinformation.

So, the media is a legitimate field of contestation

It has been and it will be. It does not scare me at all. What is scaring me is politicians. Now we have John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and an inexperienced U.S. president. The world has become more dangerous not because of communication but because of politics.

Thank you very much Dr. Hakkı Öcal.

Faruk Yaslıçimen received his BA from Istanbul Bilgi University, MA from Bilkent University, and PhD from Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich. Yaslıçimen is the Editor-In-Chief of Politics Today and Assist. Professor at Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul.