For journalists in Turkey who cover the president, the prime minister and other government officials, access to information is becoming increasingly limited – and narratives ever more tightly controlled.
Increasingly, government departments share news items with journalists via WhatsApp groups. On some days, briefings are shared in these groups as a complete news article ready to be “copied and pasted” in the next day’s paper. Press advisers to government spokespersons also ask journalists to share their questions in these WhatsApp groups ahead of press conferences. According to one journalist, “unfavourable questions” are rejected with the message: “Do not ask this!”
Cumhuriyet journalist Sinan Tartanoğlu is a member of the WhatsApp group formed by the prime minister’s office. Tartanoğlu, who has covered both former and current Prime Ministers Ahmet Davutoğlu and Binali Yıldırım, respectively, recalled that during Davutoğlu’s term press advisers collected questions from journalists before each meeting and selected those of which they approved, marking the rest as “unnecessary”.
Tartanoğlu recalled a press conference following a meeting between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-Prime Minister Davutoğlu on February 12, 2016. He sought to ask Merkel about then-jailed journalists Can Dündar, Cumhuriyet’s former editor-in-chief, and Erdem Gül, the paper’s Ankara correspondent.
“I realized I would not be allowed to ask this question if I mentioned it in the WhatsApp group”, Tartanoğlu explained. “So, I contacted one of the journalists who’d come from Germany and asked him to ask the same question.”
That journalist was Die Welt correspondent Deniz Yücel, who ended up being rebuffed by Davutoğlu.
The situation under the current government is similar. While journalists covering government press conferences are permitted to ask questions not previously mentioned in the WhatsApp groups, they generally choose not to for fear for losing their accreditation and press card.
“I asked myself repeatedly whether I would lose my accreditation after asking a question about Turkish soldiers allegedly burned by ISIS militants”, Tartanoğlu said. “I did not lose my press card, but I felt fear in my very bones.”
Another journalist we spoke to, who works for a foreign news agency in Turkey and wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, said that foreign media, too, have difficulties accessing news sources and barely manage to get quotes from government officials.
The journalist recalled a joint press conference of the Turkish and UK foreign ministers before which he requested to ask a question of the UK minister only. Turkish officials warned the journalists that his request “completely disrespected (our) foreign minister, especially in a meeting where we are the host state”. The journalist eventually held back from asking questions to either minister.
A holiday prize for the ’best news’
Another journalist recounted that the Ministry of Health once offered in its WhatsApp group a prize for the article that most pleased it.
“In these online groups things like the minister’s schedule are circulated”, the journalist explained. “However, in one of the messages the minister’s press adviser announced that journalists would be rewarded with a vacation for the best news article on a health-related issue.”
A fellow journalist from the group apparently snapped, “What do you mean by ‘best’ news? Everyone here is just trying to do their job!” Such an incident never happened again.
Banned from the presidential office
A television reporter who requested anonymity for fear of trouble at work said she had been barred from attending government press conferences after the president’s office complained about a question she had asked.
“I asked a question related to ISIS operations”, the reporter said. “Even though the subject was highly topical, it wasn’t on the ‘approved’ list and came as a surprise to the spokesperson. I wasn’t fired, but I was never assigned any tasks related to the Presidential Office after that.”
A common problem for journalists covering the president’s office and the government is that they are limited to using official sources. Articles written based on a source other than a government ministry are rejected by editors due to media executives’ concerns about “having problems with the government”. This whole process creates a high level of self-censorship, since journalists worry that what they write will not be approved for publication or, worse still, might land them in serious trouble.
No room for independent media
Many journalists working for independent media outlets are not included in the WhatsApp groups at all. They are not summoned to meetings or accredited for NGO gatherings that the president or other government officials attend.
Başak Kaya, a correspondent for the newspaper Sözcü, said she only managed to attend a recent meeting held by President Erdoğan and opposition CHP party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu by using her personal connections. She stressed that Sözcü correspondents normally can’t get into such meetings – nor can they rely on information from news agencies, which report news coloured by the government’s opinion.
According to Kaya, WhatsApp groups that collect questions ahead of press conferences and the problems with accreditation are only the tip of the iceberg.
“Gathering information from any institution is almost impossible”, she said. “You can see their expressions grow cold when you tell them for which newspaper you work. We cannot even get answers to the most ordinary questions. No one takes our phone calls or replies to our emails.”
Kaya added that even when journalists (like her) get a hold of government documents and wish to write about them, they are unable to because they can’t get the documents confirmed.
“One of the biggest issues is to reach the person responsible and make him or her to respond to our claims”, she said. “Even though the document we have is real, they do not answer any questions. Therefore, we cannot report on documents that we cannot get confirmed. We even face criminal damages cases sometimes just because we report on quotes signed by ministers themselves in response to parliamentary questions.”
A reporter with the independent daily BirGün, Burcu Cansu, said her newspaper doesn’t even apply for accreditation from government departments.
“They will not accept the application anyway”, she said, noting that the paper is unable to ask even simple questions to the government or receive statements.
But she added: “Even if our accreditation were to be accepted, we wouldn’t find it acceptable to submit ‘government-approved questions’ in advance. This doesn’t sit well with journalism ethics or with press freedom.”