ISTANBUL - Challengers to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June’s presidential election are crying foul, claiming that media — influenced by Erdogan — is imposing a blackout on their campaigns. Both of the main challengers' campaign launches were largely ignored by mainstream television channels.
"We had a rally in [the Turkish city of] Yalova. I have not seen such a thing in Yalova in the last 40 years . But TRT didn’t broadcast it. This is my final warning. I will not repeat it."
Decrying the failure of Turkish state broadcaster TRT's failure to cover a large rally in the northwestern Turkish city of Yalova, Muharrem Ince the main opposition CHP Party’s presidential candidate had a warning for Mr. Erdogan. "TRT is not your father’s farm. TRT belongs to 80 million people," he said.
A similar media blackout occurred at the opening rally for Meral Aksener. Images of large numbers of empty seats allocated to the media at her speech circulated across social media. The lack of coverage is in contrast to Erdogan, whose daily speeches are broadcast live across state and private media.
About 90 percent of the media is directly or indirectly controlled by Erdogan and his ruling AKP Party. “There are pens and media bosses for sale. Citizens’ right to information is not met. These bosses rely on state contracts,” CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said Tuesday in remarks to parliament.
Just weeks before Erdogan called early presidential and general elections, the largest media organization, Dogan Holding, was taken over by a businessman with close ties to the president. Following the takeover, which includes the influential Hurriyet newspaper, large numbers of senior staff have been replaced with what critics allege are pro-Erdogan journalists.
“We are going into the election with the media, including now Hurriyet reporting only positive things about Mr. Erdogan, I presume this may change people’s attitude, but quantifying it would be almost impossible,” political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners said.
Turkey has strict laws guaranteeing fair media coverage during elections. The regulations are enforced by the state body RTUK, but its integrity is increasingly in question. “They don’t act impartially. If you look at the membership [managing board] the majority is the government,” law professor and media expert, Yaman Akdeniz of Istanbul’s Bilgi University said.
RTUK drew severe criticism for its failure to ensure fair media coverage in last year’s referendum victory to extend Erdogan’s presidential powers. Political parties campaigning in favor of the referendum received 94.5 hours television air time in comparison to opponents' 17.5 hours.
But despite the “yes” campaign’s media advantage, the referendum only narrowly passed, amid allegations of wide-scale voter fraud. The competitiveness of the “no” campaign was in part due to its success in using social media. “There will always be a way found for people to disseminate their views through the power of social media,” Yesilada said.
Ince is viewed as one of the most net-savvy politicians in Turkey. His Twitter following is second only to Erdogan and his campaign is using social media as a key tool to get its message out.
Analysts note Erdogan's dominance of the media has caused social media to become a formidable alternative source of news for Turks, and a force to reckon with. “Everyone who has been banned from mainstream media or have been sacked from these [pro-Erdogan] newspapers, have opened their own websites or started broadcasting on internet,” Yesilada said, “we have a couple of surveys that reveal 70 percent of Turks are internet connected," he said. "Seventy percent of the younger generation get all their information from the internet. They don’t even know how to open a newspaper,” Yesilada added.
The vacuum of impartial news is also being filled by the foreign news providers stepping, “For people seeking to access independent news, the only arena is left is the Internet. People follow BBC Turkish, VOA Turkish, and DW Turkish because you can get quality, news sources. Turkey is aware of that, the people are aware of that,” law professor and media freedom expert Akdeniz said.
Mindful of the growing challenge posed by the internet, the government extended the state media governing body RTUK’s powers to the internet before next month's elections. “Now [comes] the question will they start targeting foreign news providers because their powers are broader,” Akdeniz said.
But analysts suggest Erdogan’s tightening grip on the media could ultimately prove counterproductive in the June elections,
“It’s making the opposition job more difficult in terms of relaying their messages to the very large population, given that the total number of the electorate is around 55 million. But at the same time, it has the potential to lead to a reaction, if the Turkish people eventually decide that this unifocal wavelength is not compatible with the idea that they have of a pluralist democracy,” Sinan Ulgen a visiting scholar of Carnegie Europe said.