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The Sorry State of Turkish Media

We are still optimistic that what started as peaceful protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in Taksim Square and then turned into widespread protests against the Justice and Development Party’s increasingly authoritarian rule can strengthen Turkish democracy. But before this part protest part political movement can achieve this, it has to overcome a huge barrier: the Turkish media.

Much more than the government’s intransigence, it is the Turkish media’s silence and often complicity that stands in the way of the demands for a more representative and accountable government style turning into reality.

As Daron’s op-ed in the New York Times noted, at the height of the protests while CNN International was reporting live from Taksim Square, the local channel, CNN Turk, was airing programs on penguins and cooking shows. And CNN Turk wasn’t alone. All of Turkish media has been strangely, depressingly silent, or worse, misleading.

This is because most media outlets have been toeing the party line, particularly on topics to which they think the government will pay attention.

The media’s silence has consequences. For example, police brutality towards protesters has been much greater in Ankara and several other cities than in Istanbul (though of course as the international media has been reporting, the disproportionate use of force, indiscriminate use of tear gas and arrests of peaceful protesters have been commonplace in Istanbul too). We first thought this might be because left-wing extremist groups, which have tried (mostly unsuccessfully) to hijack the protests in Istanbul, may have been more active and provoking more violent clashes in Ankara and some other cities. But talking to a few people involved with or informed about the protests made it clear that the reason was likely quite different: some have hypothesized that foreign media was in Istanbul, so police brutality there would be reported, whereas vigilance outside Istanbul was up to Turkish media, and their vigilance was no vigilance. So the police could do what they wanted with impunity.

There are reasons why Turkish media is choosing silence or even lies rather than speaking truth to power. Most of the media is owned by companies beholden to the government for their lucrative contracts in other lines of business.

Moreover, the government is willing to use the legal system to go after its critics. As we noted a couple of months ago, Turkey now has more journalists in jail than even China. Just a few days ago, the outspoken journalist Ahmet Altan has been convicted of insulting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (his crime: he wrote a strongly worded , critical column).

But this sorry status quo is showing cracks, as we previously noted here.


First, it has become impossible for all of Turkish media to ignore the human side of the protests. So  some journalists have recently started covering the protests and even recounting stories from the viewpoint of the protesters.

Second, the foreign media’s attention has created an opening, perhaps even incentives, for some journalists to jump ship. Last weekend, for example, Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for one of the newspapers most loyal to the government, Sabah, wrote a fairly accurate critique of Turkish media’s complicity in the increasingly repressive atmosphere in Turkey and the role therein of the media bosses. (One disagreement with his otherwise excellent article: the comparison of the role of the media in Turkey to that in countries such as Argentina is misplaced; many journalists and leading newspapers in Argentina, for example, have courageously challenged the power of their president in a way that has so far had no parallel in Turkey).

Third, there are of course always some brave souls such as Ahmet Altan, Yavuz Baydar or the veteran journalist Hasan Cemal, recently forced from his position in another daily because of his bold columns, who are willing to follow their nose and express their opinions (even if they are sometimes wrong). We should pin our hopes as much to their courage and integrity as to the changing circumstances to perhaps one day save Turkish media from its sorry state.


What to do with Spain

The past year has seen a great deal of controversy about the causes of the economic problems in Southern Europe. These problems have become so large that they have threatened the continued existence of the Euro, maybe even the EU in its current form. What caused them?

There is broad agreement on some of the proximate causes, like fiscal deficits and speculative bubbles in housing markets. But what lies behind these things and why are they so much worse in Spain, for example, than Northern Europe?

Some are proposing cultural explanations for why the South is different than the North. Readers of Why Nations Fail will not be surprised that these are not our favorite. We do not believe that Spain is in trouble and Germany isn’t because the Spanish are Catholic or Mediterranean or “Spanish”.

Fortunately, a more plausible narrative has emerged in Spain and it centers on the role of extractive political elites.

This view was first articulated by César Molinas in his September 2012 article in the Spanish newspaper El País, called the “Theory of Spain’s Political Class,” which you can read here in English.

Molinas used the framework of Why Nations Fail to provide a penetrating analysis of Spain’s economic problems and how they have resulted from the political dynamics set in motion by the democratization in the 1970s.

He has now developed his ideas into a full-blown book which has just been published called Qué hacer con España “What do to with Spain”.

We hope it will be translated into English soon.


The Relay Economy  

Before tackling the legacy of the Kuba state, it’s good to get up to speed on the economy of the modern city of Kananga.

Nobody quite knows what the population is. It’s probably around 1 million people but to be sure is hard since the Democratic Republic of the Congo hasn’t had a census since 1961.

