Turkish government’s biased media pool helps opposition

When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, his greatest aim was to bring Turkey’s media under his own control.

Seventeen years later it is impossible to dispute that he has almost fully attained that goal. Over that period he has employed state, political and economic power to turf out media independent bosses and, with the help of considerable public funding, consolidate those who toe his party’s line.

It is barely even worth mentioning the state broadcaster, TRT, which routinely and openly breaks its institutional rules with coverage that is glaringly biased towards the ruling party. Yet neither the Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) nor the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) have done the slightest thing to discourage this.

Instead, the councils, which are dominated by AKP members and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party allies, have handed out fines, broadcast bans and other sanctions on opposition media outlets.

The old guard of media barons has been gradually forced out of the sector throughout the AKP period. The last major independent media group to go was Aydın Doğan’s Doğan Media Group, sold last March to the pro-government Demirören Group.

Demirören, like the other government friendly businesses and magnates that have taken over the sector, financed the purchase through billions of dollars of credit from public banks, and reaped further rewards through lucrative public tenders.

One can imagine the satisfaction this has brought Erdoğan, who became the subject of headlines triumphantly declaring that he would never hold a public position again when he was jailed for reciting a poem deemed as “incitement to religious or racial hatred” in 1999.

Now the president is the one giving orders to almost every media outlet in the country.

Erdoğan openly acknowledged this on Wednesday, when he commanded Turkish television stations to broadcast footage of dams in the southern province of Hatay as a repost to an opposition leader who had questioned the AKP’s record.

Yet as the media continue to jettison their reputation on the way to rock bottom, it may have become the source of the greatest damage to the government that controls it.

As newspapers have come to lead with almost identical headlines day after day, their circulation has more than halved since 2002, now barely reaching 3 million despite the 15 million rise in population. Television ratings have taken a similar hit, and even the most ambitious serials find themselves cancelled after a handful of episodes.

Hürriyet, the venerable newspaper acquired from Doğan Media Group that once boasted a daily circulation of 1 million, has seen that drop to 60,000 and is now distributed free of charge in many places.

When Teoman Kadıoğlu wrote last month about Hürriyet’s fall in Demirören’s other daily, Posta, he was promptly fired from the newspaper where he had worked for 15 years.

Faruk Bildirici, a veteran journalist who had acted as the ombudsman for Hürriyet, was also shown the door this month after criticising the one-sided reporting that has become the norm at the newspaper.

One particularly abject example of that biased reporting came earlier in March, when Hürriyet distorted comments from pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Sezai Temelli, reporting that he had said his party would control Istanbul and Ankara if the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)’s mayoral candidates won in the March 31 local elections.

In fact, the HDP leader said CHP candidates would have to take into account the wishes of Kurdish voters if they won in Turkey’s two largest cities, since the HDP is lending them its informal support.

But the AKP has been doing its best to stoke voter fears over the HDP and its links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has pursued Kurdish self-rule through armed struggle for decades. Hürriyet and Demirören’s other outlets played along by inventing Temelli’s “threat”. The clear distortion provoked widespread condemnation, as has the refusal of pro-government television channels to give uncensored airtime to opposition candidates.

When CHP Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu appeared on the pro-government channel Ülke TV, his interview was frequently cut off by advertisement breaks, and while he was on the air his interviewer barely allowed him to speak.

Criticism came from the unlikeliest of places. Even Ömer Turan, a fiercely pro-government media figure who usually gives no quarter to the opposition, gave the CHP candidate his due.

“If I watch any more of this, I could start to think of voting for İmamoğlu,” Turan tweeted during the broadcast. “It’s a shame. The most valuable ace up Erdoğan’s sleeve is the opposition, the opposition’s is the AKP and the local media.”

Despite all the support for AKP candidates from a uniform and one-sided media, and despite the media embargo and smears faced by opposition candidates, the credibility of pro-government outlets has evidently been eroded to the extent that they are no longer able to effectively shape public opinion.

According to research by top Turkish pollster KONDA, the proportion of Turks aged 15-29 who read daily newspapers fell from 72 percent in 2008 to 22 percent last year. Over the same period, smartphone user numbers rose from 90 percent to 100 percent and computer users from 42 percent to 70 percent. The majority of Turks are following news from the internet and social media using smartphones, and consequently pro-government media outlets’ attempts to blot opposition candidates out are increasingly ineffective.

As readers grow tired of the same journalists rattling off the same views on traditional newspaper and television outlets, circulations and ratings plummet and the government’s propaganda channels weaken.

One of the most visible signs of Turks’ search for alternative voices is the growing popularity of Fox TV, one of the few remaining channels to adopt, as much as is possible, an unbiased and critical stance. The station’s morning and evening news programmes have left pro-government channels, and even highly rated TV serials, in the dust.

This is why Fox TV presenter Fatih Portakal, who still dares to criticise Erdoğan, has become a frequent target of the president’s wrath. As long as the pro-government press pool continues to exclude all critical voices and speak in one voice, even with its combined strength it will not hold a candle to the persuasiveness of one journalist like Portakal. That is why the greatest damage it inflicts is on the government it serves.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.