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How Do Illiberal Practices Spread in Political Institutions? The Case of Turkish Media

Democracy
Media
National Identity
Political Sociology
Identity
Power
Empirical
Defne Över
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Defne Över
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Abstract

The return of repressive regimes in the 21st century once again brings into question the transition from democracy to authoritarianism. Building on the assumption that a regime is called authoritarian only after illiberal practices take over its individual institutions, this article shifts the focus of research from regime type to diffusion of illiberal practices in political institutions. Turkey is a forerunner among its contemporaries in terms of transition from democracy to authoritarianism, and in this transition process the media was the first institution to surrender its autonomy to political authority. This article explores the case of media transformation in Turkey in the last 16 years. Based on qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews, newspaper articles, and memoires, it offers a practice-focused theory of democratic decay in political institutions. A political break, namely, AKP’s rise to power, and the ensuing political trials and property transfers wrapped in a discourse of punishment and purge of the nation’s enemies set off a destabilization in long established power hierarchies among secularists, Islamists, Kurds and leftists in Turkey. Journalists’ professional response to this disturbance in power positions varied with their experiences of status shift in the face of destabilization. When combined, the varying responses (self-censorship, propaganda, production of fake news) lead to convergence to a dominant singular political narrative in the media, in other words, to a shift in the media’s function from democratic oversight to propaganda. This article offers destabilization as a general concept that explains institutional change through its implications on social action. In addition, through the analysis of a political institution that is primarily regulated by privately owned professional organizations, it highlights how public-private relationships dragged in identify-conflicts induce spread of illiberal professional practices.