Protestors gather in Taksim Square on June 4, 2013 in Istanbul, Turkey.
Credit: Uriel Sinai

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Apart from chief protagonist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, no other element has been as roundly criticized by the thousands of anti-government protestors who have taken to Turkey’s streets over the past week than the country’s generally listless media.

As the unrest has spread amid a brutal police crackdown, Turkey’s main broadcast and print media organs have for the most part ignored the cacophony of popular dissent sweeping the country’s streets.

Their silence was not lost on the demonstrators, who in addition to voicing their opposition to Erdogan’s government also protested outside media buildings or attacked Turkish reporters in the field with rocks and bottles. 

From afar, it may appear Turkey’s ongoing protest movement, which kicked off last week when protestors rallied to defend one of Istanbul’s public parks from demolition, has been well documented. CNN, the BBC and a host of international outlets have been reporting live from the center of the demonstrations since the violence began on Friday.  

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But the low-level assault against Turkish journalists and media outlets by Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) means the country’s largest protest movement in years is getting scant domestic coverage.

Turkey right now imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world — including Iran and China — with 47 reporters in jail. As a result, Turkish media outlets are largely self-censoring, journalists and observers here say.

“Rather than a government-imposed censorship happening, the Turkish media is facing self- or patronage-censorship out of fear that they could be the target of Erdogan’s wrath,” said Mahir Zeynalov, a journalist at Today’s Zaman, the country’s premier English-language daily, and former Los Angeles Times correspondent.

He says there are around 20 articles in the Turkish penal code that restrict freedom of speech.

On Monday evening, Zaman, Turkey’s top-selling newspaper, ran a story with the headline “Activists burned a police vehicle,” suggesting responsibility for at least some of the unrest lay with the demonstrators. CNNTurk, a Turkish version of the American broadcaster, was also late to covering the protests.

That comes on the heels of one of the most troubling incidents of government intrusion in the work of the media here, part of a climate of growing intimidation. Last month, authorities issued a several-day gag order after Turkey’s worst-ever terror attack in the border town of Reyhanli.

Fifty-two people were killed in a double car bomb, but Turkish media coverage of the fallout was both limited and largely rhetorical.

In December, a Turkish court ordered the editor-in-chief ofTaraf, an independent daily, to pay the prime minister damages of $8,381. The editor, Ahmet Altan, had written an editorial describing Erdogan as "arrogant, uninformed, and uninterested."

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Five years ago, the head of Turkey’s largest media conglomerate, Aydin Dogan, was met with a massive $4.6 billion tax bill. Although the fine was reduced, it was seen as a sign to media interests that Turkey’s AKP government could flex its control over the country’s top media interests.

Ceren Kenar, a journalist with the independent newspaper Taraf, said she has never been censored herself.

Some taboos have in fact been lifted: the Armenian genocide in which over a million people were killed by the Turkish authorities in 1915 and discrimination against Turkey’s Kurdish minority have been discussed on television and in newspapers and books in recent years.

But Kenar points out that Turkish media has never been either completely free or objective.

“Before the AKP, it was the military that controlled the media,” she said. “For decades Turkish media turned a deaf ear, while Kurds were persecuted, tortured, and oppressed.”

Reports on social media early Tuesday morning suggest a growing anger at Turkey’s media for failing to cover protests outside Istanbul and Ankara, and with two protest-related deaths now confirmed in the Syrian border town of Antakya tempers may well fray even further.

Observers say there is a simple calculus behind this for the Turkish government: for the most part, Turks don’t read or watch foreign media and to a great extent, outside viewers are a secondary concern to the government in Ankara.

Nevertheless, Zeynalov says, “it is also the government’s duty to amend laws that restrict the freedom of speech.” 

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