Most of Turkey’s media have taken exactly the same line in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for this Sunday (24 June). The government’s tight grip on the media has resulted in an election campaign that has been totally biased in its favour, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said.
Although economic and social turbulence forced Erdoğan to call these elections nearly 18 months early, the turmoil has been almost totally ignored by the main national TV channels, which for the most part are actively campaigning for the president and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to be reelected.
“The death of pluralism and the massive crackdown on Turkey’s journalists has resulted in an election campaign with a single voice, one very far from the democratic debate that Turkey needs,” said Erol Önderoğlu, RSF’s representative in Turkey. “Press freedom is a requirement of democracy. It must be restored immediately.”
Unlimited propaganda for Erdoğan
Ever since Erdoğan called the elections in mid-April, the leading print media and the state TV channels have been pumping out endless propaganda in his favour. This is the result of the unprecedented control that the government now wields over the media. The sale of Turkey’s biggest media group, Doğan Media Company, to a pro-government conglomerate, Demirören Holding, in March completed the death of media pluralism in Turkey.
According to the Media Ownership Monitor, a project run jointly by RSF and the Turkish news website Bianet, nine of the ten most-watched TV channels and nine of the ten most-read national dailies are now owned by pro-government businessmen. Nearly 150 media outlets have meanwhile been closed summarily under the state of emergency in effect since July 2016.
Erdoğan’s already bellicose discourse and his AKP’s alliance with the ultra-nationalist MHP party has resulted in a campaign with patriotism as one of the main ingredients, and in opposition candidates being branded as traitors or terrorism’s accomplices.
In recent weeks, the daily Sabah has published frequent front-page interviews with families of Turkish soldiers killed or wounded in Kurdish areas of northern Syria that all support President Erdoğan. When Erdoğan called the election in April, Sabah’s front-page headline proclaimed: “To the polls for the motherland! We will vote for the presidential coalition.”
AKP everywhere on TV, crumbs for the opposition
Rolling out the TV propaganda is all the easier now that no one any longer ensures that the broadcast media adhere to their obligations to be balanced and impartial. The government stripped the High Council for Broadcasting (RTÜK) and the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) of their powers to impose sanctions in 2017. And it has only been in the last week of the campaign that the public broadcast media have had to broadcast the campaign spots of all the different candidates.
As a result, in May, the public broadcaster TRT’s news channels dedicated 68 hours to the AKP and less than seven to the CHP, the main opposition party. The other opposition parties got no more than crumbs: 12 minutes for İYI, eight minutes for Saadet, 23 minutes for Hüda-Par and two minutes for Vatan. The left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP, whose leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, is in prison, was completely ignored although it won more than 13% of the vote and 80 seats in parliament in the June 2015 parliamentary elections.
Twelve state and privately-owned TV channels, including CNN Türk, Akit TV, A Haber and Ülke TV, stayed riveted for hours to AKP’s presentation of its election programme on 24 May. No other party has enjoyed the same favours. It wasn’t until 11 June that three leading TV channels provided live coverage of their first opposition rally.
Journalism under state of emergency
A referendum was held last year, but this is the first time Turkey has held elections under the draconian provisions of the state of emergency declared after the abortive coup attempt of July 2016 and extended for the seventh time in April, which have enabled the authorities to sweep away most fundamental freedoms and impose a climate of fear.
According to the figures compiled for Bianet by RSF’s Turkey representative, 520 journalists were under threat of imprisonment in connection with their work at the end of 2017. Turkey is now the world’s biggest jailer of media professionals, with more than 100 journalists currently detained. Dozens of them have been held for more than a year before being tried.
In February, three leading journalists, Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan and Nazlı Ilıcak, became the first to be convicted of complicity in the coup attempt. Despite a glaring absence of evidence, they were all sentenced to life imprisonment.
President Erdoğan is far from being just one other candidate. Under article 299 of the criminal code, “insulting the President of the Republic” is punishable by imprisonment. No fewer than 43 journalists and media workers have been convicted on this charge since Erdoğan’s elevation from the position of prime minister to president in August 2014.
RSF testifies to international observers
Önderoğlu, RSF’s Turkey representative, expressed his deep concern to election observers from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on 29 May, and again to observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) today.
Turkey is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.