Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State

Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State

by Bilge Yesil


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


In Media in New Turkey, Bilge Yesil unlocks the complexities surrounding and penetrating today's Turkish media. Yesil focuses on a convergence of global and domestic forces that range from the 1980 military coup to globalization's inroads and the recent resurgence of political Islam. Her analysis foregrounds how these and other forces become intertwined, and she uses Turkey's media to unpack the ever-more-complex relationships.
Yesil confronts essential questions regarding: the role of the state and military in building the structures that shaped Turkey's media system; media adaptations to ever-shifting contours of political and economic power; how the far-flung economic interests of media conglomerates leave them vulnerable to state pressure; and the ways Turkey's politicized judiciary criminalizes certain speech.
Drawing on local knowledge and a wealth of Turkish sources, Yesil provides an engrossing look at the fault lines carved by authoritarianism, tradition, neoliberal reform, and globalization within Turkey's increasingly far-reaching media.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252081651
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/30/2016
Series: Geopolitics of Information Series
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bilge Yesil is Associate Professor of Media Culture at City University of New York, College of Staten Island. She is the author of Video Surveillance: Power and Privacy in Everyday Life .

Read an Excerpt

Media in New Turkey

The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State

By Bilge Yesil


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09837-6


Politics and Culture in Turkey

To understand Turkey's media system and its post-1980 transformation, one first needs to step back and examine it within the broader context of Turkey's political economic history and culture, and more specifically within the main pillars of statism, nationalism, and secularism. These pillars emerged in unique forms in the aftermath of the establishment of the Republic in 1923 and became subject to divergent processes of transformation during the 1980s and 1990s and then again in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Though this chapter will not provide a full historical analysis, it does intend to illustrate how statism, nationalism, and secularism have suffused both the Turkish public sphere and its media culture. It also provides background for the ensuing examination of Turkey's contemporary media system, especially in regard to the development of political economic alliances between media proprietors and the state.

State Prerogatives and Military Guardianship

The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal following the post-World War I decay of the Ottoman Empire. Along with an elite composed of military officers and civilian bureaucrats, Kemal — later named Ataturk, the "father of all Turks" — set out to build both a nation-state and a modern, secular republic with the kind of legal, social, cultural, and economic structures and institutions more commonly found in the West. From the 1920s onward, the founding elite demonstrated a special concern for the vulnerability of the new nation-state and assigned to the discourse of state survival, national unity, and territorial integrity a central position in the political field that still dominates the public sphere. The military, primarily due to its role in the nationalist struggle against the European occupiers, came to assume the guardianship of the new republic and appointed itself as the defender of the state from enemies internal and external.

The concern with state survival can, in fact, be traced to late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century experiences of the Ottoman Empire, namely its military defeat in several wars and eventual loss of sovereignty and the occupation of its Anatolian homeland in the aftermath of the WWI. Although Kemalist ideology aimed to cut any links to the Ottoman past, it nonetheless embraced the same fears that had defined the final days of the empire: the fear of partition, the fear of the disintegration of the country's territorial integrity, and the fear of internal and external enemies aiming to divide the country. Collectively, these fears are referred to as the "Sevres Syndrome," originally named after the Sevres Treaty that had divided the territories of the Ottoman Empire among the European powers after WWI.

The Sevres Syndrome still stands as a useful catchall description of such fears and their instrumental role in shaping Turkish political discourse. For example, in the 1990s, Kurdish unrest was tied to Western powers allegedly aiming to dissolve Turkey's national unity and territorial integrity. Similarly, the rise of political Islam, also in the 1990s, was associated with Iran and its so-called plans to "pull Turkey into endless darkness" In 2006-2007, liberal writers and intellectuals were accused of being internal enemies because they allegedly threatened Turkey's national unity by openly debating the Armenian genocide. This pattern of confounding domestic issues with international conspiracies transpired in 2013 when, during the Gezi Park protests, the AKP government insisted that an international cabal was actually behind the demonstrations. Likewise, that same year the corruption charges brought against the government were labeled as the work of a "Jewish lobby" aiming to erode Turkey's development. In 2015, even Pope Francis came to be included in this so-called international conspiracy because of his use of the word "genocide" to describe the massacres of Armenians a hundred years ago.

