Turkish Opposition Gets Creative as Erdogan Tightens Grip on Media #TurkishElections2018
With most mainstream media under government control, Turkish opposition tries to reach voters in June 24 vote using social media and viral marketing – from posting video calls by an imprisoned presidential candidate to buying ad space on Google.
Tourists in this resort city were surprised last week when they googled for “vacant rooms” in the area: The top-sponsored result wasn’t for a glamorous new hotel, but rather a campaign ad from an opposition party promising there will be plenty of rooms available if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is booted from office.
The tongue-in-cheek ad by the Good Party (iYi Party) – which is running against Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday June 24 – was referencing the lavish 1,100-room Ak Saray (“White Palace”) that the Turkish president built for himself in Ankara, at a cost of some $650 million, in 2014.
The online ad was just one example of how opposition parties in Turkey are creatively using online marketing strategies and social media to try to get around Erdogan’s tight grip on mainstream media, which critics say has grown even stronger ahead of the snap elections this month.
A search for “VPN” – the system many Turks use to get around the government’s internet restrictions – was met with another message from the Good Party: “Don’t waste your money, wait until we are in power to enjoy internet freedom.”
With over 175,000 websites already banned in Turkey (including Wikipedia) and some 800 Twitter accounts blocked, Erdogan recently moved to secure greater control of the internet with a new law that would require many media outlets to seek a license to broadcast online.
Meanwhile, Selahattin Demirtas, the imprisoned presidential candidate for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), decided to use the biweekly phone call he is allowed with his wife to deliver a campaign speech instead. Demirtas has been detained since November 2016, on terrorism charges largely based on claims that he was involved in the activities of the PKK – the militant Kurdish group involved in a long-standing struggle with the Turkish army.
— HDP (@HDPgenelmerkezi) June 6, 2018
The 45-year-old human rights lawyer, who denies all charges, had been the main hope for anti-Erdogan progressives in Turkey in the last few years. However, he was jailed alongside a dozen MPs from his party amid a crackdown on the opposition following the attempted coup of July 2016.
“Every day while my hands are tied, the government officials, without pause, continue the smear campaigns against me in the newspapers and on TV. While I can’t even use my right to respond, they continue their political ruse by making all kinds of fabricated allegations,” Demirtas said in the video recording of his phone call, which was then distributed on social media by the HDP.
It is obvious that the elections are unfair even by the fact that I answer your questions from prison. Surely, everyone will respect the results, but if fraud or unlawfulness is detected, there will definitely be legal action. https://t.co/NoATBiHZ5s
— Selahattin Demirtaş (@hdpdemirtas) June 8, 2018
Last week, Demirtas also held an online news conference of sorts. Questions were sent to him via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with hashtags such as #AskDemirtas and posed to him by his lawyers, who then shared his responses on social media.
Demirtaş’s wife’s official question to her imprisoned presidential candidate husband:
“You’ve been doing the ironing since university and even after getting married. If you become president, are you gonna keep ironing, making breakfast for the kids and going grocery shopping?” https://t.co/J82o94GgNp
— Nick Ashdown (@Nick_Ashdown) June 8, 2018
Erdogan’s main challenger is ex-physics teacher Muharrem Ince, who is the presidential candidate for the Republican People’s Party (CHP) – the party created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Ince is also struggling with limited access to coverage in the country’s largely pro-Erdogan media, though to a slightly lesser degree than other opposition candidates. This is reflected, among other things, in his frantic campaign schedule, which often includes two or three rallies in different cities in a single day.
Ince was also quick to pick up on a Twitter campaign against Erdogan in May that started spontaneously on social media after the president declared he would step aside if he was to lose the elections. “If one day our nation says ‘enough,’ then we will step aside,” he said, using the Turkish word “tamam,” which can translate as “OK” or “enough.”
When the hashtag #tamam went viral in opposition circles online, with millions suggesting they had indeed had “enough,” Ince and his party took up the slogan in an attempt to reach voters.
Ince slammed Turkey’s “pathetic” television industry in an interview with the Financial Times (“Erdogan opponent warns of Turkey’s ‘society of fear’”), complaining that TV stations often cut short his rallies but give full coverage to Erdogan’s events, thus making his on-the-ground campaigning less effective.
Jane Louise Kandur, a columnist for the pro-government Daily Sabah and former head of the AKP’s women’s branch in Istanbul, dismissed such complaints as groundless.
“There is a perception that Erdogan is given more airtime – which is backed up by the fact that Erdogan is president, so he is more likely to be in the news. But statistics show the distribution of airtime allocated to the campaigns is actually fair,” she told Haaretz.
At a conference held by the European Parliament last month to mark World Press Freedom Day, Turkish journalists warned that with the recent sale of the Dogan Media Group – one of the largest media conglomerates in the country – around 92 percent of the entire media landscape is now under direct control of the government.
Dogan was considered the last part of Turkey’s mainstream media to have a degree of autonomy from the government. However, it was bought by Erdogan Demirören, an entrepreneur close to Erdogan, for $1.2 billion at the end of March and renamed Demirören Media Group. A few weeks later, the president revealed his decision to call snap elections. This is seen as an attempt to head off a looming economic crisis and to secure the presidency until 2023, when Turkey celebrates 100 years from Atatürk’s establishment of the Republic.
Demirören died last Friday and the media group is now being controlled by his son, Yildirim Demirören, who previously held the position of vice chairman in the organization. The conglomerate owns the prominent newspapers Hürriyet and Posta (Turkey’s first- and fourth-biggest circulation dailies), the Dogan News Agency, as well as the TV entertainment and news channels Kanal D and CNN Türk, and other smaller outlets.