How Turkey’s opposition media empowers Erdoğan

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Complicity in perpetuating authoritarian rule has many faces. Undemocratic governance is propped up by politicians and big businesses as well as a complacent media ecosystem and an electorate who are wholeheartedly drawn to authoritarian policies. In the case of Turkey all of the above apply. This has paved the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to transform Turkey into an illiberal dystopia. From Freedom House classifications to in-depth analyses, one can say with relative clarity that Turkey has done away with any pretense of upholding democratic governance. 

But President Erdoğan and his government are not the sole players in helping to dismember the country’s democracy. Much of the danger comes from the very circles who despise his regime the most. The remnants of Turkey’s critics steadfastly refuse to challenge him in the very ways that could undermine Erdoğan’s despotic agenda. They avoid holding the regime to account in all the ways that matter. This provides Erdoğan space to disseminate narratives that turn into government policies, which, in turn, help normalize autocratic rule. Ultimately, the failure of Turkey’s thought leaders, who are in a position to help shape and motivate public opinion to take a stand against Erdoğan’s kleptocratic regime, have help secure its longevity. 

Not challenging Erdoğan is not peculiar to the media. Fear of the government is widespread, and no one wants to lose their job or go to jail for daring to criticize Erdoğan. The accusation “Feto’cu, is a good example. Erdoğan created the label Feto'cu in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt carried out by the Gülen movement. Feto, an acronym for “Fetullah Gülen Teror Orgutu” (Fetullah Gülen Terrorist Organization), is frequently used by the government sympathizers and supporters, to tarnish critics’ reputations and social standing. An accusation can trigger a police investigation, resulting in one losing their job or even going to prison. Since the failed coup attempt, this form of labeling has become an effective mechanism in the hands of the Erdoğan regime to silence ordinary citizens. As a result, very few individuals in today’s Turkey are willing to publicly or even privately criticize Erdoğan. Ordinary citizens are afraid to even post or repost social media content, as there are thousands of individuals who’ve been taken into police custody, even for just sharing a comical depiction of Erdoğan. 

On the other hand, individuals who have public recognition who possess the potential to shape and motivate public opinion are routinely punished. The case of a respected philanthropist and human rights activist Osman Kavala, serves as a prime example. Kavala was arrested, charged, and subsequently imprisoned for life following a series of sham trials. A similar fate was handed to Turkey Workers Party (TIP) member Can Atalay, who was elected to parliament in May 2023. Atalay was jailed in April 2022 and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment over the Gezi Park protests on charges of “assisting to overthrow the government.”

Officials have successfully made an example of influential persons in order to deter their peers from admonishing Erdoğan. 

No one left to challenge Erdoğan

In place of a vibrant and critical press, which can report and expose the regime’s corruption, malfeasance, and abuse of power, there is a culture of self-censorship in which people temper their criticism of the ruling government and its leadership. There is an active reluctance to cover sensitive issues and ask tough questions that are vital to the public interest. The upcoming local elections scheduled for March 31 are a good example. The mainstream media channels and commentators are covering election-related developments as if it were a routine horse race between competing candidates in a free and fair media environment, all taking place in a democratic Turkey, in which the outcome is not predetermined.  

The reality is far different: there is virtually no coverage of various individuals —  from provincial and district governors (unelected bureaucrats) to military officers and civil servants — backing Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party candidates who are running for office in this race. This is illegal under Turkish law 298 and implicates state officials engaging in political activism. 

Similarly, there is little to no coverage of unequal airtime devoted to candidates. The state-owned TRT broadcaster, which is taxpayer-funded, has devoted over 40 hours of airtime to AKP candidates and less than 30 minutes to the entire political opposition. This, too, is a violation of Law 5767, which charges the state broadcaster to remain impartial and independent. Meanwhile, an ardent state regulator (RTUK) notorious for censoring and regulating news content, is silent. 

The profiling of AKP candidates ahead of the upcoming election is also problematic. The AKP’s Murat Kurum, who is running to oust the Republican People’s Party (CHP) incumbent mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, from office, is one such example. Kurum, who served as the Minister of Environment, is facing numerous allegations over decisions he made during his time as the minister. As recently as February 2024, the former minister was criticized over authorizing an operation license to a gold mine where a landslide killed nine workers. During his time as the minister, Kurum approved an Environmental Impact Assessment report despite expert warnings of potential sliding and slipping risks at the mining facilities. But these and other allegations are not reported clearly or often enough to the voters ahead of the vote. On the other hand, if the opposition candidate and the current Istanbul mayor, İmamoğlu, had any skeletons in his closet, the press would be quick to disclose these. The impact of process reporting is highly destructive, not to mention the scale of disinformation targeting opposition candidates. 

This practice of not questioning  AKP candidates’ past actions was also the case during the general elections in May 2023. At the time, virtually no outlet seriously questioned President Erdoğan’s legitimacy to run for office. The constitution requires that the president must be a college graduate. Erdoğan is not. With the exception of a handful of news reports, there was limited coverage of this nuance, which had the potential to designate Erdoğan as an illegitimate candidate not only in the general elections in May but his whole time as the president since 2014.

The environment of fear, impunity, and intimidation against critics leaves little to no space to question not only the legitimacy of the ruling government but other issues, too. The discourse around terrorism, for instance, is uniquely focused on the Kurdish question. There is plenty of coverage about military action against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated as a terrorist organization in Turkey and by its Western allies, including the US and the EU. There is no coverage in Turkey about why the government provides active and material support to Hamas and the Islamic State. There is an emerging body of research and writing that clearly demonstrates Ankara’s complicity in hosting Hamas on Turkish soil, permitting financial transfers to the organization in Gaza, and actively championing its leaders by issuing them Turkish passports. In 2016, veteran investigative journalist Can Dundar was sentenced on espionage charges for disclosure of munitions transfers to ISIS and/or other radical Islamist groups in Syria.

It is against this atmosphere of fear of arrest, labelling or other forms of persecution that whatever remains of the free media in Turkey is helping to normalize the government's narrative not only around domestic issues but issues with both domestic and global impact, including support of terrorism. 

Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), in his famous address to the nation’s youth, once said: 

Your first duty is to forever conserve and defend Turkish independence and the Turkish Republic…[and that] in the future, there will be malignant people at home and abroad who will hope to divest you from this treasure…O child of the Turkish future! Even in these situations and circumstances, your assignment is to recover the Turkish independence and republic.

A change of government in Turkey requires more than just elections. It requires a well-informed public, who are empowered to make informed leadership choices. This empowerment can only happen if there is a vibrant press that competes to provide accurate, verified, and objective news. Whether they can hold the ruling government to account and make an enhanced effort to portray the realities of Erdoğan’s autocratic realm remains to be seen. 

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