Nation Building and the Suppression of Ethnic Identities

In addition to the primacy of the state, the other organizing principle of the new republic was nationalism. The nation-building project was based on ethnic, religious, and linguistic homogeneity and thus required the severing of links to the multireligious and multiethnic heritage of the Ottoman Empire and the rejecting of the historical, cultural, and religious experiences of the peoples of Anatolia. Premised on the principle of a republic, "one and indivisible," the state ideology came to suppress self-identifying affirmations of the so-called deviant groups — for example, conservative Muslims and the Kurdish, Jewish, Greek, and Armenian minorities. Along these lines, the new republic designated Kurds as Turks and professed to be trying to assimilate them into the larger Turkish culture. It simultaneously identified them as "premodern," and culturally and economically backward, and denied any scrap of ethnic identity they might otherwise want to claim. The new republic categorized some non-Muslims as minorities, indulgently permitted them to remain in Turkey, and made them theoretically eligible to claim basic citizenship rights. Yet it took other radical steps to create and maintain a Turkish nation-state, such as the expulsion of Greeks from Turkey and their replacement by Balkan Muslims between 1923 and 1930 and the enforcement of the 1934 Settlement Law, which had supposedly been aimed at settling the nomadic tribes but was actually a clear attempt to assimilate Kurds through demographic recomposition. The mid-twentieth century saw the imposition of a special "wealth tax" on the properties of non-Muslims in 1942; and the cracking down of several Kurdish revolts that exploded between the 1920s and 1940s, especially the one in 1937, which led to the death and displacement of thousands of Kurds.

Secularism, Westernization, and the Subordination of Religion

To the new republic, challenges came not only from the multiethnic legacy of the Ottoman Empire but also from the role of Islam in the public sphere. The Kemalist founders imposed a top-down secularization and Westernization project with the specific aim of "transforming] the religious and mystical traditions of the rural and uneducated masses," and of "engineering] the popular consciousness so as to distance it from religion." The series of reforms between the 1920s and 1930s included the adoption of Western legal, social, and cultural institutions and practices — which, in effect, meant the banning of Islamic garb and the adoption of Western codes of dress; the banning of Ottoman-Arabic script and the adoption of the Latin alphabet; and the abandoning of the provisions of Islamic law and the writing of a new legal code.

Perhaps the most important of the modernizing reforms was the sub-ordination of religion in the public sphere and the institutionalization of secularism. Acts demonstrating this subordination included the closing of all religious schools; the outlawing of mystic orders, Islamic brotherhoods, and charities; and the replacing of the Arabic call to prayer with one using the Turkish language. This interconnected threading of a "distaste for religion" and a "mission of elevating people to the level of contemporary civilization," as evinced in the rhetoric of the republican elites, led to the emergence of a particular mode of secularism (laicism) in Turkey: one that did not maintain a neutral relationship between state and religion, but rather endeavored to subordinate religion and to relegate all religious practice to the private sphere alone.

Despite all efforts to institutionalize secularism, however, the Kemalist project was not able to eradicate Islam from public life. Islamic education and social networks continued to exist underground and were thus all but geared up to return in the 1980s with the revived Islamist activism.

A crucial point to note here is that even though the Turkish state repudiated Islam as the chief marker of its national identity, it nonetheless adopted a double discourse regarding religion. As Umit Cizre cogently explains, the dilemma for the republican founders was to "make individuals imagine themselves as part of a nation, and identify themselves with the imagined community of Turkey" in the absence of "older cultural meanings, the strongest one of which was being a Muslim." To overcome the likely resistance to this pretense, the republican cadres "disestablished Islam as the state religion" but "incorporated religious aspects of prior cultural markers into the modern Turkish identity." Obviously the recognition of Islam was not displayed out of any respect for older cultural traditions but was only used as a strategy to depict religion as the "inferior other" to the new Western identity. Therefore, the incorporation of Islam into the national identity served to legitimate the new republican citizen.

