Shortly before campaigning for Turkey’s upcoming presidential election was officially set to begin, the director of public broadcaster TRT threatened to cut coverage of candidate Selahattin Demirtas. The reason? Demirtas had publicly criticised TRT for bias towards one of the three men in the running — outgoing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The case, reported by Index on Censorship’s media freedom mapping tool, is just one example of the challenges facing free expression in Turkey on eve of a vote that could alter its political system. When Turks go to the polls on Sunday, it will be in the country’s first direct presidential election. The consensus is that Erdogan will beat his opponents — Dermitas from the left wing People’s Democratic Party and Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, representing the centre-left Republican People’s Party and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party — comfortably; some predict after just one round. But what makes this election even more significant, is Erdogan’s declared intention to transform the presidency from a largely ceremonial role to a powerful office based on the US model. This would effectively allow him to remain in power despite being barred from re-election as prime minister by term limits.
Concerns have been raised about the impact of the state of free expression in Turkey on the election. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in its capacity as an election observer, recently stated that “direct interference of media owners and political actors into editorial freedom results in a lack of independent and investigative journalism and leads to limited criticism towards the ruling party and the prime minister”. The interim report from its election observation mission published on 31 July, also highlighted shortcomings in the legal framework around impartiality of media coverage and the the country’s restrictive internet legislation.
This is at least in part backed up by Demirtas’ claims. According to research from Turkey’s broadcasting regulator, between 4 and 6 July, TRT gave 533 minutes worth of coverage to Erdogan, compared to 3.24 seconds for Ihsanoglu and 45 seconds to Demirtas. Erdogan has also been accused of blurring the lines between his role as prime minister and presidential candidate, and using resources and platforms exclusively available to him to rally support. The campaigns of Erdogan’s opponents “have been active, but with limited visibility”, as the OSCE put it.
Other recent media freedom cases go beyond questions of impartiality. Released just days before the election, a report by Bianet, a Turkish news site that monitors attacks on press freedom, showed that assaults on journalists is on the rise. As covered by Index, the research found that between April and June, there had been 54 attacks on journalists — between January and March, the figure was “at least” 40. The report also noted that 133 fines were handed out to various TV and radio institutions and continued impunity around attacks on the media. This follows the pattern of Turkey’s global press freedom ranking, which has deteriorated over the past years.
Internet freedom has also been dealt some blows in the lead-up to the election. The latest Twitter transparency report, published last week, showed that Turkey has submitted the highest number of content removal requests in the past six months — despite the fact that Twitter was banned in Turkey for two weeks in March and April. The social media platform has been used by many of the country’s 36 million internet users to have their say on political matters, most notably during last summer’s Gezi park protests — a topic Turkish playwright Meltem Arikan has written about extensively for Index.
More recently, Turkish social media was flooded with photos of grinning women, in protest at Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc declaring that women shouldn’t laugh out loud in public. While the bans on Twitter and later also YouTube were short-lived, authorities continue to keep close tabs on the internet. Twitter user @fuatavni, who has almost one million followers, was blocked in Turkey after criticising the government. Earlier in July, Erdogan filed a legal complaint against the editor of Today’s Zaman, Bulent Kenes, over what he claimed were insulting tweets. This comes in the wake of controversial legislation passed in February, which gives the government wide-reaching powers in regulating the internet.
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