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Turkey's press faces further hardship as lira crisis sees paper costs soar

Paper has become unaffordable for many printed media outlets as the lira sinks, adding to challenges journalists face as freedoms dwindle
Turkish newspapers and magazines try to find solutions to survive the paper crisis (MEE)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - When the Turkish lira went on a downward spiral, tumbling 35 percent from the beginning of 2018, the tremor was felt across industries dependent on imported products.

In an expression of defiance to the US, whose row with Ankara has sparked the drop in lira, some Turks burned their stacks of dollars or damaged their US-manufactured iPhones. Some dubbed the American currency "worthless paper trash".

But this "paper trash" has triggered a real paper crisis in Turkey. As the dollar has risen, so too has the price of paper, directly affecting Turkey's printed press.

Journalism in Turkey is already facing a shrinking horizon of freedoms. The country is ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists amongst the world's top three jailers of journalists. Dozens of journalists have been laid off in recent years because of the clampdown, and today many fear for their future as a paper crisis threatens the fate of their publications.

Within the first six months in 2018, prices of pulp, the raw material in paper production, surged from $600 to $940 a ton. As paper prices climbed, so did the number of visitors to a museum that was once the country's only nation-wide paper production factory. 

According to Turkey's Industrial Board of Paper and Paper Products, paper consumption in Turkey amounts to nearly 6 million tons per year. 

In 2017, newspapers used up 274,000 tons of printing paper, the foundation said. Nearly all the paper used for newspapers and magazines comes from abroad, mostly the US, EU and Latin America.

Although mainstream media companies have so far managed to absorb the surge through more advertisements - as many are owned by businessmen willing to cushion the blow - some have had to cut their number of pages. Hurriyet, one of the country's leading newspapers, has occassionally reduced its number of pages to 16 from 20, while other local city newspapers have adopted a more permenant cut.

Dozens of local newspapers in some big cities have decided not to print on Sundays. Smaller-scale print outlets with limited circulation have suffered the most. Some, like Aydinlik, couldn't go the printers for a couple of days until they saved money to buy paper again.

"This problem would lead to the death of print media in Turkey. When the newspapers have financial problems, it limits the freedom of press," Ilker Yucel, the chief editor of Aydinlik, told Middle East Eye.

"Newspapers are struggling to survive, some magazines got closed. Some newspapers, even the big ones, have decreased the number of pages and raised their prices. The government should intervene."

This problem would lead to the death of print media in Turkey. When the newspapers have financial problems, it limits the freedom of press.

Ilker Yucel, chief editor of Aydinlık

Rather than discussing news, Yucel said he spends most of his time bargaining with dealers who import paper to Turkey, something most chief editors increasingly do, as the paper trade in Turkey is monopolized by a handful of traders.

"All newspapers, except the ones close to the government and being paid enough by ads, are having problems with paper prices. This is not fair. The small local newspapers are about to go bankrupt," Yucel said.

Even journalists in big media groups have their concerns. They fear a cut in staff headcount will be next if the crisis persists. 

In a meeting on Tuesday, 20 chief editors, including some with high circulations, discussed ways to deal with the paper crisis. Their potential solutions were referred to the presidency.

Ilker Yucel said they presented three options.

"The Press and Advertisement Agency, which is responsible for supporting the newspapers financially, should increase the price tag on ads it gives to the newspapers," said Yucel, who added that banks should give loans to media organisations. The third solution, he said, would be the removal of taxes on imported paper.

The president of the Turkish Pulp and Paper Foundation, Erdal Sukan, has a different idea. He told MEE that Turkey should work on a long-term solution: its own paper industry, to which there are a number of obstacles.

Turkey would need to first produce its own pulp domestically, Sukan said.

"The main challenge is that market pulp is not produced in Turkey at all. All 23 million hectares of forests in Turkey are state-owned. Unfortunately, industrial plantation forests for the paper industry do not exist at the present time," he said.

Pulp obtained from recycled paper, he said, can be used in available paper mills, but there are only around 30 paper machines in Turkey that can produce paper out of recycled materials. "Only one of them produces its own pulp, and its production is limited to 100,000 tons a year," he said. 

Comic magazines, which mostly poke fun at politicians, are also struggling. Their problems, however, go beyond the paper price tag.

"We only survive through sales since advertisements do not go well with our humour. Also, our employees are highly talented intellects so we can't pay them little," said Zafer Aknar, chief editor of Leman, a weekly comic that has been published since 1991. "The circulation is already not enough, which is understandable given the circumstances. After all, people are struggling with many problems, such as feeding their children. Reading comics cannot be their priority." 

As Leman was published in a smaller size, other comics increased their prices to survive.(Lemanhaber)
Three weeks ago, Leman moved to publishing pocket-sized copies "to attract attention" to their struggle, Aknar said, noting that the lira crisis also meant an increase in oil prices, which has driven up distribution costs. He called on the government to stabilize the currency and control the monopoly on paper deals.

Over nearly three decades, Aknar said, the radical comic weekly had weathered many crises in Turkey. However, it's the "unpredictability" of this latest setback which adds to the challenge.

"I have been in this business for more than 20 years, and we have experienced other crises, in 1994 and 2001. Then, exchange rates went dramatically up, and that was it. We managed to foresee the rest at the time. Now, the issue seems like it could drag on, and we are unable to predict what the value of the dollar will be next year. We pay 35 percent of the income to the distributor, what if the oil price goes even higher and they ask for more?"

If the government's solutions prove to be insufficient, Aknar said they may have to cut their publication frequency. Past editions of Leman have been censored, and the publication has not been afraid to satirize Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

"It's a weekly comic now, and we might publish monthly, but we don't know how to keep up with developments in a country like Turkey," he said, adding that the matter is still in discussion.

"Also, if we publish less, we will sell less," he said, hinting that all available options will be undesirable.

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