Given this double discourse adopted by the state, it would be simplistic to understand the relationship between the state and Islam in the form of a simple binary where the "failure of the former's politics leads to the rise of the latter's force"; instead, they ought to be portrayed as forces in a "contingent relationship." An intriguing manifestation of this relationship can be seen in the state's strategic incorporation of Islam into the public sphere when it suited its political needs. For example, as Jenny White reminds us, the Kemalist cadres, in the early days of the new republic, used Sunni Islam to forge an identity among the ethnically divided masses and premised the concept of nation on "a racial understanding of Turkishness and Muslim identity. This notion of "Muslim nationalism," with its special emphasis on Islam as the primary marker of Turkishness, gained traction in the late 1970s under the National Salvation Party and was later embraced by the military in the 1980s as an antidote to leftist radicalism and to Kurdish nationalism.

To go back to the rapid, top-down secularization and Westernization project of the early years of the Turkish Republic, one should also note the gap that it created between the elites and the people. While the Kemalist elites tried to make a modern Turkey in their own image, they failed to show any regard for centuries-old traditions, values, and norms of the past. Nor did these elites appreciate the role Islam played for Turks in originally building their identity. To the modernizing elite, ever inward-looking and isolated from greater society, the masses were simply backward. Given that their traditions and values also happened to be contrary to the state's new ideology, these masses were seen as needing some sort of transformation. However, since this transformation did not take place through "an organizational revolution and/or by providing real services to the lower classes, and/or by an ideology focusing on the peripheral masses," it ended up alienating the periphery and made them mere passive recipients of the messages of the state elites.

Nation Building and Instrumental Use of Media

As discussed above, the fear of partition and the idea of self-defense came to be the defining elements of the Turkish experience, from politics to culture. In the media field, the state premised its policy on the paradigm of national security, and to this end it established monopoly over broadcasting and imposed strict press laws over privately held newspapers. From the early years of the republic, the founding elite mobilized the press and radio as tools in the construction of the modernized, Westernized, secular national identity, with radio broadcasting being especially apt in representing the "voice of a nation." As Meltem Ahiska shows, radio broadcasting was used to educate the citizens about virtues of Western civilization and to promulgate a "pure" national identity that excluded diverse languages and cultures of Armenian, Greek, and Kurdish minorities. Later, in the 1960s, television broadcasting was shaped along similar political registers and used as a means to circulate state ideology.

The heavy reliance on symbolic and communicative practices on the part of state elites to create and preserve a national identity and to uplift and modernize the masses is not unique to Turkey; it can also be observed in several Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian states, especially in their post-independence years. For example, in Pakistan, the military and civil bureaucracy worked together to circulate the idea of a nation-state via print and broadcast outlets, whereas in Egypt, the government used radio and television to educate, modernize, and culturally uplift Egyptians, especially peasants and women. In Algeria, after the end of the French rule, the state used radio and television to "Arabize" culture and communication and to "orient national identity and cultural independence away from the West, especially France"

State Control of the Economy

From its early years onward, the Kemalist regime maintained full control of not only the administrative and bureaucratic structures but also the economy. It opted to rest its economic policy on national development and import substitution and thus gained the ability to play an active role in the market by way of regulating imports and redistributing material gains. The national-developmentalist model was prompted in part by worldwide economic depression but also by the elite founders' aspiration to render the state economically self-sufficient and less dependent on the outside world. This principle was clearly associated with long-held anxieties about state survival, external threats, and an overall paradigm that prioritized national security. As Metin Heper and Fuat Keyman note, the state came to be "actively involved in the establishment of exchange controls, major public investments in manufacturing, the nationalization of foreign and local companies delivering public services, and the imposition of import duties and quotas to protect industry." In the meantime, the accumulation of private capital through state contracts created "vertical links between the state and society," expanded the bureaucratic and administrative classes, and developed new political patronage relationships between the said classes and the entrepreneurs. Given these clientelistic networks, the emerging bourgeois class found itself with limited political engagement and remained unable to translate its economic gains into political and civil rights. These patron-client relationships between the state and private capital, as I explain in chapters 2, 4, and 5, were also among the reasons behind the inability of commercial media to challenge or criticize the military in the 1980s and 1990s, and the AKP since 2007.

