On October 30, some 45 journalists were dismissed without notice from the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet, which had held the title of the largest print newspaper in circulation in Turkey for decades. The dismissals marked a continued upheaval at the newspaper, which was formerly owned by the independent Doğan Media Group but was sold to a pro-government conglomerate in 2018, cementing the Turkish government’s control over the mainstream news market.

The firings hit those concerned hard. Some of the dismissed journalists had spent half their life at Hürriyet. Taken together, the fired journalists had spent more than 500 years working at the newspaper. One journalist learned of her dismissal on the day she gave birth; another was on compulsory military service and a third was receiving cancer treatment. Close to two months later, over 90 percent of the fired journalists remain unemployed in a labour market where the majority of media is already under government control.

The International Press Institute (IPI) spoke to an anonymous source affected by the layoff. According to the source, most of the journalists were at work when they received phone calls from their family members at home who had received written notification about their contract termination. Colleagues whose current addresses were not known to the employer learned about their dismissal when they could no longer access their work email accounts.

Founded in 1948, Hürriyet was long one of Turkey’s leading mainstream newspapers and until recently had the highest print daily circulation in the country. The newspaper’s former publisher, Doğan Media Group, which had been under government pressure for years, was forced to sell Hürriyet together with its other media holdings to the pro-government Demirören Holding just before the paper’s 70th birthday last year. Demirören Holding has close links to the government and was allegedly also forced into the deal. Confronted with politically motivated demands for high back taxes, Doğan Publication Holding had previously sold newspapers Milliyet and Vatan to Demirören in 2011 in a move widely seen as resulting in the curbing of those papers’ critical journalism.

Obstruction of unionization

Adding to the controversy around the firings, all 45 journalists dismissed were unionized members at the Journalists Union of Turkey (TGS). TGS immediately condemned the “brutal” layoff of its members and promised to take legal action against what it described as a violation of the country’s constitution and labour laws.

TGS says it reached a majority of Hürriyet staff as members. According to Turkish union law, when a union has at least 40 percent of a company’s employees plus one as members it can apply for authorization from the Ministry of Labour to negotiate salaries directly with the employer. The ministry delayed in turning down such a request by TGS during which time Hürriyet claimed to have hired 100 additional employees – just after the firing of the 45 journalists – thereby changing the majorities in the workplace. Former staff and TGS executives suspect the ministry collaborated with Hürriyet to thwart the advancing unionization.

Source with inside knowledge of the layoff told IPI: “It is obvious why they hired 100 people after firing us: to play with the numbers in order to prevent TGS reaching the majority. I think our membership at TGS played a major role in the dismissal because even though membership in a union is a constitutional right in Turkey, the implementation is quite the opposite. The percentage of journalists in Turkey today who are members of a union is less than 5 percent. We already knew the editorial line of the newspaper was going to change [due to the new owner] and that they were at some point trying to get rid of us. The union might be the most important reason for the layoff but the fact that we were the remains of the old Hürriyet also played a role because the editorial line has changed dramatically in the last one-and-a-half years.”

The fired journalists are currently seeking to file a lawsuit against Demirören Holding at least for their redundancy entitlement, which has so far been denied to them. Former staff have started a campaign on social media called #HakkımızıVerHürriyet (“Give us our rights Hürriyet”).

Given their differing salaries, the fired journalists are not entitled to bring a class action but are planning case-by-case legal action supported by TGS. But financial compensation might only be a small part of the case, given the apparent illegal obstruction of unionization and the alleged involvement of the Ministry of Labour. The damage already done to the former flagship of Turkey’s mainstream media and of secular Turkey appears irreparable.

‘The admiralship is sinking’

After the mass dismissal, Hürriyet’s then editor-in-chief, Vahap Munyar, resigned in solidarity with his colleagues, along with a number of renowned columnists. When IPI asked about the daily’s editorial line under new editor-in-chief Ahmet Hakan, known for his pro-government stance, and about the future of the newspaper, the source went on to say: “It doesn’t matter who the next editor-in-chief is because Hürriyet lost its independence and editorial line a long time ago despite us trying to continue with balanced reporting.

“Most importantly, names do not matter anymore because Hürriyet lost its readers. After the layoff, it lost most of its credibility. Now it has a very low reputation and the circulation has dropped dramatically. Not long ago Hürriyet had the highest circulation in the country and it used to be called the admiralship of Turkish media. Now the admiralship is sinking and all we can do is to watch.”