Turkey Pulse

Turkey’s state-run news agency under fire for irregular poll coverage

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Article Summary
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency is under fire for its bizarre coverage of the Istanbul mayoral race, during which the agency stopped reporting polling results when it became clear the opposition was bound for victory.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency was the only news agency that broadcast voting data on the night of the local elections in Turkey. Its reporters were present at polling stations throughout the country, delivering live data on electoral results. Yet, in a bizarre move, Anadolu Agency stopped updating its voting data for 10 hours in the super-tight mayoral race in Istanbul, in which the opposition candidate was taking the clear lead.

It has been three days since the game-changing elections, and Anadolu Agency has yet to respond to citizens who feel their tax money was spent to promote the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

“Anadolu Agency unfortunately left a bad mark on the history of Turkey’s democracy,” said Ekrem Imamoglu, Istanbul mayoral candidate of an alliance led by the main opposition and winner of the race, according to preliminary results. “I want all press organizations to quit receiving information from Anadolu Agency,” he told reporters March 31 around midnight, hours after the agency stopped updating Istanbul’s ballot counts.

The candidate from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has called on Anadolu Agency to fulfill its public duty to broadcast the remaining poll results for Istanbul. Imamoglu said he was leading by 29,408 votes, with the remaining ballots set to come from the Besiktas and Kadikoy counties, two major CHP strongholds.

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Meanwhile, #AnadoluAjansi, or Anadolu Agency, became a trending topic on Twitter, with users voicing confusion and frustration over the coverage.

On election night, Anadolu Agency kept its data for Istanbul at 98.78% and did not declare a victor. It only came full circle after the Supreme Election Council (YSK) chairman appeared before the press on April 1. Anadolu Agency’s explanation for their gap in coverage came in a public statement, stating they could not “get healthy data flow” from Istanbul and therefore decided to "wait for the YSK’s results."

YSK Chairman Sadi Guven admitted to Imamoglu’s lead in the dizzying race for Istanbul, further stating, “I do not know where [Anadolu Agency] receives its data from.”

According to Guven’s numbers, Imamoglu had beaten his opponent from the ruling AKP, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, by about 28,000 votes out of the nearly 8.5 million votes cast, with 84 ballot boxes, or approximately 300 votes, still waiting to be opened.

Until Sadi made his statement, Yildirim, along with the provincial director for the AKP, claimed victory in Istanbul.

In front of the AKP’s Istanbul provincial directorate in Sutluce, a crowd of about 150 AKP supporters stood by Sunday evening, waiting for Yildirim to arrive and give a victory speech. He was supposed to give his speech from the AKP's blue party bus, which was covered with a giant picture of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who campaigned harder than his appointed candidate himself. Yildirim’s celebratory speech, however, was called off, even as numbers on the big screen in Sutluce continued to declare Yildirim the winner and even as billboards across the city were being festooned with AKP posters thanking the city for its success.

Yet Imamoglu, rushing between a narrow office space and the press platform inside the CHP’s election coordination center in Istanbul’s Seyrantepe district, rejected the state-run agency’s numbers. He called on voters to disregard those numbers and to continue guarding the ballots.

“I know we won," he said, "but my conscience, moral values, political stance and understanding of statesmanship do not allow me to announce this.” Both international and Turkish journalists impatiently held their ground to hear his side of the story. It was a long and tense night for journalists, politicians and voters.

According to political analyst Selim Sazak, Imamoglu called Anadolu Agency’s bluff. He “disinfected the airwaves with sunlight,” Sazak told Al-Monitor, commenting on the rising politician’s careful yet decisive attitude.

“I don’t know if you are waiting for instructions from somewhere, or if you are worried [to publish the latest data],” Imamoglu said, addressing Anadolu Agency, which is headquartered in Ankara.

Anadolu Agency was founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1920, during the Turkish War of Independence and three years before the country’s birth, making it a symbol of Turkey's national heritage.

Anadolu Agency is now run by Senol Kazanci, a classmate of Erdogan’s son, Bilal Erdogan. Kazanci was also a chief adviser to the president and is the founding chairman of the AKP’s Istanbul youth chapter. A picture of Kazanci sporting a hat with an AKP logo has circulated on social media platforms as voters demand accountability and explanations from the network.

“When you appoint someone of that profile to lead the official newswire and that newswire shuts down just as the opposition candidate is about to win Istanbul, of course everyone is going to cry bloody murder,” said Sazak, who is a doctoral candidate at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. “The story writes itself at that point.”

Sazak is referring to a widely shared criticism of Anadolu Agency: the popular belief that the state-run agency serves the interests of the ruling party as opposed to those of the country.

Anadolu Agency "betrayed the law and the country by attempting to skew the election night narrative," Basak Biyik, a 29-year-old brand manager living in Istanbul, told Al-Monitor. "And I know there are millions of citizens who think similarly."

“By doing this, I think they are also throwing shade on the ruling party by distancing it from minds like us," she said. "As young people, we have no more faith in fairness anymore. If I were them, I would try to seek ways to connect amicably with members of the young generation who embrace the republic and its values.”

The agency is now showing Imamoglu’s lead on its website, yet only in English, not in Turkish. Meanwhile, the AKP is aggressively contesting the votes in Istanbul and Ankara — two crucial cities that Islamist politicians had held for a quarter of a century.

The ruling party also lost the cities of Antalya, Mersin and Adana, as well as the southern province of Hatay, to the CHP, which allied with the Iyi Party. The AKP entered the race with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), its electoral ally since the June elections, when the economy had not yet sunk to current lows and citizens were not yet feeling such severe economic pressure.

No matter the outcome of the recounts, the question of how Anadolu Agency receives its voting data stands. The agency did not respond to Al-Monitor’s inquiry regarding its methods or how it will respond to criticism of its coverage.

Still, if the joint-stock company, whose shares are owned by the Undersecretariat of Treasury, wants to rebuild trust with the taxpayers — its original customers — the task will be a tough one. For some, it's a lost cause.

“Shut the place down,” Sazak suggested. “Set up a kebab joint in its place. At the very least that would do the public some service and not even on taxpayer money. Win-win.”

Meanwhile, Fahrettin Altun, a top communications official and senior aide to Erdogan, has posted a number of tweets since Sunday, though he did not address the peculiarities of Anadolu Agency’s coverage.

Anadolu Agency’s ethical declaration states that the agency "performs its obligations timely and completely to its customers and employees.” Yet that was not the case March 31.

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Found in: Turkey elections

Nimet Kirac is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she covers Turkish affairs. A graduate of George Washington University, she started her career in journalism at CNN International's headquarters in Atlanta. Her work has been published by the Financial Times, Hurriyet Daily News and CNN Turk.

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