Earlier in April luminaries from some of Europe’s most trusted state-funded news agencies gathered for their annual meeting to discuss what they all agreed was a singular threat to their countries’ way of life: disinformation. The president of news media at Axel Springer spoke of the noble role of journalism delivering “reliable information.” The global news director for Agence France Presse spoke about reinforcing a culture of verified data, especially during elections.
A senior executive from Turkey’s state-backed Anadolu Agency also spoke during the two-day meeting. Ural Yesil, explained how his team had built an electronic tracking device that shows where Anadolu photos are republished, specially by hostile pro-Kurdish media, as a way to fight “black propaganda.”
What he didn’t include in his presentation was the fact that Anadolu Agency, or AA, has become ground zero in Turkey’s information wars. Over the last four years it has reversed its editorial objectivity to provide ardently pro-government points of view, ranging from charges of electoral fraud, libelous accusations against government critics and publishing misleadingly optimistic economic data to its subscribers in 93 countries.
At the time Yesil was speaking, AA was embroiled in a roiling disinformation scandal of its own making — one where it was accused of helping manipulate news in Turkey’s most recent election. The agency stopped publicizing results in real time on election night when it appeared that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s candidate would lose the crucial Istanbul mayoral race to the contender from the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party, or CHP.
The overnight data blackout whipped up a conspiratorial belief among many of the president’s supporters that the election was rigged and fueled a legal challenge by the president’s party against the result, which showed Ekrem Imamoglu had won.
“AA’s pause in the flow of data on election night was a failure of its obligation to inform the public as prescribed by the Constitution,” according to Misket Dikmen, head of İzmir Journalists Association Organization based in İzmir, Turkey. “AA’s action dealt a serious blow to public confidence and its brand name.”
Over the last five years, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has overseen a widespread media capture akin to the one in Hungary. Now, Erdoğan supporters control nearly 90% of the private media and Turkey is now one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists. The trend has imperiled Turkish democracy by undermining the most basic aspects of elections.
The increasingly partisan tone of AA has been part of that slide. AA has enjoyed a near-monopoly of publishing election results after its rival Cihan news agency was shut down shortly after the 2016 failed military coup that sought to oust Erdogan. The government accused Cihan of alleged links to the Gülen movement, a secretive Islamist sect formerly allied to the AKP that the government blames for the failed putsch.
AA’s current chairman Senol Kazancı served as chief advisor to Erdoğan when he was prime minister, prior to his election as president in 2014. For Turkish opposition candidates, his pro-government bias is clear and unequivocal, as AA and other media outlets routinely demonize Erdogan’s political opposition as terrorists. Dozens of members of opposition parties, especially the organization which traditionally has attracted Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, have been arrested on controversial charges, including support of terrorism.
On the day of the March 31 election, AA’s coverage adopted a less than neutral tone, according to opposition parties. The ground had already been set for the Turkish public who had been receiving a steady media diet of pro-AKP coverage and critical opposition stories.
When polls closed, AA took up its role as the moderator of electoral results. As it flashed poll results to subscribers and Turkish television outlets, Turkey’s Supreme Election Council (YSK) says AA was not getting the results from the electoral body.
Government critics contend that AA was publishing results given to it direct from the president’s party, making them unofficial at best. But the AA operation fizzled when one of the most watched races of the night — the Istanbul mayoral election — tilted against AKP. Suddenly, AA stopped updating results.
Overnight, the opposition CHP party rallied and declared their candidate İmamoğlu the winner of the mayor’s race, citing ballot tallies from the electoral council. Ergodan’s hand-picked candidate, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, refused to concede.
Meanwhile, government critics circulated a photo of AA Chairman Kazancı taken prior to the election in which he was wearing a hat with the president’s name, something they believe shows his personal political bias.
In the morning, the head of the election council declared İmamoğlu the winner by 28,000 votes. Ten hours later, AA resumed its election coverage, with stories focused on AKP members’ outrage and demands for a recount.
The chairman of the YSK, Sadi Güven, declared that he does not know where AA received its election data, and AA officials still have not explained the source of their tallies on election night. Local media outlets such as Odatv reported Kazancı had been ordered to pause the data flow in a phone call from “the top.” Under a bombardment of social media criticism, AA said it had been unable to obtain reliable data from the field so had opted to pause its feed.
Two weeks after the election, Turkish courts halted the AKP legal challenge to the Istanbul race, enshrining the CHP winner.
But on April 19, Turkey’s official gazette published a decree saying the president’s office was formally taking over AA for the next five years, giving it responsibility over its staffing, budget and administration and ending any pretense of neutrality.
For now, Turkey’s opposition CHP party says there is a glimmer of hope in the election outcome because the courts and Turkish citizens challenged the obvious attempt at manipulation.
“When AA was exposed and appeared to be a source of fake news and the results becam eobvious, AA could not help but report the reality. I think this will become the new benchmark. AA will have difficulty in getting the attention of the public from now on when it comes to reporting of election results,” said the CHP deputy chairman Unal Cevikoz.