Turkey‘s state-run media system – crumbling over the local elections?

By Frederic Krull

After Turkey's Supreme Election Council (YSK) announced the re-run of the greater Istanbul municipal elections from 31 March 2019, a lot of voices proclaimed the end of Turkish democracy. However, this goes far beyond dishonoring the results at the ballots. 

Turkey‘s state-run media system – crumbling over the local elections? Watching a televised debate on Turkey. (Photo: ECPMF)

Turkey is facing a severe crackdown on press and media freedom. It is ranked at 157 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2019 World Press Freedom Index. There are around 140 journalists and media workers under arrest, and violence against journalists as well as judicial persecution have increased. Moreover, the conglomeration of media outlets in the hands of a few holding groups with strong ties to the government represents one of the biggest threats towards a free and independent press in Turkey.

Says Nora Wehofsits, ECPMF Advocacy Officer:

Independent journalism is especially relevant in times of election campaigns – to impartially check and disseminate the news and for the public to receive balanced reporting. In Turkey, though, over 90 percent of the media is under the sway of the administration."

Though biased media reporting in election times is not a new phenomenon in Turkey, it has increased over the past year.

It was then that the Doğan Group sold all its media outlets to Demirören Holding, a pro-government conglomerate whose top management has strong personal ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The transfer included some leading Turkish media outlets such as Posta, Hurriyet and CNN Türk - the latter two ranking among the top five widest-reaching outlets in Turkey, on- and offline, according to the Reuters Digital News Report 2019. These outlets were all involved in a "fake news" scandal targeting the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Sezai Temelli, two weeks before the municipal elections in March.

Already in 2016, RSF and bianet's Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) had revealed that 71% of the cross-media audience is shared by four holding groups: Turkuvaz / Kalyon Group (30%), Ciner Group (15%), Demirören Group (15%), and the Doğuş Group (11%). It follows that these groups, respectively, hold investments in at least three out of four media types (radio, TV, newspapers, and online portals), and together control 71% of Turkey's audience. All of them are politically affiliated with the AKP government.

Article 2 of the European Charter on Freedom of the Press underlines the importance of independent journalism, and the impermissibility of censorship.

Yet self-censorship plays a key role in reporting on electoral campaigns. Journalists who are constantly afraid of losing their job, of being targeted for "insulting the president" or even of being arrested when reporting positively about the opposition, will most likely try to stay in line with the AKP's leading opinion. This also applies to social media, since posts or even "likes" on social media platforms can be used as evidence in prosecution processes.

That leading opinion is recently represented by a smear campaign against Ekrem Imamoğlu by several of the well-known, pro-government media outlets in Turkey. Conspiracy theories were spread, claiming the elections that put Imamoğlu in power as mayor of Istanbul, and the candidate himself, to be a "project" run by the US, FETÖ ("Fetullah Terrorist Organisation") and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party).

The AKP leadership backs this kind of misleading information and even accelerates it by spreading rumours over Imamoğlu's non-Turkish origin. President Erdoğan himself supports the allegations that Imamoğlu, a candidate of the Republican People's Party (CHP), has a "terrorist" FETÖ background.

"You will see something important in the media tomorrow"

That’s what Erdogan promised to his voters in an election rally on 18 June 2019. What he meant by that was that the day after, the media will publish evidence to the accusation, that Ekrem Imamoğlu has been caught ‘cheating‘ prior to the TV debate between him and Yıldırım. Ironically, one day after, on 20 June, in a press conference with foreign media representatives, the President expressed his worries about media “to be turned into a tool to shape politics“.

It is not only "fake news" and smear campaigns that are responsible for the unbalanced reporting in Turkey, though.

The measurable time and actual visibility for anything that's not in line with the government remains comparatively low. This was clearly exemplified during a live show on 21 May 2019, when Ahmet Hakan (CNN Türk) interrupted Imamoğlu and cut short his speaking time by half an hour, after the mayoral candidate started talking about the extravagances in the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.

On 20 June, new polls, conducted by KONDA- Research and Consultancy, show a clear margin for Ekrem Imamoğlu over Binali Yıldırım, the AKP candidate and former Prime Minister. Ceren Sözeri, academic and expert on media ownership in Turkey, sees the state-run media system struggling throughout the local elections:

It can be said that about the last ten years media policies of AKP, like tax fines to media owners, hand-overs, wipeout of mainstream media's credibility, prosecutions against prominent journalists, etc. turned against itself."

What about the independent press and alternative news sources?

As the mainstream media is mainly occupied by pro-government outlets, "social media and smaller internet sites have become the main platforms for alternative news," according to Reuters. Additionally, newspapers and online media such as BirGün and Evrensel remain independent from state interference. A few fact-checking websites like have been established, to combat the emerging spread of misinformation.

Social media still plays a significant role for the dissemination of oppositional reporting on the elections. Twitter is an important part of the CHP's campaign, with the slogan #HerŞeyÇokGüzelOlacak ("everything is going to be very good"), whilst 2.6 million people follow Ekrem Imamoğlu.

The high levels of political polarisation in the country also reflect in a high polarisation of the media. Non-aligned media outlets are often biased, with oppositional affiliations as a reaction to high pressure from pro-government reporting in the mainstream media. Therefore, support for a broader media community and emerging, independent news outlets is very much needed.

In Turkey's polarised media landscape, external views are crucial. Turkey needs to respect foreign media outlets' independence as well as its own.