Despite the growing euphoria and visible over-confidence within the Turkish opposition that “Erdoğan’s days in power are limited,” the reality remains unmoved: marking an undisputed victory over Turkey’s strongman is an uphill battle to the very and.
A major element in the complicated equation which very few in Turkey seem to confront is the wrecked state of the media. Without a somewhat balanced media landscape, it remains an arduous task to win over enough votes to overturn two decades of rule by Erdoğan and his cadres, who have taken hold of the state’s key institutions.
That the judiciary has fallen under autocratic control is a sheer fact. That Turkey’s professionally vulnerable and relatively corrupt media has been gradually captured over the past decade is another one. In both fields, particularly the media, Erdoğan’s playbook has proven successful. As a result, Turkey’s roughly 60 million voters will have to decide who to vote for through the extremely distorted prism of Turkish media outlets, whose asymmetry in favor of Erdoğan is beyond doubt.
Here is a rough picture of the sector: As opposed to, for example, Germany, there is nearly no local media left in Turkey. The tiny segment of local outlets are under severe pressure from the powers that be and lack any influence. The sale of national newspapers – of which there are around 40 – have been in constant, severe decline in the past decade. According to the official Department of Statistics (TUIK), the overall press circulation has fallen by 49.4 percent since 2013.
Turkey has made progress in internet access across the nation. Another TUIK survey from 2022 found that 94.1% of households have access to the web. On social media, Youtube and Instagram are the most popular, followed by Facebook and Twitter (50.3% and 20.2%, respectively). However, the “passivity” of usage amongst traditional AKP and nationalist MHP voters is more than 40 % of their overall voting bloc. Thus, the main bulk of the pious and rural electorate outside the big cities is cut off from the debate in the digital domain.
Nevertheless, the authorities keep a close eye on social media. Lately, there has been a remarkable development on Twitter: well known critical observers, journalists, civil rights defenders and academicians have found—to their shock—a spate of bot accounts being opened in their names. Finally, the new so-called “disinformation law” is on standby to stifle social media or even shut it down, if Erdoğan feels a more concrete threat.
Still, both print and digital media pose a smaller headache for those in power in Ankara. The main threat lies elsewhere. To paraphrase a famous saying: “It’s the TV, stupid!”. It is the TV channels that are most intensely monitored in Turkey. Because, as consecutive surveys by UNESCO show, more than 85% of the Turkish electorate receives their information (or, more often, disinformation) and “univocal commentary” from their tightly controlled television screens.
What complicates the picture in favor of the ruling party is the lack of a public broadcaster, which even in a minimal sense, would be expected to give voice to the spectrum of political actors and civil society figures. But that area is a black hole. TRT, strictly controlled by the government, operates solely as a “state broadcaster”—transformed into a mouthpiece for the government and the bureaucracy.
The privately owned media is also strictly controlled. Apart from the large group of pro-government channels, the other outlets—owned by power-dependent, corrupt proprietors—exercise self-censorship on a massive scale.
On the other side, the so-called “opposition” channels (there are fewer than a handful), have a tendency to remain biased, bending the stories to whip up anti-Erdoğan sentiments.
In any case, the cost of telling the truth is high: The mighty regulator, Radio/TV Supreme Council (RTUK), is dominated by AKP-MHP members and keeps busy delivering heavy fines and/or temporary broadcast bans of entire channels or critical programs. This pressure is likely to increase.
As Turkey stands between a darker autocracy or a return to “normalization,” and if the media matters at this critical juncture, then all eyes are also on one man and his department: Fahrettin Altun, Head of the Directorate of Communications (DoC).
Established in mid-2018, a year after the referendum that dragged Turkey into the twilight zone of autocracy, the DoC operates in a 30-story high building in Ankara with thousands of employees. Its tasks: to surveil conventional and digital media—along with another censorship body, the Council of Information Technologies (BTK)—and to impose (self)censorship.
The expenditure of the Directorate of Communications, which was around 2,5 million EUR in February 2022, skyrocketed to 9 million EUR in February 2023. The increase in the expenditure of the Presidency in February 2023, compared to its expenditure in February 2022, was recorded as 274 percent. This puts the CoD ahead of ten other key state departments. Critics from the opposition agree that the CoD “serves as the Ministry of Propaganda—a production unit of disinformation”.
Media—or the absence of it—will be the key to grasping who wins the Turkish elections.