Erdogan’s rise to power through the media

In Turkey, media is not a business, it is a business unitMost media companies are subsidiaries of much larger corporations and function as a marketing and business development department for the parent company. Every major newspaper or tv channel is owned by a conglomerate operating in various sectors. These conglomerates get contracts from the government, be it in mining, construction, infrastructure or energy, and they use their ‘media arm’ to promote the government interest and win support for it from the public. In return for the promotion, the government awards the contracts to the conglomerates. Thus, the media arm of the conglomerate helps expand the business.

Asymmetric rewards and punishment: The reward for supporting the government could be business contracts but the punishment for not supporting it is NOT ‘no contracts’; it is getting tax fines and possibly facing bankruptcy. Thus, the choice for media bosses is unquestioning support for the government or bankruptcy. Unsurprisingly, they all chose the former.

So separate the media and the businesses…problem solved. Not quite. Before the 2001 crisis, the situation was very similar. All media bosses also owned banks. These banks were speculators in the bond markets. They took in deposits from households and invested heavily in Turkish Treasury bonds which were offering three digit interest rates. Their media arms were used to make everything in Turkish economy look rosy. When the crisis hit in 2001, the newly set up banking watchdog (BRSA) prohibited bank bosses to own media companies. The law was passed but never implemented. To this day, NTV – one of the largest news stations – is owned by Dogus Holding the largest shareholder of Garanti Bank – Turkey’s largest private bank. There are always deliberate loopholes in the law for exception handling.

But marketing departments are cost – not profit – centers…thus when a company needs to reduce headcount they usually turn to the marketing department. It is no different in media. While there is very little published data on newspaper profits, I suspect most newspapers make losses. It is a burden which the conglomerate discounts as the cost of doing business. But when the conglomerates are not in good shape, the first place to look for extra savings is the media company. The story of Sabah newspaper – top five selling newspaper in Turkey – is the most telling one on this issue. Sabah was established and owned by Dinc Bilgin, a man who built a media empire in the 1990’s. In 2005, Ciner Holding who mostly operated in the mining sector bought the newspaper. Two years later when Ciner Holding faced financial difficulties, the newspaper was sold to Calik Holding who mostly operated in textiles and energy. Recently, due to Calik’s financial difficulties the newspaper was taken over by a group of companies who are all close to PM Erdogan. Ciner and Calik would know how expensive a marketing department media really is. For Ciner, Calik and the group of companies who recently bought Sabah, the purchase of the newspaper is merely a bribe, a tax, or a down payment for getting contracts for other businesses.

Basics of the Turkish newspaper business (unit): Three pages and three corresponding concepts make or break a newspaper in Turkey; football (second to last page), sex (images of half-naked celebrities on the last page) and blood (the most bizarre crime news on the third page). Turkish people scan the first page (politics) but it is not what sells. As for columns, in a country where the average education is 5.5 years, few spend their scarce resources on reading long articles about political views. The ones that do are mostly liberals and are a minority. Only a small minority switches newspapers when they realize the political news content is not accurate or biased. As the sales data suggests, reader loyalty is extremely high in Turkey. The oppressed pathology of the Turkish people leads us to accept what we read without questioning. Result? A newspaper might change hands, its political views might change but its readership remains the same and the reader’s perception of events is shaped by the new owner’s interest. It’s no surprise that support for AKP is closely correlated with pro-Erdogan newspaper sales.

Political alignment of the newspapers: There are four types of newspapers in Turkey; pro-Gulen, opposition, pro-Erdogan and swing.

a) Pro-Gulen: Zaman is the most selling newspaper (23% market share) and is publicly known to be the media arm of the Gulen foundation. While most claim that Zaman’s sales volumes do not adequately reflect its readership, we have no way of verifying this. Bugun (3.5%) is also a Gulen aligned newspaper although it is owned by gold mining mongrel.  Total Gulenist newspapers have a 27% market share.

b) Opposition: These newspapers can be aligned with the opposition (center left or nationalists) or claim to be independent. Cumhuriyet (1.7%) is clearly aligned with the CHP – the main opposition party – while Taraf (2.3%) seems to be independent of any political organization. Sozcu (8.5%) also claims to be free of politics and clearly has been in opposition to Erdogan. However, this recently-founded newspaper’s sudden rise to success with its young boss, who is rumored to be a Gulenist, raises some eyebrow’s about its self-proclaimed independence. Total opposition newspaper market share is roughly 13%.

c) Pro-Erdogan: Of the dedicated Erdoganists, most notable ones are Sabah (7.7%), Haberturk (5.3%), Milliyet (4.1%), Turkiye (4.0%), Star (3.3%), Yeni Safak (2.9%), Vatan (2.8%), Takvim (3.4%) and Yeni Akit (1.6%). While Sabah, Milliyet and Vatan have in the past been against Erdogan (when Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul), having changed hands multiple times, nothing remains of those old papers. Milliyet and Vatan under Dogan holding ownership tried to be unbiased but having been acquired by Demiroren Holding – an ally of Erdogan – in 2011, they have become forced Erdoganists. Aksam (3.2%) and Gunes (3.1%) having recently been acquired by a group close to Erdogan are also late comers to the party. In all, Erdoganist newspapers make up 41% of newspaper sales.

