Sputnik Türkiye: The Voice of Moscow?

January 22, 2019

Views on Sputnik expressed both in Turkey and Western countries must be interpreted as reviews made on the new link of Russia's propaganda chain that has increased since the Cold War.
A view taken on April 27, 2018 shows the main newsroom of Sputnik news, part of the state run media group Russia Today, in Moscow. Getty Images

The efforts to publish content in Turkish by foreign media outlets in Turkey are increasingly coming to the forefront. Although the first names that come to mind are Western publishers or broadcasters that have a considerable share in the global information flow, Russia-based outlets have recently started asserting themselves in the sector. Russia’s official news agency Sputnik is among the leading ones, which entered the market by publishing contents in 34 languages in 31 countries.

Sputnik comprises one of the organizations under the umbrella of the Rossiya Segodnya (International Russia Today News Agency) that incorporates the former RIA Novosti news service and the international radio service, Voice of Russia. Another significant organization under the same roof is the Russia Today television channel that broadcasts in 6 languages. The two news services have been releasing content in different geographies as the voice of Moscow since 2014. Albeit founded in December 2014, which can be considered a relatively recent date, it could expand its sphere of activity by institutionalizing in a swift and professional way, indicating that the organizations are funded and monitored in terms of quality.

An interview conducted with Sputnik Türkiye Editor-in-Chief Mahir Boztepe was published by the now-defunct periodical Nokta in April 2016. The periodical was then operating as the mouthpiece of the Gulenist Terror Group (FETO) and was closed following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The interview highlights two aspects in line with the periodical’s editorial policy. The first emphasis was on the contention that the news service offers an alternative journalism against Western media outlets. While speaking on the context prior to 2014, Boztepe remarked that the news flow was dominated by large organizations like AFP, BBC and Reuters and therefore the information flow had been one-sided. He went on to suggest that Sputnik stands out as an alternative. According to the second highlighted point in the interview, Sputnik embarked on its journey with the purpose of expressing Russia’s worldview and defending the country’s arguments. In other words, he stressed that Sputnik acts as a medium that conveys Russia’s official state policies to the global arena.

Media, propaganda war and Sputnik

Within a short period, the U.S. and France took a negative stance with regard to Sputnik regarding its capacity to define the public opinions of their countries. For instance, Sputnik’s alleged intervention in the election process was listed as one of the grounds for the legislative regulation made in France in November 2018. Similarly, one of the primary reasons for the criticisms directed against the U.S. President Donald Trump was his alleged links to Russia prior to the presidential election. It is a commonly expressed allegation that the accounts and media outlets controlled by Russia affected the electorate behavior as a consequence of these links. The allegations, denied by Trump and Russian officials, constitute the backbone of a judicial process currently ongoing in the U.S.

Viewing the arenas of competition before World War II, the most cut-throat competition can be claimed to have been experienced in the field of propaganda. In 1902, Russians joined the global propaganda race with Itar Tass news agency. During that era, along with the U.S. and Nazi propagandas that stood out with their distinct features, Russian propaganda was also worth mentioning. During the periods of Stalin and Lenin, Russia had robust propaganda tools considering the technological conditions of the time. Although Russia’s propaganda mechanism went into decline during some periods, it made its way to the present day by continuing its operations.

Views on Sputnik expressed both in Turkey and Western countries must be interpreted as reviews made on the new link of Russia’s propaganda chain that has increased since the Cold War.

So, the views on Sputnik expressed both in Turkey and Western countries must be interpreted as reviews made on the new link of this propaganda chain. Undoubtedly, this cause-effect mechanism is directly related to the rising trend Russia caught under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia started taking some concrete steps in line with a hegemonic policy through its military power outside the country, the most explicit examples of which can be seen in the cases of Syria and Ukraine. In the meantime, it disseminated its media organizations, which make up the soft power of the country. Most of the criticisms against Russia raised by the U.S. and European public have a complaining tone, demonstrating Russia’s offensive position.

Sputnik Türkiye and Russian interests

Russia’s official news outlet Sputnik comes in first place among the foreign media outlets gaining popularity in Turkey in recent years. Sputnik publishes content through its news website, radio, and social media accounts. Sputnik also has an official YouTube channel that actively releases videos with Turkish subtitles. The website directs its visitors to both the radio and the YouTube channel. In the special news section of the website, the news reports on Turkey’s inner political balances are especially noteworthy. Generally, some parts of the content used in the programs of Sputnik Radio are turned into news reports. In some cases, the news reports are formed through the full transcriptions of the content.

