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Journalists are being intimidated and imprisoned, while government-friendly moguls are given lucrative contracts. The free media is on the verge of extinction….

Among journalists, the truth universally acknowledged is that bad news commands more column inches than good. In Turkey, the even more depressing truism is that much of the bad news has to do with the news industry itself.

Those of us trying to preserve our integrity as journalists fight a constant rearguard action – against proprietors who set little store by integrity, and against a government that tries to accrue power by restricting freedom of expression and ringfencing public debate.

Recent headlines have been devoted to the arrest of the journalist Mehmet Baransu. He was detained for a story he wrote in 2010, based on (literally) a suitcase of military documents, handed over to him by a whistleblowing officer, which implicated senior commanders in an attempted coup d’état, codenamed Sledgehammer.

The subsequent court proceedings – both in their scale and the liberal use of pre-trial detention – proved bitterly controversial. There is little doubt that the government interfered and was more interested in taming its own military than producing justice. The defence was able to cast doubt on the authenticity of some (but by no means all) of the evidence. So there is reason to believe that some of the convictions – suspended pending a retrial – were unsound.

Yet this is not why Baransu has been thrown in prison. He is accused not of misleading the courts but of handling state secrets, despite the fact that he had handed the leaked documents over to state prosecutors. Having got the military under its thumb, the government now requires its cooperation and has turned on the journalist who once made the government’s case.

Worse still, much of the government media is egging the prosecutors on. ImagineGlenn Greenwald being arrested and then the rest of the press urging the authorities to throw away the key. The current state of journalism is only a reflection of how polarised Turkish society has become under the divisive rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Self-censorship is the rule. Many Turkish newsrooms resemble an open prison rather than a creative hive and fear has gripped those of the so-called mainstream media institutions. It is not the fear of ending up in courtrooms or in jail: it is fear of being fired. There is utter professional vulnerability. According to Turkey’s journalist union, only 1.5% of our journalists belong to a union.

The columnist Kadri Gürsel wrote recently that the real aim is to finish off journalism as a whole, and this is a view shared by many. We are witnessing the dismantling of a profession whose independence should be guaranteed by the constitution. The very DNA of Turkey’s fourth estate is being severely tampered with. The aim of the government is to subordinate the media, as a whole if possible, to the political executive.

As I argue in The Newsroom as an Open Air Prison: Corruption and Self-Censorship in Turkish Journalism, a discussion paper that I prepared as Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School last autumn, this is the tragic story of the demise of a profession in one of the most important parts of the world.

This destructive pattern was accelerated by the two police operations in the last days of December 2013, massive investigations into the affairs of four ministers of the majority Justice and Development party (AKP) government. Those touched by the corruption scandals included a number of businessmen with close connections to the government, bureaucrats and bank managers, but also Bilal Erdoğan, son of the prime minister.

Of even greater concern is that the investigations appeared to suggest that senior government figures were engaged in sanctions-busting against Iran, and that these senior figures had links to financiers who laundered funds for al-Qaida.

The files compiled by law enforcement and prosecutors were a burning fuse: they claimed to expose a vast network of organised crime, with evidence of bribery, abuse of power and widespread corruption at the very highest echelons of power.Corruption of the nation’s media was at the heart of these allegations. A critical part of the investigation – backed by legal wiretappings – concerned consortiums to co-finance media entirely in favour of the AKP government. This joint effort, in which businessmen benefiting from government contracts paid into a common slush fund, gave rise to the term “pool media”.

A landmark in this targeting of media independence was reached with the blackout implemented by the media itself on the story of 34 Kurdish villagers killed by Turkish fighter jets in the Iraqi border village of Uludere/Roboski in late 2011. That silence became a dress rehearsal for the media surrendering its role as the watchdog of the public interest.

Yet if alarm for the independence of the Turkish press was already high, those concerns were raised still further soon after the outbreak of the summerdemonstrations in 2013 to protect Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Protests spread to 78 of the 81 provinces in Turkey. The degree of self-censorship became so intense that the mainstream Turkish media itself became the subject of demonstration and open ridicule. Even so, Erdoğan declared that critical media – domestic and international – were part of a conspiracy to topple him and his government from power. Thereafter the demonisation of independent journalism gathered pace. Journalists who tried to defend their independence and dignity found themselves fired or dispatched to professional limbo.

The developing story of high-level corruption (reaching the very heights of the political establishment – a dream for any decent journalist anywhere in the world) was declared by the news management to be an area surrounded by “barbed wire.” Thus, 2014 began with a self-censorship more institutionalised and internalised than ever before. Blocked by political and institutional pressure, the core of Turkey’s dedicated and defiant journalists migrated their craft online. Social media and independent news sites began to fill a vacuum. The government’s reaction was to try to shut down YouTube and Twitter, but this proved technically difficult and legally unsuccessful.

Still Erdoğan is undeterred; the internet remains a target and vulnerable to government interference. Between 2013 and the end of 2014, the government imposed more than 20 news blackouts on important stories, on various grounds including national security. This was a normalisation of censorship.

Intimidation is normal, too. According to the latest report on 2014 by Independent Communication Network (BiA) there are currently 22 journalists in jail. More than 61 have been found guilty of defamation against Erdoğan in the past three years. On 14 December 2014 two of the remaining critical media outlets – Zaman and STV – were raided, their top managers arrested. Hidayet Karaca, the general manager of Samanyolu Media Group, has been detained for more than 80 days. His charges arise from a TV script.

This continuing process cannot be described as anything other than a purge. The Turkish media industry is systematically losing its qualified workforce, its remaining ethics are vanishing.

With the business groups on board, Erdoğan has simply raised the stakes to enforce dependence: in return for lucrative public contracts, all the media moguls in Turkey have to put their outlets in the service of power. It is a system based on corruption that also requires full complicity. If Erdoğan or his aides do not call the top managers and editors of the media to publish propaganda or censor undesirable content, the owners themselves do it.

The notion of journalism as a check on the irresponsible, corrupt or unfettered exercise of power is evaporating. Investigative reporting, more crucial than ever, is on the verge of extinction. Our democracy now depends on whether the Turkish media can escape the quagmire into which one man’s ambition has driven it.