d) Swing: Any newspaper of Dogan Holding can be classified as a swing newspaper. These newspapers – currently, Hurriyet (9.4%), Posta (9.1%) and Radikal (1.4%) – first helped Erdogan into power in 2002. When Erdogan grew too strong, Dogan pulled his support before the March 2009 municipal elections. PM Erdogan and Aydin Dogan – then CEO of Dogan – had a public spat about media independence. Shortly after, Dogan Holding was charged with an USD3.7bn tax fine. Aydin Dogan stepped down and Dogan Holding newspapers once more switched to the Erdogan camp. After the corruption allegation charges against AKP ministers and Erdogan himself in December 2013, Dogan once more switched to the opposition. Dogan Holding has about 19% share in total newspaper sales in Turkey.

Figure 1: Newspaper sales (% total, Jan 2014)


Source: Publishing Institute, 2014.

Figure 2: Summary table – newspaper and owners (click to expand)


Source: Newspaper websites, 2014. Note: Pro-Gulen newspaper color coded in blue, opposition in orange, Pro-Erdogan in green and swing in pink.

Erdogan’s rise to power through the media: When Erdogan first came to power in late 2002, he understood that majority of the public was against him and his Islamic-rooted party. At the time his party’s share of votes was 34% while most of his voters had switched as a reaction to the older parties that led Turkey from one economic crisis to another one. To change public perception, he desperately needed the media. His first stance towards media was of a compromising nature. He stuck to his end of the bargain with Turkey’s liberal bosses including the media and completed the IMF deal despite being against it personally. The IMF deal helped Turkey onto a stable economic platform. Towards the end of his first tenure, however, his stance changed. He no longer wanted to be at the mercy of the ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ media bosses who never trusted him. So he set out to establish his own media empire.

It began with Sabah which was sold to Calik Holding in 2007. Calik Holding had made a fortune working in partnership with Erdogan and Sabah’s takeover by Calik gave Erdogan an outlet to his first mainstream newspaper. At the time Sabah was Turkey’s one of top selling newspaper and had been relatively independent. Upon takeover by Calik, the staff was reshuffled, the liberal columnists got fired or were forced to resign and Sabah became a propaganda machine for Erdogan. Zaman owned by the religious Imam Gulen was already supporting Erdogan and was giving a major backing to his cause. In 2009, a pro-Erdogan businessman bought over Star newspaper while in 2011 Demiroren’s acquisition of Milliyet and Vatan from Dogan Holding gave another mainstream outlet to Erdogan. Finally, in 2013, Aksam and Gunes were both acquired by pro-Erdogan groups to give Erdogan an unprecedented power in shaping public opinion. By May 2013, almost 80% of the newspaper published, in one way or another, willingly or unwillingly, supported Erdogan.

Figure 3: Share of newspaper sales by political view (% total)


Source: Publishing Institute, 2014.

What newspaper sales say about the next elections? Shortly after the Gezi Park protests in May/June 2013, Gulen pulled his support from Erdogan. By December 2013, Gulenist newspaper visibly changed their stance to become an opposition to Erdogan. This was the opportunity that Dogan was waiting for to go back to its anti-Erdogan stance. Dogan secretly harbored anti-Erdogan sentiment since 2009 and was probably waiting for the right time to pull out. Finally, Gezi Park protests was a wakeup call to the liberals to stop buying biased news which led a slight boost to the opposition newspaper sales.

As of February 2014, pro-Erdogan newspaper share is down to 41%. To Erdogan’s advantage, the remaining 60%’s effort is mainly to undermine Erdogan and they are not supporting any one party or candidate against Erdogan. It is likely that pro-Erdogan newspapers share also reflect AKP’s vote in the upcoming municipal elections. In the short term, thanks to the fragmented state of the opposition and opposition parties’ lack of agreement to join power, Erdogan will most likely continue to be the most powerful man in Turkey.

In the medium term, the system is clearly unsustainable. Recently leaked tapes show Erdogan making calls to a media boss to change the content of the broadcast. Going forward, Erdogan is likely to find such micromanagement to be extremely difficult. Something’s gotta give. Only time will show whether it will be declining support for Erdogan or rising authoritarianism in Turkey.

Figure 4: Share of newspaper sales by political view (% total)


Source: Publishing Institute, Election Board, various polls, 2014. Note: Figure 3 includes pro-Gulen newspapers and certain Dogan Newspapers as pro-Erdogan until May 2013.

31 thoughts on “Erdogan’s rise to power through the media

      1. Thank u for the info. I ll have to check that against my dataset. But pls keep in mind that there are also pro-erdogan newspapers that i omitted as well. Since the data was not in a user friendly format, to make analysis shorter i put a cut off at radikal whose market share is only 1.5%. Anything smaller i omitted…i dont think it impact the results significantly.

    1. Agreed. Lots of important opposition newspapers missing from this article. Also I don’t understand how Taraf is categorised as ‘independent’? Dubious article.