The downed jet crisis between Turkey and Russia in November 2015 got a wide coverage in the Turkish-language contents released by Sputnik. During this period, Sputnik covered a whole slew of inaccurate contents driven by anti-Turkish sentiments. Therefore, Turkey’s telecommunications authority (TIB) restricted access to the website on April 14, 2016, and lifted the restriction on August 8, 2016. In the light of these developments, it can be contended that the publications of Sputnik Türkiye are shaped on the basis of three main aspects.

The first one is the news items on Turkey that can be evaluated within the global political context. The editorial policy relies on the assumption that Turkey has stronger bonds with Russia compared to the U.S. and other Western countries and therefore assumes that the country leans towards Russia rather than the West. In this scope, a positive language that serves to strengthen ties between the two countries is employed, whereas the West is occasionally presented as a threat factor to the Turkish public. To illustrate, a news report published on January 15 was titled “A break in Turkey-U.S. relations to undermine Washington more than Ankara,” which displays the tone of the news outlet. It must also be underlined that this approach is a strategic one as it is the official news agency of Russia.

Sputnik’s editorial policy relies on the assumption that Turkey has stronger bonds with Russia compared to the U.S. and other Western countries, and therefore assumes that Turkey leans towards Russia rather than the West. 

Secondly, Sputnik covers news that reflect Turkey-Russia relations within the casual flow of the daily political agenda in Turkey. The news agency pays attention to the principles of respecting cooperation. Turkey’s interests and the nature of the relations between the two countries are considered. For instance, while reporting news about a development in Syria, a discourse in favor of Russia is preferred if Turkey and Russia diverge on the subject, which does not go against the grain. One such news report was published on December 27, 2018, with the signature of Ceyda Karan. 

The report defends the arguments of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime as opposed to Turkey’s arguments by quoting the opinions of journalist Fehim Tastekin. Titled “Turkey’s military presence to be a leading problem for Russia, Iran, Syria if U.S. withdraws,” the news report strives to represent Turkey’s operation against terror groups PKK and YPG as illegitimate and depicts Turkey as an occupying force in Syria. In terms of understanding the tone of Sputnik’s editorial policy, it is also important to note that Karan and Tastekin are dissident to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

In addition, in the reports published with the signature of Sputnik Syria representative Hikmet Durgun, content displaying the YPG’s efforts to develop closer ties with the Damascus regime are often highlighted. This discourse is undoubtedly motivated to prevent a possible operation Turkey will launch in the east of the Euphrates and expects the YPG to assign the control of the regions it seizes to Assad regime. A news report published on December 26 was titled “We negotiate with Russia and Syria to prevent Turkey’s entering Syria,” by basing it on the YPG. Even the title portrays the presence of the language that tries to press on Turkey’s legitimate rights in Syria.

Sputnik’s discourse surrounding the YPG’s efforts to develop closer ties with the Damascus regime is undoubtedly motivated to prevent a possible operation that Turkey will launch in the east of the Euphrates.

Dissident journalism

In the third type of news published by Sputnik, a quite different language of journalism can be observed. Such reports do generally focus on the domestic political, social, and economic debates in Turkey. And this group can be categorized into two. The first category comprises news, motivated to inform the public, which predominantly uses the developments in the Turkish political atmosphere as its source material. A more objective tone can be seen in these reports. In the second category, on the other hand, delicate issues in domestic politics are emphasized. 

It can be observed that such news show parallelism with the dissident discourses against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government in the political sphere and against conservative segments in society. The criticisms directed against the AK Party and Erdogan generally tend to focus on topics such as transportation, price rises, social aids and wastefulness, and these very topics find a wide coverage in Sputnik reports. In a news report titled “Citizens overcharged in Göcek Tunnel, which was previously said to be free of charge,” published by Sputnik on January 15, can also be viewed within this scope. The news outlet covers content that reflects the discourse of criticism against the AK Party with regard to price rises and development investments.

Another news report signed by Yavuz Oghan gives place to the statements of Kadri Gursel, a journalist known for his dissidence to Erdogan. Gursel’s remarks on a radio program was turned into a news report with the title “Trump’s economic threat may present an opportunity to ruling power ahead of the election,” which was published on January 15. Another report, which was titled “AKP’s coming to power was Turkey’s colorful revolution” and published on December 6, 2018, with the signature of Karan again, included the statements of daily Birgun contributor Fatih Yasli. His statements, which openly reflect a barren and superficial left-wing outlook that always looks to oppress the state and the nation with junta regimes due to their unremitting failure in Turkey’s democratic elections, aspire to overshadow the national will. The report tries to build a connection between the victories of Erdogan, who won all the 14 elections he ran for by a landslide since 2002, and the anti-Russian street movements emerged in Georgia and Ukraine.

