CNN Turk — a franchise of CNN, the US broadcasting giant owned by Warner Media — has been plunged into the spotlight in the media freedom controversy in Turkey as the main opposition decided to boycott the channel over its support of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
In a Feb. 6 presser to announce the boycott, Tuncay Ozkan, deputy chairman in charge of media relations at the Republican People’s Party (CHP), likened the station to an "advertising agency" that promotes the narratives of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), while “covering up the realities.” The channel’s biased coverage, he stressed, has reached an “intolerable level” since the local elections last spring that saw the CHP defeat the AKP in major urban centers. In the parliamentary elections in 2018, the CHP had mustered 22.6% of the vote, winning 146 seats in the 600-member parliament.
According to Ozkan, the boycott decision was made at a Feb. 3 meeting of the CHP central executive board on the grounds that CNN Turk “had been setting traps for the party and party members, villainizing them and distorting the realities.” CHP members, from party leaders to regular members, “will no longer appear on CNN Turk and take part in their programs,” Ozkan said. The CHP, he added, “advises citizens to not watch this channel and not let their children watch it to protect themselves from the harms of CNN Turk.”
It is the first time that the CHP has boycotted a pro-Erdogan media outlet since the AKP came to power more than 17 years ago.
CNN Turk was born in 1999 as a joint venture between the Atlanta-based CNN and Dogan, Turkey’s biggest media group at the time. The deal required CNN to provide know-how to its sister channel in return for a license payment and entitled CNN Turk to exclusive broadcasting rights on all original CNN footage in Turkey, sources who had closely followed the conclusion of the deal told Al-Monitor. Also, the partnership required a CNN representative to sit on the executive board of CNN Turk’s owner company.
In terms of editorial guidelines, the deal remarkably emphasized that CNN Turk would shape its editorial policy in line with Turkey’s conditions, independently from CNN. And in the years under Erdogan, Turkey’s conditions changed for the worse, spawning the compelling reasons for the CHP boycott.
The state of media freedoms in Turkey deteriorated as well. In 2008, Turkey ranked 102nd among 173 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, issued yearly by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. By 2018, Turkey qualified as an “authoritarian” country on the index, dropping 55 pegs over a decade to hit 157th place among 180 countries.
In retrospect, the Turkish government itself mounted a multi-faceted boycott against the opposition, independent journalism and the mainstream media outlets during that decade. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey held the title of “the world’s worst jailer of journalists” for three years in a row before “conceding” it to China last year. Turkey kept 47 journalists in prison at the end of 2019, one less than China.
As the government pressure on the media intensified, CNN Turk, which had earned itself a reputable name among the news channels in the mainstream media, felt the heat as well. In the memorable evening of May 31, 2013, during the Gezi Park resistance, the channel chose to not switch to live coverage as police responded violently to tens of thousands of anti-government protesters flocking to Taksim Square in the heart of Istanbul, airing instead a documentary about penguins. Since then, it has been derided as “the penguin channel” by government opponents.
The channel also terminated a number of political debate programs, which were widely watched but annoyed the government. It grew even more docile after the Nov. 1, 2015 elections, in which the AKP restored its parliamentary majority. Commentators disliked by the government faced a screen embargo as part of the channel’s measures to avoid Erdogan’s ire. The Dogan group’s most drastic measure was to appoint Erdogan Aktas, the founding director of A Haber, a channel known as the trumpet of the government, to the helm of CNN Turk.
In 2018, CNN Turk’s story reached a turning point. Aydin Dogan, the boss of the Dogan group, realized he could no longer hold out against the government’s pressure and threats, which grew both in severity and variety, including mammoth tax fines totaling $2.5 billion since 2008 and the targeting of journalists for sacking. In March 2018, he was forced to sell all his media assets to the Demiroren business group, one of the closest to the government.
The handover marked the demise of Turkey’s mainstream media after years of agony, as almost the entire media industry, including printing facilities, distribution companies and nationwide news agencies, was now under government control.
Government pressure had already forced Dogan to sell two of his newspapers — Milliyet, one of the deepest-rooted members of the Turkish press, and the relatively younger Vatan — to Demiroren in 2011. The 2018 sell-off, which included Hurriyet, considered the flagship of what was once Turkey’s mainstream media, came shortly before the presidential and parliamentary elections in June that year. The timing, of course, was significant.
Of note, Demiroren Holding grew remarkably after entering the media sector. In 2015, it acquired the fuel distribution network of France’s Total in Turkey. In February 2019, it won a tender to operate the sports betting company Iddaa. In August, a joint venture in which Demiroren is the major stakeholder, acquired the operating rights of the National Lottery, an asset of Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund.
After changing hands, CNN Turk adopted an openly pro-government attitude in the election campaign for the June 24 polls that year. In its live broadcasts from April 30 to May 24, the channel accorded the AKP nearly 31 hours of air time, compared to only 11.5 hours for the CHP.
Yet what really fueled the CHP’s boycott decision was a series of incidents in the run-up to the March 31 local polls last year. Scheduled live studio interviews with CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu were cancelled twice at the last minute, irritating the party management, CHP sources familiar with the events told Al-Monitor.
Also, the CHP’s Ekrem Imamoglu, who would win the race for Istanbul mayor, had two live interviews with the channel cut short — in other words, censored. One of the interviews was cut after Imamoglu began to speak about corruption at the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, then controlled by the AKP, while the other was terminated to air a live speech Erdogan was making at an award ceremony. Of note, almost all of Erdogan’s speeches are broadcast live on Turkey’s TV channels, which, barring a few exceptions, are controlled directly or indirectly by the government.
Ahead of the local polls, CNN Turk featured claims that the CHP had placed “many terrorists” on its candidate lists for municipal assemblies, but chose to omit the CHP’s denials, which the party leadership saw as another element of the channel’s editorial policy vis-à-vis the main opposition.
The claims, which associated CHP candidates with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), led the CHP to complain to the CNN headquarters in the United States. In a letter to CNN management, the party’s US representative Yurter Ozcan wrote, “CNN Turk, which holds the franchising rights of CNN in Turkey, has made it a habit to deliberately report disinformation.”
Commenting on the party’s boycott decision last week, CNN Turk General Manager Murat Yanci rejected the accusations, insisting the channel’s journalism was “impartial and objective.”
CHP sources told Al-Monitor that the boycott would not bar CNN Turk from covering the party’s press conferences, rallies and other activities. The party does not intend to extend the boycott to other pro-government channels for now.
The CHP’s boycott will further erode the influence of CNN Turk, which is already snubbed by opposition voters, who no longer see it as a credible broadcaster. At the same time, however, the boycott will compound the echo-chamber effect that has come to dominate conventional and social media in Turkey.