  1. Vah yazık bu ülkeme vah. Atamızın kemikleri sızlıyordur. Gençler bütün ümidimiz sizlersiniz.Kararlı olun Dik durun.

    1. Yes. We are Turkish but we talking on So main idea should be we should talk english to understand over the world. We already know erdoğan or gülen. So we can not get something from eachother. Need any other sources like the sites or newspaper which is published in abroad. Article showing why. Lets talk in english and share what we live in Turkey with any others..

  2. I can’t believe people are asking for the generals to come to power, this is spurred on by the powers who put the generals in Egypt back in power. Every time turkey Turks the corner and is successful there seems to be a call for the generals.
    Every country in the world including here in australia has pro and anti government newspapers, what’s so different here. Every government shows favoritism to people and companies close to them….they are called a lobby. But when it happens in turkey it’s called nepotism. Turkey is going fantastically bother in terms of the economy, world affairs and increase in democracy. But of course this liberal independence has upset major powers both in the world and in turkey. Well it needs one man to have vision and change foe the better and I think, erdogan is doing this. You need a balance approach about all policies in al governments and when you look at the balance of achievements vs bad policy , the achievements definitely are well ahead.

    1. While I’m living in Turkey and not Australia, I believe the difference between the state of media in Australia (and rest of civilized world) & Turkey is simple: The government does not, and CAN NOT openly threaten media bosses in a civilized country – that’s against freedom of speech.

      What would happen if Australia PM called a major TV channel’s boss and grilled him over the phone for putting the opposition party’s leader on the screen for too long? What would happen if Australia PM asked one of the cabinet members to “call business leaders close the government, and ask them to pool money into a fund and buy out Sabah newspaper with that fund”? What would happen if Australian PM openly spoke in TV channels calling out to media bosses to “keep a hold of their columnists, and don’t ever tell him ‘a columnist can write his free wil’l; as a newspaper is a business, and a columnist is the store-front of that business”… The list goes on and on..

      Turkey’s economic achievement is sadly next to none, a non-sustainable growth fueled by consumption and construction, fueled by a massive current account deficit – countries that were our equal a few decades ago (eg. Poland) are manufacturing high-end products like 3D printers, exporting software…etc., the best we can do is hope our interventions in Libya, Syria..etc. pay off as contracts for our infrastructure & constructions companies.

      Even more sadly, the education system in Turkey has also been significantly shifted from upbringing liberal, positivist, free-thinking youth; to establishing a religious, conservative & obedient generation.

      This government has undone 50-60 years worth of achievements of our revolution in a single decade, strayed us away from the West & modernity, and has put us on the same path as Middle Eastern countries for generations to come.

      1. All of what you said earlier what would happen in australia if ……….. Has happened in australia in fact every prime minister gets the approval of Murdoch himself before they can be prime minister as they need the media to spin their crap. So what would happen already happens.

    2. As an Australian living in Turkey Ken, let me say that like many other Australians, as can be witnessed by the support for successive govts cruel policies on asylum seekers, you seem to have little understanding of life outside your own sunny shores. While it is naive to think that business does not affect govt and that media is not swayed by political influence, the scale and the sheer brazenness of the Turkish system is something far, far removed from that in Australia. Yes, Murdoch is powerful and influential, although I think you’ll find it’s the Queen (her rep anyway) who has to approve of the Prime Minister, but you also rarely face the prospect of jail in Australia if you write or print something the PM personally dislikes. Turkey as has been reported for several years has one of, if not the highest number of journalists in prison in the world.
      You are also dealing here with a culture much less accustomed to public insults and criticisms of personal character. This is something that is often relished in Australia and is commonplace in the media, politics and everyday life. The PM himself here is known to be particularly incapable of dealing with any forms of criticism and given his obvious influence over the media and the judiciary, as has also become apparent (something again far removed from the Australian system regardless of how cynical you would like to be), newspapers and television outlets are obviously kowtowed and diluted.
      As for the stunning economic progress that the world likes to assume has occurred here, Istanbul and many other cities are being transformed into concrete jungles. Mass urbanisation, where the gains are very rigidly contained by the very few at the top. Inequality exists to a level that it simply does not in Australia. Walk for 5 minutes from the centre of Taksim to Tarlabasi to see real squalor. It’s not like taking the bus to the western suburbs Ken. Until you understand this, stop comparing the system in Australia.

  3. The political affiliation about “milliyet, haberturk, vatan” are not rue. they are opposition. Also “cumhuriyet” is owned by Dogan Holding underhanded. At the same time pro-Gulen media is very strong in Turkey. I think it is not an accurate analysis.

  4. According to latest figures on newspaper sales, the share of pro-Gulen, opposition and swing newspapers totals 58 percent whereas pro-Erdogan newspapers sum up to 32.5 and sports newspapers 9.5 percent. Once sports newspapers omitted, the first group goes up to 64 percent whereas pro-Erdogan newspaper’s share drops to 36 percent. All newspapers included in sales list were taken into account ranging from Aydınlık, Yenicag,Yeni Mesaj to Karsı, Ortadogu, Sol and the rest.
    ps: Based on the latest figures

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