Challenges to Kemalist Ideology

Despite its absolutism, the Kemalist state was never immune from challenges. In its early years under the single-party rule of the CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or Republican People's Party), the state faced almost two dozen rebellions, most of which involved Kurds. Among these, the 1925 rebellion, led by Sheikh Said, combined both ethnic and religious elements and was launched against both the secular and the exclusively Turkish character of the new state. It was led by tribal chiefs and religious leaders who feared the centralized and Westernized nation-state would remove their traditional privileges. The Menemen rebellion of 1930 exposed the frustration of the Islamists with the secular order when the members of a religious group rallied against the state, called for the restoration of the caliphate, and eventually beheaded an army officer, who, in their eyes, represented the aggressive secularization policy of Kemalist cadres.

Challenges continued even after the Kemalist single-party rule ended and the country transitioned to a multiparty system. In 1950, the center-right conservative Demokrat Parti (Democrat Party, or DP) came to power and began to challenge the Kemalist regime (for example, by taking steps to liberalize religious practice, giving greater freedom to private enterprise by transferring some of the authority that had originally been entrusted to the state bureaucracy). A decade later, however, it was eliminated by the military. Despite the toppling of the DP government and the hanging of its leaders, conservative politicians kept coming forward, even as they routinely faced being quashed by the Kemalist establishment in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game. For example, the Islamic Milli Nizam Partisi (the National Order Party, founded in 1970) was shut down by the Constitutional Court in the space of a year. Likewise, the coalition-aspiring Milli Selamet Partisi (the National Salvation Party, founded in 1972) found itself shut down after the military coup of 1980. Despite all the efforts of the state and the military though, Islamist political activism was able to survive, and indeed strengthened overall (see chapters 3 and 4).

The Post-1980 Era

As noted above, the main tenets of Turkish modernity have been challenged several times since the early years of the Turkish Republic, only to be subsequently suppressed by the state. However, beginning in the 1980s, Turkish modernity entered a period of transformation whereby the nationalist and secularist ethos, the primacy of the state, the role of the military in politics, and the limits imposed on the public sphere came to be contested. People from different sections of society started to question Kemalist ideology, and its strong state tradition, prioritization of the national interest over individual rights and freedoms. This transformation was triggered by a series of developments including the neoliberal restructuring of the economy, the 1980 military coup, the end of the Cold War, and Turkey's increasing engagement with globalization. In what follows, I highlight the first two developments, both of which transpired in the year 1980. The first was the "January 24 decisions," a term used to refer to the economic stabilization package that called for the replacement of a national-developmentalist economic model with a market-oriented one. The second development was the September 12 military coup carried out by the Turkish Armed Forces with the aim of ending the political turmoil and economic instability of the preceding decade. Together, these two developments led to the creation of a new system premised on a mixture of economic liberalism and state control — a system in which the state would recalibrate its role in light of global and neoliberal currents (e.g., entry of multinational corporations into the Turkish market, inflow of foreign capital and culture, expansion of Turkish businesses into global markets, EU membership application).


Excerpted from Media in New Turkey by Bilge Yesil. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Politics and Culture in Turkey 17

2 Political Economic Transformation of Media in the 1990s 31

3 Containing Kurdish Nationalism and Political Islam in the 1990s 51

4 The AKP Era: Between the Market and the State 72

5 The Remaking of the Media-Military-State Relationships in the Early Twenty-First Century 88

6 Gezi Park Protests, Corruption Investigation, and the Control of the Online Public Sphere 107

Conclusion 127

Epilogue 143

Notes 147

Bibliography 171

Index 209

Customer Reviews