According to Wikipedia, Kananga is the largest city in the world that lacks both electricity and running water, both of which facts we can verify. Kasai Occidental also lacks roads. Once you drive a short distance outside the city limits, highway N1, the main road north to Mweka and Ilebo, merges with the bush. If you’re lucky the trip to Mweka, a mere 250 kms, takes 12 hours in a 4 wheel drive.

It’s hard to imagine that such an isolated place has much of an economy, and it doesn’t, though there is a brewery built by the Belgians. In fact most of the existing infrastructure and large buildings were constructed by the Belgians in the 1950s who, possibly inspired by the construction of Brazil’s capital Brasilia, hatched the brilliant notion that the capital of the country should be moved from Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) to Kananga (then Luluabourg) since this was right in the middle of the country.

Such a scheme might be regarded as a little bizarre in a country with such poor infrastructure. Indeed, after independence the Congolese scrapped the plan.

The economic result of the isolation and the many institutional impediments to having a modern economy lead to what a friend, Jim Mukenge, suggested calling the “Relay Economy”.

Production and consumption are low and most people instead engage in various types of arbitrage activity – they relay goods from one person to another.

In fact perhaps the main economic activity in Kananga involves trying to insert oneself in a chain of transactions between two parties. To change money you don’t go to the bank or an official moneylender. You go to a person on the street. The rate is a little worse, but convenience greater, you give him or her the dollars, they exchange these for Congolese francs at a slightly better rate than they give you. That person exchanges with another person who gives a slightly better rate etc. Eventually the money ends up in the bank and 4 or 5 people got enough to eat that day.

Even an apparently simple transaction like renting a vehicle to drive to Mushenge, the Kuba capital, turns into a long relay. Say, you want to rent a car. Someone owns the car. A simple deal should result but it doesn’t, because somehow 3 or 4 people manage to insert themselves into the transaction, relaying the deal from one to another, and thus make enough to eat that day.

At some level, the relay economy is “institutionalized”. Nobody does things themselves, you ask someone to do it for you, they ask someone else, who asks someone else and eventually the word gets to the person who has the thing you want. This delivers great convenience, like beer or food delivered to your front door, at just a little extra cost and it keeps people fed.


Why Nations Fail in Kananga

One of the key pillars of inclusive institutions is centralized state. In Why Nations Fail we illustrated the political drivers behind state formation and how this can lead to improved economic performance, at least what we called ‘extractive growth’ via the history of the Kuba Kingdom, in what is now Kasai Occidental Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The documentation and interpretation of the history of the Kuba state was one of the achievements of the great historian Jan Vansina who synthesized 50 years of research — his first work on the Kuba was published in 1954 — together in his two seminal books The Children of Woot and Being Colonized. 

Vansina didn’t just put together the definitive account of the emergence and consolidation of the Kuba state by weaving together the oral history of the Kingdom with travellers accounts, archaeology, linguistics and anything else he could find, he also provided a theoretical interpretation of what happened.

As we discussed in Why Nations Fail both he and Mary Douglas, who worked in Kasai in the 1950s and 1960s, pointed out how the process of political centralization had created a large increase in public good provision in the Kuba area and a doubling of agricultural output. 

A natural question, which we did not comment on the book, is whether or not the type of political and economic distinctions that existed between the Kuba and Lele in 1960 still persists today. More generally, what is the legacy of the Kuba state?

Much evidence suggests that particular historical institutions, such as the mita, the system of colonial forced labor in Spanish Peru and Bolivia, do leave long shadows on economic and political developments. Melissa Dell, for example, showed in her research that almost 200 years after the mita was abolished households in the former catchment area have consumption levels that are one third lower than households outside the former catchment area.

Could a similar legacy have been generated by the Kuba state? 

This summer Jim, in collaboration with Sara Lowes, Nathan Nunn and Jon Weigel, moved to Kananga, the capital of Kasai Occidental, to start collecting data to find out.

We will report on their findings in the next few posts.


Fading Stars and Dictators

And now something a little more lighthearted.

It seems that fading stars are attracted to kleptocratic dictators like flies to (you can complete the rest).

We already wrote about Sting hanging out with and Julio Iglesias duetting with Gulnera, Islam Karimov’s daughter, potential successor and partner in crime in the loot of Uzbekistan and exploitation of its children.

Gerard Depardieu also joined the bandwagon. He not only became buddies with Vladimir Putin but also with Gulnera.

Then we had Dennis Rodman (but was he ever a star?) becoming BFF with Kim Jong-un and defending the North Korean regime. (Yes it’s true; for those of you who have missed it, we are not making this up. Check it out here.)

Now it’s Jennifer Lopez’s turn. She has just headlined the 56th-birthday celebration of the President of the Republic of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, a rival in ruthless repression and kleptocracy to Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov.

Advice to fading stars: don’t do it!