Except for a few small pro-opposition networks, YouTube channels and budding online journals, the bulk of mainstream Turkish media today is “sanitized.” Criticism is rare; dissent is discouraged; the Kurdish issue is a no-go area. Whenever the president speaks, most news outlets broadcast his remarks live. Anti-terrorism laws and hefty fines by the Radio and Television Supreme Council hang over the media like a sword of Damocles. For mainstream channels, there is said to be a list of analysts, journalists and opposition figures approved to be invited as studio guests.
But Fox TV in Turkey has long been a thorn in Erdogan’s side. It has by far the highest news viewership among television networks — largely because it is not regarded a government mouthpiece. Gingerly and carefully, Fox covers untouchable subjects such as Turkey’s price hikes, economic woes, rule-of-law deficit, and the government’s efforts to strong-arm opposition parties and municipalities. The network doesn’t necessarily have an oppositional tone, but in today’s Turkey, even “fair and balanced” is an act of bravery.
None of this comes without a price, of course. In the United States, when Fox News whitewashes the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill, it only has to answer to its viewers and advertisers. In Turkey, complaining about high energy costs earned former evening news anchor Fatih Portakal an investigation and a public threat from Erdogan. The channel is regularly slapped with penalties by a government watchdog for its coverage, and prime-time news was sentenced to suspension from the air three times last year for criticizing the government’s use of religion in politics and its banning of aid campaigns by municipalities run by the opposition parties. (Fox appealed this and has not faced a blackout.)
Fox has long been taken off the presidential pool. In 2020, Erdogan lashed out at a Fox reporter at a news conference for asking about the privatization of a state tank factory, saying, “We thought the network’s attitude would change after Murdoch sold it. But nothing has changed. Fox has to change its editorial line.”
Partial foreign ownership probably makes it easier for the network to resist government pressure. A subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. acquired over 50 percent ownership of the network in 2006, but the shares were later transferred to Disney when Murdoch sold 21st Century Fox. CNN Turk, on the other hand, is owned by a Turkish businessman with close ties to Erdogan; it has a licensing agreement with CNN.
“Our real strength comes from the fact that we are only in the news business,” Dogan Senturk, the editor in chief of Fox News in Turkey, told me. “Our stars are ordinary people, and we are a profitable company.” This isn’t the case in the rest of media. Most media owners chase government contracts or have businesses in construction, tourism or finance, making them vulnerable to pressure from the top — not just now, but also in pre-Erdogan Turkey.
Full disclosure: I was recently a guest on Fox’s morning show to talk about the state of Turkish-U.S. relations (bad) and Erdogan’s recent meeting with President Biden (good). Ismail Kucukkaya calls his show a “democracy arena” and has recently hosted the likes of opposition leader Ali Babacan; Ayse Bugra, the wife of Osman Kavala, an imprisoned civil society leader; and Basak Demirtas, the wife of imprisoned Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas.
It struck me afterward how wide the program’s reach was. After I left Fox, I received a call from our plumber, saying he watched me on “Ismail.” Then came calls from a bureaucrat, a businessman, my mother’s friends and so on. All week, I bumped into people saying they saw me on Fox.
My American friends will probably be surprised to hear this, but Fox News gives me hope for democracy — in Turkey, that is. Yes, Turkey is going through a dark period of illiberalism; its democracy erodes on an almost daily basis and many in the West have written it off. Biden will not invite Erdogan to his summit for democracy in December, and one can hardly blame him. But if you look closely, there are little rays of democratic light everywhere in Turkey. It is perhaps strange that one of the brightest is Fox in Turkey, but it is welcome nonetheless.