Former Reuters Institute Journalist Fellow
*Data are from urban Turkey, rather than a fully nationally representative sample. This will tend to represent richer and more connected users.
In the wake of the failed coup and subsequent referendum giving President Erdoğan sweeping new powers, online websites, blogs, and social media have emerged as a centre of opposition. Mainstream media remain largely controlled by the government.
Turkey has been under a state of emergency since a failed coup of July 2016, in which 248 people were killed and hundreds injured and the political turmoil has had a significant effect on the freedom and independence of the Turkish media. Turkish authorities have shut down nearly 150 media outlets including 55 newspapers, 5 news agencies, 16 TV channels, 23 radio stations, 18 magazines, and 29 publishers by using powers invested under the state of emergency.
Turks tends to be deeply divided into supporters or opponents of the ruling AK party – and the same level of polarisation applies to the media. People in either camp prefer to trust what they want to believe without questioning the reliability and accuracy of the news. To illustrate this, the anti-government Sözcü is read mainly by people who self-identify on the left (50%) and only a few who identify on the right (9%). At the same time, around four in ten (39%) of its readers think it is best for accurate and reliable news.
The spate of newspaper closures has surprisingly not adversely impacted general sales at the newsstand,1 but advertising revenues for newspapers have taken a hit. The share of printed media (14.8%) continued to decrease in 2016 whereas digital advertising (24.2%) continues to grow and is now second to television (51.2%).2
The biggest online news sites, however, continue to be traditional media brands using content repackaged from print (Hürriyet, Milliyet), television (CNN Türk, NTV), or from news agencies. Digital-born web-portals, which aggregate stories from newspapers and agencies, such as Mynet, Haberler, and EnSonhaber, also play a major role in Turkey but the range of news outlets being accessed increases every year.
Indeed mainstream media have been losing their monopoly in agenda setting as digital-born news sites and social media often become the first port of call for news. The pressure on opposition media outlets has led to the creation of a number of small-scale online journalism portals and platforms where free journalism is practised. Articles are shared via social media and increasingly via encrypted messaging apps.
While the successful digital-born sites like Odatv (14%), T24 (8%), Diken (6%), and Bianet (2%) have kept their position in our survey, the number of digital-born news brands has increased this year. These include Duvar, Karınca, Webiztv, and 140journos, a prominent citizen journalism project, which has gained attention for its pioneering use of social media to distribute content. Another approach comes from Journo, which provides a platform for freelance journalists and ensures they are paid via the MATRA human rights funds. Well-known reporters, many of whom have lost their jobs with recent closures, contribute to this portal with their exclusive stories.
Paying for online news is extremely rare in Turkey, although most printed media outlets do provide an option to subscribe to a pdf format e-edition or pay for web access without advertising. Some dailies like Birgün or Özgür Düşünce that take a particular ideological stance have asked their readers to support their services, but these approaches have not yet been successful. There is little prospect for anti-government publications to make money as it is easy for the authorities to block websites or find other ways to cut off funding or readership.
The sharp downturn in the use of Facebook and Twitter for news may also be related to fears about government surveillance. Use of Facebook for news fell by 10 percentage points in the last year with Twitter down by 5 points. The rise of closed messaging services like WhatsApp (+8) as a way of sharing news may be linked to a climate where it is not safe for public servants in particular to criticise the government on social media. The Ministry of Interior says that more than 3,000 people were prosecuted, and over 1,500 arrested in the second half of 2016.
The smartphone has overtaken the computer in terms of access to news, particularly for the young. TV and online remain the most important sources of news while social media use is declining as people adopt more secure messaging apps for sharing news.
One expects lower trust levels in a country where the media are largely controlled by the government but the ruling party got 49% of the votes in the last election in November 2015. Although the small difference (6%) between trust in news ‘overall’ and ‘I use’ might suggest low levels of political polarisation, this is not the case in Turkey where society remains deeply divided.