Populism Through Uprooted Truths
The role of the pro-government media in Turkey, Part III
In two previous posts on the political scene in Turkey (I and II), I explained and discussed the success of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Erdogan through their adoption of a type of post-truth politics that has enabled them to remain in power since 2002. Building upon Hannah Arendt’s, John Dewey’s and Michel Foucault’s accounts of the interplay between truth and politics in modern societies, I argued that the AKP’s resilience, which helped them to prevail over several internal and external challenges during last sixteen years, is being constantly reproduced by the ongoing transformation of their allies, enemies, populist discourse, and ideology. This dynamic post-truth politics, I emphasized, results in the creation of floating political spaces in which factual truths are admixed with nontruths, opinions, and lies no longer distinguishable from one another. In such political space the search for factual truth or discussion about facticity of political, social, economic or cultural claims becomes irrelevant, as the AKP’s has masterfully deployed what I have called uprooter rhetoric to delegitimize and even criminalize any attempt or initiative to find a way out from this nebulous space.
In the preceding posts, I analyzed the AKP’s sixteen-year rule in three periods – (1) November 2002 to May 2013; (2) June 2013 to June 2015 and (3) July 2015 until today – and demonstrated that following some significant events, the Gezi Park protests and the June 2015 general elections, in particular, the AKP has reorganized and restructured the floating political space through their post-truth politics in order to immediately counteract and subsequently benefit from these potentially weakening events. In the present post, I will further elaborate my main argument that the AKP’s creation of a floating political space of uprooted truths, nontruths, opinions and lies has allowed for their resilience and success by focusing my analysis on the government-affiliated media’s coverage for each period. In particular, I discuss how the government affiliated media outlets enabled the AKP to deploy distinct uprooter rhetoric suited to each period: (1) November 2002 to May 2013; (2) June 2013 to June 2015 and (3) July 2015 until today. My aim is not to perform a comprehensive analysis of the AKP’s media strategy, but to use some examples from their “partisan” (yandaş) or “pool” (havuz) media, as the pro-government media is called in Turkey, to demonstrate how they have played a key role in creating, reshaping and sustaining three different floating political spaces since 2002.
November 2002 – May 2013
As I showed in my second paper, from the AKP victory in November 2002 until the Gezi Park protests in late May 2013, the AKP worked closely with liberals, Gulenists and Western countries in order to ‘democratize’ Turkey and cleanse the previous Kemalist establishment, the political and military elite and secular public figures and intellectuals. During this period, the latter were accused of being coup-plotters or supporters of coup-plotters whose sole aim, according to the AKP and their allies, was to prevent the democratization of Turkish society and politics. Here, I will discuss how the media were used as a tool for sustaining the AKP’s post-truth politics of delegitimizing and criminalizing their enemies, whom they believed to be the previous Kemalist establishment. To support my thesis, I will analyze a newspaper’s coverage of Erdogan’s support for the Ergenekon trials against the previous Kemalist establishment and Erdogan’s discourse on the 2010 constitutional referendum that was broadcasted live at a TV channel.
First, on July 16, 2008 Yeni Şafak , an Islamist newspaper closely affiliated with the AKP reported that Erdogan “claimed to be the prosecutor of the people” as opposed to Deniz Baykal, the then-leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), who “considered himself as the lawyer of the Ergenekon trials suspects.” Whereas Erdogan “defended democratic politics and expanded and grew conditions for democratic politics,” the opposition politicians “aimed to return the country to its dark past again … and delegitimized politics and politicians,” an accusation of support for current and old coup-plotters, according to this newspaper. It further argued that Erdogan “considered politics as the sole means for establishing a better, more democratic, freer and more prosperous society” and “opposed any attempt to disrupt this.” The opposition politicians, who “had remained silent to attacks towards politics in the past, … will certainly be cleansed and purged by the nation as a result of their silence vis-à-vis and support for coup-plotters,” according to Yeni Şafak.
On September 6, 2010, NTV, a television channel later heavily criticized by the Gezi Park protesters due to their non-coverage of the Gezi Park protests during May and June 2013, hosted the then-Prime Minister Erdogan, just six days before the 2010 constitutional referendum. The interviewers asked Erdogan what he thought about the “No” supporters in the referendum. He clearly said that “since they are supporting the coup constitution, they are also coup-plotters.” Without having any critical response by the interviewers with regard to this stigmatization of nearly half of the population as “coup-plotters,” he went on to argue that “such [coup] mentality was going to get convicted by the national consciousness on the referendum day.” He further stressed that “many institutions in Turkey were fighting this mentality within themselves” and their aim was to “have a continuous democracy,” cleansed from the previous establishment.
These two examples, I believe, clearly show the media’s deployment of AKP’s uprooter rhetoric during this period, aimed at delegitimizing and criminalizing the search for and discussion about factual truth. By putting forward rhetoric that stigmatized the opposition as coup-plotters, the media aided AKP’s post-truth politics where factual truths blended imperceptibly with nontruths, lies and opinions.
June 2013 – June 2015
After the break of the Gezi Park protests against the AKP government’s plan to build a shopping mall at the Gezi Park, the AKP’s alliance with liberals, Gulenists, and Western countries started to crumble. In order to counteract this loss, the AKP accelerated “the peace process” with the PKK and improved their alliance with Kurdish nationalists. With this new alliance, they also changed their uprooter rhetoric from delegitimizing their opponents as “coup-plotters” to calling them “saboteurs of Turkey’s unity, peace and prosperity.” Here I will analyze this shift in the government-affiliated media’s coverage of Erdogan’s speeches during the Gezi Park protests in June 2013.
