Turkish media eases pressure off campaign as June 23 rerun approaches

On Friday the pro-government daily Sabah had good news – Turkey would enjoy “much freedom, and few arrests” going forward, after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a new round of legal reforms on Thursday.

And, Turkish citizens will enjoy even stronger rights to a fair hearing and free expression, the newspaper said.

Nobody who has been on the wrong end of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s still ongoing purges, witch hunts and legal repression takes the “good news” seriously.

But at least – if the AKP does aim to tone down the no-holds-barred pursuit of critics that has defined its post-coup rule – it could spell a reprieve for Oğuz Haksever, a presenter for the pro-government news channel NTV, who made what must have been a horrifying error during a news report on Monday.

Hundreds of journalists have faced the axe over the years at government-friendly outlets for taking a critical stance to the AKP, and this week journalist Sedef Kabaş, one of more than 12,000 people prosecuted for insulting Erdoğan, was hit with an 11-month prison sentence. But while these have tended to be targeted for their critical stances to the government, for particular utterances or news reports or for their alleged involvement in outlawed groups, Haksever put himself in the firing line purely by accident.

Microphone gaffes can reveal a truly ugly side of TV presenters, but often there’s something quite gratifying about the professional mask slipping away to reveal what these personalities really think.

Haksever, as left-wing daily BirGün columnist Doğan Tılıç pointed out this week, has made a living hosting government representatives on a talk with mild questions designed to present an illusion of objectivity, so when his mic was left on after he introduced a segment on a newly developed island, it gave viewers a rare glimpse at the veteran presenter’s unguarded opinion.

Haksever expressed his disgust at the state Yassıada in the Marmara Sea has been brought to after the AKP greenlighted a round of development that has stripped the island of vegetation and covered it in concrete buildings.

His words seemed to be clearly aimed at Erdoğan, who was visiting the island on Monday. But in the apology Haksever was forced to make after his slip-up, the journalist said he had been criticising the contractors who carried out the project as opposed to the president who gave it the go-ahead.

In his column, Tılıç said the humiliation of the apology must pale in comparison to the agony of pushing the government’s line week after week under cover of objective journalism.

It’s a dynamic that was on display last week, when CNN Türk presenter Ahmet Hakan presented the government’s unfounded claims that the March 31 local election was stolen as unbiased questions to Ekrem İmamoğlu, the main opposition mayor who will have to repeat his victory to claim the Istanbul mandate in the rerun on June 23.

İmamoğlu made an appearance on another pro-government channel this week, where he was faced with three journalists who actively tried to trip him up.

In the end the mayor’s performance during the interview was relatively unimportant, since the biggest impact to come from his appearance was from a clip shared by a member of the AKP’s hard-line “Pelican” clique, who cut his answer to make it appear he had asked outlawed organisations to rule Istanbul alongside him.

The next day İmamoğlu was subject to another media sortie after he tried to explain to a young man in Istanbul how his words had been misrepresented on the viral clip. The exchange became heated, and by the end of it İmamoğlu had patted the young man’s cheek – an image that was quickly seized on by pro-AKP figures, who reported it as a slap.

It was unwise of the CHP candidate to get drawn into the confrontation, and he should have refrained from physical contact given how tense the exchange had become. Moreover, it’s likely that media outlets close to Turkey’s opposition would have seized on such an incident in a similar way had the tables been turned.

These instances aside, the ruling party’s media campaign has been relatively tame compared to the vitriol aimed at the opposition before the March 31 vote. As this column noted in April, pro-government newspapers had given blanket coverage to claims that the opposition party was in league with terrorists in the three months before the local elections.

It was telling that the young man said İmamoğlu’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) was not fit to visit soldiers’ funerals during their tense exchange. It was at one of those soldier’s funerals that CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was attacked after the March 31 vote, by a crowd that echoed the media accusations linking his party to the Kurdish militants who killed the soldiers.

The kind of viral images shared this week will keep the narrative of the CHP as traitors fresh for the sections of society that respond to them, but are unlikely to motivate or win over voters who were clearly not impressed by the strategy the first time around.

So, the ruling party appears to be going for a far more restrained strategy. Front pages devoted to the upcoming rerun have been few and far between. The demonization of opposition figures has been toned down. In fact, journalists are taking seriously reports that pro-AKP outlets have been ordered to avoid referring to İmamoğlu by name at all.

Of course, this follows a concentrated effort to paint an unnamed antagonist – that can only logically be the CHP – as the “thieves” who “stole” the March 31 mayor’s election in Istanbul. But, having driven the necessity of the Istanbul rerun home to its followers, the AKP appears to be opting for a lower-key media strategy this time around.

And Erdoğan, who was a near-constant presence on television screens before the local elections, appears to have taken a back seat in the campaigning, returning instead to deal with matters more befitting the president.

That includes the legal reforms this week, as well as some positive moves in Turkey’s ailing relations with the United States – the latter of which provided a major boost to the lira after months of decline.

It’s an important shift from the full-on “matter of survival” rhetoric and smear tactics the ruling party had employed before March 31 to one that emphasises the AKP’s positive contributions to Turkey – and for a great many voters, those contributions are a matter beyond doubt and likely outweigh the many recent travails the AKP has led them too. That could make all the difference on June 23.

© Ahval English

The opinions 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.