Lack of fair media opportunity in Turkish elections

Lack of fair media opportunity in Turkish elections

The Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) filed an official complaint to Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK) on May 5, claiming that President Tayyip Erdoğan has been taking sides on behalf of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), despite the president’s political neutrality outlined in the constitution.

The HDP asked the YSK to warn the president, as well as the media, about the coverage of his almost daily speeches, which in practice double-up the AK Parti campaign for the June 7 elections along with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s rallies.

The YSK has no authority over the president beyond the power to issue a call to him. Actually, no other institution has authority over the president. Article 105 of the constitution states that the president can only be tried in court in the event of a case of “treason.” So if Erdoğan openly demands votes for the AK Party, nobody can do anything about it. Erdoğan uses the same rhetoric in all his speeches: Yes, I am taking sides, I take sides with the people, he says, as if all his opponents are “against the people.”

However, the YSK does have authority over the Higher Board of Radio and Television (RTÜK) in election times. RTÜK, in turn, has authority over at least the public broadcaster TRT. Working on a state budget, TRT must give fair coverage to all parties according to the votes they received in the most recent elections. Ahead of the local elections in March 2014, upon a complaint filed by the social democratic main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), RTÜK had told the YSK to warn TRT over its unfair coverage weighted against all opposition parties.

Yesterday on May 5, President Erdoğan was speaking at a rally in the western province of Tekirdağ and almost all news channels were broadcasting it live. At one point he stopped. It was the afternoon (ezan) call for prayers and almost all politicians do this in order to show how respectful they are to people’s beliefs. The ezan took a bit longer than usual, around 3-4 minutes. Believe it or not, all TV stations broadcasting the rally live, apart from CNNTürk after the first minute, continued to show the crowds during the ezan, waiting for Erdoğan to start talking again.

Here is the irony: TRT is currently celebrating its 51st anniversary, and its stations are broadcasting a number of stories from earlier elections. One of these stories is about a debate on the economy before the 1991 elections. The head of the six political parties entering the elections, including then-Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz, were discussing their positions live.

It would not be possible in today’s Turkey to see Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu discussing anything live with an opposition leader or leaders. CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has repeatedly challenged him to a live debate, on whichever TV station Davutoğlu prefers, but he has yet to receive any reply. When Davutoğlu appears live for an interview on any channel, the reporters who ask him questions must be approved in advance by his press people. 

It is not just TRT that has problems on this. Most of the private channels, even those that are not controlled by pro-government owners of construction companies, feel obliged to broadcast Erdoğan’s programs, considering the current political atmosphere.

Communications and political science departments in universities across the world could do worse than consider the Turkish situation as an academic case study regarding the exploitation of the media.