Sabah, a newspaper owned by the family of Erdogan’s son-in-law, reported Erdogan’s speech on June 1, 2013, a day after the proliferation of protests to whole country. By framing these protests as “opposing the government’s every initiative just for the sake of opposing without focusing on their content and intention,” Sabah intended to highlight the “ideological approach” of the Gezi Park protests. It also took a strong position condemning the political activism of the protesters: “aside from voting in general elections that occur every year, any other political way of participation was anti-democratic, unlawful and illegitimate.” Thus, Erdogan figured the protests as an attack on national integrity and fingered alternative media outlets, claiming “the CHP-affiliated media outlets were broadcasting in a very dangerous and provocative way” that supported “terrorists among those protestors.” Simultaneously, the newspaper detailed Erdogan and his party’s “the peace process” that both “stopped soldier killings [in Southeastern Turkey]” and enabled “Turkish economy to grow.” The protests, in contrast, were represented as “sabotage attempts … against unity and togetherness” and economic development that were created thanks to “the peace process.”
Two weeks later, on June 15, 2013, just a day before the evacuation of the Gezi Park protesters by the police, Akşam, a government affiliated newspaper, reported Erdogan’s speech about the ongoing Gezi Park protests. Their coverage was focused on Erdogan’s presentation of the protesters as “looters” (çapulcu). The latter were described as “saboteurs of order … who burnt buses, bus-stops, buildings and shops … and attacked a veiled mother.” Again, Erdogan’s remarks on the protesters’ opposition to recent economic development and the ongoing peace process were emphasized by the newspaper. Therefore, it highlighted that “the interest lobby” supported these protesters because “their issue was with the growing Turkey.”
Through these two examples, it can be argued that the media’s use of the AKP’s rhetoric that considered their opponents “saboteurs of unity, prosperity and peace” fueled the floating political space of uprooted truths. Critiques with regards to tree cutting, police violence and corruption charges were represented as inimical and dangerous for the well-being of Turkish society. Their sole aim, according to this construal, was to disrupt the Turkish economy and the ongoing peace process. Therefore, the pro-government media helped the AKP to dismiss and delegitimize any criticism by denouncing their opponents’ aims to weaken Turkey.
July 2015 – Today
Finally, following the June 2015 general elections, the AKP lost the majority in the parliament and called for snap elections in November. Their loss was due to the Kurdish nationalist Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) success in the elections that enabled them to surpass the 10% threshold to enter the parliament. This was unacceptable for the AKP, who then decided to put an end to the “peace process” with the PKK. The revival of the violent war between the PKK and Turkish military helped the AKP to win again in November. This period onwards, the AKP needed to reorganize its allies and uprooter rhetoric. They started to collaborate with Turkish nationalists and Russia and expressed their enemies as Kurdish nationalists, Gulenists, liberals and Western countries. This last element was represented as the main threat to Turkey and its unity. The example of two public media agencies demonstrates how the state media have played an important role to sustain the AKP’s post-truth politics.
On July 20, 2016, just five days after the failed coup attempt, The Anadolu Agency, a state-run news agency, reported on the Western media’s coverage of the failed coup attempt. According to this agency, “the repelling of coup-plotters in Turkey resulted in panic for Western media.” It argued that Western media “represented the measures taken by the government as steps towards authoritarianism.” Throughout the article, big media outlets from the UK, the US and Germany such as BBC, The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, The New York Times, Die Welt and others were explained as if they had supported the coup organizers. These media companies, according to the Andalou Agency’s reporting, were all trying to impose that “there is a bigger threat to democracy” in Turkey coming from “authoritarianism of Erdogan.”
Following this initial reaction to Western media after the failed coup attempt Western governments were directly accused for supporting terrorist organizations, including the PKK, in order to stop Turkey. For instance, The Turkish Radio and Television corporation (TRT), the national public broadcaster of Turkey, covered Erdogan’s speech about the US support for coup-organizers and Syrian Kurds on January 13, 2018. Here, the main focus was the US’ attempts to help and support terrorist organizations which constituted an existential threat to Turkey so as to present Turkey as if “struggling against all powerful nations in the world.” American support for both the PKK and coup-organizers constituted the main threat to Turkish unity and prosperity, according to the TV channel. What was necessary to do, it was argued, was to remain unified and stop this Western threat for good.
These two examples from state-run institutions, aside from revealing their adoption of the AKP’s uprooter rhetoric that nominated Western countries as enemies, also demonstrate the extent to which the AKP has succeeded in controlling public institutions in Turkey. Through these publicly funded agencies they have been able to disseminate their uprooter rhetoric with the express aim of delegitimizing and criminalizing their opponents’ criticisms of the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism, human rights violations and de-democratization in Turkey.
I have tried to show that the AKP’s post-truth politics, which has enabled them to remain in power for sixteen years, has been sustained by various public and private media outlets. They have played a key role in controlling and reshaping the public opinion through this nebulous space in which the search for factual truths has been rendered meaningless and irrelevant. Therefore, in Turkey, where freedom of speech and free media and press are increasingly under threat, the media constitutes one of the main pillars for the success of this post-truth politics. It is not surprising that without a free media Turkish democracy has become very weak in recent years. Before engaging in finding answers and solutions to this anti-democratic atmosphere, I think that the public must try to understand the dynamic mechanism of post-truth politics in contemporary societies in general. In this paper and in the previous ones, I have discussed this phenomenon focusing on the transformation in the AKP’s uprooter rhetoric throughout succeeding periods. I hope more people will start to question this phenomenon, which has to some extent become universal in contemporary societies, before it is too late for democratic principles to prevail in the globe.