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Turkish activists slam Google for funding pro-government media group

Google News Initiative to help fund Erdogan-aligned Demiroren Group journalism project with as much as $150,000
Turkish national flag flies near logos of Kanal D television station and CNN Turk at Dogan media group complex in Istanbul (AFP)

Turkish media activists criticised Google after it announced it was awarding one of the country's largest pro-government media conglomerates with funding for a journalism project.

The Demiroren Group was announced as the only Turkish applicant selected by Google's journalism innovation fund earlier this week, after the Google News Initiative (GNI) updated its website.

Demiroren is the owner of the most widely watched and read media outlets in the country, including the Hurriyet newspaper, CNN Turk, Milliyet and Kanal D.

Although the specific amount of funding wasn't made public, the GNI said the project with Demiroren would aim to increase ad revenue and "detect the entities a reader is interested in, and recommend news regarding the same person, company or place they are reading about, in real-time".

'At the peak of the digital age, it sounds like GNI has chosen poorly when it comes to legitimising a conventional media conglomerate that has contributed to the process of curbing media freedom in Turkey,'

- Gurkan Ozturan, Dokuz8Haber

The GNI, which was first launched in 2018, is funding projects that inject new ideas into the news industry with 70 percent funding for projects costing as much as $150,000.

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According to its website, project proposals should be aimed at "increasing revenue from readers, including subscriptions, membership programs, contributions and/or new digital products and services."

Still, Demiroren has repeatedly been criticised over its links to the government, with an alleged phone conversation leaked in 2014 showing the influence Ankara wields over the massive media conglomerate.

In the recording, then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be heard scolding the conglomerate's then chairman, Erdogan Demiroren, over a news story and asking for those responsible to be fired.

During the conversation, Demiroren could also be heard crying.

'I can't believe my eyes'

Google's announcement drew scorn on social media, with activists denouncing the move as being "chosen poorly" and legitimising state-aligned media.

"Google could have asked any given journalists in Turkey and realised that they shouldn't be funded. I can't believe my eyes," tweeted Baybars Orsek, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute.

"$150,000 is peanuts to Demiroren Group... but the legitimacy it's providing to them is priceless."

Gurkan Ozturan, the executive manager of the citizen journalism news agency Dokuz8Haber, told Middle East Eye that he was disappointed that Google had not chosen to support independent media outlets who were in more serious need of the funding.

"Turkey is a country with many troubles when it comes to media freedom, but it also comes with many creative people and organisations that come up with new and innovative ways to create methods and platforms that reach new audiences and engage the 'bored audiences' that conventional platforms have been exhausting over the last two decades," he said.

"At the peak of the digital age, it sounds like GNI has chosen poorly when it comes to legitimising a conventional media conglomerate that has contributed to the process of curbing media freedom in Turkey, while there are so many new aspiring newsrooms and media platforms that could have done wonders."

Ahmet Alphan Sabanci, co-founder of the media training organisation News Lab Turkey, also criticised the announcement.

"So Google helps journalism in Turkey by funding the biggest conglomerate in Turkey which does nothing but destroys journalism here," he wrote on Twitter.

"Wish I could say I'm surprised." 

'Death of pluralism'

Turkey has regularly been described as the world's worst jailer of journalists by media freedom organisations, which have also criticised the high concentration of media outlets in pro-government hands.

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The purchase of the Dogan Media Group - which owned Hurriyet and CNN Turk - by the Demiroren Group in March 2018 was described as the "death of pluralism and independent journalism in Turkey’s mainstream media" by Reporters Without Borders.

"After the sale of the Dogan group’s outlets, nine of the 10 most-watched TV channels and nine of the 10 most-read national dailies will be owned by pro-government businessmen," the organisation said at the time.

Demiroren has also been criticised for sacking 45 journalists working for Hurriyet in October without compensation.

Google was contacted for comment, but MEE had not received a reply by the time of publication. 

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