More curiously, FETO members who attempted to stage a military coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016, and the ones circulating such discourses through Sputnik have converged on many macro-level subjects, including the suggestion to support the U.S. intervention to unseat Erdogan. To give an example, The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputy Ahmet Şık, who also has a similar stance, praised the U.S. when the U.S. was exerting economic pressure on Turkey.

This editorial policy of Sputnik Türkiye can be elaborated with further examples. For instance, in a special news report published by the website on October 19 with the signature of Yavuz Oghan; Osman Kavala, who is currently under arrest, is mentioned. In the news report compiled from the transcription of a radio program broadcast by Sputnik Radio, Ertugrul Gunay’s remark “Kavala is under arrest since he is not backed by the U.S. or Germany” was highlighted in the report. The content of the report explicitly takes sides in the context of domestic politics. It also attempts to shape opinions by representing the Turkish judiciary as a structure vulnerable to the U.S. or Germany’s intervention. The emphasis on the title is completely built on this motive.

Another report by Zafer Arapkirli, which was published on October 19, 2018, had the phrase “the greatest burden is energy bills” in the headline. Again, it was compiled from Arapkirli’s program on Sputnik Radio. Departing from the remarks of Oguz Turkyilmaz, head of the Energy Commission of Turkey’s Chamber of Mechanical Engineers, who was hosted in the program, the report criticizes the present situation of the economy. It also criticizes mainstream media on the grounds that they do not cover the facts. In another report by Oghan, radio program guest Turgut Kazan’s statements on the İş Bank debates are highlighted. The title of this report dated October 16, 2018, includes the phrase: “Erdoğan’s remarks on İş Bank are illicit, legal action was taken on those directing far less moderate words against Halkbank.” The report continues with a highly critical approach.

Dissident figures of Sputnik Türkiye

All in all, as the publications of Sputnik Türkiye are viewed, it can be observed that positive contents favoring both sides are produced on the subjects agreed by Turkey and Russia, particularly in the Syria case. But as a divergence occurs between the policies of Turkey and Russia, the positions of Russia and Iran are explicitly propagated. Besides, news focusing on Turkey’s relations with the U.S. or European countries play a major role in terms of Russia’s macro-level interests. So, the messages are aligned according to Russia’s position. In this sense, the efforts to lure Turkey into Russia’s inclinations are explicit.

On the other hand, the publications opposing President Erdogan and the AK Party are predominant in Sputnik Türkiye’s national politics section. Such content is in parallel with the publications of dissident media outlets. Therefore, most of the content in Sputnik Türkiye has similar tones with the chronic anti-Erdogan dailies such as Cumhuriyet, Birgün, and Sözcü. 

The names signing the news reports, most of whom formerly worked at mainstream media outlets in Turkey, are figures known for their strict opposition to Erdogan. Consequently, a discourse fortifying the position of only a specific side is highlighted by the news agency especially in the context of domestic politics. So, we need to ask whether this is a preference of the Russian state or related to the team coordinating the publications in Turkey. Although Erdogan and Putin are on amicable terms and Turkey and Russia have been marking a great deal of joint projects, Sputnik Türkiye predominantly gives place to names dissident to Erdogan without enabling a minimum level of pluralism, which drives curiosity.  

Although Erdogan and Putin are on amicable terms and Turkey and Russia have been marking a great deal of joint projects, Sputnik Türkiye predominantly gives place to names dissident to Erdogan without enabling a minimum level of pluralism, which drives curiosity.  

Some of these names are radically against Erdogan, which appears as a paradox. When the subject is viewed in light of the main factors that shape journalism, the cultural and ideological background owned by the personnel become concrete in the example of Sputnik. It is evident that the cultural and ideological background affect at least some aspects of the news organ’s editorial policy. Journalists with a certain cultural background who were formerly making anti-Erdogan news in mainstream media are now reporting similar contents for Sputnik.

Sputnik Türkiye’s inclination to Russia’s stance in the cases when a choice has to be made between the strategic priorities of Turkey and Russia can be rationalized since it is Russia’s official news agency. However, the fact that Sputnik Türkiye gives wide coverage to anti-Erdogan content in news relating to Turkey’s domestic politics is in contradiction with the close relationship between Erdogan and Putin on the resolution of many regional problems and the two countries long-term joint investments in energy and defense industries.

Özkır graduated from the Department of Journalism in the Faculty of Communication at Marmara University in 2003. His master's thesis and PhD dissertation were titled “The Way of Conveying Palestine-Related News in Media”, and “History, General Publication Policy and Identity of Hürriyet Daily”, respectively. He concentrates on structural transformation of Turkish media, media-politics relations, and the impact of social media on social events. Özkır is an Associate Professor at İstanbul Medipol University’s Faculty of Communication. Özkır also serves as the publishing coordinator of the montly periodical Kriter.