Erdoğan has used his control of the media to rig Turkiye’s elections
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) denounces the Turkish media’s biased coverage of the parliamentary and first-round presidential elections held on 14 May and the presidential run-off between incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition challenger Kemal Kiliçdaroglu that is to be held on 28 May.
Turkiye’s ruler for the past 20 years, Erdoğan has done everything within his power to win these elections, including denying his fellow citizens the right to reliable, pluralistic news reporting.
Over the years, all-out harassment and jailing of independent journalists on a massive scale, increased control over the state media, the purchase of Turkiye’s biggest privately-owned media group by a pro-government billionaire and a system of subsidies for media outlets that support the president have given him control over 85% of the national media.
This has had a many consequences, including a grossly unfair allocation of airtime as well as overall editorial control, During the month from 1 April to 1 May, Erdoğan had exactly 60 times more coverage on the public TV channel TRT Haber (TRT News) than his main challenger. Erdoğan received 32 hours of airtime while Kiliçdaroglu received 32 minutes, according to sources within the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK). In other words, a public TV channel not only acted as a state TV channel but also sided with one candidate against another.
On 12 May, two days before the parliamentary and first-round presidential elections, Erdoğan exploited his subservient broadcast media to the hilt. For nearly an hour and a half, during a joint broadcast by 14 TV channels (including A Haber, 24 TV, TV100 and Akit TV), he subjected Kiliçdaroglu to a long series of verbal attacks without a possibility of response being accorded to his rival.
Providing Erdoğan with this media platform was all the more shocking and contrary to journalistic ethics because at no time was he seriously questioned about political corruption, the economic crisis, the government’s controversial handling of the recent earthquake or any of the other issues that currently preoccupy Turkiye’s citizens.
"In Turkiye, a system has been created for carrying out extremely serious violations of press freedom and pluralism. You can discuss the pros and cons of the two candidates and their programmes or the country’s political sociology. But the truth is these elections have been massively rigged by a media system that deprives Turkish citizens of the means to reach democratic decisions. This flagrant iniquity obviously undermines the trustworthiness of the vote.”
RSF’s Turkey representative
The unfair nature of Erdoğan’s hyper-presidential system of government has also been reinforced during the past ten years by the many kinds of attacks and subterfuges that the authorities have used to weaken the opposition media and kill off pluralistic news coverage.
The justice system, which does Erdoğan’s bidding, has constantly harassed and imprisoned journalists. Since June 2022, at least 32 pro-Kurdish journalists and media workers have been arrested for alleged membership of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Only nine have since been released – on 16 May.
Every quarter for the past 20 years, an average of around 200 journalists have been brought before the courts under Turkiye’s anti-terrorism legislation or penal code in connection with their work. The “lèse majesté” provisions that still exist in the Turkish penal code have been used to prosecute around 200 other journalists on charges of “insulting” President Erdoğan since 2014. Seventy-four of them were given prison sentences or fines.
According to the website Bianet, RSF’s partner in Turkiye, the courts censored at least 550 pieces of online journalistic content in 2022 – articles, editorials and investigative reports that in most cases were about corruption, political clientelism or questionable practices within circles allied with the government.
The pressure from the courts is compounded by pressure from the Press Advertisement Agency (BIK), which modified the press ethics code conditioning access to state advertising so as to be able to penalise newspapers critical of the government. RTÜK, the broadcast media regulator, helps to undermine outspoken TV channels by fining them colossal sums. Three quarters of RTÜK’s fines in 2022 were imposed on the seven leading critical TV channels (Halk TV, Fox TV, Tele1, KRT, Habertürk TV, Flash TV and TGRT Haber).
Turkiye fell 16 places in RSF's latest World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 165th out of 180 countries.